December 31, 1995
Alan W. Dowd

Forming the backbone of the NATO peacekeeping force in Bosnia, thousands of US troops have been deployed to enforce the US-brokered Dayton Accords, which ended the Balkan War by dividing Bosnia into a pair of ethnic mini-states. While much has been said about this deployment, very little discussion has been generated regarding Bosnia’s partition.

Because most partitions of territory have resulted in failure and bloodshed (Northern Ireland, Palestine, Germany, Pakistan, Cyprus, etc.), the Clinton Administration is understandably reluctant to use this term to describe the results of the Dayton Accords. Focusing not on the rationale for deploying troops but on the deployment itself, the American public media has allowed Mr. Clinton to sidestep the important issue of whether American might should be used to validate a war of aggression and administer an unjust peace. This issue deserves consideration.

In the last 80 years, the US has been directly involved in two major partitions of territory. It has played an indirect role in several others, the most costly and least thoughtful of which involved Germany. Shortsighted decisions made after World War I dismembered the Kaiser’s empire, disconnecting a large swath of German territory on the Baltic Sea and altogether ceding German land to Poland, France, and the new state of Czechoslovakia. These postwar territorial divisions sparked resentment among the German people and set the stage for another round of partitions and war just two decades later.

In 1938, in the German city of Munich, the leaders of France and Britain met with the leaders of Germany and Italy to transfer the German-speaking regions of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler. In return, the German dictator promised to work toward continental peace and stability. The US government was silent; though un invited to the talks, the Czech government was not. Indeed, it was Czech Foreign Minister Kamil Krofta who brought the betrayal at Munich into focus. "Today it is our turn," he concluded. "Tomorrow it will be the turn of others." Within a year, Hitler invaded Poland, and the war in Europe began.

Touched-off by territorial division, Hitler’s war would fittingly end in partition. Allowing empty rhetoric and paper promises to obscure what amounted to the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe and the partition of Germany, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman embraced the partition regime in earnest at Yalta and Potsdam. Less than a decade later, US and Korean military negotiators would meet in Panmunjom to end the three-year-long Korean War by formally recognizing the pre-war partition of the Korean peninsula.

The Dayton agreement is America’s latest experiment with territorial division. There are at least three reasons this experiment could fail.

Bosnia will be divided roughly in half, with 49% ceded to its Serbian attackers and the rest shared in a Muslim-Croat federation of questionable viability. The Serb half of Bosnia will surround the Muslim-Croat portion on three sides. The Muslim regions will be completely surrounded, by Croats to the south and west and Serbs to the north and east. Having whittled Bosnia down to a fraction of its former self with little Western interference, it is likely that the Serbs and Croats will recommence their conquests soon after NATO troops depart late next year.

Postwar Bosnia will have a new system of government, its two parts loosely linked at the federal level. The rotating presidency that will serve as Bosnia’s head of state is a recipe for disaster. Recall that it was Serbia’s refusal to allow a Croat to head pre-war Yugoslavia’s unworkable seven-man presidency that prompted Croatia’s secession, which sparked a war between Croatia and the Serb-dominated federal government. Doubtless, this awkward system of government will contribute to the onset of the next Balkan War.

The final reason Mr. Clinton’s partition experiment could fail is the nature of America’s participation. In a gray area between war and peace, the mission is fraught with risk. Surrounded by more than three warring factions that have maimed or killed nearly 2,000 peacekeepers in the last four years, NATO forces will patrol a 620 square-mile buffer zone; relocate nearly two million refugees; and re-arm the shattered Bosnian Army. One wonders how long the Bosnian Serbs will treat their American occupiers as neutral observers, in light of this aspect of the mission.

However, the fact that American soldiers are in Bosnia is not as anguishing as the reason they were sent. US troops are the collateral for Mr. Clinton’s partition gamble. For the first time ever, US troops are being committed to enforce a partition carried out by someone else––the Serb and Croat aggressors in this case. Mr. Clinton may deny this ugly reality of postwar Bosnia. However, the facts are that the Bosnian Serbs, in tandem with the Belgrade Serbs, stole half of Bosnia’s land and forty of its cities. With the world focused on Serbian violence, the Croats used both force and diplomacy to achieve the same ends.

Forming a human line between the spoils and ruins of this Balkan land-grab, American soldiers will bleed and die because Washington first lacked the courage to punish those who started this war and then lacked the courage to refuse European demands for US involvement in the carving-up of a sovereign state.

Partition is never the simple solution it appears on paper, and it seldom achieves peace. The first partition of Germany spawned the bloodiest war in history. The wounds of Germany’s second partition are only now beginning to heal, and Eastern Europe may always bear the scars of Yalta. Korea remains divided even today, with North and South on a perpetual war-footing. Bosnia now joins that long list of dispensable places. Today, it was Bosnia's turn to succumb to aggression; tomorrow it will be the turn of others.