June 27, 1995
Alan W. Dowd
On June 2, while conducting an air suppression mission in the cloudy skies over northern Bosnia, US Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady’s F-16 fighter-bomber was ripped in half by a Serbian surface-to-air missile (SAM). Capt. O’Grady--Air Force call sign "Basher 52"--survived the explosion and crash, ejecting from his plane and then hiding in the rolling forest lands between Bihac and Banja Luka for the better part of six days.
With "Basher 52" downed and missing, the distant Bosnian crisis was suddenly Americanized, suddenly no longer a European problem. And a new crisis began.
On June 8, just six days after the shoot-down, O’Grady’s ordeal would end in a daring pre-dawn rescue operation that involved most of the NATO allies and three branches of the US military. By sunrise, Basher 52 was safely recovered and on his way home. This crisis within a crisis offers some powerful lessons about the use of military force, and some sobering indications that the Clinton Administration has failed to learn anything from previous foreign policy challenges.
The Basher 52 episode, above all, illustrates that the Clinton Administration has ignored the lessons of Vietnam, sending American forces into harm’s way with rules of engagement that limit their ability to protect themselves and enhance the enemy’s ability to survive, kill, and prevail. That Clinton and his advisers have forgotten the hard, bloody lessons of Johnson’s incremental war is distressing enough, but perhaps more disconcerting is the fact that the Clinton Administration has also forgotten the lessons of Somalia--a foreign policy catastrophe of Mr. Clinton’s own making.
Over Bosnia--as in Somalia and Vietnam--Washington compounded the problems of inappropriate rules of engagement with inadequate protection and firepower. The Serb radars that tracked Basher 52 and his wingman across north-central Bosnia could easily have been destroyed by radar-killing aircraft. But only four F-4Gs were deployed to the Bosnian theater of operations--not nearly enough to protect the hundreds of NATO aircraft that have flown 69,000 sorties since 1992. Had he been permitted to use the high-speed anti-radiation missile that most F-16s carry, Capt. O’Grady himself could have knocked out the SAM sites that relayed his course to the operator of the shoulder-launched weapon that ultimately brought him down. Instead, Mr. Clinton deferred to UN bureaucrats, who urged the president to avoid offensive action against the remorseless Serbian military, and Basher 52 would be ordered not to defend himself.
The vacillating Clinton foreign policy team obviously failed to make note of its successes in Iraq, where US jets not unlike Capt. O’Grady’s are under direct US command, are well-protected and well-armed, and are authorized to destroy any airborne or ground-based hostiles. Most of northern and southern Iraq is a free-fire zone for the US Air Force and Navy, and the Iraqis know it. Hence, Iraqi SAMs seldom lock onto US aircraft, and seldom are American lives put in jeopardy. Had the same no-nonsense policy been practiced over the former Yugoslavia, it is doubtful that Capt. O’Grady would have lost his plane.
Other lessons can be drawn from the end of this crisis, specifically from the search and rescue mission that plucked the downed American from enemy territory. Massive in its nature but limited and clear in its objective, the operation was itself an illustration of what the NATO allies can do when they are united in their goal: 40 elite Marines, a swarm of transport and attack helicopters, and dozens of fixed-wing attack aircraft (at least 100 NATO aircraft in all) comprised the package that extracted Basher 52 from Serbian-occupied territory. One wonders what a similar show of resolve and unity--punctuated by the issuance of a clear policy--might have achieved in 1991, 1992 or 1993, when the Serbs began to ransack and devour the former Yugoslavia.
Perhaps the Serbs would have been deterred from extending their war; perhaps they would have called NATO’s bluff, forcing the Western alliance to punish the aggressors and restore peace. Either outcome would have been less costly than the one ensured by NATO’s confused and half-hearted Balkan policy.
Even today, a robust but defined intervention by the NATO allies could realize constructive results. The allies would first have to decide that Bosnia and the principle of territorial integrity were worth more than words. If they could reach that point, a point they have yet to reach to date, they could set about the task of ending this war. That point, however, will not be reached without America leading the way.
Some of the less difficult efforts that the West could initiate are evacuating the UN Protection Force, which is unable to protect even itself; sharing satellite and reconnaissance intelligence with the Bosnian government, which would enable it to muster a coordinated defense of its divided country; and lifting the arms embargo, which has made this conflict a one-sided massacre.
The Western allies could then re-evaluate their policy and pursue more ambitious goals: razing the Serbs’ supply depots and cutting their supply arteries, which Belgrade has clogged with arms and food; using massive, sustained air-strikes to break the siege of Sarajevo, which the Bosnian government is attempting even at this writing; deploying heavy armor to open a supply corridor stretching from the Adriatic coast to Mostar to Sarajevo, through which humanitarian and military aid could travel; and finally, using air and sea assets to level the Bosnian Serb "capital" of Pale, which was built on the blood and bones of the Bosnian Muslims.
Without question, such an intervention would be much more substantial than that which retrieved Basher 52. Regrettably, those nations with the means to execute such a policy lack the will to do it, while those nations willing to end the peacekeeping charade lack the ability to change the present course.
The crisis also says something about the American people. A week before Capt. O’Grady was brought down, polls indicated that less than one-third of Americans supported a more ambitious policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But after the Serbs took 300 UN peacekeepers hostage and destroyed Capt. O’Grady’s F-16, the numbers jumped to as high as 68% in favor of greater involvement in the war. Suddenly and finally, a wide majority saw the Serbs as a threat--a revelation coming far too late for 100,000 dead Bosnians but perhaps in time for their surviving brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and children.
Through their actions in the first week of June, the Bosnian Serbs added the United States and the United Nations to their list of enemies. But we should have been aggressively countering them much earlier. This was never a war of self-determination, but one of brutality, blood-lust and territorial ambition, a war against the rule of law and the civilized world. The shoot-down of Basher 52 and detainment of neutral parties were not the first indications of this. Rather, they were byproducts of it.
It has been said in these pages and elsewhere that unchecked violence begets more ambitious acts of violence. It’s almost beyond belief that after four years of empty threats and appeasement and even overt hostilities directed at US forces, the current administration again refuses to punish the Serbs. Like all aggressors, the Bosnian Serbs only understand force and loss; the Clinton Administration fails to grasp this truth.
The Bosnian war and the Basher 52 episode are graphic illustrations of this point: The Serbs pushed and plundered, and the West recoiled. The Serbs cleansed and conquered, and the West called for peace talks. The Serbs murdered and maimed, and the West only mustered threats. Then the Serbs took hostages and shot down an American, and Washington was silent. No retaliation, no punishment, only relief and congratulations for a rescue mission that shouldn’t have been necessary.