The Bush Administration Blocks a Negotiated Settlement

Despite increasing US influence, the European Community continued its efforts, begun in 1991, aimed at ending the Yugoslav federation through a negotiated secession of the various republics. The EC member states still sought to use the Balkan crisis to affirm the Community’s potential as a global actor. The European Community’s policy of international assertiveness had failed badly in Croatia during 1991, but the Europeans now sought to make up for this failure and to reestablish their diplomatic presence in Bosnia.The continued importance of the Balkan conflict was clear, and is was widely considered “the virility symbol of the Euro-federalists” – a way of establishing the Community as a global player to be reckoned with.

The EC mediation activities were directed by José Cutileiro, a Portuguese diplomat. During February and March 1992, Cutileiro brought together the leaders of the three major groups from Bosnia (including Izetbegović, who represented the Muslims) for a series of international conferences. The EC mediation was predicted on the assumption that Bosnian independence was inevitable, and Cutileiro sought a constitutional arrangement that might defuse ethnic tensions and thus preclude civil war. Cutileiro worked out a plan to divide Bosnia into three separate regions, each of which would possess a high level of autonomy. The central government in Sarajevo would be left with limited powers as part of a confederalized state. Of the total area of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Muslims were to be given effective rule in regions comprising 45 percent of the total, the Serbs would receive 42.5 percent, and the Croats (the smallest of the three groups) would receive 12.5 percent.

The Lisbon agreement, as it became known, was hardly perfect, and it entailed a compromise among all three groups. For the Serbs, it represented some concession with regard to territory. Serbs accounted for less than half the population of Bosnia, and they owned a disproportionate share of the land; the 42.5 percent that they would receive under the Cutileiro plan constituted a reduction in territorial control. From the Muslim side, the entire idea of confederation was a concession. The Muslims effectively controlled the central government, having won the parliamentary elections, and they favored a unified state; they viewed a confederation with a weak central government negatively. From the Croat side, there was surely dissatisfaction that they would control far less territory than the other groups. Significant numbers of each ethnic group would have to live as minorities in areas dominated by another group.

Despite these flaws, the three ethnic groups all agreed to the plan on March 17, presumably because it was better than the alternative, which was war. Crucially, the Izetbegović government also agreed. The possibility briefly emerged that war could be averted through a compromise settlement. The Bush administration, however, opposed the European efforts from the start, and this opposition contributed to the breakdown of the Lisbon agreement. The administration’s opposition flowed from a more basic rivalry between the United States and the European Community, which was growing during this period. With US encouragement, the Croats and Muslims both withdrew from the agreement – effectively reneging on their commitments – Mach 25-26, 1992. The Cutileiro plan was never implemented, and full-scale war commenced within two weeks.

Let us look more closely at the role of US officials and their efforts to undercut the Lisbon agreement. These efforts began with the US ambassador in Belgrade, Warren Zimmermann, who encouraged Izetbegović to reject the peace plan. A New York Times article notes: “Immediately after Mr. Izetbegović returned from Lisbon, Mr Zimmermann called on him…. ‘[Izetbegović] said he didn’t like [the Lisbon agreement],’ Mr. Zimmermann recalled. ‘I told him if he didn’t like it, why sign it?” According to former State Department official George Kenney: Zimmermann told Izetbegović … [the United States will] recognize you and help you out. So don’t go ahead with the Lisbon agreement” (emphasis added. The former Canadian ambassador to Yugoslavia, James Bissett, confirms Kenney’s account. In other words, Zommermann offered Izetbegović a direct incentive – US recognition – in exchange for his rejection of the Lisbon agreement.

US efforts to undermine the plan extended well beyond the US embassy in Belgrade. An official Dutch investigation offered this account: “[Secretary of State] Beker’s policy was now directed at preventing Izetbegović from agreeing to the Cutileiro plan … and informing him [Izetbegovći] that the United States would support his government in the UN if any difficulties should arise.” In addition Baker “urged his European discussion partners to halt their plans” for decentralizing authority in Bosnia. It is interesting to note that the section of the Dutch report that discusses this period is entitled, “The Cutileiro Plan and Its Thwarting by the Americans.” Cutileiro himself later claimed: “Izetbegović and his aides were encouraged to scupper that deal [from Lisbon] by well meaning outsiders.” – which was probably a polite reference to the US activities. According to EC mediator Peter Carrington, the “American administration made it quite clear that the proposalsof Cutileiro … were unacceptable.” Lord Carrington also claimed that US officials “actually sent them [the Bosnians] a telegram telling them not to agree” to Cutlieiro’s proposed settlement. These facts strongly suggest that the United States played a key role during this early period of the Bosnia conflict; later claims of US inactivity in Bosnia are incorrect.

The US strategy was successful in removing the possibility of an EC-brokered agreement early in the conflict. Let us now consider a counterfactual question: Could the Lisbon agreement have prevented war in Bosnia? This must remain one of the key “what if” question of the Yugoslav conflict that can never be answered definitively. The plan was accepted by the three parties only in preliminary form, with many details still to be worked out; whether or not a final agreement could have been achieved – even in the absence of US opposition – cannot be known for certain. Nevertheless, the Cutileiro plan clearly held considerable promise, a point acknowledged by former US diplomats. Zimmermann, for example, admitted in an interview with the New York Times that the Cutileiro plan “wasn’t bad at all.” In his memoirs, Zimmermann goes further and states that the Cutileiro plan “would probably have worked out better for the Muslims than any subsequent plan, including the Dayton formula [that ended fighting in 1995].” And according to Sell, who served in the US embassy in Belgrade, the “Cutileiro plan would have established a more effective Bosnian central government and probably resulted in less of an ethnically divided state than the accord agreed to at Dayton.” The Cutileiro plan had the added advantage that it sought to prevent war; this advantage was not shared by any of the subsequent peace proposals, including the Dayton accord.

Some observers doubt that the Lisbon agreement was viable; since, it is alleged, the Bosnian Serb leaders were not negotiating in good faith; they would never have accepted a compromise agreement. There is no question that the Serb leadership contained several dubious figures, some of whom would later orchestrate serious war crimes. In March 1992, however, before full-scale war had begun, Serb leaders welcomed the Lisbon agreement, and they endorsed it in the strongest terms. Radovan Karadžić, who represented the Serbs at Lisbon, called the agreement “a great day for Bosnia and Herzegovina.” And it should be recalled that it was the Muslims and the Croats, not the Serbs, who actually renaged. There is no evidence that the Serbs were bent on war at this point. Even after Izetbegovć reneged, the Serbs remained open to a compromise agreement similar to the Cutileiro plan. As late as April 1992, “the Serb leaders [in Bosnia] were probably still willing to accept a single state organized into a loose confederation divided into three ethnic ‘cantons,'” according to an unclassified report by the Central Intelligence Agency. A revival of the plan now proved impossible, and war was the result.

Overall, US policy – by pushing for early recognition of Bosnia while undercutting EC mediation – augmented the risks of a wider conflict. These risks were recognized in policy-making circles. Sell writes that in early 1992, “The United States … began to press for recognition of Bosnia, reducing the prospects – low as they might be – that continued negotiations could head off conflict.” Kenney states the mater more bluntly: “The [US] intelligence community was unanimous in saying that if you recognize, Bosnia is going to blow up.” The cronology of events supports the view that US policy helped precipitate violence: On March 27, the day after Izetbegovć withdrew from the Lisbon accord – and did so at the urging of US officials – the Serbs declared their independence from Bosnia-Herzegovina, thus laying the groundwork for war. With US support, Bosnia-Herzegovina seceded from Yugoslavia and then achieved international recognition as an independent state on April 6. The Western European states set aside their reservations and went along with the US position on recognition. Full scale ethnic war also commenced on April 6, thus coinciding exactly with the timing of international recognition. Viewed in retrospect, the US policy during this period must be viewed as a destabilizing force. Just as Germany had played a key role in destabilizing the region in 1991, the United States played the destabilizer in Bosnia in 1992.

David N. Gibbs
First Do No Harm (2009)