‘Saving NATO’: Operation Deliberate Force, Bosnia
The ending of the Cold War unleashed a period of profound soul-searching within the NATO alliance. As the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact disintegrated, it seemed that the principal raison d’être for NATO’s existence had disappeared amidst the rubble of the Berlin Wall. While many in Europe began to focus on European integration, the US found itself launching a major military operation to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. As president George H. W. Bush Snr proclaimed the emergence of a ‘New World Order’, at the centre of which it was hoped would be a reinvigorated United Nations (UN), NATO was seemingly bereft of a strategic anchor. However, uncertainty over what role NATO might play in a post-Cold War era soon gave way to a firm commitment to adapting the alliance to deal with the new challenges that lay ahead. The recognition that new threats existed was acknowledged as early as 1991, in the alliances’ New Strategic Concept unveiled at the 1991 Rome Summit.1 It was also acknowledged by Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who were faced with the unenviable task of reorienting US foreign policy to a world without the Soviet threat, and it was confirmed by the Gulf War which underlined the need for NATO to adjust to meet challenges beyond its traditional concerns. With the ink barely dry on the New Strategic Concept, however, Yugoslavia began to implode, and in doing so, presented NATO with the opportunity to demonstrate that in dealing with a major threat to European security, it had found a new rationale. By the end of the decade, NATO would have conducted two major military operations in the Balkans, both of which it could reasonably claim to have ‘won’. Yet, the NATO doomsayers and pessimists saw in NATO’s Balkans experiences further evidence that, in the absence of an overriding threat to members’ interests, alliance unity and cohesion was precarious at best. Moreover, it seemed that the US emerged from NATO’s missions in Bosnia and Kosovo increasingly frustrated by an alliance characterised by slow and laborious decision-making procedures, and with European allies who remained heavily dependent on superior US military capabilities. The numerous debates and disagreements that plagued operations in Bosnia and Kosovo helped fuel a belief in Washington that US operational freedom and flexibility had been hampered by operating through the alliance. When the Bush
Administration chose to marginalise NATO following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it seemed the alliance’s Balkans’ ventures were prominent in the minds of US officials wary of waging a ‘War by Committee’ at a time when the American people sought an immediate – and efficient – response. This chapter examines NATO’s mission in Bosnia and asks: What were the strengths and weaknesses of NATO during Operation Deliberate Force (ODF)? How far were US perceptions about the alliance valid? What were the central lessons the US derived from this mission?