Operation Deliberate Force Review: Survival

“Endless Appeasement”

Review by Mark Thompson in the Journal Survival, published by the
International Institute of Strategic Studies

Report of the Secretary-General Pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 53/35 (1998) – The Fall of Srebrenica. United Nations publication A/54/549, 15 November 1999; available at www.un.org/peace

Operation Deliberate Force: The UN and NATO Campaign in Bosnia 1995 by Tim Ripley. Lancaster: Centre for Defence and International Security Studies, Lancaster University, 1999. 359pp. £14.99

Fighting for Peace: Bosnia 1994 by General Sir Michael Rose. London: The Harvill Press, 1998. 269pp. £18

I spent 1995 working for the United Nations mission to the former Yugoslavia, mostly in the Analysis and Assessment Unit at mission headquarters in Zagreb. Returning after a fortnight’s leave on 20 July, I found the HQ no more despondent than usual. One of the six ‘safe areas’ had fallen at last – Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia – and another, Zepa, was on the brink. Yet, unless my memory is playing tricks, this was not immediately seen in HQ as a turning-point. There was so much going wrong all the time.

The Croatians were gearing to recapture the Serb-controlled enclaves. The great powers were still adrift. The mission had been on the ropes since the crisis over the Bihac ‘safe area’ the previous November and, by this stage, seemed incapable of decisive action or reaction. Srebrenica was another upper-cut from the Bosnian Serbs, but why should it be a knock-out blow?

On 14 July, General Ratko Mladic’s soldiers began the mass execution of male captives from Srebrenica. The same day, unaware of any such horrors, two of my colleagues in the Analysis and Assessment Unit suggested in a memo that ‘the fall of Srebrenica does not necessarily signify the beginning of the end of the mission’. Though typically defensive, this was reasonable at the time. Their closing assessment, on the other hand, cannot be read without a blush: ‘The fall of Srebrenica exposes weaknesses in the mandate, but not in the mission’. There it was again, the tell-tale denial with its reassuring implication that the mission – and hence the Secretariat – had no margin for initiative, being entirely conditioned by the Security Council, the troop-contributing nations, the Contact Group, NATO and the parties to the conflict.

This is a small example of how the mission and the Secretariat generally talked about Bosnia to themselves, to the Security Council and to the world. UN discourse on the former Yugoslavia has been marked by traiectio in alium, the rhetorical technique of shifting responsibility. This is worrying because UN officials should not have the licence of politicians and diplomats to justify themselves by expediency or national interest. The Charter looms behind them, demanding acknowledgement.

The Secretary-General who was in office at the time has recently posed the question ‘Why was Bosnia a failure?’, only to answer: ‘Because the United States was so deeply involved politically and so deeply determined not to be involved militarily’. Whatever Washington’s manifold blunders over Bosnia, this trite judgement is not what we needed from Boutros Boutros-Ghali. His peroration then comes as no surprise:

‘The harm done to the mangled and nearly bankrupt United Nations would not easily be reversed, nor would the damage done to key principles of international behavior: no acquisition of territory by force; no genocide; and guarantees of the integrity and existence of UN member states’.(1) Plainly, this sad situation had nothing to do with him.

Institutional accountability

What we needed to hear from Boutros-Ghali has been supplied by his successor, Kofi Annan, whose report on Srebrenica is densely written, compelling and authoritative. Reading it, one is shocked anew at how the UN and NATO sat on their hands for three years while the likes of Mladic and Radovan Karadzic spat full in their face. It merits a place on the shelf beside David Rohde’s and Chuck Sudetic’s books on Srebrenica. (2) Instead of ritually blaming the ‘permanent five’ for delivering a contradictory mandate and insufficient resources, the Secretariat examines its own record, and finds it wanting. What is more, it does so with a degree of frankness that none of the politicians or diplomats involved in mediating the Bosnian conflict has matched. The candour is not complete, and there is a falling-off in the summary ‘Assessments’. Even so, the report represents a breakthrough in institutional accountability.

Almost half of the report is devoted to chronicling the background to the events of July 1995, from the origins of the mission through the evolution of the ‘safe-areas’ mandate and the use of force by NATO in support of the mission. There are accounts of the major crises over the ‘safe areas’ from 1993 to 1995. By structuring his report in this way, Annan makes a vital admission: that the loss of Srebrenica was not a sudden change of fortune, hitting the mission out of a clear sky. It was, on the contrary, ‘an accident waiting to happen’, in the words of a British officer serving with the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR), quoted in Tim Ripley’s valuable book.

It is handy to have the then Secretary-General’s views on the mandate gathered together in the Annan report. In March 1994, Boutros-Ghali noted that ‘the new tasks require resources that have not been provided expeditiously by the international community’, yet advised against redefining the mandates ‘commensurate with the resources the international community is prepared to make available to UNPROFOR’ (para. 130). In other words, don’t give us the tools or we might have do the job.

In May 1994, however, he understood UNPROFOR’s mandate as being ‘to protect the civilian populations of the designated safe areas against armed attacks and other hostile acts, through the presence of its troops and, if necessary, through the application of air power, in accordance with agreed procedures’. This robust interpretation did not last long. In December 1994, the Secretary-General implicitly justified the UN’s passivity during Serb attacks on the Bihac ‘safe area’ the previous month by blaming the Bosnian army, even though, as he freely admitted, ‘most of the offensive activities … from the Bihac pocket were not launched from within the safe area’. He reiterated that UNPROFOR should not be given the mandate to enforce compliance with the safe-area regime, because that would be ‘incompatible’ with peacekeeping (para. 173).

Completing his revision, Boutros-Ghali argued to the Security Council in May 1995 that UNPROFOR’s mandate did not include any provision for enforcement, and the mission should abandon ‘any actual or implied commitment to the use of force to deter attacks’ – despite the unmistakable authority granted under Resolution 836 to do precisely that. He concluded this plea against the international use of force by preaching about the need to reject ‘a culture of death’. Perhaps political reasons could be adduced for each shift. Yet the conclusion is inescapable: the Secretary-General did not stick to any firm principle. Indeed, Annan’s report comes within a whisker of alleging that his predecessor deliberately misled the Security Council over the events unfolding in Srebrenica (paras 282–496).

Overall, the report does not resolve the enigma of Boutros-Ghali’s stance towards the Yugoslav catastrophe. It remains baffling that this astute politician so misjudged the importance of Bosnia to the international community; and regrettable that a Secretary-General ready to argue with the Security Council did not put his trenchancy to better use. Regarding UNPROFOR as a liability, he presented the Secretariat as the Security Council’s victim, and put the mission in the hands of Yasushi Akashi, an unimaginative bureaucrat who, unlike the troublesome French generals Morillon and Cot (neither of whom rates a mention in Unvanquished), could be trusted not to ‘go native’. By trying to protect his institution in this way, Boutros Ghali did more than anybody to stain its reputation. While the Security Council may manipulate the UN, it takes the Secretariat to dishonour it. His unseating in 1996 was at least poetic justice.

In operational terms, Boutros-Ghali’s approach to Bosnia entailed a cult of impartiality, pacifism and humanitarian relief. This cult would not have won so many followers if it had not drawn on decent UN traditions. This may explain why Annan documents the cult without in the end quite renouncing it. The ‘Assessments’ speak with two voices. Annan concedes self-critically that ‘the United Nations hierarchy’ made ‘errors of judgement … rooted in a philosophy of impartiality and non-violence wholly unsuited to the conflict in Bosnia’ (para. 499). He also bluntly identifies an ‘institutional ideology of impartiality even when confronted with attempted genocide’ (para. 505). Yet he cites ‘the basic and indispensable impartiality of the United Nations’ as an indubitable verity (para. 445).

The term ‘impartiality’ needs unpacking. Why is it usually conceived in almost geometrical terms of equidistance between or among the parties, rather than in relation to the relevant Security Council resolutions? A peacekeeping mission should implement its mandate impartially, which may require being tougher on one party than on another. Rather than resenting Resolution 836 for ‘jeopardising UNPROFOR’s impartiality’ (para. 150) by not disarming the Bosnian forces inside the ‘safe areas’, the Secretariat might have used that resolution to try and reform international policy. Rather than complaining that the ‘safe-areas’ mandate was anti-Serb, the Secretary-General could have argued that, despite Resolution 836, the entire international intervention was anti-Bosnian. Instead of taking offence at the ‘one-sidedness’ of the media, he could have echoed their outrage, adding it to the prestige of his office to pressurise the Security Council to uphold those ‘key principles of international behavior’.

Nobody doubts that the UN did a sterling job of delivering humanitarian aid  in Bosnia. At the time, however, senior officials too often claimed that this task was the supreme imperative. On this point, Annan makes a clean  breast: ‘The provision of humanitarian aid’ was not ‘a sufficient response  to ethnic cleansing and to an attempted genocide’ (para. 491). Additionally:  ‘Nor was it sufficiently appreciated that a systematic and ruthless campaign  such as the one conducted by the Serbs would view a UN humanitarian  operation, not as an obstacle, but as an instrument of its aims’ (para. 493). Better still: ‘The problem, which cried out for a political/military solution, was that a Member State of the United Nations, left largely  defenceless as a result of an arms embargo imposed upon it by the United Nations, was being dismembered by forces committed to its destruction. This was not a problem with a humanitarian solution’ (para. 493). Amen to that.

After such frankness, it is disappointing to find Annan intoning one of the  UN’s propaganda pieties from the war years: ‘Peacekeeping and war fighting are distinct activities which should not be mixed’ (para. 498). The UN’s  experience in the 1990s, not only in Bosnia, proved that they are not so  distinct after all. Almost 60 years ago, the philosopher R. G. Collingwood  observed that pacifism may promote war rather than prevent it, because it is more interested in giving the pacifist a clear conscience than in navigating the rough seas of actually-existing hostilities.(3) Such was the case with the UN over Bosnia. Annan’s fundamentalism on this point is odd, given his prior  sophisticated reflections on ‘coercive inducement’ as a peacekeeping or  peacemaking approach, and given too the assessments cited in the body of his  report that the plausible threat of force and its use had effectively supported the mission (see, for example, paras 145, 149, 450) (4).

This brings us to the worst sentence in the report: ‘Ultimately, it is not possible to say with any certainty that stronger actions [to protect  civilians in Srebrenica] by the Dutch [battalion] would have saved lives,  and it is even possible that such efforts could have done more harm than good’ (para. 473). This flies in the face of UNPROFOR’s experience that the  Serbs (and others) usually backed down when resolutely confronted. I do not recall that any UN hostages were physically harmed by their Serb captors.  While the Secretariat may have had to yield to the concerns of a troop-contributing country when its soldiers were at risk, the analysis should not be trimmed now.

For most of the Bosnian war, Annan served in the Department of Peacekeeping  Operations (DPKO). To his credit, he implicates himself sufficiently. Occasional differences of opinion between the Secretariat and the mission  (for example, paras 139, 144, 155, 160) do not alter the impression of a  careful and even artful collusion, skirting the thorny issues. Nor does the report spare Akashi or the UNPROFOR Force Commander in 1995, General Bernard  Janvier. Janvier’s inadequacy is laid bare: he underestimated the stakes in Bosnia and overrated the Serbs. Akashi’s milieu at HQ is evoked by a  dreadful example. During the crisis of April 1994, when Mladic’s forces seemed on the brink of capturing the ‘safe area’ of Gorazde, a ‘senior adviser to the SRSG proposed “some psychological action in place of military action that [could] break the deadlock in the political situation”’. The adviser proposed, amongst other measures, offering the Serbs independence, or lifting the sanctions against them’ (para. 139). By their advisers shall ye know them. On this occasion the Secretariat demurred. However, the mission’s failings were simply the reflection – magnified, denuded, but not  distorted – of the accommodations and evasions at the heart of the  Secretariat’s ‘institutional ideology’.

There were, of course, dissenters. The report quotes an unnamed mission  member on the ‘policy of endless appeasement’ (para. 156). Whether that memo reached New York, we are not told. The word ‘appeasement’ does find a due place in Annan’s report (para. 500), as does the phrase ‘attempted genocide’ (paras 491, 501, 505) – language shunned by the UN at the time. I remember a  cable from UN Headquarters in December 1994 from Annan’s special assistant  in the DPKO, Shashi Tharoor, widely regarded as one of the sharpest minds in the Secretariat, here arguing somewhat heretically that ‘the assertive delivery of supplies to UNPROFOR and to civilians in the safe areas’ was the only available option with ‘the slightest hope of breaking out of the present stalemate’. The memo sank without trace. In public, as far as I know, Tharoor expressed orthodox disdain for the use of force: ‘we’re  deployed to help extinguish the flames of war, not to fan them’. (5)

The key dissenter, in the end, was a British general. Rupert Smith took  command of the Bosnia theatre early in 1995, and seems to have decided by May that the mission had to be ready to ‘escalate to success’, a phrase attributed to Smith by Tim Ripley (p. 47). Ripley got closer to the  publicity-shy Smith and other UNPROFOR officers, including Janvier, than any  other journalist. Unless Smith turns to writing in his retirement, this will  surely remain the best record of the UN’s outstanding commander in the former Yugoslavia. Operation Deliberate Force is fast-paced, enthusiastic and bristling with weapons-system acronyms. (The editing of the book,  however, leaves something to be desired.) A painstaking work, attuned to Bosnian realities, it gives the fullest account that I’ve seen of the  denouement of the war.

Peace processes

Given the remarkable institutional honesty of the UN’s Srebrenica report, and the wealth of good journalism and scholarship (to which the Ripley book is a worthy addition) on the subject of the Bosnia débâcle, it is doubly disappointing to read the untempered apologia from Smith’s predecessor, General Michael Rose. Rose’s Fighting for Peace, an account of his 1994 tour in Bosnia as UNPROFOR commander, is tendentious and bitter, replete with unargued assertions and elementary errors.6  Given Rose’s assertion that Yugoslavia was populated by different ‘races’ (p. 4), it is perhaps not surprising that his book is full of ethnic stereotypes. He opines that ‘the culture of the Serbs stems from a dangerous mix of raw passion and religious mysticism’ (p. 5); sees a Bosnian politician as having ‘abandoned his birthright’ as a Muslim (p. 26); and doubts that Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic can understand ‘the Christian sentiment’ behind Mozart’s Requiem (p. 146). Rose digresses on ‘the Jewish influence on current events’ (p. 5). Inevitably, he buys into the ancient-hatreds thesis: ‘every child [in the region] is taught stories of the cruel deeds perpetrated against its community throughout the ages’ (p. 4).

Rose plays up Bosniac leaders’ role in the conflict and also the UN’s achievements, while playing down Serb responsibility and NATO’s role. The real enemies of peace were the Bosniac leaders with their ‘sheer venality and lack of humanity’ (p. 227), the ‘hawks in NATO’ (p. 118), and Sarajevo-based journalists – ‘jackals circling the decaying corpse’ (p. 163). The demon of the piece seems to have been Bosnia’s vice-president, Ejup Ganic, portrayed as ‘contemptible’, ‘incredibly inept’, ‘smirking’, talking ‘drivel’ in a ‘high nasal voice’. General Joulwan, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), fares not much better. The principal hero is Rose’s bodyguard, a warm-hearted roisterer handy with his fists, out of  Kipling’s Soldiers Three.

Like Akashi and Janvier, Rose misjudged the Serbs and the utility of force. He pulled his team out of besieged Gorazde on 17 April 1994 because ‘the fighting was dying down’ (p. 115); the crisis raged on, and two days later Bosnia seemed to be ‘sliding uncontrollably towards war’ (p. 116). When NATO bombarded Serb-controlled Udbina airport in November 1994, Rose thought ‘the Serbs would undoubtedly respond by shelling the UN’ (p. 201). On the contrary, ‘the next day, the UN airlifts into Sarajevo restarted and aid convoys resumed throughout Bosnia’ (p. 202). ‘We did not cross the “Mogadishu line” after all’, notes Rose – but he fails, incredibly, to draw the obvious lesson. He overstates the flexibility of the Bosnian Serb leaders and the belligerence of their Bosniac counterparts. Despite the dearth of evidence, he remains convinced that the local armistices brokered by UNPROFOR could have delivered an overall settlement in 1994. When discouraged, he denounces all the parties in worst UN style for not ‘wanting peace’ (p. 187).

The book is also internally contradictory. NATO’s Operation Deliberate Force is dismissed as having had ‘negligible’ effect in 1995 (p. 6), yet elsewhere Rose admits that NATO air-power played ‘an indispensable role’ and concedes that ‘the peace process was suspended for a brief period [sic] and the Serbs were compelled by force of arms to accept a negotiated settlement’ (pp. 248, 251). President Izetbegovic’s ‘talk of creating a multi-religious, multi-cultural State was a disguise for the extension of his own political  power and the furtherance of Islam’ (p. 38). Later, the Bosniac leader is ‘a courageous man caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and religious extremism within his party’ (p. 236). Rose starts by writing of Sarajevo as ‘under siege’, of ‘tyranny’ (p. 1) and ‘aggression’ (p. 3). By page seven, the conflict is ‘a three-sided civil war over territory’ produced by ‘ethnic differences’.

Predictably, Rose is convinced that force should be alien to the search for peace and to peacekeeping. He chronicles his efforts to prevent air strikes (pp. 60, 64, 204), and belittles the effectiveness of credible threats against the Serb side, such as NATO’s ultimatum over Gorazde (pp. 118–19). His controversial refusals to entertain requests from his own commanders for NATO air presence or support over Tuzla and Bihac go unmentioned.

Rose’s attitude to the ‘peace process’ was protective, at times proprietorial: ‘As far as I was concerned, the peace process was still alive’ (p. 181). In truth, until late summer 1995, this process was an illusion resting on the hope that ‘at some point both sides would stop fighting and try to resolve their differences through negotiation’ (p. 117). Rose clung to this hope despite sound advice from Bosniacs. Izetbegovic said  that ‘the Serbs would only agree to end the war when they had lost it and that NATO should help the Bosnian Army to bring about this eventuality’ (p. 46). Months later, a local commander in the Bosnian Army told Rose that ‘the West was unnecessarily scared of the Serbs, and … if a coalition of forces  were established between NATO and the newly-formed Federation, the Serbs would be defeated’ (p. 149). Perhaps these remarks made so little impact because they were made by, respectively, a dissembling fundamentalist and a ‘fat, half-shaven, swarthy man who broke into high-pitched giggles’.

Rose’s tour was marked by crises over Sarajevo, Gorazde and Bihac. Kofi Annan’s report contains more reliable accounts of these episodes. Rose omits the 12 December 1994 short-range attack on a UN personnel carrier by Serb soldiers, murdering one Bangladeshi peacekeeper and wounding four others. When Rose denied the local UN commander’s request for NATO air presence, morale in mission HQ plumbed new depths. His book usefully reminds us of Rose’s opposition to NATO’s proposal to destroy the Bosnian Serbs’ air-defence system (pp. 200, 204), a crucial error that paved the way for the UN’s humiliation the following year.

Mark Thompson is the author of A Paper House: The Ending of Yugoslavia (London: Vintage, 1992) and Forging War: The Media in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina (London: Article 19, 1994 and 1999). He worked for the United Nations in the former Yugoslavia between 1994 and 1998.


  1. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Unvanquished: A US–UN Saga (London: I. B. Tauris, 1999), pp. 246–47.
  2. David Rohde, A Safe Area. Srebrenica: Europe’s Worst Massacre since the Second World War (London: Simon & Schuster, 1997); Chuck Sudetic, Blood and Vengeance: One Family’s Story of the War in Bosnia (New York: Penguin Books, 1999).
  3. Jonathan Rée, ‘Life after Life’, London Review of Books, 20 January 2000, p. 10.
  4. Kofi Annan, ‘Peace Operations and the United Nations: Preparing for the Next Century’, Conflict Resolution Monitor, no. 1, summer 1997, available at  http://www.brad.ac.uk/acad/confres/crm1.
  5. Shashi Tharoor, interviewed in War Report, September 1994, p. 26. 6 Contrary to Rose, Serb leaders did not support the confederalisation of Yugoslavia (quite the opposite), and the EC did not recognise Slovenia and Croatia in 1991 (p. 5); UN deployment in 1992 did not stop the conflict in Croatia with ‘immediate effect’ (p. 7); Izetbegovic did not reject the Vance-Owen plan in 1993 (p. 209); the Serb exodus from ‘Krajina’ occurred in 1995, not 1996, and because of Croatian military action, not the Dayton Agreement (p. 245). Rose wrongly implies that the Croat–Bosnia conflict in central Bosnia was started by the Bosniacs (p. 34), and that UN peacekeepers ended the war in 1995 (p. 3). He boldly claims to have helped to change US policy by convincing General Galvin, a military adviser to President Clinton, of the need for ‘compromises’. His evidence? ‘Shortly afterwards, Clinton brought in Richard Holbrooke to redefine policy’ (p. 84). Yet Holbrooke came aboard in September 1994, fully six months after Galvin’s visit, and after the Bosnian Serbs had rejected the Contact Group plan.  Elsewhere, Rose mentions that Bosnia’s Foreign Minister Irfan Ljubijankic ‘sadly died in a helicopter crash’ (p. 98): Ljubijankic, in fact, was shot down by Croatian Serbs, who were publicly congratulated by their commander, General Mrksic.