Why did the United States send military forces to the Balkans during the 1990s?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The United States sent military forces to the Balkans during the 1990s in order to rescue people from atrocities committed against them--"crimes against humanity"--and to take the assertive action that NATO as a peace-keeping enterprise could not take to end the war.

While the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina resulted from the breakup of Yugoslavia and the weakening of Communism after the Cold War, the roots of the Balkan crisis reach far back in the area's history, as it has always been a geopolitical pawn and the subject of shifting alliances and small wars. The first settlement was made by Serbians in the seventh century A.D. Later, the Turks invaded in 1386, killing many of the Serbs and forcing them to convert to the Muslim faith, creating a contentious ethnic mix. Then, in the 16th century, Islam dominated over Catholicism.

In 1910 Austria-Hungary recognized the need to change the area; however, it was unwilling to give it autonomy. Instead, Bosnia-Hercegovina, as it was called, was provided a new constitution that divided voters into three separate electoral colleges which represented the three religious groups in this area: the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Catholics, and the Muslims. However, such a division of people did little to resolve the cultural animosity among the people.

Recalling the beginning of World War I with the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the gunman was a Bosnian Serbian student, an active member of a revolutionary group hoping for independence for his country.

Thus, the seeds of independence had long been growing. The Serbian people never forgot that the Turks invaded and slaughtered many of them. So, after Tito, a brutal dictator of what became Yugoslavia in the old Soviet Union, deliberately divided Serbia into two non-contiguous provinces and was overthrown after the Cold War ended, Serbians strongly sought a reunified homeland with a resurgent nationalistic movement. 

On March 3, 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina was proclaimed an independent republic; however, the ethnic groups fought for control of the country. Since the Serbian nationalists were better equipped, they were able to "ethnically cleanse" much of the area. As a consequence, international alarm was raised by photographs of concentration camp inmates and casualties in Sarajevo's Muslim population. Under the administration of President Clinton, aid was given to the Muslims who suffered under the Serbian nationals.

In 1994 a NATO ultimatum effected a cease fire and withdrawal of artillery by the Serbians. But the Serbs wanted control of all lands in which Serbians were a majority. They waged a strong war against Muslim factions. After this the U.N. forces found themselves in the quandary of acting as "peacekeepers." So, in the summer of 1995, after President Clinton said that he wanted to get out of the situation that the U.S. found itself in after lifting the arms embargo. The dilemma involved

...a U.S. Congress bent on taking the moral high ground by unilaterally lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnian government without, however, taking responsibility for the consequences of doing so.

The real reason, however, was the palpable sense that Bosnia was the cancer eating away at American foreign policy, in the words of Anthony Lake, Clinton's national security adviser.

Certainly America's strength abroad was being undermined by what was happening in Bosnia, and by the the failure of the United States and NATO's failure to end the war. What's more, with presidential elections not far off, the White House clearly felt the need to find a path out of its dilemma.

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