Paying for the Powell Doctrine

Paying for the Powell Doctrine

In the early days of the Bosnian War, Colin Powell, who at the time chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to the conclusion that stopping the fighting would require the use of 250,000 troops. Then-President George Bush took his advice to heart and, fearing another Vietnam, opted to keep U.S. troops at home, safe and sound. Powell’s estimate seemed reasonable because the fighting in Bosnia was vicious, and under the Powell Doctrine, the U.S. government, when intervening abroad, would rely on the military equivalent of a sledgehammer, never a chisel. You can’t miss with a sledgehammer, Powell believed.

In Washington, few politicians challenged Powell’s judgment. The headlines from Bosnia told stark tales of torture, executions, concentration camps, and sieges. Bosnia was in the grip of genocide, and genocide, as everyone knows, is a massive and infernal machine-Evil and Apocalypse entwined-and it cannot be defeated on the cheap. Americans tend to equate the face of genocide with Adolf Hitler, not Radovan Karadzic. If you want to defeat Hitlerian evil, you must, it follows, amass the forces of D-Day and have a great generation on hand to storm the beaches (or mountains or deserts or jungles, as the case may be). Understandably, few politicians wished to send untold numbers of GIs to an obscure and violent country where it was hard to figure out who was committing genocide against whom and where American blood would seep into soil that contained no oil.

If you were in Bosnia at the time, as I was, the situation would not have appeared so fuzzy. You might have wondered, as I did, where Powell was planning to put all those troops, and what they would do. Genocide is a strange animal; it is monstrous, but not a monster. I met and occasionally shared a glass of brandy with more than a few war criminals in Bosnia, and I learned that these were not brave men and women, and that their numbers were not so immense. Many of the atrocities in the war were committed by paramilitary squads drawn heavily from Serbia’s underworld; these soldiers-I use the word with great caution-were excellent killers of civilians and takers of whatever loot they could find, but they would not have fared well against an army, which, at the beginning of the war, the newly independent Bosnian government did not have. That is why the Serbs were able to seize so much territory at the start-they faced no organized opposition. Once it took shape, Bosnia’s army found itself fighting an uphill battle and suffering from an international arms embargo that starved it of the weapons it needed to mount offensives (or defensives).

THE SIEGE of Sarajevo was maintained by heavy weapons and lazy soldiers like Dragisa, who made a point of not volunteering his last name when I visited him in the fall of 1992 at his place of work, a fortified machine-gun nest in the hills above the Bosnian capital. His job, and the job of the three soldiers he worked with, wa...