Richard Holbrook, the Bosnian War, and American Power

Richard Holbrook, the Clinton-era American diplomat who died on December 11 of this year, has as his  greatest professional accomplishment the signing of the Dayton Accords in 1995 which ended the Bosnian War in the Balkans and former Yugoslavia.  This war resulted in the deaths of somewhere between 97,000-125,000 people, led to the rape of 20,000-50,000 Muslim women, and created more than 500,000 refugees.  It began in 1992 and essentially ended with the Dayton Accords in 1995.

This editorial will recall my memories of those days in the first half of the 1990’s and the disappointment in my government and the governments of the Western world.  My disappointment was particularly acute given that 10 years earlier I had been in Yugoslavia with my sister, and at the time it was a truly beautiful country with seemingly friendly people and was as serene and civilized as one could imagine.  It had also been the home of the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, one of the high honors of a legitimate, stable country with an educated populace and mature economy.  How could it be that a decade later such carnage was perpetrated on this land in the heart of civilized Europe, and how could the free world have let it happen?

I recall how in early 1993 President Clinton, in the first months of his presidency, travelled to Europe to meet with leaders of NATO countries to encourage them to take actions to stop the war, including arming overmatched muslims as well as launch bombing campaigns (this was also a major campaign promise of Clinton’s).  European nations balked at the idea, particularly of the bombing campaign but generally avoiding involvement at all other than diplomatically.  President Clinton returned home without an  agreement to  intervene, and he decided not to take unilateral action.  Here’s how one writer depicted this situation:

“He (Clinton) started as a hard-liner, at least rhetorically. During the spring and summer of 1992, as Bosnian Serbs began a campaign of ethnic cleansing, driving Muslims from their homes and towns, Clinton accused President Bush of “turning his back” on basic human rights by not taking strong action in defense of the overmatched Muslims. When he was president, Clinton said, he would push the United Nations, with military support from the United States, to do “whatever it takes” to end the slaughter.

Four months into his presidency, Clinton attempted to persuade America’s allies in Europe to agree to provide arms to the Bosnian Moslems, lifting an arms embargo that had been placed on all sides in the dispute, and to carry on air strikes against the Serb positions in the Bosnian hills around Sarajevo. The Europeans balked, fearful that such action would escalate the war and further endanger UN troops there. Clinton receded, unwilling to take uni-lateral action, but grew increasingly frustrated as the war dragged on for two years, with the Bosnian Serbs overrunning three of the UN-protected “safe areas,” Gorazde, Srebrenica, and Zepa.”

In 1995 we finally did bomb the Bosnian Serbs and 3 days later they were sitting across the table from Richard Holbrook ready to negotiate an end to the conflict.

There are several conclusions I draw from this history:

1.  Unilateral action is sometimes justified, and necessary, to avert disaster or genocide

The President refused to take “unilateral action”.  While it would have been difficult for a new President, early in his first term, to take unilateral action in a European theater, there is little question that in the end all it took to stop the conflict was 3 days of bombings.  It is as if Bosnian Serb leader Radovon Karadzic had a strategy to ethnically cleanse as much as he could until Western governments took a stand, and probably to his surprise and pleasure it was much later than morality would have dictated.  We could have done it in 1993 on our own, or we could have waited 3 years until we had a consensus and 100,000 were killed and 20-50,000 women were raped.

2.  Leadership matters

A lack of leadership by President Clinton, and a complete lack of spine of European governments, is the secondary cause of these deaths (the Bosnian Serbs being the first).   We should seek consensus, as Clinton did here when he travelled to Europe, and as Bush did by going to the UN multiple times over 18 months on Iraq, but when consensus fails because of a poorly placed lack of will (or in the case of Iraq, which was a combination of lack of will and also corrupt Security Council governments), we need a leader to be prepared to act on his or her own.

3.  Richard Holdbook’s view of “the limits of American power” are wrong.

Richard Holbrook was the key diplomat in this situation, but he clearly did not push for military action hard enough, or early enough, to avert the slaughter.  The limits on American power were self-imposed and by not unleashing it we allowed this terrible war to continue.  President Clinton has apologized for not using American power to stop the Rwandan genocide (800,000 killed, primarily by machete), but he never apologized for not bombing the Bosnian Serbs earlier than he did.  American power could have stopped the deaths of most of the 800,000 in Rwanda, and it could have stopped the Bosnian war much earlier too.

4.  We must be confident in ourselves and in doing what we think is right.

Our President and leaders in Congress and the military need to recognize that there are times when we KNOW what is right, and that it’s justifiable to act when we know what is right and others disagree with us.  We should listen to other points of view, and seek consensus, but then be prepared to act no matter who is with us or against us.

In conclusion I will share one of my most vivid memories of this conflict.  In early 1994 I was watching CNN with Christiane Amanpour reporting from the Balkans in the midst of a village that had been over-run by Bosnian Serbs.  There were fires burning in the background, women and children scattering everywhere, and no males in sight (all of the village’s males had been taken from the village to the fields and summarily shot and thrown into a pit).  A woman was holding he baby girl, blood and tears on her face, her hands held up almost as if speaking to the sky, she said in a desparately pleading voice, “where are the Americans?”

A very good question.  What’s done is done, but there is much to learn from this experience.

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