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Clinton, the UN, and the Bosnian Disaster

Oric’s second objective was to force Mladic to thin his forces on other fronts, leaving the Serbs, who were well armed but undermanned (laboring under precisely the opposite disadvantage of the numerous but poorly equipped Muslims), vulnerable to large Bosnian government attacks elsewhere in the country. Oric’s campaigns of December and January, for example, helped draw Serb troops away from a major Muslim offensive that briefly succeeded in cutting the critical “Posavina corridor,” which linked Serbia itself with Serb conquests in western Bosnia and the Serb-occupied Krajina.

Whatever the military rationales for Oric’s operations, however, it is incontestable—and this would become more tragically apparent later in the war, especially at Srebrenica itself—that the Bosnians were struggling to make use of the misery of the enclaves to force action by the United Nations and Western countries. Those working to deliver aid—and especially the officers and soldiers from France, Britain, and a number of other countries who formed part of the United Nations Protection Force (known as UNPROFOR) charged with protecting them—tended to see these Bosnian efforts as Machiavellian, or evil. The Bosnians, however, were simply trying to make use of the only weapon the peculiar and hypocritical international involvement in their country seemed to offer them. For though many of the individual aid workers performed great acts of heroism in Bosnia, at the heart of the mission itself lay a fatal contradiction: “The crux of the matter,” as Wayne Bert writes in The Reluctant Superpower, “was that the UN’s primary mission was to get peace, making concerns with justice secondary.”

This of course was Clinton’s dilemma: he had promised justice, but fulfilling that promise meant that he must commit major diplomatic attention and, most likely, some military force, make speeches, and spend political capital—and thereby risk, as his political advisers warned him, the domestic reforms he had come to Washington to make.

A strong effort in Bosnia would also force Clinton to confront and lead both the United Nations and two major allies, the British and the French—who had officers and soldiers on the ground and had thereby committed themselves to “the UN’s primary mission” of “getting peace.” This “mission” in fact belonged to France and Britain and the other Western allies; they had shaped it, designed it, and they carried it out; but the dirty little secret was that the mission was animated by the determination to avoid increased involvement in Bosnia, especially any military intervention. It “was disingenuous of United Nations officials,” writes David Rieff in Slaughterhouse, “to pretend that they were the only disinterested parties in the Bosnian tragedy.”

In reality, UN peacekeepers had been carrying out a very specific and well-thought-out political agenda from the beginning. Its premise was simple. The United Nations saw not just full-scale intervention in support of the Bosnians but any increased military activity, whether it was NATO air strikes or lifting the one-sided arms embargo against the Bosnian government, as putting at risk everything it had been trying to accomplish….

And just what were United Nations officials, and, behind them, the Western nations, trying to accomplish? Rieff observes that the criterion of success was neither moral—“UN officials felt they had no business judging the rights and wrongs of the conflict”—nor political. “Although the Bosnian government was an internationally recognized state and the Bosnian Serb ‘republic’ an illegitimate rebellion, the United Nations felt compelled to deal with them equally, as ‘the parties,’ or ‘the warring factions.”’

Rather, the UN wanted to get the aid through and facilitate a peace…. The terms of the peace were, from the standpoint of UNPROFOR, almost irrelevant. It did not have to be a just peace, or even a peace that could be maintained. All that the United Nations required was that “the parties” agree to it.

If “peace” is the single goal, and its terms “almost irrelevant,” we have in fact moved as far away from “justice” as we are likely to get, and the peculiar result is that the United Nations, for all its pretensions to “impartiality” between “the parties,” has forced itself by its own interests to favor one side—the side that happens to be winning. Rieff sketches out this logic in a brilliant and elegant passage:

If the purpose of a mission is to stop a war, and one side, having won, appears ready to settle, while the other side, feeling its cause to be just but having turned out to be the loser, is determined to fight on, then those running this mission are likely to find that most of the time their interests coincide with those of the victors. They and the victors want peace. The vanquished, possessed of the notion that they have right on their side, refuse to accept their defeat. Given these convergences, it is only a small step to the victors and the international organization understanding that, when all is said and done, they share the same goal.

That goal, of course, was forcing a Muslim surrender and a settlement on Serb terms—for what else could a settlement be if it was “negotiated” while the Serbs held more than seventy percent of Bosnian territory? “It might not be an ideal outcome,” writes Rieff, “but at least people would stop getting killed.” Such was the institutional interest of the United Nations, and such as well were the interests of the British and the French who stood behind it.

Now, however, a new and powerful player had entered the game. That the Bosnians entertained high hopes for Bill Clinton, that they drew encouragement from his rhetoric—though he may have been offering only words—itself had a powerful effect. Why accept the ethnic partitions set out in the Vance-Owen plan while the leader of the Free World was declaring that “ethnic cleansing cannot stand”? Among the bitter words one finds in David Owen’s memoirs, none is more bitter than those directed at Clinton officials for their “encouragement” of the Bosnians. In December 1992, even before the new administration took office, as Clinton “transition” officials let their muted criticisms and unattributed “ambivalences” about Vance-Owen seep into the press, Lord Owen landed in Sarajevo and amid the forest of microphones on the tarmac warned Bosnians, “Don’t, don’t, don’t live under this dream that the West is going to come in and sort this problem out. Don’t dream dreams….”

UN officials could be even more explicit. “If anything emboldens the Muslim government to fight on, it’s things like this,” said Yasushi Akashi, the UN secretary general’s special representative, after senior United States officials opened a new embassy in Sarajevo in spring 1994. “They can point to that and say, ‘See, the Americans are with us.’ We can only hope that the failure of NATO to come to their aid around Gorazde will convince them the US cavalry isn’t around the corner.”

Clinton’s rhetoric did have serious effects in Bosnia; insofar as he used it as a substitute for meaningful action the policy of his administration was not only more duplicitous but in many ways more damaging than Bush’s had been. Bush had had a chance to prevent or at least limit the war when it might have been done at minimal cost and despite his protestations of vision in conducting America’s policy he was too timid and shortsighted to take it; but Bush had never promised the US cavalry might be on the way. Clinton had promised strong action—had vowed America would help—and when confronted with the need to supply it, he had offered words; those words did more than disappoint—they instilled hope which the Bosnians paid for with blood.

By mid-February 1993 General Ratko Mladic’s offensive had left the isolated eastern towns of Srebrenica and Cserska jammed with refugees; and those emaciated people, when they weren’t dying from Mladic’s shellfire, had begun to starve. Mladic had blocked the aid convoys (which in any event had never succeeded in feeding the city). Clinton, who declared “ethnic cleansing cannot stand”—but who was loathe to consider the sort of forceful commitment the statement implied—was about to witness with the rest of the television-watching world the cleansing-by-hunger of tens of thousands of people.

Clinton finally responded, in late February, with a novel solution: American Hercules transport planes would drop food and medical supplies into Bosnia by air. The flights were carried out under the United Nations humanitarian mandate, having been conceived, as James Gow bluntly puts it, “by the US in place of preparedness to make a stronger commitment by involving the deployment of its own troops.”

This was, of course, the fundamental contradiction: Bill Clinton wanted “stronger action” but (like George Bush) had decided early on that he would not deploy American combat troops. In late March, only weeks after his secretary of state delivered to Congress his eloquent affirmation of the moral and strategic importance of Bosnia, Clinton took a leaf from Lawrence Eagleburger’s book:

The hatred between all three groups…is almost unbelievable. It’s almost terrifying, and it’s centuries old. That really is a problem from hell. And I think the United States is doing all we can to try to deal with that problem.

Finally, in a chilling echo of Neville Chamberlain’s description of the dispute over the soon-to-be dismembered Czechoslovakia as “a quarrel in a foreign country between people of whom we know nothing,” Christopher in May described the war in Bosnia as “a humanitarian crisis a long way from home, in the middle of another continent.”27

Clinton had begun to “climb down.” His administration now flirted with the hitherto despised Vance-Owen plan to divide Bosnia into nine ethnically-based provinces—and indeed, as Sudetic makes clear, Mladic was doubtless now attacking vigorously in the east of Bosnia partly because Vance-Owen envisaged granting this territory to the Muslims, and the Serb general was determined to preempt any such a move by creating an irreversible “fact on the ground.” In February 1993, the only obstacle lying between him and creating that fact was the presence of tens of thousands of starving people and a force of lightly armed Muslims.


On February 28, four C-130 “Hercules” transport planes lumbered off the runway at a military airbase at Frankfurt and turned their noses south; a short while later, in the sky 10,000 feet above Cerska, about thirteen miles northwest of Srebrenica, American airmen pushed out heavily loaded pallets, and watched white parachutes flutter down against the black sky and disappear among the snow-covered mountains. The Americans executed the operation perfectly; the pallets plummeted into the snow precisely on target. Their good work, however, meant nothing; for by the time the food and medicine crashed through the leafless branches, the Serbs had overrun Cerska and were hard at work dispatching wounded Muslims, and looting and burning houses. Those Muslims who were not now lying dead in the snow had long since fled.

  1. 27

    See “America and the Bosnian Genocide,” The New York Review, December 4, 1997.

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