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Clinton, the UN, and the Bosnian Disaster

Even as the Serbs took what they could find and burned what was left, Bosnians were trudging through the bitter cold night, a great wave of refugees perhaps ten thousand strong, bundled in blankets and rags, grimly shuffling south toward Konjevic Polje, a hamlet that lay about ten miles north of Srebrenica. Many of these dull-eyed people had made such a grim trek before; ten months earlier they had been “cleansed” during the Serbs’ brutal occupation of Zvornik, some twenty-five miles from Srebrenica. They were the lucky ones; in Zvornik, Arkan’s Tigers and Seslj’s Chetniks and the Red Berets of Serbia’s Interior Ministry had murdered as many as two thousand people. The rest, some 47,000 men, women and children, had been summarily expelled.28 Now the cleansed people of Zvornik were fleeing once again, in a stream of hollow-eyed refugees flooding the Srebrenica “pocket.”

From Srebrenica and other villages and towns, the ham radio operators who provided the eastern enclaves’ only link to the outside world were filling the airwaves with detailed reports of mass killings, of Serb soldiers cutting the throats of women and children. Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, sent a summary of these accounts in an urgent letter to Secretary General Boutros-Ghali. “If only ten percent of the information is true,” wrote Ogata, “we are witnessing a massacre in the enclaves without being able to do anything about it.” Ogata then made a startling proposal: the United Nations must move to evacuate the Muslims from the Srebrenica enclave. In the past the UN had always opposed such evacuations. Now, although she did not say so, Ogata’s proposal would put the UN in the position of helping the Serbs cleanse the area of Muslims.

In New York, members of the Security Council ordered Boutros-Ghali to “take immediate steps to increase UNPROFOR’s presence in Eastern Bosnia.” General Philippe Morillon, the white-haired, charismatic French officer who commanded UN forces in Bosnia, traveled to Konjevic Polje on March 5, then to Cerska itself to investigate the reports of atrocities. Reporters spoke to him as he climbed into his helicopter at Tuzla. “As a soldier, I, unfortunately, have the knack of smelling death,” Morillon said dramatically. “I didn’t smell it.” The United Nations, he announced, would not evacuate the Srebrenica pocket after all. At the last moment, the Serbs had refused to permit any Muslims to leave unless the United Nations would replace them with ten thousand Serb civilians from towns under Bosnian control. And it was not only the Serbs who had prevented the desperate Muslims from leaving. Sudetic writes,

The Muslim commanders had also blocked the planned exodus, arguing that it would “undermine the morale” of Srebrenica’s defenders and lead to the town’s surrender; in other words, Naser Oric did not want to be deprived of the torbari who had once been his sword and were now his shield, and Alija Izetbegovic did not want to have the UN helping the Serbs remove the Muslim majority population from territory that the UN’s own…Vance-Owen peace plan had earmarked to remain predominantly Muslim.

To the reporters assembled at the Tuzla airfield, General Morillon urged a sober, skeptical attitude. “I did not see any trace of massacres,” said the General. “That’s very important because we have to calm the fears there…. Srebrenica is in no danger.”

Within a few hours, however, reporters would have something more credible to rely on than General Morillon’s nose. Simon Mardel, a doctor working for the World Health Organization, had left Morillon’s party at Konjivec Polje and hiked to Srebrenica. By ham radio, he reported that between twenty and thirty refugees were dying every day from pneumonia and other illnesses. For months, he said, Muslim doctors had been operating without anesthetics. Refugees were sleeping everywhere on Srebrenica’s slushy streets and subsisting on roots and grass and buds. As for the airdropped supplies, the strongest people—officers, soldiers, members of work brigades responsible for digging trenches—took what they wanted, pilfering sacks of flour and grain and hiding them for their families. The weakest—the sick, the wounded, the homeless refugees—got nothing.

Eventually, Sudetic writes, Naser Oric abandoned any effort to organize distribution of the food and simply declared that it would be “everyone for himself.”

The mountainsides above Srebrenica now flickered with the flames of a legion of torches each night as desperate people streamed through the forest to the drop areas. Few of the newly arriving refugees…, many of them widows with children,… had the energy to make the journey and fight for food…. Men were killing one another in the forests to get at the flour. Falling pallets, which were as big as refrigerators and smashed into the ground at about eighty-five miles an hour, had crushed to death people who risked waiting inside the landing zones to improve their chances…. The Americans responded to the chaos by…dropping tens of thousands of individual meals in brown plastic wrappers that fell to the earth like vacuum-packed manna from heaven.

By now Mladic’s troops were furiously shelling Konjevic Polje, vastly broadening the stream of refugees flooding Srebrenica. General Morillon began to fear that Mladic would seize the entire enclave, which would not only create an enormous humanitarian disaster but would likely scuttle the Vance-Owen peace talks, which at that point, despite the ambivalence of the United States, were still “the only game in town.”

On March 11, after consulting with his government in Paris and receiving permission from the Serbs to cross their lines, General Philippe Morillon set out for Srebrenica.


In the White House, members of Clinton’s foreign policy “Principals Committee” debated what policy the Administration should adopt toward Bosnia. Progress was slow. Among key members of the administration strong differences existed, and in such a situation the President must listen carefully and make a clear and forceful decision, or the conflicting interests of the various departments, and the government’s natural inertia, will frustrate any desire he might have to act.

Clinton, though, possessed both the vague impulse to do good and a strong fear that, if he actually did anything to achieve it, he might fall into a trap from which he might be unable to extricate himself. Had not Johnson, the master politician, been destroyed by a trivial, useless war? That Clinton’s advisers were strongly divided did not help. “The divisions within the foreign policy group,” observes Elizabeth Drew, “contributed to a division in the mind of a President who had few strong instincts on foreign-policy questions.”29

The “Principals” increasingly left specific proposals behind, and launched into abstract debates over America’s role in the world. General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the sole holdover from the Bush Administration, remarked in his memoirs that “it wasn’t policy-making. It was group therapy—an existential debate over what is the role of America, etc.” With all the disdain of a hardened professional forced to endure the pretensions of a group of amateurs, General Powell traces the poverty of the discussion directly to a political source:

…the discussions [meandered] like a graduate student bull sessions or the think-tank seminars in which many of my new colleagues had spent the last twelve years while their party was out of power.

Powell himself did an eloquent job confirming and reinforcing the President’s doubts. The spectre of Vietnam haunted him more than it did Clinton, for he had been there, and he had derived from his command a grim determination to fight what he saw as the frivolity and irresponsibility of men like the young President who now sat across from him: “Those of us who were captains and majors in Vietnam,” the General had written, “will never let the politicians do this to us again.” During the last months of George Bush’s presidency, when pictures of Serb concentration camps brought public pressure for action to a climax, the General had spoken out clearly and publicly against military intervention. Personally, he shared Lawrence Eagleburger’s “pox on all their houses” attitude. (As he would put it in an interview after he retired, “When the fighting broke out, should the West have intervened militarily as one of the belligerents to put down all other belligerents?”). For those who favor military intervention for strongly idealistic reasons, and whom he clearly believes remain willfully ignorant of the burdens and responsibilities with which military professionals must contend, Powell reserves a withering contempt:

The debate exploded at one session when Madeleine Albright… asked me in frustration, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” I thought I would have an aneurysm. American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board.30

Powell stood out as an immensely popular, uniquely independent figure. To overrule him on a matter of military judgment would have been politically perilous for any president. To a president who had never served in the military; who had sidestepped military service during the Vietnam war and was regarded by significant numbers of Americans as a draft dodger; who had been publicly humiliated in an early, controversial struggle with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs over the so-called “gays in the military” issue—to President Bill Clinton General Powell represented a powerful force that he was loath to challenge.

While Clinton and his advisers met and talked, and met and talked, officials in Christopher’s State Department had been working away at their Bosnia “policy review” and hints began to appear in the press of a new, tougher plan, called “lift and strike,” according to which the United Nations would lift the arms embargo on the Bosnians, allowing them to acquire heavy weapons, and NATO would strike at the Serbs with its warplanes to protect the Bosnians while, freshly armed, they learned the skills to “defend themselves.” The plan had many virtues, although the most striking of these were designed to placate political constituencies at home rather than alter the military situation in Bosnia.

Lifting the arms embargo, for example, had become a popular idea, particularly among congressmen, and for good reason: of all the West’s perverse and repugnant policies on Bosnia the arms embargo had come to seem the most blatantly and incomprehensibly unfair. Under what rationale could the international community prevent a member state of the United Nations from defending itself—which was, after all, its explicit right under Article 51 of the UN Charter? To even the least informed voter, this seemed clearly wrong, and giving Bosnians “the means to defend themselves” not only seemed clearly right, it had a reassuringly American, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps sound to it. As for the “strike,” protecting Bosnians with NATO fighters and bombers until they could absorb their new weapons and use them to fight for themselves sounded like the sort of low-cost, middle-of-the-road help Americans should be willing to supply. Air power, after all, had not only proved spectacularly potent during the Gulf War, it had seemed hygienic, “surgical,” and, even for the dashing Americans in the cockpits, safe.

  1. 28

    Quoted in Roy Gutman, Witness to Genocide, pp. xli-xlii, and in Bert, The Reluctant Superpower, p. 105.

  2. 29

    See Elizabeth Drew, On the Edge: The Clinton Presidency (Simon and Schuster, 19TK), p. 146.

  3. 30

    See Colin Powell, My American Journey (Ballantine, 1995), pp. 560-561.

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