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Clinton, the UN, and the Bosnian Disaster

If “lift and strike” had political virtues, however, its value as a practical policy was doubtful. As John Fox, the State Department official said, during the “policy review…a lot of very good middle force options were raised,” but then “these were cut out”; Christopher and other officials came forward with strong rhetoric; and, “after declaring that what’s going on in Bosnia is a vital interest…, they then lay out options that everybody knows aren’t going to work.” For insofar as the purpose was to turn the tide of the war without deploying troops, “lift and strike” was based on logistical and geographic ignorance. As David Rieff writes,

To the question of how the weapons were going to be gotten into Sarajevo or Tuzla, supporters of this approach at best tended to respond vaguely. When pressed, they would concede that some outside force would have to bring in the arms the Bosnians needed. And yet, if one took them at their word, what they were calling for was military intervention in the strictest sense.

Officers and Pentagon officials helpfully bolstered this point by providing estimates of the number of troops necessary to open a “land corridor” from Split to Sarajevo at more than one hundred thousand. “Lift and strikes”’ main appeal—that it could be labeled an intervention to help the Bosnians without requiring a real intervention—evaporated.

That, however, turned out to be its strength. For “lift and strike” shimmered like a mirage just long enough for Warren Christopher to gather it up, place it in his briefcase, and take it to Europe with him, where he traveled from capital to capital trying to “persuade” Europeans to sign on and support it. Europeans, however, had an obvious problem with “lift and strike,” which Christopher and other Clinton officials well understood: they had—the words would soon become a veritable mantra—“troops on the ground.” What would happen to their officers and soldiers now delivering food and medicine if the United Nations were to relinquish its “impartiality” and support not only lifting the arms embargo—but, in effect, air strikes on Serb artillery and armor?

Of course, the Europeans’ argument would have been more effective. If more aid were getting through—especially to, say, Srebrenica, which since the war began had received a single convoy. For their part, the Bosnians repeatedly declared that they would prefer that the humanitarian troops leave their country if this was deemed necessary for them to receive the benefits of “lift and strike,” but it was a sad fact that the Bosnians opinion in such matters did not by any means come first.

Christopher’s trip to Europe was not successful—at least not in persuading the Europeans to accept the American policy. In another sense, though, it was a brilliant achievement, for it provided President Clinton with an effective alibi for his own inaction. If the President had not moved to lift the arms embargo against the Bosnians or to ready airstrikes against the Serbs, this was because the Europeans had troops on the ground, and, try as he might, he could not bring them around to accept his proposals. For their part, the Europeans, on matters of great importance to their senior ally, were not accustomed to this sort of “honest consultation.” They expected the Americans, in matters of true import, to lead, not to ask.

For this and other reasons, his European hosts did not find the Secretary’s presentation persuasive: “I had the feeling, when he came to Brussels,” said Willy Claes, at the time the Belgian Foreign Minister, “that he had felt very clearly that there was not a possibility to convince the Europeans.” On his return, Christopher himself would be heard to remark on “what a loser this policy is.” 31

Given the choice of whether to back “lift and strike” or not, the Europeans would rather not. Real problems confronted them, of course: they feared shipping in more arms would inflame the war (which was, of course, the point of the policy); they feared that Milosevic, seeing his proxy’s gains ready to evaporate, might bring his army to intervene; they feared that, having advanced so close to “peace”—on the Serbs’ terms, yes, but that was a sad fact of life—arming the Bosnians would propel the war in precisely the opposite direction. In the end, however, it was British and French and Spanish troops that were on the ground and if the Americans weren’t willing to insist—in effect, threaten to breach NATO itself—the Europeans certainly could not take the proposal seriously.

By the time Christopher had returned from his disastrous May tour, Clinton’s own doubts had grown. It was then that there emerged this curious fact: “lift and strike” was more effective as a dead policy than a live one. Clinton desired to act in Bosnia but the Europeans would not cooperate; thus the President was stymied. During the continuing diplomatic squabbling over the Vance-Owen plan, the imposition of a no-fly zone, the tightening of sanctions, “lift and strike” would stand forth as the single grand idea that Bill Clinton would put forward to fulfill his promise to save Bosnia—if only the Europeans, who, of course, had troops on the ground, would let him. Indeed, as James Gow points out in Triumph of the Lack of Will,

No sooner had the UK and France implicitly acknowledged that US pressure would be irresistible and that ‘lift and strike,’ along with the withdrawal of UNPROFOR, would be inevitable, then the US in September placed a six-month moratorium on its call to lift the embargo.

Ironically, the Clinton Administration, having ebbed and flowed in arguments with the Allies on the arms embargo question, pulled back from the brink when finally forced to confront the real implications of withdrawal, lift and strike….

Bill Clinton had thus managed to shape the perfect policy: a rhetorical policy, one consisting solely of words. It brought moral credit; it carried no risk. As the President remarked one day in April, “The US should always seek an opportunity to stand up against—at least speak out against inhumanity.” These verbs—to stand up against and to speak out against—Clinton blends together in a single sentence as if they were one and the same, in fact they are very different. For Bill Clinton, as the Bosnians were slowly discovering, speaking out against inhumanity often seemed a means to avoid standing up against it.

Could he have stood up against it? After all, Colin Powell and his own military opposed him, the Europeans were skeptical and reluctant, and, most important, the problem had grown much more complicated since the first days of the war during the Bush administration. And yet, despite the accepted mythology, a majority of Americans tended to support taking strong action in Bosnia—if, that is, it was coordinated with the United States’ allies. As Wayne Bert puts it in The Reluctant Superpower,

The power of the President is considerable, and a determined president who was willing to take responsibility for Bosnia policy might well have forged a coalition that could have surmounted the many obstacles and used force to get a satisfactory settlement. More than one European agreed with a diplomat who said that the President “should stop asking them their own opinion on what he plans to do and start telling them instead what he plans to go ahead with, preferably with their support.”

Such an approach was inconceivable for Clinton, for he had no commitment to making the sacrifices it would have taken to stop the war; rather, as Gow says, he took a “stand on principle against ‘ethnic cleansing’ without being prepared to do what was necessary to stop it.”

As Owen points out, rhetoric creates illusions; it makes people “dream dreams.” And making people dream those dreams, and act on them, was in retrospect Clinton’s greatest failure. His rhetoric, however, would soon be trumped by a supremely independent Algerian-born Frenchman who, by the force of his own personality, would help impose on the Bosnians the supreme rhetorical policy of the entire war.

8.

On March 10, 1993, the Commander of the United Nations Protection Force in Bosnia, General Philippe Morillon, climbed into his armored car at Tuzla and set off for the imprisoned city of Srebrenica. Under his command were a column of white United Nations trucks and jeeps, loaded with food and medicines. Though he had received assurance from General Mladic personally that his convoy would be permitted to enter the city, Serb commanders halted the convoy: no food would be allowed into Srebrenica. After hours of discussion Morillon finally decided to leave the convoy behind and enter the city himself. Though he was permitted to proceed with two patrol cars, an armored vehicle, and one truck loaded with medicine and sugar, he was directed toward a treacherous mountain road that, as the Serbs knew, had been mined. As the tiny caravan crossed the front line into Muslim territory the truck hit a mine; it had to be left behind.

It was already dark when General Morillon drove slowly in his white car through the Dantesque main street of Srebrenica. Refugees had continued to flood the town. In the streets fires smoked and sputtered: the last trees having long since been cut down, refugees burned plastic bottles and garbage, filling the streets, already stinking of unwashed bodies and urine and excrement, with noxious fumes. The next morning Morillon rose and met with Naser Oric and his commanders, along with several civilian leaders, to discuss the future of the enclave. Morillon urged the Muslims to avoid provoking the Serb soldiers who surrounded them. He would try, said the general, to negotiate a ceasefire, seek to arrange with the Serbs to let some aid convoys into the town. And then he suggested a broader, long-term strategy: Srebrenica, said the general, might become a demilitarized zone.

Naser Oric and his commanders were not pleased with the suggestion, for it seemed to raise more questions than it answered—most obviously, who would protect the town from the Serbs if the Muslims gave up their weapons? Could they really depend on the United Nations to protect them? But the situation of Srebrenica had become too dire; when Oric’s men radioed political leaders in Sarajevo to ask them about Morillon’s proposal, they were told, according to a participant in the meeting quoted by Honig and Both, “Sarajevo supported it because there was nothing else.”

There was, however, General Morillon. Since his arrival, Srebrenica had been quiet; the incessant shelling and firing had stopped. Even as Morillon was discussing the town’s future, a radio operator in the Presidency Building was sending Oric a coded message from Srebrenica’s mayor, Murat Efendic, who was exiled in Sarajevo: “Whatever happens, prevent Morillon from leaving Srebrenica until he provides security for the people there,” Efendic said. “Do it in a civilized way. Use women and children.”

  1. 31

    For Claes, see ABC News, “While America Watched,” p. 11. For Christopher, see Elizabeth Drew, On the Edge, p. 159.

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