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The US and the Yugoslav Catastrophe

On August 28, Serb artillerymen fired a mortar shell into a Sarajevo market, killing thirty-seven people. Clinton immediately pressed NATO to launch its fighter-bombers. More than two weeks of relentless bombing, together with the Serb and Croat victories of that summer—and the territorial and “demographic” changes (read: ethnic cleansing) that went along with them—helped to make possible at last the peace accord that was concluded some three months later at Dayton, Ohio, and the dispatch of twenty thousand American troops to enforce it.

Though President Clinton vowed to Congress and to the American people that the troops would leave Bosnia within a year, in Bosnia they remain, as does an obvious question: What led Clinton, after four and a half years of savage fighting, perhaps two hundred thousand dead, and unspeakable brutalities that bred three million refugees, at last to plunge the United States into direct involvement in the Yugoslav wars? True, Bob Dole and other senators were bringing strong pressure to bear on the President, having voted on July 26, 1995, soon after the massacre at Srebrenica, to force him to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia. More important, the French and British were threatening to withdraw their peacekeeping contingents by November 1995, which would force Clinton to fulfill his promise to send American troops to support what was sure to be a messy and bloody operation—and which meant that, just as the 1996 election was looming into view, American troops, one way or another, would be going to Bosnia.10

Plainly, though, Clinton, in his furious exhortation to “seize control of this,” had in mind something more than sidestepping Dole or the allies. Days after the fall of Srebrenica, during a meeting on Anthony Lake’s plan for the “endgame” in Bosnia, the President declared that his administration’s current Bosnia policy was “doing enormous damage to the United States and to our standing in the world. We look weak.” And then: “Our position is unsustainable, it’s killing the US position of strength in the world.”11

Bosnia “killing the US position of strength in the world”? Could Clinton seriously believe this of an immiserated country of three million whose security, American officials had insisted for four years, seemed to touch no American national interest? During the Yugoslav war’s first eighteen months, George Bush and his advisors had maintained a disciplined standoffishness—“We got no dog in this fight,” as Secretary of State James Baker put it—which they held to even in the face of the uproar that followed televised pictures of emaciated Bosnians staring out from behind the barbed wire of concentration camps. As for Clinton, though he had announced his sympathy for the plight of the Bosnian Muslims as early as the 1992 campaign, in office he proved no more willing than Bush to risk American lives to help them.

Somehow Bosnia had now become not only one of America’s national interests but a preeminent one—a “symbol of US foreign policy,” as Lake pronounced it. How and when did such a metamorphosis take place? After all, the Realpolitik fears about the war spreading—that Yugoslavia’s breakup might, through heightened violence and repression in Kosovo, draw in Albania and Macedonia, and then Greece and Turkey, thereby pitting two countries of NATO’s southern flank against one another—had not been realized.

Yet Clinton apparently believed he was pointing to an equally tangible threat. If during the cold war human rights had never had much more than a decorative part in American foreign policy—they were the “idealist” concern par excellence—the prolonged killing in Bosnia, and the “international community“‘s powerlessness to stop it, had shown how, in the post- cold war world, highly visible and widespread violations of human rights could threaten the prestige and thus the power of both the United States and international institutions. When soldiers of a small European power methodically murder great numbers of unarmed people virtually in front of the world’s television cameras, and American leaders appear to do little more than look on and wring their hands, this will inevitably come to make the United States “look weak.” And when American officials and their counterparts in Paris and London and Bonn spend their time exchanging nasty public criticisms, this will eventually make the Western alliance look impotent and irrelevant.

By mid-1995, the untrammeled mass murder in Europe had made these risks plain: if left unaddressed, the bloodshed might well undermine NATO; further weaken the United Nations and other international institutions at the very time they were struggling to define their true post-cold war purposes; and eventually erode the international order that the United States, as the new, uncontested hegemon, appeared determined to bolster and maintain.12

What happened in Yugoslavia was not unforeseen; few “crises” have been as accurately predicted. But if American leaders saw the wars in the former Yugoslavia emerging on the horizon, they proved unable to understand their significance. Early on, when the threat might well have been averted at relatively low cost, the experienced men in charge of American policy made profound misjudgments that can only be ascribed to their own shaky grasp of reality as the US passed, almost imperceptibly, into the unfamiliar seas of the post-cold war world.


In early 1989, in a tiny, smoky office on the seventh floor of the State Department, two old “Yugo hands” swapped stories about their Belgrade years. The office, and the smoke, belonged to Lawrence Eagleburger, George Bush’s asthmatic deputy secretary of state designate, who was sneaking a cigarette. His visitor, Warren Zimmermann, a longtime foreign service officer whom the Senate had just confirmed as ambassador to Yugoslavia, had come seeking advice from a man who had held the same post in the late 1970s and whom Zimmermann respected as “one of the foremost American experts on the Balkans.”

Amid the smoke in that cramped space the two men labored over a seemingly straightforward question: What were the United States’ interests in Yugoslavia? By the time they had done talking they had begun to sketch out an answer:

Eagleburger and I agreed that in my introductory calls [in Belgrade and the republics]…I would deliver a new message[:] I would say that Yugoslavia and the Balkans remained important to US interests, but that Yugoslavia no longer enjoyed its former geopolitical significance…. It was no longer unique, since both Poland and Hungary now had more open political and economic systems. Its failures in the human rights area…now loomed larger.

On their face the words seem unexceptionable. For American policy, Yugoslavia was almost wholly a creature of the cold war. Since 1948, when Tito broke with Stalin and sought the soft embrace of the United States—which, Zimmermann says, in something of an exaggeration, “backed [him] in an extraordinary act of enlightened statesmanship”—the partnership had suited both parties: the Yugoslavs closed off the Adriatic and Mediterranean to the Soviets, shielded Greece and Italy, and generally helped secure NATO’s southern flank. In return Tito benefitted from an unstated, “grey-area” Western security guarantee, received a steady supply of American planes and other weapons, and enjoyed full access to Western loans and credits—largesse which allowed Yugoslavia’s leaders to give their country’s fragile “third-way” socialist economy a façade of prosperity.

Now that the cold war was drawing to a close, why should Yugoslavia remain a “pampered child of American and Western diplomacy”? But though Zimmermann and Eagleburger apparently believed they had devised the core of a fresh policy, they were plainly mistaken. True, “Yugoslavia no longer enjoyed its former geopolitical significance,” but any new approach had to begin by answering the question: What was the country’s significance now, and why? Lacking answers, Eagleburger and Zimmermann relied on premises that were rooted in the past, in the cold war itself, proclaiming, in effect, that “if Yugoslavia’s significance to the United States has heretofore been great, owing to the flourishing of the Cold War, then its significance must now be slight, owing to the Cold War’s collapse.” Such circular reasoning produced a rich example, in the words of then NSC aide Robert Hutchings, “of applying yesterday’s strategic logic to tomorrow’s problems.”

From “this flawed premise,” as Hutchings says, “flawed policies ensued.” Since Yugoslavia had abruptly become a country of relative insignificance to the United States, its looming political problems appeared impossible to resolve; or rather, the means that appeared necessary to “manage” the Yugoslav crisis—especially the threat, or even the use, of military force—American leaders took to be wholly disproportionate to the United States’ diminished interest in the country.

Thus, in the recollections of many officials, one senses an underlying feeling of powerlessness. Even in Zimmermann’s fine memoir, in which the ambassador describes the fascinating personalities and intricate plottings of Milosevic, Tudjman, Karadzic, and the rest (he opens his book by announcing that “this is a story with villains—villains guilty of destroying the multiethnic state of Yugoslavia”)—even in Zimmermann’s colorful narrative, one senses here and there a pungent fatalism. The bloodshed, however long anticipated, comes inexorably on, and no one, it seems—particularly no American official, even one as energetic, resourceful, and dedicated as Zimmermann—is able in the end to do much beyond look on in sad fascination.

This feeling of distracted powerlessness, it is only fair to note, was much more the rule than the exception among American officials. In 1990 and 1991, when vigorous early diplomacy should have been brought to bear, the “principals” had their hands full preparing and directing the Gulf War; then, having triumphed in the Gulf with an ease none had anticipated, they had little interest in risking the victory’s political rewards by undertaking what appeared certain to be a much more risky engagement in a country that seemed plainly to have outlived its importance. As a result of this attitude, writes Hutchings, mid-level officials found that any initiative they suggested to their superiors “was dismissed out of hand at the highest levels of the State Department and especially the Pentagon as being pointless unless we were prepared to see the project through to its potential worst-case conclusion.” And of course “worst-case” had now become, by definition, a non-starter.

Wielding disproportionate influence among “the principals” were the two old “Yugo hands,” Eagleburger and Brent Scowcroft, Bush’s adviser for national security affairs, who had served as air attaché in Belgrade during the early 1960s. Their influence, one NSC staff member told me, was

almost entirely negative…. Their information on and familiarity with Yugoslavia was quite out of date, and yet because they had a sense of the place and thought they knew what was going on there, they felt they could rely on their instincts and ignore the reporting coming out of the country.

One old “Yugo hand,” however, got things precisely right. We can be grateful to Zimmermann for having made the pilgrimage to Princeton so he can offer the reader these striking words from the former United States ambassador to Yugoslavia, 1961- 1963, George F. Kennan:

  1. 10

    On the senators’ machinations on the arms embargo, and the effect the fall of Srebrenica had on them (sending “ten to fifteen senators across the line”), see Elizabeth Drew, Showdown:The Struggle Between the Gingrich Congress and the Clinton White House (Simon and Schuster, 1996), p. 252, and Chapter 19. For Bosnia’s anticipated effect on the elections, see Dick Morris, Behind the Oval Office: Winning the Presidency in the Nineties (Random House, 1997), pp. 244-256.

  2. 11

    See Woodward, The Choice, p. 261.

  3. 12

    The Yugoslav war,” writes James Gow, in a more detailed accounting of this metamorphosis in Triumph of the Lack of Will, “moved from being an important question for European stability and security and a test of the then CSCE’s brand new Conflict Prevention Centre, to being a test of the future of EU Common Foreign and Security Policy; from that it moved to being a test of UN diplomacy and UN peacekeeping; from that, it became a test of European, Transatlantic and East-West relations and post-Cold War cooperative security; and finally, it became a test of NATO credibility and with that of international and particularly American credibility.” Gow notes that “despite the commitments that went with these tests, for four years international diplomacy struggled to end the war.”

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