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The US and the Yugoslav Catastrophe

Origins of a Catastrophe: Yugoslavia and its Destroyers—America’s Last Ambassador Tells What Happened and Why

by Warren Zimmermann
Times Books, 269 pp., $25.00

Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime

by Jan Willem Honeg, by Norbert Both
Penguin, 204 pp., $11.95 (paper)

Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe’s Worst Massacre Since World War II

by David Rohde
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 440 pp., $24.00

The Reluctant Superpower: United States Policy in Bosnia, 1991-1995

by Wayne Bert
St. Martin’s, 296 pp., $35.00

Triumph of the Lack of Will: International Diplomacy and the Yugoslav War

by James Gow
Columbia University Press, 343 pp., $29.50

The Serbs: History, Myth, and the Destruction of Yugoslavia

by Tim Judah
Yale University Press, 350 pp., $30.00

Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution After the Cold War

by Susan L. Woodward
Brookings, 536 pp., $19.95 (paper)

1.

Scarcely two years ago, during the sweltering days of July 1995, any citizen of our civilized land could have pressed a button on a remote control and idly gazed, for an instant or an hour, into the jaws of a contemporary Hell. Taking shape upon the little screen, in that concurrent universe dubbed “real time,” was a motley, seemingly endless caravan, bus after battered bus rolling to a stop and disgorging scores of exhausted, disheveled people. Stumbling down the stairs, bumping one against the other, the tens of thousands of Muslim refugees bent under the weight of bursting suitcases and battered trunks and unruly cloth bundles that now held their sole belongings. In their eyes one could make out fear and a dulled shock, an inability to comprehend how they, who hours before had slept in houses and driven cars and worked in fields, had so abruptly been recast as homeless beggars.

In the former Yugoslavia, where in four years of war millions had been “ethnically cleansed,” such eyes had long since grown familiar. And yet something set apart this particular sea of the uprooted: every last one was a woman or child. The men of Srebrenica had somehow disappeared.

Videotaped images, though, persist: on the footage shot the day before, the men can be seen among the roiling mob, together with their women and children, pushing up against the fence of the United Nations compound, pleading for protection from the conquering Serbs. Though two years before, foreign leaders had guaranteed Srebrenica’s safety by christening it a “safe area,” the Serbs had needed but a few days to seize the town, and now the heavily armed Serbian warriors shouldered contemptuously aside the disarmed Dutch “blue helmets” and strode among their Muslim captives, menacing them with unblinking stares.

The night before, as the exhausted people tried to rest, the Serbs, drunk with triumph, walked among them. They pulled men away from their sobbing wives for “interrogation” and moments later gunshots told the women they would not see their husbands again. As they grew drunker, the Serbs dragged away for their pleasure young girls and boys, ten, eleven, twelve years old. Finally they no longer bothered to carry off their victims but simply fell upon them and did as they pleased amid hundreds of terrified people packed together in an abandoned factory: “Two took her legs and raised them up in the air, while the third began raping her. Four of them were taking turns on her. People were silent, no one moved. She was screaming and yelling and begging them to stop. They put a rag into her mouth and then we just heard silent sobs….”1

By dawn the people of Srebrenica had become hysterical with fear, and the UN compound and its environs had become a vast chaotic refugee camp of the terrified, with tens of thousands of desperate people moving about in waves of screaming and pleading and shouting.

Suddenly quiet began spreading out from the edge of the crowd, and heads turned to see a stout bull-necked general march forward, trailed by an entourage of officers and television cameras. Elated by his victory, General Ratko Mladic puffed out his barrel chest. “Please be patient,” he shouted. “Those who want to leave can leave. There is no need to be frightened. You’ll be taken to a safe place.” As his men passed out chocolates to the children, Mladic bent to pat the head of a frightened young boy—a telegenic image that was to circle the globe.

When the buses began to pull up, a “blue helmet” stepped forward and told Mladic timidly that he must speak to the Dutch commander before any refugees could be taken. The general smiled patronizingly. “I am in charge here,” he said. “I’ll decide what happens.”

To the crowd, and the world, Mladic proclaimed, “No one will be harmed. You have nothing to fear. You will all be evacuated.” Yet when hundreds, thousands of families began to rush toward the buses, stumbling under the weight of their baggage, Mladic bellowed, “All men should go back! Only women can go to the buses.”

Video images of tearful parting now, as the Serbs, weapons raised, stepped forward to pull fathers and sons and brothers from the desperate clutches of their women. “Follow the line!” the soldiers shouted.2 And finally, casting pleading looks back over their shoulders, the women and children began to board.3

One by one the buses set out on their nightmare voyages, passing through darkened villages where Serb civilians shouted angry threats and attacked with a clatter of stones. In one town, “three soldiers came onto the bus and told us to give them the youngest child …so they could slit its throat.”4 Usually, though, the soldiers were content to rob and to rape, dragging out women of their choice, who wept and pleaded and did not return.

As the darkness faded the women saw ghostly corpses taking shape by the roadside, and they forced themselves to stare at the bloody remains to see if their husbands or sons were among them. Near dawn they begin to pass crowds of Muslim prisoners. “I saw about 2,000 of our men…. They had their hands tied above their heads…. The [Serbs] were standing around them with their guns at the ready.”5

A couple of thousand of these men the Serbs pack aboard trucks and unload at a school, where they are forced into a sweltering gymnasium that is so inhumanly crowded many have no choice but to sit for hours in one another’s laps. Others the Serbs dump out on an athletic field and push to their knees, prodding them with their rifles throughout the day as the men kneel frozen beneath the blazing sun. Still others they hold imprisoned in buses and trucks, ordering them to sit for hour upon hour with their bodies bent fully forward and their heads held between their knees.

In each place General Mladic appears, urging the men to “be patient,” for “a prisoner exchange” is being worked out. And at last the Serbs announce that the negotiations have been completed and the Muslims will be driven to freedom.

Yet the men of Srebrenica are blindfolded before they are packed aboard the trucks, which rumble only a short distance before they come to a stop and the men are ordered to jump out:

I saw grass underneath the blindfold. [My cousin] Haris took my hand. He said, “They’re going to execute us.” …I heard gunfire…. Haris was hit and fell towards me, and I fell with him. I heard moaning from people who were just about to die, and suddenly Haris’s body went limp.

I heard the [Serbs] talking. They sounded young…. Someone was ordering them to finish us off…. [T]he next…prisoners… were executed about twenty meters away…. I heard all the bullets whizzing by and thought I would be hit…. I also heard a bulldozer working in the background and became horrified. My worst nightmare was that I would be buried alive.

I kept hearing people gasping, asking for water so they wouldn’t die thirsty…. I lay on the ground with no shirt on all day; it was extremely hot, and ants were eating me alive…. Soon many of my body parts fell asleep…. [I blacked out and when] I woke up, [it] was night and I saw light beams from a bulldozer’s headlights. I still heard the same noises…—trucks driving up, people getting out, and gunshots. I also remember distinctly an older voice calling, “Don’t kill us, we didn’t do anything to you,” followed by gunfire. Later, I heard…someone saying, “No more left; it’s late…. Leave some guards here and we’ll take the bodies away tomorrow.” … [N]o one wanted to stay…. They said, “They’re all dead anyway,” and then left.

…When I finally decided to get up, I couldn’t; my whole body was numb.

When at last he managed to get to his feet and pull off his blindfold he found himself gazing at a moonlit “sea of corpses.” Though the meadow was broader and longer than a football field, the thousands of cadavers so thoroughly obscured every bit of ground that when he tried to flee “without stepping on the dead…[it] was impossible, so I tried at least not to step on the chests and torsos, but [only] onto arms and hands.”6

Though neither the murderers nor their victims knew it, their images would twice more be committed to film.7 As the men of Srebrenica stood before their executioners, a United States satellite high above had snapped a photograph, and in coming days, when an American pilot flew his spy plane over the same site, he would take another—of freshly covered plots of earth.8

2.

Back in Washington, the President was behind the White House, practicing his putting. As Bill Clinton crouched over his private putting green, Sandy Berger, his deputy adviser for national security affairs, and Nancy Soderberg, number three on the National Security Council (NSC) staff, approached hesitantly. They had news from Srebrenica, Berger announced, and with that he began to tell the President tales of terror and murder. He did not get far. As Bob Woodward tells it:

This can’t continue,” Clinton said, blowing up into one of his celebrated rages. “We have to seize control of this.” Where were the new ideas?

Berger reminded him that [adviser for national security affairs Anthony] Lake was trying to develop an Endgame strategy.

I’m getting creamed!” Clinton said, unleashing his frustration, spewing forth profanity. He was putting, and he did not look up at Berger or Soderberg as he stroked the balls one after the other to the hole. They kicked the balls back to him to putt again. Soderberg felt almost as if she had fallen into Clinton’s mind, and they were witnessing the interior monologue of his anxiety. He was in an impossible position, he said. He needed to do something.9

What is striking here is not Clinton’s “forty-five-minute diatribe”—no follower of his career is unfamiliar with these—but that shortly after this particular eruption his administration did indeed begin to “do something.” If one had to identify a point where the half-hearted diplomatic initiatives and hollow threats and straddling of options finally coalesced into a purposeful American policy toward Bosnia, it would be here, after the fall of Srebrenica and the bloodbath that followed.

Scarcely three weeks later, on August 4, the Croats, having received a discreet “green light” from the Americans, launched a lightning attack on the Krajina, the Serb-inhabited region of Croatia that had been conquered by Serbia early in the war. The Croatian military, which had been rearmed with the help of Iran and other Middle Eastern states and had been trained by retired high-ranking American officers, reconquered the entire region, and expelled the Serbs, many of whose families had lived there for centuries, in barely four days. The Croats—and the Bosnian Muslims as well, who, thanks to the efforts of American diplomats were now fighting with the Croats in a loose coalition—swiftly began to retake territory from the Serbs. The tide of war had begun to turn.

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.

3.

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:

Today, with the Cold War ending, people think Yugoslavia isn’t in a position to do any damage. I think they’re wrong…. I think events in Yugoslavia are going to turn violent and to confront the Western countries, especially the United States, with one of their biggest foreign policy problems of the next few years.

As so often in Kennan’s long career, he was playing the part of the prophet in the wilderness. For he was speaking during the summer of 1989, at a time when the Yugoslav war was two years off, far away enough for American officials to have made use of their country’s wealth and diplomatic skill to avert it—if they had thought it important to try.

By the early 1980s, Yugoslavia’s leaders, finding they owed twenty billion dollars they did not have, were forced to adopt an austerity plan that cut imports (and notably consumer goods) to the bone, left one in five Yugoslavs unemployed, and eventually pushed inflation beyond the twenty-five thousand percent mark. For a society that since the war had taken its growing prosperity for granted, the political effects were devastating: “More than a decade of austerity and declining living standards corroded the social fabric and the rights and securities that individuals and families had come to rely on,” writes Susan L. Woodward in Balkan Tragedy. “Normal political conflicts…became constitutional conflicts and then a crisis of the state itself among politicians who were unwilling to compromise.”

It was against this tattered economic background that Ambassador Zimmermann’s “villains” brought to bear their racial schemes, manipulating and exacerbating the people’s growing insecurity with nationalist slogans of hatred that were expertly disseminated over an all-powerful state television and radio. The Americans, whose aid program was by the late 1980s quite small but whose wealth might have allowed them to exert substantial influence, had decided, Zimmermann writes, to rely on “one of the few admirable figures in a landscape of monsters and midgets”—Prime Minister Ante Markovic. A modernizing businessman, Markovic dreamed of making Yugoslavia “a Western democratic country with a capitalist system.” But he could do little without money. “Four billion dollars,” he tells Zimmermann brightly, “would be a good start to help a reform that’s going further than anything in Eastern Europe.”

Swallowing hard, I told him I’d report his request to Washington. I knew what the answer would be. US policy in Eastern Europe was heavily focused on Poland and Hungary, countries that were moving on the reform path faster than Yugoslavia and without the baggage of divisive nationalism. Yugoslavia would be seen as a poor risk and therefore a low priority.

In a more sensible world American officials might have seen in “divisive nationalism” a threat to be averted with aid rather than a disqualification for receiving it. David Gompert, then the NSC’s Senior Director for Europe and Eurasia, manages to make the foolishness of this reasoning even more obvious:

If Washington was pessimistic by late 1990, it was not paralyzed. The United States declared its sympathy for the teetering Yugoslav federal government of Ante Markovic, who was committed to democracy, a civil society, and a market economy. But the prime minister wanted debt relief and a public signal of unreserved American political backing—commitments that seemed unwarranted in view of his government’s apparent terminal condition.13

It is hard to take much solace from the fact that Washington was “not paralyzed” when its actions were admittedly limited to declaring “sympathy” for a leader to whom it refused financial or political help, because of his regime’s “apparent terminal condition.”

Next to that of the Europeans, however, American policy seems vigorous. By late summer 1990 NSC staff members had begun cabling the Europeans in an attempt to convince them to agree to consider the Yugoslav crisis at an upcoming meeting of NATO or the CSCE. To this sensible request the Americans received replies that were, says Hutchings, then NSC Director of European Affairs, “shockingly irresponsible.” They ranged from expressions of mild interest on the part of the Austrians and Hungarians, to condescending admonitions not to “overreact” from the English and Germans, to blunt accusations that the Americans (as usual) were “overdramatizing” the situation from the French. If the Americans were showing themselves unwilling to do what it would have taken to confront the Yugoslav problem, the Europeans had yet to admit that a problem even existed.

In September 1990 the CIA produced a lengthy “National Intelligence Estimate” that declared flatly, according to an unnamed official quoted in The New York Times, that “the Yugoslav experiment has failed, that the country will break up,” and that “this is likely to be accompanied by ethnic violence and unrest which could lead to civil war.”14 As Hutchings writes,

No one in the policy community disagreed with the main thrust of these judgments…. Yet the estimate had little impact, for it was so unrelievedly deterministic that it suggested no possible avenue for American policy that might avert or at least contain the violence attending Yugoslavia’s seemingly inevitable disintegration. [Emphasis added]

From the US Embassy in Belgrade, the message was much the same: Zimmermann was reporting that “no breakup of Yugoslavia could happen peacefully…. The shattering of Yugoslavia would surely lead to extreme violence, perhaps even war.”

From this, American officials drew the conclusion that the only possible policy was relentlessly to push for some form of “unity”—and they continued doing so long after it was obvious that the federation was doomed. Yet one can certainly at least conceive of another “possible avenue for American policy.” The United States might have accepted a breakup as inevitable while making use of its unchallenged power and prestige to maintain peace—to assert, that is, that whatever the Yugoslav republics did, America’s own interests would not permit a shooting war to break out in Europe.15

To take such a course, Bush officials would have had, first of all, to recognize the real potential danger of the Yugoslav crisis, and to understand that preventing a long, bloody European war was America’s prime interest. They would have had to seriously explore solutions—the possibility, for example, of redrawing borders to “reduce the number of national minorities in every republic” (as the Dutch government suggested in July 1991).16 Most important, in order to support such active diplomacy, they would have had to have the will not to rule out, and even to threaten—even, indeed, to use—military force.

For the Bush administration, however, the last point would emerge, early on, as the “deal-breaker.”

4.

On June 21, 1991, a mere four days before the Slovenes and the Croats were to declare their independence, Secretary of State James A. Baker III swept into Belgrade. “He decided,” says Zimmermann, “to throw himself personally into a last-ditch effort to head off the violence that we all expected as an aftermath to the destruction of Yugoslavia.” And throw himself in he did, for the next eleven hours “shuttling”—as Baker describes it—from one “huge, cavernous meeting room decorated with artwork from its own ethnic tradition” to another, meeting with the heads of each republic.17

His American aides were dazzled by his performance: Hutchings, one of the note-takers at the meetings, describes how Baker “tried heroically”: he was “disciplined, focused, persistent, and blunt.” His press aide, Margaret Tutwiler, recalls Baker’s “unique way of speaking, very straightforwardly and very frankly.”18 As for Zimmermann, “I had rarely, if ever, heard a secretary of state make a more skillful or reasonable presentation.”

For his Yugoslav interlocutors, who had reached the tense climax of a protracted battle over their country’s future, the impression left by these few whirlwind hours of American diplomacy appears to have been somewhat different. Momir Bulatovic, the Montenegrin leader, recalls that when he sat down with Baker, the Secretary

was confused about how to start the conversation with me, until they brought him his briefing book…. I peeked into it and there were just two lines [about Montenegro]:

—the smallest republic in Yugoslavia.

—a possible fifth vote for Mesic.19

If Baker seemed puzzled by the identity of the Montenegrin president, he had no doubt about that of his main antagonist, Slobodan Milosevic: “Like most toughs,” Baker recalls, “I knew he respected power. I decided not to pull any punches with him.” Under no circumstance, the Secretary lectured Milosevic sternly, “would the international community tolerate the use of force.” And what precisely did the Secretary mean by this? He meant, Baker hastened to make clear, that any use of force would be met with “ostracism by the international community.”

As Zimmermann, Hutchings, and the others in the room well knew, and as Zimmermann writes, Milosevic was a “ruthless leader who might have been impressed by real military power but not by diplomatic overtures.” Yet in his “last ditch effort to head off the violence,” Baker not only refrained from making any explicit threats but went out of his way to make it plain that the country he represented—the superpower whose military only months before had destroyed the Iraqi army in a matter of days—had already ruled out any use of force. David Gompert says that “not even Baker the poker player could disguise the fact that the warning to the Serbs was not backed by the threat of force”—as if the Secretary had attempted somehow to bluff Milosevic, or at least leave him wondering. But by then the American position was quite clear, as Zimmermann says:

At no point before the actual declarations of independence by Slovenia and Croatia did Washington threaten force against either republic, against Serbia, or against the Yugoslavia army.

Indeed, Baker’s approach “had been crafted at the State Department and the NSC. The Defense Department was not yet playing a role—another indication that force options were simply not on the radar screen.”20 According to Gompert, Milosevic drew his own conclusion long before Baker’s “last ditch effort.”

…Since the Bush administration was not prepared to take military action, it chose not to issue any explicit warnings, even though nothing less would have changed Serbian policy. Milosevic could see by 1990 that he was safe to ignore American pressure, since no concrete threats, much less actions, accompanied Washington’s stern demarches. [Emphasis added]

No one can prove that “concrete threats” or even “actions” (and one can conceive of many, short of all-out war) could have prevented the conflicts to come. Nor can one say with certainty whether much could have been achieved without resort to real force. What is indisputable is that no effective diplomacy was conceivable at this point—before any real blood had been shed—without at least the possibility of a stronger hand. But “such force was not considered,” for, Zimmermann claims,

the West was a prisoner of what could be called ‘the paradox of prevention.’ In the Yugoslav case, as in many other international situations, it is nearly impossible to mobilize governments to take risks for prevention, since it is impossible to prove that the events which are to be prevented will, in the absence of prevention, occur.

But in what sense was the West, and the United States in particular, really “a prisoner” of this paradox—particularly since no evidence exists that either the President or any other principals recognized that there was at least a need to “take risks for prevention”in the first place?

Having drawn the line at ostracism, Baker urged each republic’s leader to take “no unilateral action” and to refrain from using violence to maintain national unity—the standard American position, which by now had neither timeliness nor clarity to recommend it. The problem was obvious, as Hutchings says: Slovenia was about to secede, which would lead to Croatia’s secession; and the United States, by “warning equally against unilateral declarations of independence and [against] the use of force to hold the federation together…seemed to be sanctioning the latter [by the Serbs] if the Slovenes and the Croats resorted to the former.”

Baker’s plane departed the Belgrade airport, carrying an exhausted Secretary brooding on how he found this whole Yugoslav matter (as he later wrote to his president)”downright depressing. Frankly, I think it’s easier to deal with Shamir and Assad than it is to try to affect Milosevic and Tudjman.” Exactly four days later, on June 25, 1991, the Slovenes and the Croats declared independence, just as they had planned, leaving Baker feeling personally affronted and “stung by his lack of influence.”21 And the Serbian generals of the Yugoslav National Army, after a farcical ten-day “phony war” in Slovenia—a republic for which, because it had few Serbs, they cared little—sent their tanks and soldiers to invade and bloodily dismember Croatia. And all the while the generals believed, they claimed, that they were “only doing what Mr. Baker told them.”22

5.

For Croatia, that autumn became the time of the great sieges. Serb artillerymen and infantry encircled the beautiful Danubian city of Vukovar, the strategic gateway to much of Croatia, and shelled it unremittingly for eighty days. Such bombardment of civilians would become the Serbs’ trademark. (“Shoot at slow intervals until I order you to stop,” Mladic told his gunners above Sarajevo. “Target Muslim neighborhoods—not many Serbs live there. Shell them until they’re on the edge of madness.”23 ) By the time of Vukovar’s surrender in November 1991, the city would come to be known as “the Croatian Stalingrad”—both for the heroic resistance put up by its outnumbered and outgunned defenders and for the overwhelming destruction it suffered. After its surrender, Serb forces marched into the city hospital, brought out several hundred wounded men and women, and executed them, burying them in one of the war’s first mass graves.

As the world watched the Serbs methodically reduce Vukovar, another siege had begun on the Adriatic, that of the ancient walled city of Dubrovnik. Though the destruction and loss of life here could not compare to Vukovar, the Serbs had dared attack with gunboats and artillery a world cultural landmark (as certified by UNESCO), and this occasioned fierce outrage, particularly among Europeans. President Tudjman, desperate to save the city, pleaded with the United States to send the Sixth Fleet into the Adriatic. Even if the ships took no action, a simple “sail-by” might have warned the Serbs off. To Eagleburger, however, “might” was the key word:

They “might” have gotten the message. They might also not have gotten the message and then we would be faced with the question of what to do next.24

This is a particularly clear example of a rather odd way of thinking. Since in the case of any given forceful action, one cannot be sure the Serbs will be deterred, and since, if one takes an action and they are not deterred, one must take another action to see that they are (for not to do so would destroy America’s credibility)—any given action, if one can’t be absolutely certain of its success, therefore holds within it the clear risk of unlimited and uncontrolled involvement. It is as if, having taken a single small step, the United States will inevitably lose all control of its policy. As Wayne Bert writes in The Reluctant Superpower, Eagleburger’s statement is remarkable

given the ease with which any kind of hostile intent in moving the fleet could have been denied. Thus Bush administration officials were not only unwilling to commit force to the conflict, but they were also very careful to avoid specific threats of force, and to go out of their way to avoid leaving the impression that a threat was intended. [Emphasis added]

Although only months before, President Bush had declared the so-called Vietnam Syndrome “buried once and for all” beneath the sands of the Persian Gulf, we see here its mirror image raising itself slowly from the dead. One finds precisely the same obsession with “credibility,” but now it translates itself into a fear of entanglement. For, once committed, the United States must fight to the end; the notion that any initiative could be abandoned rather than followed relentlessly forward to its conclusion is dismissed, for it is assumed that such a retreat must be grievously harmful to the nation’s prestige—more harmful, a priori, than carrying on with a policy that is plainly misguided or foolish or contrary to the nation’s interests (as was the case in Vietnam). Any initiative commits prestige and credibility, and once they are committed, control is effectively abandoned:there can be no turning back. The result, in the case of this new Vietnam Syndrome, is that nothing short of full-scale commitment can even be contemplated.

Dangling at the end of this faulty chain of reasoning we find a strange paradox, as Bert points out:

Eagleburger seemingly had no misgivings about the value of American credibility unless some overt threat was made for which there was no follow-through. Complete inaction, in his view, did not compromise US credibility. [Emphasis added]

The Yugoslav war could go on, worsen, attain levels of savagery not seen in Europe for half a century; and all the while the United States, if only it had the self-control to sit by and do nothing, need have no fear of compromising itself. The slightest sign of intervention, even the slightest intimation that the Americans had “not ruled out” the use of force (a relatively mild diplomatic warning), would send the country down that slippery road to full, uncontrolled involvement—which, says Baker the politician, “the American people would never have supported…. After all, the United States had fought three wars in this century in Europe—two hot ones and one cold one. And three was quite enough….”

From the question of the mildest of threats we skip directly to the use of ground troops—the only use of force Baker mentions—and then to that ultimate stone wall: the well-known recalcitrance of the American people. It would take four more years of war, hundreds of thousands of dead, and the advent of a new and relatively inexperienced American president to drive home the point that it was inaction itself that was doing “enormous damage to the United States and to [its] standing in the world.”

As it happened, that point in the autumn of 1991—the autumn of the sieges—was probably the last chance for the United States to halt the war in Croatia at relatively low cost, and thereby to prevent the outbreak of the much more savage war in Bosnia in March 1992. General John Galvin, at the time the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR), had prepared contingency plans that envisioned sending the fleet into the Adriatic and, as he told me, “just sweeping those [Serb] vessels out of there, and taking care of the artillery as well. We could have achieved that objective, I believe, at very little or no cost.”25

Meanwhile in Washington, American military planners were working on possible interventions in Vukovar and Dubrovnik. In particular, the long line of tanks and other armor moving into Croatia from Serbia—it stretched twenty miles—would have been especially vulnerable to American air attack. Colonel Karl Lowe, an Army military planner, was working on Yugoslavia at the time.

First of all, the Yugoslav navy was quite small. In comparison to the United States Navy and the power it could bring to the scene in very short order, they couldn’t contend with that kind of overwhelming power.

Similarly, the forces of the Serbian army in the vicinity of Vukovar could not have withstood air attack by the United States, particularly if those air attacks had been very concentrated and very concerted for a number of days so you home in on the command and control apparatus…

Of course, to saturate that area with air power at that time would probably not even have been necessary had we sent a forceful demonstration…. That is: send the Navy into the Adriatic, send ground forces from Central Europe down [toward] southeastern Europe and redispose air forces to simply fly over the area in a very forceful signal that we plan to act if they didn’t back off.

Why should “a very forceful signal” have any effect? “Remember,” said Lowe, “this is three months after Desert Storm. Everybody in the world looks at Desert Storm and says, ‘This is a miracle.’ One of the largest armies in the world has suddenly been destroyed in the course of no more than ninety days….”26

Colonel Lowe is not alone in believing that the Gulf victory should have proved an enormous boon to American diplomacy, enabling the country to maintain world order without repeatedly resorting to force. President Bush himself declared that

Because of what’s happened we won’t have to use US forces around the world. I think when we say something that is objectively correct—like don’t take over a neighbor or you’re going to bear some responsibility—people are going to listen. Because I think out of all this will be a new-found—let’s put it this way: a reestablished credibility for the United States of America.27

But George Bush was unwilling to make use of the “reestablished credibility” he had brought to the country he led, either by intimating that vigorous American action would be taken if the Serbs did not desist or even by speaking out forcefully.

Following Baker’s eleven-hour effort, and his “personal affront” at the refusal of Milosevic and the other leaders he saw to accept his recommendations, the Americans had passed the responsibility for dealing with the former Yugoslavia to the Europeans, who, in a misplaced, post-Maastricht burst of enthusiasm, were more than happy to receive it. (“This is the Hour of Europe!” Foreign Minister Jacques Poos of Luxembourg exulted, in words destined to outlive the name of the man who had uttered them.) By handing the problem to the European Community, which had no collective defense arm to speak of—instead of to NATO, which, in its post-cold war incarnation, should have been more than pleased to take on what was supposedly just the kind of contingency it now existed to confront—the Americans had ensured that no forceful action could be threatened. For the Europeans had no real weapons to brandish.

Traveling across the continent from conference table to conference table, the Europeans were treated with contempt. In an attitude that would quickly become familiar, the combatants came to view the diplomats as merely instruments to gain the odd advantage: a means to play for time here, to prepare a defense there. When faced with the Europeans and their diplomatic démarches, the Serbs in particular could barely disguise their derision and disregard. Tim Judah, in his brilliant study of the Serbs, quotes a transcript of a telephone conversation between Milosevic and Karadzic leaked, apparently by someone close to Prime Minister Markovic, to the Yugoslav press in September 1991, when Milosevic was still claiming with a straight face that he and the Yugoslav National Army had nothing to do with the nascent Bosnia war:

Milosevic: Go to [General] Uzelac [Yugoslav Army commander at Banja Luka], he’ll tell you everything. If you have any problems, telephone me.

Karadzic: I’ve got problems down in Kupres. Some Serbs there are rather disobedient.

Milosevic: We can deal with that. Just call Uzelac. Don’t worry, you’ll have everything. We are the strongest.

Karadzic: Yes, yes.

Milosevic: Don’t worry. As long as there is the army no one can touch us….

Karadzic: That’s good…. But what’s going on with the bombing in—

Milosevic: Today is not a good day for the air force. The European Community is in session.

At this point, in the middle of major Serb offensives in Croatia, the only regard Milosevic shows for the Europeans is to keep his air force on the ground when the Community is meeting. Soon, after he has conquered what he wants of Croatia, he will elicit the help of European and United Nations diplomats to reach a convenient cease-fire protecting his gains. Having sent thousands of his now available troops into the keeping of his protégé Karadzic, Milosevic will be free to use them to turn on the Bosnians.

Had the Americans, on the other hand, taken the sort of action Colonel Lowe describes, much evidence suggests that, while all fighting might not have ended, its scope could have been radically reduced. Even as the Yugoslav National Army was crushing the Croat defenders of Vukovar, the Serbs were so concerned about the possibility of outside intervention that Milosevic turned down an army plan to attack Zagreb itself, fearing, as a top aide put it, that “if we chose all-out war with Croatia, they’d call on Germany, Austria, Hungary, and God knows who. We don’t have allies like that.”28 And, as Colonel Lowe points out, Milosevic had his own weaknesses:

Politically, in Belgrade there was another disadvantage in that Milosevic had [had] almost continuous demonstrations between March and July calling for his ouster by various factions. [The Serbian public] were of a mixed view [about the war]…. So if you matched the political dynamics and the military dynamics at that time against the overall international situation where the United States had just been victorious against a very formidable army—much more formidable, I think, than the Serbian armed forces—then that was the time to act.

Such action, of course, would have carried with it no guarantees—as Eagleburger would have been the first to point out. It could probably have succeeded only in limiting the conflict. At most, it would have laid the foundation for a vigorous diplomatic initiative (of the very sort the Europeans were finding it impossible to mount).

By now, George Bush was hearing this message from leaders in Eastern Europe, who were becoming increasingly worried about the uncontrolled flames in neighboring Yugoslavia. As Hutchings describes it, Prime Minister Jozsef Antall of Hungary presented a strong case to Bush in October 1991:

When Antall met with the president at the White House…, his focus was almost entirely on Yugoslavia, where Serbian forces were launching brutal assaults on Croatian towns and villages…. Antall got to the nub of the matter, as he had in two or three recent telephone calls to Bush: Serbia had to be confronted with the credible threat of force, and only a US-led NATO effort could do the job, as the European Community was not up to it. This was wise counsel, but US policy had become more inert than Antall knew since Secretary Baker’s ill-fated visit to Belgrade in June.

The credible threat of force was a necessity for effective diplomacy. The fall of 1991, because of the conjunction of military and political reasons Colonel Lowe cites, presented the perfect opportunity to develop an active policy. And yet it was precisely this kind of creative approach, one that took into account political and military factors, that was ruled out by the Americans’ refusal to consider any use of, or indeed even the mildest threat of, military force. Which leaves one to ask with Wayne Bert whether such an initiative would truly have been more destructive of American credibility than sitting by and doing nothing at all.

General Galvin contacted Washington and inquired about his plan for Dubrovnik. As he told me:

I called Colin [Powell] and asked what was happening and he just said, “It’s not on.” I asked why and he said, “There’s just no support for getting into this thing. Nobody wants to do it. It’s just not gonna happen….”

On November 18, Vukovar fell and the world watched one of the first of the war’s massacres: the murder of the wounded in the city hospital. For the Europeans, diplomatic failure would now be transformed into “sympathy.” The Germans, in the first great diplomatic blunder of the war, insisted on recognizing the independence of Croatia and Slovenia. Certainly the Americans were aware of how ill-advised and harmful this step was; if they had been willing to exert strong pressure on their number-one ally, they might well have been able to prevent recognition. But as Zimmermann says, “I don’t think there was a strong American push, and I think the reason was that Baker had been burned by his visit to Belgrade and felt that this was a can of worms and something that probably we should stay out of.”29 American officials thus did no more than look on in mounting horror, grateful, one presumes, that as Secretary of State James Baker declared on his return from his frustrating visit to Belgrade, “We got no dog in this fight.”

In the months to come, that position would become more and more difficult to hold. During the early days of August 1992, pictures appeared of a sort not seen in Europe since the 1940s: pictures of emaciated men staring dully out from behind barbed wire. That was when the world learned the name of a camp called Omarska. Its horrors were to be equaled only by the ones at Srebrenica three years later.

—This is the first of a series of articles.

  1. 1

    See Snjezana Vukic, “Refugees Tell of Women Singled Out for Rape,” The Independent (London), July 18, 1995.

  2. 2

    The Mladic quotations are drawn from Rohde, Endgame, except for the second to last, for which see Fawn Vrazo, “Loved ones’ final good-byes endure in the minds of families,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 15, 1996, and the last, for which see Laura Silber and Allan Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (Penguin, 1997), p. 349. The quotation from the Serb soldiers is drawn from the videotape quoted in Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, p. 39.

  3. 3

    According to some reports, the Dutch peacekeepers videotaped many of these scenes, and perhaps much graver ones later on as well (see note 6, below), but General Hans Couzy, the commander of the Royal Netherlands Army, ordered the tape destroyed—presumably because it identified Dutch troops. See John Sweeny, “UN Cover-Up of Srebrenica Massacre,” The Observer (London), August 10, 1995, quoted in Bosnia-Hercegovina: The Fall of Srebrenica and the Failure of UN Peacekeeping (Human Rights Watch/Helsinki), October 1995, pp. 22-23.

  4. 4

    See The Fall of Srebrenica and the Failure of UN Peacekeeping, p. 23.

  5. 5

    See The Fall of Srebrenica and the Failure of UN Peacekeeping, p. 24.

  6. 6

    The Fall of Srebrenica, pp. 42-43. Though the Human Rights Watch report identifies this survivor only as “N.P.,” a number of newspaper accounts, as well as David Rohde’s Endgame, make it clear that his name is Mevludin Oric.

  7. 7

    And also on the Dutch videotape which, according to John Sweeny’s London Observer account (note 3, above), showed Serbs herding Muslim prisoners onto a field and making ready their weapons before the tape went abruptly blank.

  8. 8

    See Michael Dobbs and R. Jeffrey Smith, “New Proof Offered of Serb Atrocities,” The Washington Post, October 29, 1995.

  9. 9

    Bob Woodward, The Choice: How Clinton Won (Simon and Schuster, 1996), p. 260.

  10. 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.

  11. 11

    See Woodward, The Choice, p. 261.

  12. 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.”

  13. 13

    See David Gompert, “The United States and Yugoslavia’s Wars,” in The World and Yugoslavia’s Wars, p. 123.

  14. 14

    See David Binder, “Yugoslavia Seen Breaking Up Soon,” The New York Times, p. A-7, November 28, 1990.

  15. 15

    In retrospect,” as Robert Hutchings told ABCNews, “we would have been better to assume disintegration and focus all our efforts on what could we do to assure the process…was peaceful and orderly.” Drawn from an unbroadcast interview with Peter Jennings Reporting, ABCNews, January 26, 1994.

  16. 16

    It cannot be denied that, if the aim is to reduce the number of national minorities in every republic, better borders than the present ones could be devised.” See the Dutch draft document, quoted in David Owen, Balkan Odyssey: An Uncompromising Personal Account of the International Peace Efforts Following the Breakup of the Former Yugoslavia (Harcourt Brace, 1995), pp. 31-33.

  17. 17

    See James A. Baker III, with Thomas M. deFrank, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace, 1989-1992 (Putnam, 1995), p. 479.

  18. 18

    This statement, which was not broadcast, is drawn from an interview on January 27, 1994 for “While America Watched: the Bosnia Tragedy,” Peter Jennings Reporting, ABC News (broadcast on March 17, 1994).

  19. 19

    Stipe Mesic, a Croat who had been scheduled to take his turn as head of the revolving presidency, had been blocked by Serbia, thus paralyzing the federation’s executive. The Americans hoped to work a “mini-compromise” whereby Serbia would allow Mesic to take office in return for the Croats’ and Slovenes’ promise not to take “unilateral action” and secede.

    As Bulatovic notes, however, the American idea was too little, too late: “Baker said if we didn’t vote for Mesic, there would be a great crisis and war would start. I agreed with him that war would start, but I didn’t expect Mesic’s election would stop it.” See Laura Silber and Allan Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (Penguin, 1997), p. 151.

  20. 20

    See Warren Zimmermann, “Yugoslavia: 1989-1996,” in Jeremy Azrael and E. Payan, editors, US and Russian Policy Making With Respect to the Use of Force (Rand Institute, 1997), pp. 185-186.

  21. 21

    Zimmermann, “Yugoslavia: 1989- 1996,” p. 187.

  22. 22

    Janez Jansa, Premiki (Ljubljana: Mladinska Kniga, 1993), p. 98, quoted in Gow, p. 209, note 78.

  23. 23

    See “The Gates of Hell,” Program 4 in The Death of Yugoslavia (UK TX version), Brian Lapping and Associates; Laura Silber, consultant.

  24. 24

    See Mark Danner and David Gelber, writers, and Peter Jennings, correspondent, “While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy,” Peter Jennings Reporting, ABC-51 (March 17, 1994), p. 4.

  25. 25

    Conversation with author, January 1994.

  26. 26

    From a statement broadcast in part on “While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy,” Peter Jennings Reporting, ABC News, January 26, 1994.

  27. 27

    Quoted in Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson, The Imperial Temptation: The New World Order and America’s Purpose (Council on Foreign Relations, 1992), p. 153.

  28. 28

    See “Wars of Independence,” Program 3 in The Death of Yugoslavia.

  29. 29

    See Maud S. Beelman, “Hear No Evil, See No Evil: Early US Policy in Yugoslavia,” The Reporter, published by the Alicia Patterson Foundation, Vol. 18, No. 1 (1996), p. 19.

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