To End a War
by Richard Holbrooke
Random House, 448 pp., $25.95
Sarajevo Daily: A City and Its Newspaper Under Siege
by Tom Gjelten
HarperPerennial, 278 pp., $13.00 (paper)
The Choice: How Clinton Won
by Bob Woodward
Touchstone, 475 pp., $15.00 (paper)
Near the lovely North Portico of the White House, on a mild and breezy evening in mid-June 1995, the President and First Lady danced alone. In the background musicians of the Marine Band played. Moments before, President Jacques Chirac and Mrs. Chirac of France had said their goodbyes. As Hillary and Bill Clinton danced, the President’s foreign policy advisers-Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, Samuel Berger, Richard Holbrooke-stood together looking on, for the night was warm and clear and beautiful and the White House, Holbrooke writes, “exuded all its special magic.”
However seductive these romantic trappings, Richard Holbrooke, then Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs, found himself preoccupied with other things. “I looked at Christopher, concerned that we would lose the moment,” a moment Holbrooke had anxiously awaited since early that morning, when the “pre-brief”-a normally placid, pro forma meeting during which the President’s aides and advisers prepare him for a session with a foreign leader—had “degenerated into an angry and contentious discussion.” The anger and contention stemmed, as they had so often that spring and summer, from the unfolding catastrophe in Bosnia, where Sarajevo and Srebrenica and the other eastern enclaves were under heavy siege, and Western leaders who had contributed soldiers to the United Nations peacekeeping force were threatening to withdraw their troops—a dangerous operation which President Clinton had pledged to assist with twenty thousand American soldiers. During the meeting, Holbrooke writes,
The presentation given by members of the National Security Council staff was, in my view, misleading as to the situation, and especially the nature of American “automaticity” in assisting a UN withdrawal. When I started to offer a contrary view, the President, obviously disturbed that he was receiving contradictory information before [seeing] an important visitor, cut me off sharply.
In the car on the way to the French embassy, where President Chirac expected Holbrooke and Secretary of State Christopher for lunch, the younger man expressed his “astonishment at what had just happened.” Christopher, who, according to Holbrooke, had been “much sobered by the meeting,” agreed that they must speak to the President as soon as they could.
And so we arrive at that magical night, the Chiracs having just departed after a pleasant dinner, the music playing, the First Couple tracing their solitary course across the White House dance floor. Finally the Clintons break, turn, stroll over to the North Portico. Holbrooke seizes his chance.
“I hate to ruin a wonderful evening, Mr. President,” I began, “but we should clarify something…. Under existing NATO plans, the United States is already committed to sending troops to Bosnia if the UN decides to withdraw. I’m afraid that we may not have that much flexibility left.”
The President looked at me with surprise. “What do you mean?” he asked. “I’ll decide the troop issue if and when the time comes.”
There was silence for a moment. “Mr. President,” I said, “NATO has already approved the withdrawal plan…. It has a …