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Slouching Toward Dayton

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.1 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 high degree of automaticity built into it, especially since we have committed ourselves publicly to assisting NATO troops if the UN decides to withdraw.”

The President looked at Christopher. “Is this true?” he said. “Yes, it appears to be,” Christopher said tersely. “I suggest that we talk about it again tomorrow,” the President said grimly, and walked off without another word, holding Hillary’s hand.2

To the gruesome tableaux the word “Bosnia” conjures up in citizens’ minds (artillery gunners bombarding unprotected civilians; emaciated prisoners staring from behind barbed wire; militiamen raping, mutilating, slaughtering unarmed people), one is forced now to add another, quieter and yet perhaps more chilling: of men a few thousand miles from the battlefields who wear expensive suits and eat fine food and hold in their hands the power to stop the war-but who lack, after two and a half years, even a fundamental understanding of their commitments and responsibilities.

Even as the Clintons danced, Bosnian soldiers from the capital of Sarajevo-to which Serb besiegers had for more than a month cut off all food, water, and electricity-were launching a desperate attack. Across Bosnia, “blue helmets” of the United Nations Protection Force (British soldiers in Gorazde, Ukrainians in Zepa, Dutch in Srebrenica, and French troops in Sarajevo itself) prepared for the fighting, which for the most part meant taking cover, crouching uncomfortably between combatants. The morning after President Chirac dined with the Clintons, his troops in Sarajevo were forced to stand by and watch as Serb gunners, writes Tom Gjelten, the correspondent for National Public Radio, “responded to the Muslim offensive by increasing their bombardment of the city to a level not seen since the early months of the war.”

In a new twist, Serb gunners attached 500-pound bombs to makeshift rockets and directed them at sites where they could do maximum damage. On June 28, one such rocket blasted into the Sarajevo radio and television building,…killing a Bosnian policeman, wounding dozens of journalists, and demolishing the offices of foreign news crews. A half hour after the television center was hit, another rocket crashed into an apartment building across the street, wiping out three floors.

Gjelten, whose Sarajevo Daily is a meticulous and beautifully rendered study of the evolution of wartime Sarajevo as seen through the workings of its remarkable newspaper, Oslobodjenje, quotes its reporter’s account of a visit to the bombed apartment house.

One of the tenants, Josip Grbic, took us to the upper floors….

This flat in front of us,” he said, “belonged to our neighbor Slavko. We don’t know whether he’s alive or not. Here is his shirt, you see. We know he came back from the battlefront yesterday. I’m very much afraid that he is lying under all this rubble.” Slavko’s body was found later.

A blonde lady, weeping, told us she was worried as well about Hamed Zivgovic, the father of two little boys who had been hurt and taken to the hospital. “Hamed was supposed to come back from the front line yesterday,” she said, “but we don’t know if he did. We hope not.” Hamid’s body was also found later.

Hundreds of civilians died in Sarajevo that June and July, blown apart by mortar shells, shot down in the street by snipers, or buried under the rubble of their homes. Meantime, in a revival of a routine they had performed regularly for more than two years, President Clinton demanded NATO send its warplanes to bomb and strafe the Serbs; President Chirac, Prime Minister John Major, and other Western leaders, whose troops the Serbs could be expected to take hostage-as they had done in May-refused; and in the end the West did nothing.

By now Chirac and his colleagues, who had concluded that exposing their troops to artillery gunners, snipers, and hostage-takers did little more than pose a constant political risk to their governments, had begun speaking more insistently about bringing them home-and doing so before the coming winter. To be certain of completing this complicated and dangerous assignment before the snow came, NATO troops would have to begin “extraction” by late summer, less than two months hence.

As it happened, military planners at the Pentagon and at NATO headquarters in Brussels had during 1994 spent many months composing “OpPlan 40-104,” a highly classified document of 1500 pages that covered, Holbrooke writes, “every aspect of NATO’s role in supporting a UN withdrawal, from bridge building to body bags.” On June 8, 1995, after President Clinton and some of his senior officials had created an embarrassing controversy by making conflicting statements about American commitments to the Europeans in Bosnia, Holbrooke asked Pentagon officials to “brief” him on OpPlan 40-104, and, after showing some reluctance at first, the officials dispatched Lieutenant General Howell Estes, the chief American planner, to the secretary’s office to describe what he called Operation Determined Effort.

It was bold and dangerous…. It used twenty thousand American troops, some of whom were assigned to carry out a risky nighttime US heliborne extraction of UN troops from isolated enclaves, an operation likely to produce casualties. As soon as General Estes finished,…I rushed to Christopher’s office and insisted that he and his inner team get the same briefing immediately. When he heard it, Christopher was equally amazed.

Amazement among foreign policy “principals” in the administration had, unfortunately, only begun. “When OpPlan 40-104 came to the attention of senior officials,” as Holbrooke somewhat delicately puts it, “there was some confusion as to its status.” President Clinton, though he had publicly vowed to support with American troops a withdrawal of the 25,000 UN peacekeepers from Bosnia, had never formally approved, or read, or even been “briefed on,” NATO’s actual plan. The NATO Council in Brussels, however, which includes representatives from all alliance countries including the US, had approved it, and thus, as Holbrooke explains, under NATO procedures the plan had been formally adopted. While no one could force the President of the United States to dispatch American troops, in fact if Clinton declined to follow through on his pledge, “the United States,” Holbrooke writes, “would be flouting, in its first test, the NATO process it had created.”

The resulting recriminations could mean the end of NATO as an effective military alliance, as the British and French had already said to us privately.

That Holbrooke felt especially sensitive to the implications of American Bosnia policy for the alliance is not surprising, for at the time he was charged with pushing through the national security bureaucracy President Clinton’s policy of expanding NATO into Eastern Europe (a policy which, having borne fruit with the July 1997 invitations to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join the alliance, now awaits approval in the Senate).

Yet the performance he describes on the part of President Clinton and his advisers amounts almost to criminal incompetence. Holbrooke speaks of “complicated Cold War procedures,” but of course the NATO Council is not an independent body. Americans hold dominant power in its halls, and would have been able to alter, reshape, or even block the evacuation plan had they so wished. It needn’t have been approved in the form it was. Even if, at the time “OpPlan 40-104” was composed, it seemed unlikely it would ever be put into practice-even if, as seems possible, US officers purposely drafted a plan so risky that their civilian masters would resist putting it into practice—the document should never have been approved before senior American civilian officials had understood and passed on it. The fact is that at the very time the American government was in effect pledging to commit twenty thousand American troops to undertake a perilous mission in a war zone, no official of any rank in the Clinton administration appears to have been paying much attention.

But in a sense, the details of the mission, whatever the risks they might pose, are beside the point. As Holbrooke notes, from the moment Clinton pledged publicly that American forces would support the allies if they chose to withdraw, the President had opened the clear possibility of a stark choice: either fulfill the promise or abandon the NATO alliance in its present form. That Bill Clinton didn’t grasp this, that many of his own advisers did not seem to appreciate it (among them, according to Holbrooke, staff members of the National Security Council), that the President had to have it explained to him on that evening of June 14-all of this bespeaks a startling degree of confusion and ineptitude.

  1. 1

    For the siege and fall of Srebrenica, see my article “Bosnia: The Great Betrayal,” The New York Review, March 26, 1998, the sixth in a series of articles in these pages on the war in the former Yugoslavia, beginning with “The US and the Yugoslav Catastrophe,” November 20, 1997; “America and the Bosnian Genocide,” December 4, 1997; “Clinton, the UN, and the Bosnian Disaster,” December 18, 1997; “Bosnia: The Turning Point,” February 5, 1998; and “Bosnia: Breaking the Machine,” February 19, 1998.

  2. 2

    Two years ago, in The Choice (pp. 256-257), Bob Woodward describes the same scene, although with minute differences: Holbrooke appears less deferential, offering, to the President’s assertion that he’ll “decide that when the time comes,” the retort that “Mr. President, it’s already been decided.” Secretary of State Christopher, rather weak in Holbrooke’s rendering, becomes assertive and far-seeing in Woodward’s: “That’s right,” he tells the President. “This is serious stuff. We have to talk further about this.” Both men, it seems safe to assume, told their versions to Woodward.

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