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Operation Storm’

This is a fair summary of the Realpolitik vision that Holbrooke would carry forward into his negotiations: if a map that all sides would accept (given the careful application of American pressure) were to be one of the ultimate and necessary results of any negotiations, then a good part of that map had to be written on the ground, in blood. If the solution of Holbrooke and the NATO allies who agreed with him envisioned a roughly equal division of territory between the Bosnian Serbs, on the one hand, and the Bosnian Croats and Muslims on the other (49 percent for the former and 51 percent for the latter was the formula of the then-current “Contact Group” proposal), and if the Serbs held almost 70 percent of the territory, as they did before the Croat invasion of the Krajina, then some means had to be found to reduce their holdings before negotiations could have any chance to work.

As it happened, for some time Clinton officials had been doing much to provide Croatia and Bosnia with those means. In March 1994, American diplomats had brought Bosnian Croats and Muslims together to sign the “Washington Agreement,” which envisioned an eventual confederal arrangement with Croatia but which, in the months to come, made it possible to ensure a greater flow of arms to the Bosnians. From each shipment of weapons, the Croats, over whose territory they passed, would skim off their portion, taking for their army a good part of the artillery and other heavy weapons that the Bosnians were so desperate to have.

Meanwhile Tudjman poured his hard currency—most came from foreign tourists lounging on Croatian beaches while the Croatian army fought its way forward up north—into replenishing his arsenals, buying liberally from Eastern European states. He also, through his defense minister, Gojko Susak, appealed to US Defense Department officials to supply him with direct military aid; and although the then deputy secretary of defense, John Deutsch, explained that the current arms embargo prevented this, he did suggest that Susak contact a private American military consultant. By September 1994, with the blessings of the State Department, the Croats had signed a contract with Military Professional Resources, Inc., a consulting firm based in Alexandria, Virginia, and made up of retired high-ranking American military officers, including former Army Chief of Staff General Carl Vuono and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency General Ed Soyster. 6

Although the American officers were supposedly confining their instruction of officers at the Petar Zrinski Military Academy near Zagreb to a “Democracy Transition Program,” many observers noted that in its design Tudjman’s “Operation Storm” seemed to bear striking resemblances to current American military doctrine, in particular the set of tactics known as AirLand Battle 2000, in whose development General Vuono, an artillery expert, had a key part. Although General Soyster denied that he or his colleagues had had any involvement in Croat military planning—“We are there only to re-orient the officers in accordance with democratic principles,” he told Stern. “Our only weapon is the blackboard”—others were more blunt. “The group acting in Zagreb,” a German-based US Army officer told the Stern reporter, “is discussing… organization and engagement of the armed forces.”7 Moreover, as a writer in the Zagreb-based weekly Globus argued, the evidence was clear for anyone who examined the attack:

The tactics of the Croatian army in the operation resembled the AirLand 2000 doctrine to a degree, particularly in the coordinated actions of the army and the [air force] as well as the systematic targeting of the enemy’s command and communication posts. The Croats also preferred quick and powerful attacks….8

However much the Croats might have drawn on American instruction to stage their attack, Holbrooke makes it clear that active American officers in the Pentagon opposed it, as did many in the “intelligence community,” believing that any Croat offensive was sure to draw in the regular Serb army of Slobodan Milosevic and thus greatly widen the war.

In fact, Milosevic sat on his hands, as Tudjman had argued he would; and now, after seizing the Krajina, the Croats went on pressing their advantage, joining with the Bosnians to push the Serbs back in northwestern Bosnia. Still Milosevic did nothing. Even so, according to Holbrooke, “Washington” still argued that the Croats should desist. When one member of Holbrooke’s team put this view to Tudjman during a lunch in Zagreb on August 17, Robert Frasure, the former special envoy, passed Holbrooke a note:

Dick: We “hired” these guys [the Croats] to be our junkyard dogs because we were desperate…. This is no time to get squeamish about things. This is the first time the Serb wave has been reversed. That is essential for us to get stability, so we can get out.

Stability” meant a more balanced map, which in turn meant Serb defeats. Holbrooke and Frasure were “desperate” because they were convinced they could only defeat the Serbs and attain a near balance of territory by making use of the forces available to them on the ground. But in an indication of how confused US policy on Bosnia remained in the summer of 1995, Holbrooke notes that this view, that of the lead negotiator,

was not accepted by most of our Washington colleagues, especially the military and the CIA, which still feared, and predicted, a military response from the regular Yugoslav Army.

It speaks well for Holbrooke, whose aspirations to return to a high position in government are well known,9 that he repeatedly, and incisively, criticizes both the US military and the US intelligence agencies. In addressing the role of the US military in making policy on Bosnia—a central subject that has thus far received far less attention than it should have—Holbrooke points again and again to Vietnam, to the so-called Vietmalia effect, to the way Vietnam haunts US military officers. He quotes from the memoirs of Colin Powell, the officer who had done so much to restrain American policy in Bosnia early in the war, when the options were broader and the risks of intervention less grave. “Many of my generation,” Powell had written,

the career captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels seasoned in that war, vowed that when our turn came to call the shots, we would not quietly acquiesce in half-hearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people could not understand or support.10

The general kept his vow: in 1991, when the Bush administration could have limited the fighting in Croatia and likely headed off the war in Bosnia entirely by attacking the Serbs with warplanes and gunboats, Powell strongly opposed it, claiming, both privately and publicly, that any effective involvement would require hundreds of thousands of troops. In 1995, when his successors were confronted with the question of whether to encourage the Croats to retake the Krajina, or, later, whether to support them and the Bosnians when they were fighting together to retake Serb-conquered land in Bosnia, or whether, finally, to send NATO warplanes to attack the Serbs, many in the military and intelligence agencies were against taking action in each case, arguing stubbornly that it would bring only a wider war. They refused to acknowledge, as Holbrooke says, that

Bosnia was different, and so were our objectives. While we had to learn from Vietnam, we could not be imprisoned by it. Bosnia was not Vietnam, the Bosnian Serbs were not the Vietcong, and Belgrade was not Hanoi. The Bosnian Serbs, poorly trained bullies and criminals, would not stand up to…air strikes the way the seasoned and indoctrinated Vietcong and North Vietnamese had. And, as we had seen in the Krajina, Belgrade was not going to back the Bosnian Serbs up the way Hanoi had backed the Vietcong.

By the end of the summer of 1995 everyone in the American government and in the Serbs’ mountain capital of Pale would finally have learned that lesson.

3.

History,” Holbrooke writes, “is often made of seemingly disparate events whose true relationship to one another becomes apparent only after the fact.” Nowhere can one see this better demonstrated than in Bosnia during July and August of 1995, when Clinton administration officials were finally deciding, after three years, that they had no choice but to act forcefully to end the fighting there.

Bill Clinton had been elected in 1992 declaring that “ethnic cleansing cannot stand”—a ringing statement that could only mean one thing: any solution in Bosnia must have at its heart the return to the victims of what they had lost. The one hundred thousand or more dead Muslims could not be brought back; but the land—the land that had been so odiously “cleansed”—the land could be restored. Challenging the hapless George Bush, who spent the first critical years of the Yugoslav wars frozen in a position of paralyzed Realpolitik—“We ain’t got no dog in this fight” had been Secretary of State James Baker’s pronouncement on Yugoslavia—Bill Clinton demanded justice. And as the idealistic and bold foreign policy slogan of an untried Southern governor fighting an election against the “foreign policy president,” it proved to be brilliant politics.

Unfortunately for the desperate Bosnians, behind Clinton’s eloquent words was…nothing: no policy, no planning—no there there. “The policy was decided during one conference call” in August 1992, one member of the campaign told me.

I said, Don’t make this commitment that you’re never going to keep. But Tony Lake [soon to be Clinton’s national security adviser] was completely wrapped up in the moral righteousness of this idea, and he had no idea of what it would take to move the country to do this.

Clinton, on taking office in 1993, was immediately confronted by what it would take. Cyrus Vance and David Owen were visiting Washington to promote their peace plan, the last such proposal that could have kept Bosnia together as an integral, if cantonized, state; but to put the Vance-Owen plan into effect, the new president would have had to send American troops to Bosnia. Dick Morris, at the time perhaps Clinton’s most trusted political adviser, put the case squarely to him:

You don’t want to be Lyndon Johnson…sacrificing your potential for doing good on the domestic front by a destructive, never-ending foreign involvement.11

To a man who had run on the informal slogan of “It’s the economy, stupid!” Morris’s argument prevailed easily. When Warren Christopher met with Vance, his old mentor, the new secretary of state appeared not to be familiar with the most basic elements of the peace plan. Disdainful Clinton officials quickly made it clear in leaks to journalists that the new administration would be having none of the Vance-Owen plan: in helping the Bosnians, it “did not,” they let it be known, “go far enough.”

Thus began Bill Clinton’s own policy of paralysis in the Balkans; but where George Bush had been forthright Clinton was hypocritical, and, for the now hopeful Bosnians, ruinously so. It was not only that he effectively helped to undermine a promising diplomatic proposal without putting anything else workable in its place. It was that Clinton pledged to right a terrible wrong but refused to make the commitment of men and money necessary to do so. As Bush had before him, Clinton vowed that he would never send American ground troops to Bosnia, while insisting doggedly that NATO warplanes should bomb the Serbs—a proposal European allies, who did have troops on the ground, vulnerable troops escorting “humanitarian convoys” under the United Nations flag—could be counted on to block.

  1. 6

    See Ed Vulliamy, The Guardian, February 1, 1996.

  2. 7

    See Stern, August 17, 1995.

  3. 8

    See Igor Alborghetti, Globus, October 20, 1995.

  4. 9

    As I write, his nomination to become US representative to the United Nations has been announced by President Clinton but has not yet been formally submitted to the Senate.

  5. 10

    See Colin Powell, with Joseph E. Persico, My American Journey (Random House, 1995), p. 149. For a consideration of Powell’s influence on American policy in Bosnia, see my article “America and the Bosnia Genocide.”

  6. 11

    See Behind the Oval Office: Winning the Presidency in the Nineties (Random House, 1997), p. 253.

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