|Clinton, The UN, and the Bosnia Disaster||View other pieces in "The New York Review of Books"|
|By Mark Danner||December 18, 1997|
|Tags: Clinton | UN | Balkans | Bosnia|
They lit yellow candles and
opened bottles of plum brandy, pouring libations to the dead. When several
burly men approached with picks and shovels the fathers tore off hunks
of bread and all downed shots of brandy. Then a gravedigger planted his
feet and swung his pick, anchoring the point in the frozen soil; the others
pried free the rock-solid clods. They fought their way into the earth,
until they felt steel scrape on wood. As they wrestled free the coffins,
nails pulled free and planks gave way, and through the earth-smeared wooden
splinters a leg or hand or perhaps a discolored, still-familiar face confronted
once more his father's eyes.
The Serbs were readying themselves for another great trek. Seven months before, in May 1995, Croat soldiers and tanks had seized western Slavonia and sent thousands of Serbs fleeing. In early August, the Croats had stormed into the Krajina, which the Serbs had wrested from Croatia in 1991, and in a few days reconquered every square mile—and expelled half a million Serbs. Four centuries ago, at the invitation of the Habsburgs, the ancestors of these Serbs had occupied this "border territory," serving as proud guards of the empire; now in a great tide of slow-moving cars and tractors and carts they fled their homes, condemned to endure the twilight life of powerless refugees in unwelcoming Serbia.
Five months later—and only weeks after Presidents Milosevic and Tudjman and Izetbegovic initialed an agreement at Wright-Patterson military base in Dayton, Ohio—the Muslim government began taking power in the Serb neighborhoods, reuniting Sarajevo for the first time since the spring of 1992. Under the Dayton agreement, Izetbegovic's government had pledged to treat all citizens with equal justice and respect, even those Serbs who for two and a half years had shelled and sniped at their new rulers, killing more than ten thousand civilians, including a thousand children. The Serbs' "freedom will be respected," as Richard Holbrooke, assistant secretary of state and primary negotiator of the accord, declared on February 18. "They do not need to leave Sarajevo."
Bosnian government spokesmen, however, had been mostly silent. During the years of shelling and sniping—which lasted until a few months earlier—the Serbs had interfered with supplies of food, blocked water mains, crippled electrical power; Serb gunners had targeted the National Museum and the National Library, and set off great conflagrations in which "over a million books, more than a hundred thousand manuscripts and rare books, and centuries of historical records of Bosnia-Herzegovina went up in flames."During the first months of siege, meantime, Muslim underworld gangs, having come together as paramilitary units to reinforce a desperately held front line, had assassinated many Serbs who remained on the government side, often torturing them before flinging their corpses into an eighty-foot-deep crevasse known as the "Kazani pit."
Holbrooke's confidence that Sarajevo's peoples could be reconciled, that Serbs could place their fate in the hands of "the federation" of Muslims and Croats who now ruled, was thus not widely shared. Not until two days after the American diplomat made his appeal did Muslim officials for the first time offer a grudging echo of reassurance: "Don't abandon your homes," a Sarajevo television announcer told Serbs. "The federation will guarantee your safety."
By this time the great Serb exodus already covered miles and miles of snowy mountain roads above Sarajevo: cars bearing tables and chairs and bathtubs lashed to their roofs and hoods, with battered coffins protruding from their trunks; trucks filled with firewood and doors and windows; tractors pulling carts loaded with sinks and wire and lengths of pipe; old women pushing sleds with bundles of clothing and rolled-up rugs and small kitchen stoves lashed to the slats. And interspersed with this crawling, skidding, sliding procession, amid the wildly honking cars and trucks and tractors, thousands of men and women trudged slowly forward, bearing on their backs great sacks and bundles and herding before them scores of goats and cows and pigs, who mooed and squealed in dumb terror.
When it moved at all this chaotic caravan moved yard by yard and many turned to gaze back at their city and its great pall of black smoke—not the accustomed grey fog of smoke from shelling that for so long had formed a canopy over Muslim Sarajevo but greasy gasoline-fired smoke rising from their own homes. Young Muslim toughs prowled about with guns and knives and grenades, looting Serb houses and apartments, shopping for suitable new lodgings. Bearded Serb paramilitaries in camouflage uniforms, bandoliers across their chests and heavy military knives at their hips, toting AK-47s and cans of gasoline, darted through back streets, edging their way behind sniper shields and through apartment complexes, setting fires where they pleased. The Serbs of Sarajevo had smashed doors and windows into useless splinters, had shredded old sheets and towels and pounded into rubble furniture and appliances they could not carry—had destroyed their houses so no Muslim could benefit from what they had been forced to abandon, and these bearded men were determined to burn what remained.
Serbs too old or too sick to flee Sarajevo shivered from cold and fear behind their locked doors; in the streets outside, Serb thugs prepared to burn them out. From their mountain capital in Pale, Serb leaders—so the rumor went—had handed down an order: in Muslim-ruled Sarajevo, no Serb, no matter how old or infirm, would remain. The troops who had come to enforce Dayton did little. When Italian soldiers arrested arsonists and (as Dayton prescribed) handed them over to the few Serb policemen left in the city, the men were instantly released. Serb firemen had long since fled, and French soldiers failed to persuade those on the Muslim side even to enter Serb neighborhoods; Serb paramilitaries had thrown grenades at their trucks. Officers of IFOR—the "Implementing Force" of the Dayton agreement, which was under the command of an American, Admiral Leighton Smith—might have ordered troops to guard the firemen, or even to fight the fires themselves; they might, in a show of strength, have sent their troops in force to seize control of the streets and arrest and jail arsonists. Such vigorous action, however, risked "exceeding the mandate" of the mission; and this mandate, the officers now showed, they intended to treat very narrowly indeed. Thus sixty thousand heavily armed foreign troops—of whom no fewer than twenty thousand were American, dispatched by the father of Dayton, President Bill Clinton, and a very reluctant US Congress—managed in their first days "in-country" to do little more than look on as parts of Sarajevo burned.
On the roads above the city the Serbs pushed slowly on. In the cold clear air over Sarajevo, black smoke formed plumes and orange flames rose and shimmered. Peace had come to Bosnia.
Three years before, during the summer of 1992, Arkansas Governor and Democratic candidate Bill Clinton was barnstorming the country and denouncing President Bush for failing to stop the horror in Bosnia. Late that July Clinton demanded the United Nations tighten economic sanctions on "the renegade regime of Slobodan Milosevic," grant European and American warships the power to search vessels that might be carrying contraband to Serbia, and authorize Western warplanes to strike "against those who are attacking the relief effort." A week later, after the networks had broadcast pictures of emaciated Muslims and Croats imprisoned in Serb concentration camps, Clinton declared that the United Nations, supported by the United States, must do "whatever it takes to stop the slaughter of civilians and we may have to use military force. I would begin with air power against the Serbs."
This tragedy is not something that can be settled from outside and it's about damn well time that everybody understood that. Until the Bosnians, Serbs and Croats decide to stop killing each other, there is nothing the outside world can do about it.The secretary spoke seven weeks after reporters filmed concentration camp prisoners. During the six months since the war began, the Serbs had seized nearly three quarters of Bosnia's territory and "cleansed" tens of thousands of Muslim civilians (murdering, during the first month alone, more than twenty thousand, according to a detailed Senate investigation). To describe the war, in the fall of 1992, as "Bosnians, Serbs and Croats...killing each other" was almost criminally inaccurate, as Eagleburger had to have known.
If George Bush and his top officials had favored standing back from the conflict—and waiting for it, as one younger aide put it, "to burn itself out"—a public sporadically outraged by bloody images had from time to time forced them to take some action, producing a tangle of contradictory policies. In May 1992, after the Serbs launched a mortar shell into a group of Sarajevans waiting for bread and other supplies, Americans' disgust at the scenes of dead and wounded civilians led Bush to support imposing economic sanctions. The United Nations resolution, however, included no provision to board and inspect ships.
In September 1991, as the war raged in Croatia, Bush supported imposing a United Nations arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia, which—because the Yugoslav National Army disposed of immense stocks of tanks, artillery pieces, and warplanes, and controlled an advanced weapons industry—overwhelmingly favored the Serbs. After the Europeans and Americans recognized Bosnia in April 1992, they stipulated that the embargo would apply to the new state. "The intent was not to try to keep the Bosnian Muslims from winning their war," Secretary Eagleburger explained. "It was, in fact, to try to keep anybody from putting more weapons into the place...than were already there." Yet the embargo's most important, and quite foreseeable, effect was to cripple the Bosnians, who had many men willing to fight but few weapons, in their effort to defend themselves against the heavily armed Serbs.
By the time Governor Clinton began denouncing these policies many mid-level and junior officials had already turned against them. "He was stealing our lines," said John Fox, a regional official in the State Department's Policy Planning Office.
We'd been writing this for months to our superiors: allow the Bosnians to defend themselves, take out the Serbs' heavy weapons shelling civilians in Sarajevo and other Bosnian communities, use force to get the humanitarian assistance convoys through. [Clinton's words] were raising hopes within the department that perhaps there would be sufficient pressure to bring about a change, if not before the election then after.The rhetoric already represented a change: unlike Bush officials with their fatuously "evenhanded" descriptions, candidate Bill Clinton took obvious satisfaction in denouncing "the renegade regime of Slobodan Milosevic." Members of Clinton's campaign made plain that their sympathies were with the Bosnian Muslims, and even before the inauguration Al Gore and other key officials had begun meeting with Bosnian representatives. When President-elect Clinton declared, in an echo of the defeated George Bush's vow to Saddam Hussein, that "the legitimacy of ethnic cleansing cannot stand," it seemed a clear pledge that President Clinton would bring the great power of the United States to bear on the task of achieving justice in the Balkans.
"Justice," of course, was the crucial word, for it had long since become clear that in Bosnia—already littered with tens of thousands of corpses, and with three quarters of its territory in the hands of the Bosnian Serbs—"justice" now stood precisely opposite to another crucial word: "peace." The banker and writer Jean E. Manas puts the problem bluntly:
Although many outside intervenors (or would-be intervenors) pursued both peace and justice in the former Yugoslavia, they rarely faced up to the fact that, at any level of specificity, the two ideals are in tension: the pursuit of justice entails the prolongation of hostilities, whereas the pursuit of peace requires resigning oneself to some injustices.
President Clinton had taken on this dilemma: he desired to stand for justice; he had pledged to do so. But he would find, before very long, that acting to achieve it would entail grave sacrifice. Had he wanted to, George Bush might conceivably have prevented, or at least severely circumscribed, the wars in the former Yugoslavia by applying a reasoned mixture of diplomacy and at least the sincere threat of force.But much had happened during the years of terrible war. To restore justice to Bosnia—to restore Muslim land and homes to those who rightly owned them, so that ethnic cleansing "could not stand"—Bill Clinton would have to be willing to undertake a vigorous diplomatic intervention, and dispatch at least some troops, and this would require that he deploy all his great political skills to persuade Americans to support him.
He had no stomach for it; it was not, in the end, his war. If Bosnia had been a useful bloody flag to wave at George Bush, what use was such a conflict to Clinton? If it had represented to candidate Clinton an opportunity, to President Clinton it had become only a risk—and it was that risk that Clinton's political advisers now emphasized. "Noninvolvement in Bosnia," writes Dick Morris, "had been a central element in my advice."
"You don't want to be Lyndon Johnson," I had said early on, "sacrificing your potential for doing good on the domestic front by a destructive, never-ending foreign involvement. It's the Democrats' disease to take the same compassion that motivates their domestic policies and let it lure them into heroic but ill-considered foreign wars."This was reasoning Bill Clinton could understand, particularly since, as Morris says, the new president "had no special vision of his foreign policy. He reacted, more or less reluctantly, to global concerns when they intruded so deeply into America's politics that he had to do something."
He had made promises, of course, courted the members of a constituency, and this part of foreign affairs he well understood. In the weeks to come Clinton would set out to placate them. When the latest attempt to achieve "peace"—as opposed to delivering justice—was set before the new administration in the form of the Vance-Owen plan, an intricate and ingenious proposal to divide Bosnia into ten ethnically controlled "cantons" (three each for the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, with Sarajevo shared as capital), Clinton officials did not squarely refute the plan but spoke of it with an offhanded contempt that left no doubt of their belief they could fashion something better. Cyrus Vance, the former secretary of state, and David Owen, the former British foreign secretary, arrived in Washington on February 1, 1993, to brief Warren Christopher, and it soon became "painfully apparent," Owen recalls, "that the Secretary of State knew very little about the detail of our plan."
Particularly surprising, in view of the administration's public criticism, was that he had not been briefed on all the human rights provisions and safeguards that we had built in with the express purpose of reversing ethnic cleansing.... Warren Christopher appeared as if he had not had time to read even a short factual information sheet on what was the essence of our plan. I was baffled as to how Christopher could come so badly briefed to meet his old boss, Cy, who was under virulent public attack over a plan his critics claimed favoured ethnic cleansing.Under the headline "US Declines to Back Peace Plan as Balkan Talks Shift to UN," next day's New York Times would comment that Christopher was "setting the stage for a possible confrontation between the mediators and the Clinton Administration," noting that at a lunch with Boutros Boutros-Ghali Christopher had expressed his "ambivalence" about the plan.
It was the first dramatic example of what James Gow, in his fine study Triumph of the Lack of Will, describes as the Clinton administration's tendency on Bosnia "to pronounce on principle, prevaricate in practice and preempt the policies and plans of others."
Having done so much to preempt Vance-Owen, on February 10 Warren Christopher went up to Capitol Hill and pronounced on principle. "This conflict may be far from our shores," he said, "but it is certainly not distant from our concerns. We cannot afford to ignore it."
The events in the former Yugoslavia raise the question whether a state may address the rights of its minorities by eradicating them to achieve ethnic purity. Bold tyrants and fearful minorities are watching to see whether ethnic cleansing is a policy the world will tolerate. If we hope to promote the spread of freedom, if we hope to encourage the emergence of peaceful ethnic democracies, our answer must be a resounding no.No American official, and certainly none so powerful, had stated the moral questions raised by Bosnia so bluntly and answered them so eloquently. Clinton's secretary of state did not stop there, however, but went on to assert that the United States had "direct strategic concerns" in Bosnia as well.
The continuing destruction of a new United Nations member challenges the principle that internationally recognized borders should not be altered by force. In addition, this conflict itself has no natural borders. It threatens to spill over into new regions, such as Kosovo and Macedonia. It could then become a greater Balkan war like those that preceded World War I. Broader hostilities could touch additional nations such as Greece and Turkey and Albania....Coming directly from the secretary of state, this was a declaration of fundamental American interest and one would be justified in expecting strong and dynamic action to follow. Behind the words, however, something different was going on among the newly installed officials of the Clinton administration. John Fox, who had stayed on in the State Department, watched his new bosses undertake to study the Bosnia problem and place alternatives before the President.
This was February '93: After an extensive policy review, in which a lot of very good middle force options were raised—options between a Vietnam scenario and a wring-your-hands scenario—the middle options were cut out, and cabinet-level officials came forward, and gave very tough rhetoric. Essentially, the people who wanted to do something got the rhetoric, but the people who didn't want to do anything got the policy.
So after declaring that what's going on in Bosnia is a vital interest of the United States they then lay out options that everybody knows aren't going to work. Very early on, a number of us saw pretty clearly that there would be little if anything done to follow through on the campaign pledges.But Bill Clinton was no longer making campaign promises. As his administration lurched from crisis to crisis, stumbling into a fiasco involving homosexuals in the military that set Clinton officials against Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Colin Powell—a contest they very quickly lost—it became clear that Bosnia was the least of the President's concerns. According to Dick Morris,
The incessant TV coverage of scenes of depravity in Bosnia prompted him to remark, "They keep trying to force me to get America into a war."
"They" were the reporters, the columnists, the television journalists. But Clinton was president now and beyond the appearances there lay a real world he had to confront. And in this terrible winter of February 1993 the Bosnian Serbs, unimpressed with the new President's preferences for domestic policy, readied their artillery and their tanks and began a vicious attack on the captive towns of eastern Bosnia.
Srebrenica had been the richest inland city in the Balkans, a cosmopolitan mining town—its very name meant "silver" (the Romans had known it as Argentaria)—bustling with German engineers and Ragusan metal traders and Franciscan friars; but by early 1993, when Serb gunners in the hills above began to rain down shells with great intensity, Srebrenica had become a vast refugee camp swarming with starving people and stinking of human excrement. Encircled by an iron band of Serb artillery and armor, overrun by refugees from surrounding towns that the Serbs had lately "cleansed," Srebrenica held many times the number of people it had before the war; tens of thousands of men, women, and children, many of them living in the streets, found themselves prisoners, with no access to the fields and markets that might have begun to feed the town. The result, as United Nations officials put it bluntly in a February report, was "there is no food such as we know it."
They have not had real food for months. They are surviving on the chaff from wheat and roots from trees. Every day people are dying of hunger and exhaustion.In the garbage-strewn, shell-pocked streets of Srebrenica, gaunt, bleak-eyed men and women gathered daily, poking and prodding impatiently at masses of sickly green grass plastered together with wheat chaff that were burning and sizzling fitfully on the fires. "It was a horrific place," said Louis Gentile, a United Nations relief worker who during the Serb offensive went in search of refugees from the besieged villages around the city.
I drove south and the people walking along the road in the snow were completely emaciated. I particularly recall one woman who was walking with two children, and they looked like living skeletons; and when we stopped to talk to them, they couldn't respond because they were so hungry their minds had stopped working.
We gave them some biscuits and said, "Wait for us right here, by the side of the road." And we drove further south and we encountered fighting and other [refugees] walking along in similar circumstances. When we came back to pick up the woman and her children we found only footprints leading off in the snow. They'd immediately gone off to eat the biscuits, and they'd just disappeared. To this day I can't forget those people, the faces of those kids.And yet the starving and shelling marked Srebrenica's triumph, for while other towns had fallen to the Serb onslaught the men of Srebrenica had fought back and for their heroism had won for their city a grim siege. Ten months before, on March 27, 1992—three weeks after President Izetbegovic had declared Bosnia a sovereign state—the so-called Bosnian Serb Army had launched a carefully planned campaign of conquest. Within six weeks the Serbs had occupied 60 percent of Bosnia's territory, and by the end of the year Serb soldiers and paramilitaries, through mass murder, gang rape, and other acts of terror, had succeeded in "cleansing" some two million people, or nearly half of Bosnia's population, from "Serb land."
In April 1992, the Serbs had turned to Srebrenica, not only an immensely rich prize, with its bauxite mines and tourist industry and factories, but a strategic necessity, for it stood squarely in the Drina Valley bordering Serbia. Though three in four of Srebrenica's citizens were Muslims, to establish a contiguous and workable "Greater Serbia" the Serbs believed they had to conquer and cleanse the town.
As far back as early 1991, Serbs and Muslims in Srebrenica had begun to arm themselves. The unceasing propaganda from Belgrade, particularly during the war in Croatia in 1991, when the Croats were painted as a reborn Ustase bent on slaughtering all Serbs and the Muslims as their "Turk" allies, proved highly effective in instilling fear and paranoia. In Srebrenica, Muslims and Serbs grew suspicious, fearful, and embittered. Chuck Sudetic, in his brilliant Blood and Vengeance, a reconstruction told partly through the experience of his Serb in-laws, which will be published next year, shows in rich detail how the forces of historical memory, propaganda, and suspicion produced a bloody rhythm of attack and retribution in Srebrenica and its surrounding villages.
In August 1991, while the war raged in Croatia, the Srebrenica region had its first armed confrontation when Serb soldiers came to take possession of local draft records. Local Muslim officials refused to give them up; Serb nationalists demanded they comply.
Muslim police officers sided with the Muslim mob; Serb police officers sided with the Serb mob; and the Yugoslav army rushed in reinforcements. The two mobs exchanged curses and threats. They pointed guns at one another and fired into the air. The army commanders backed down before a riot broke out....
From that day on, Muslim and Serb peasants began standing guard around Kravica and the other villages near Srebrenica.... Men from both communities left their jobs in Sarajevo, Serbia, and abroad to return home to take up arms and defend their families and protect their homes. Serbs were afraid to drive their cars through Muslim villages.Four days after the confrontation over the draft records, four Muslims drove through the predominantly Serb town of Kravica waving an Islamic green flag; the car was sprayed with bullets and two of the passengers were killed. From his headquarters in Pale, Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs, declared that no Muslim police would be allowed into Kravica to investigate.
After the Serb military campaign began late in March 1992, Srebrenica residents quickly heard of the killings and rapes that were taking place; in nearby Zvornik the main Serb paramilitaries, Arkan's Tigers and Seslj's Chetniks, had been particularly brutal, murdering hundreds of people. Within a week, as Sudetic tells it, Serb army tanks were rumbling through Srebrenica and the nearby town of Bratunac, and members of Arkan's gang had begun abducting and killing local Muslims suspected of organizing their own militia.
One day a pharmacist disappeared. The next day, a police detective. Then a factory foreman. The former police chief.... The Serbian Democratic Party's leaders had set up a drumhead court in the school....The pharmacist was found to have sent bandages and other medical supplies to Muslims in the hills; he was sentenced to death. The police chief and factory foreman had shown up on a video taken of the mob outside the town hall when the army came looking for the draft records; they were sentenced to death.On April 17, the local judge and Serb leader Goran Zekic demanded that Srebrenica's Muslims turn in all their weapons by the following morning. The Muslims knew well the meaning of such an ultimatum—they had seen it handed down in Bijeljina, in Zvornik, in Visegrad, and in all these places it had been followed by terror. Instead of waiting for the Serb paramilitaries to seize control and commit the tortures, rapes, and murders deemed necessary to "cleanse" Srebrenica in its turn, thousands of Muslims packed their cars or boarded buses, and fled their homes.
The exodus meant that the Serbs could seize their prize without a fight. In fact, however, not every Muslim had fled Srebrenica; several hundred Muslim men had taken what guns they had and hidden in the woods. From there they watched as the notorious Zeljko Rasnatovic—the secret policeman, government-employed assassin, celebrated bank robber, and prison escape artist better known as Arkan—and his heavily armed paramilitary Tigers swaggered into Srebrenica and, together with the local Serbs, looted Muslim houses and shops.
For the Serbs, Srebrenica had gone well: Arkan's carefully cultivated reputation for unlimited cruelty had led the Muslims of Srebrenica to "cleanse" themselves. Or so it seemed. In fact, the Muslims in their forest hiding place were debating strategy. Months ago, their leader had been ordered by the Muslim officials in Sarajevo to prepare for just this moment. Short, powerfully built, with closely cropped dark hair and beard, Naser Oric was a twenty-five-year-old body builder, former bar bouncer, and member of the Yugoslav special military police; indeed, Oric's martial skills were such that, though he was a Bosnian Muslim—his grandfather had been a member of the hated Ustase—he had been assigned to serve in Kosovo and then appointed a bodyguard to Milosevic himself. In his plans to defend Srebrenica, Oric proved cunning and ruthless, and two days after the Serbs had seized the town he and his poorly armed Muslims swept down from the forest and stunned the Serbs with a full-bore attack that left many wounded and several dead.
Through early May Oric led his Muslims on a series of audacious raids against Zekic's local Serb militiamen, who were backed by paramilitaries and by the devastating shelling of the Bosnian Serb Army gunners positioned on the hills above the city. On May 8, a Muslim college student in Srebrenica managed to shoot Zekic as the Serb leader drove by in his car. (Though he had hit Zekic in the head, the young killer attempted to toss a grenade through the window for good measure, and blew himself up.) For Srebrenica's Serbs, the brazen assassination of their leader proved too much; they murdered all the Muslim men they could find, then broke and fled, leaving the town under Oric's control.
The next day Serbs took revenge. Red Beret police troops poured across the bridge from Serbia and burned nearby Muslim villages, executing any man they found. In Bratunac, a few miles from Srebrenica, soldiers patrolled streets with megaphones, ordering Muslims from their homes. Thousands were herded into a soccer stadium. Women and children were loaded aboard buses and trucks and expelled. Seven hundred and fifty men were marched down Bratunac's main street and packed into a school gymnasium. Serb soldiers called the hodza, or Muslim holy man, to the front of the gymnasium; there they forced him to shimmy up a climbing rope, poured beer over his head, and then beat him with clubs and iron bars, demanding he make the sign of the Orthodox cross. After beating him nearly to death, the Serbs stabbed him in the back of the neck and shot him in the head. Then they began to beat the Muslim men; in three days they killed more than three hundred and fifty, and dumped the bodies in the Drina.
What Sudetic calls the cycle of "blood and vengeance"—kad tad, goes the saying, "sooner or later"—was well advanced after this great killing. Muslim and Serb knew they could expect no mercy from the other. In seizing control of Srebrenica, Naser Oric and his ragtag Muslim fighters achieved a great triumph. From the hills above, however, and from every side Serb guns stared down. Before long Srebrenica's triumphant people began to starve.
Throughout the late spring and summer Naser Oric and his commanders methodically built up their forces, launching raids to seize weapons and ammunition, which enabled them to recruit and train more soldiers and carry out more ambitious attacks. Indeed, as Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Both point out in their Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, this was "just about the only case in Bosnia where the much-vaunted Yugoslav territorial defence system was successfully applied by the Bosnians"; Oric's forces put into effect Tito's plan to resist invasion, relying not only on classic techniques of guerrilla warfare (lightning-fast small group attacks, sabotage, assassination) but also on the belief that all men, uniformed or not, are real or potential fighters.
During the summer and fall Oric's men attacked and ambushed without warning, taking, as Sudetic says, "only a handful of prisoners and rarely [making] any distinction between combatants and civilians." By fall, they had killed several hundred Serb soldiers and civilians and had vastly increased the size of the Srebrenica pocket. Oric's forces had now swelled with bitter refugees from Bratunac and other towns, and all knew well that, if defeated, the best they could expect was a quick death. And the Muslim commander, as Sudetic writes, had discovered his greatest weapon:
Oric could now count on a force that struck the fear of God into the Serb peasants...: a horde of Muslim refugees, men and women, young and old, who were driven by hunger...and, in many cases, a thirst for revenge. Thousands strong, these people would lurk behind the first wave of attacking soldiers and run amok when the defenses around
Serb villages collapsed. Some...used pistols to do the killing; others used knives, bats and hatchets. But most...had nothing but their bare hands and the empty rucksacks and suitcases they strapped onto their backs. They came to be known as torbari, the bag people. And they were beyond Oric's control.The climactic battle in Oric's campaign came on January 7, 1993, Orthodox Christmas, when Oric's fighters swept down on the Serb town of Kravica. Serb women had worked for days preparing suckling pigs, fresh bread, pickled tomatoes and peppers—an intoxicating feast to the starving torbari of Srebrenica. And Oric had also been working for days, preparing the attack:
After dark on Christmas Eve, some three thousand Muslim troops assembled on the slushy hilltops around Kravica. Behind them lurked a host of torbari who lit campfires to warm themselves. At dawn they started clattering pots and pans. "Allahu ekber! God is great!" the men shouted. The women shrieked. Shooting began. The Serb men in Kravica scrambled into their trenches....The Serbs were vastly outnumbered; the Muslims, many in white uniforms that blended with the snow, seemed to come from every direction. By mid-afternoon, thirty Serbs had died and the front line had collapsed. Serbs ran into the town center, screaming for everyone to flee.
In his account of a battle three months before in the village of Podravanja, Sudetic tells of a similar torbari assault:
The Serb fighters left behind men and women who had been wounded and killed....Then the torbari rushed in. Muslim men shot the wounded. They fired their guns into the bodies of the Serb dead, plunged knives into their stomachs and chests. They smashed their heads with axes and clubs, and they burned the bodies inside buildings. Oric's men grabbed half a dozen prisoners; one, a fighter from Serbia who had relatives in Podravanja, was beaten to death, and the others emerged bruised and battered when they were exchanged a month later.In Kravica that Christmas Day in January the starving torbari found a paradise to plunder:
The first of the torbari to arrive in Kravica found entire Christmas dinners that had been waiting to be eaten by Serb men who had gone off to fight that morning thinking they would be back by noon. Three Muslim soldiers barged into one home and stood there as if paralyzed at the sight of the pastries and the jelly, the bottles of brandy and the roast pork on the stove. They laughed and shouted and plunged into a cake. The ashes of burning houses...fell like snow on the hillside. The pigs ran wild. Sheep were butchered and roasted on the spit or herded back to Srebrenica with the cows and oxen. The dead lay unburied, and within days the pigs, dogs and wild animals had begun to tear away at the bodies.
That day, though he didn't know it, Naser Oric had reached the summit of his power. He had broadened the area of Muslim control to three hundred and fifty square miles around Srebrenica. Within the town, he had declared martial law and stood as all-powerful commander. (Another Muslim militia leader who tried to supplant him was arrested and murdered.)
A week after his Christmas victory at Kravica, Oric and his fighters attacked Skelani and tried to seize and destroy its steel-girdered bridge over the Drina. One of his men machine-gunned women and children as they fled in panic toward the Serbian side.
Throughout Serbia, people were outraged by the Muslim leader's brazen attack. Immediately General Ratko Mladic sent his tanks and artillery over the bridge and drove Oric's men back. They would retreat for ten days. Before they were able to stop and hold their ground, they were within ten miles of Srebrenica. And Mladic's real offensive had yet In the White House, President Clinton followed General Mladic's grim and steady progress in his morning briefings, watching as the Serb tanks and artillery pushed the lightly armed Muslims closer and closer to Srebrenica, seizing village after village until the Serbs stood on the outskirts of the city, and began to rain down shells. Mladic's technique, as David Rieff describes it in Slaughterhouse, "combined the standard Yugoslav National Army (and Warsaw Pact) military doctrine—which can be summarized as never sending a man where a bullet can go first—with the Bosnian Serb predilection for targeting hospitals, water treatment plants, and refugee centers in order to produce the maximum amount of terror in the population."
To produce such terror was not difficult; without shelter or defense, the refugees who had fled the surrounding towns and now slept in Srebrenica's streets were easy targets. During one horrible hour late in the siege, Serb shells killed sixty-four people and wounded more than a hundred. Many were children, as Louis Gentile, the UN official, cabled his head office:
Fourteen dead bodies were found in the school yard. Body parts and human flesh clung to the schoolyard fence. The ground was literally soaked with blood. One child, about six years of age, had been decapitated. I saw two ox-carts covered with bodies.... I will never be able to convey the horror.Only weeks before the Serb offensive began, Bill Clinton had declared in his inaugural address that he would use military force if "the will and conscience of the international community is defied." That defiance now confronted him daily, particularly after Tony Birtley, a reporter working for ABC News, slipped into Srebrenica aboard a Bosnian helicopter with a small video camera. Birtley's smuggled reports, as Warren P. Strobel says in Late-Breaking Foreign Policy, showed the world "the medieval conditions in the city itself—people dressed in rags and living in the streets, children drinking sewer water."
Srebrenica brought Clinton face to face with the contradiction between his idealistic rhetoric supporting the Bosnians and his pragmatic reluctance to commit his new administration to a complicated war. The horrible images of suffering, together with his own rhetoric, pushed him to take action. Finally, the Bosnians forced his hand: on February 12, officials in Sarajevo announced they would refuse any further shipments of aid to Sarajevo while aid to Srebrenica was cut off by the Serbs. The intent of this seemingly perverse decision was to force the Western nations, and particularly the as yet untried Clinton—on whom the Bosnians had placed much hope for intervention—finally to take strong action against the Serbs.
In fact, the Bosnians' announcement represented only their latest attempt to make use of the only lever they had that might force the West to act. In delivering food to Bosnia, starting in June 1992, the Western countries intended to reduce the political pressures to do something to stop the slaughter—which meant, in effect, intervening militarily against the Serbs. The Bosnians now hoped to turn that strategy on its head. By showing the world that the food was not getting through, and that the result was "ethnic cleansing by starvation," they sought to force the Western nations to take stronger action, and preferably to use military force. In Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Both quote an unnamed United Nations official explaining to David Owen (for whom Both worked as a research assistant) how the Sarajevo government attempted to make use of Srebrenica and the other enclaves "as pressure points on the international community for firmer action."
The longer that aid convoys were unable to reach them, the greater the pressureon the [UN] mandate. When convoys did succeed, calls for firmer action were unwarranted.When aid convoys were blocked, however, the Western powers were placed in the position of watching as Bosnians starved. The United Nations official went further, according to Honig and Both, arguing that the Bosnians actually timed their military offensives to coincide with successful aid deliveries. For example, he says, in November 1992,
Two weeks after the first successful delivery, Muslims launched an offensive toward Bratunac. Thus the integrity of [the UN] was undermined, further convoys were impossible, and the pressure for firmer action [by the US and other nations] resumed.In other words, the Sarajevo leaders sought to give the impression that UN aid helped their commanders carry out attacks. When Muslim military offensives followed closely after food shipments, this not only cast doubt on the UN's cherished "impartiality," weakening the organization's legitimacy as the principal Western instrument to deal with the Bosnian war. It also led Serbs to block future shipments, thereby causing more starvation and misery and once again increasing the pressure on the West to intervene.
Oric's campaigns had clear military objectives, of course, as Honig and Both are careful to point out. After the first months of the war, when their main goal had been to build up their forces by capturing weapons and to sack villagers' crops, Oric and his officers fought for two strategic objectives. First, they sought to conquer and cleanse territory that would join together the isolated eastern enclaves—especially Zepa and Cerska—and form one larger, more powerful Muslim stronghold; this Oric's men achieved, battling through to Zepa in September 1992 and reaching Cerska after the Christmas victory at Kravica on January 7, 1993. They would hold this vast tract of territory for barely a month, however, before Mladic's armored forces sent Oric's infantry reeling back.
Oric's second objective was to force Mladic to thin his forces on other fronts, leaving the Serbs, who were well armed but undermanned (laboring under precisely the opposite disadvantage of the numerous but poorly equipped Muslims), vulnerable to large Bosnian government attacks elsewhere in the country. Oric's campaigns of December and January, for example, helped draw Serb troops away from a major Muslim offensive that briefly succeeded in cutting the critical "Posavina corridor," which linked Serbia itself with Serb conquests in western Bosnia and the Serb-occupied Krajina.
Whatever the military rationales for Oric's operations, however, it is incontestable—and this would become more tragically apparent later in the war, especially at Srebrenica itself—that the Bosnians were struggling to make use of the misery of the enclaves to force action by the United Nations and Western countries. Those working to deliver aid—and especially the officers and soldiers from France, Britain, and a number of other countries who formed part of the United Nations Protection Force (known as UNPROFOR) charged with protecting them—tended to see these Bosnian efforts as Machiavellian, or evil. The Bosnians, however, were simply trying to make use of the only weapon the peculiar and hypocritical international involvement in their country seemed to offer them. For though many of the individual aid workers performed great acts of heroism in Bosnia, at the heart of the mission itself lay a fatal contradiction: "The crux of the matter," as Wayne Bert writes in The Reluctant Superpower, "was that the UN's primary mission was to get peace, making concerns with justice secondary."
This of course was Clinton's dilemma: he had promised justice, but fulfilling that promise meant that he must commit major diplomatic attention and, most likely, some military force, make speeches, and spend political capital—and thereby risk, as his political advisers warned him, the domestic reforms he had come to Washington to make.
A strong effort in Bosnia would also force Clinton to confront and lead both the United Nations and two major allies, the British and the French—who had officers and soldiers on the ground and had thereby committed themselves to "the UN's primary mission" of "getting peace." This "mission" in fact belonged to France and Britain and the other Western allies; they had shaped it, designed it, and they carried it out; but the dirty little secret was that the mission was animated by the determination to avoid increased involvement in Bosnia, especially any military intervention. It "was disingenuous of United Nations officials," writes David Rieff in Slaughterhouse, "to pretend that they were the only disinterested parties in the Bosnian tragedy."
In reality, UN peacekeepers had been carrying out a very specific and well-thought-out political agenda from the beginning. Its premise was simple. The United Nations saw not just full-scale intervention in support of the Bosnians but any increased military activity, whether it was NATO air strikes or lifting the one-sided arms embargo against the Bosnian government, as putting at risk everything it had been trying to accomplish....And just what were United Nations officials, and, behind them, the Western nations, trying to accomplish? Rieff observes that the criterion of success was neither moral—"UN officials felt they had no business judging the rights and wrongs of the conflict"—nor political. "Although the Bosnian government was an internationally recognized state and the Bosnian Serb 'republic' an illegitimate rebellion, the United Nations felt compelled to deal with them equally, as 'the parties,' or 'the warring factions.'"
Rather, the UN wanted to get the aid through and facilitate a peace.... The terms of the peace were, from the standpoint of UNPROFOR, almost irrelevant. It did not have to be a just peace, or even a peace that could be maintained. All that the United Nations required was that "the parties" agree to it.If "peace" is the single goal, and its terms "almost irrelevant," we have in fact moved as far away from "justice" as we are likely to get, and the peculiar result is that the United Nations, for all its pretensions to "impartiality" between "the parties," has forced itself by its own interests to favor one side—the side that happens to be winning. Rieff sketches out this logic in a brilliant and elegant passage:
If the purpose of a mission is to stop a war, and one side, having won, appears ready to settle, while the other side, feeling its cause to be just but having turned out to be the loser, is determined to fight on, then those running this mission are likely to find that most of the time their interests coincide with those of the victors. They and the victors want peace. The vanquished, possessed of the notion that they have right on their side, refuse to accept their defeat. Given these convergences, it is only a small step to the victors and the international organization understanding that, when all is said and done, they share the same goal.That goal, of course, was forcing a Muslim surrender and a settlement on Serb terms—for what else could a settlement be if it was "negotiated" while the Serbs held more than seventy percent of Bosnian territory? "It might not be an ideal outcome," writes Rieff, "but at least people would stop getting killed." Such was the institutional interest of the United Nations, and such as well were the interests of the British and the French who stood behind it.
Now, however, a new and powerful player had entered the game. That the Bosnians entertained high hopes for Bill Clinton, that they drew encouragement from his rhetoric—though he may have been offering only words—itself had a powerful effect. Why accept the ethnic partitions set out in the Vance-Owen plan while the leader of the Free World was declaring that "ethnic cleansing cannot stand"? Among the bitter words one finds in David Owen's memoirs, none is more bitter than those directed at Clinton officials for their "encouragement" of the Bosnians. In December 1992, even before the new administration took office, as Clinton "transition" officials let their muted criticisms and unattributed "ambivalences" about Vance-Owen seep into the press, Lord Owen landed in Sarajevo and amid the forest of microphones on the tarmac warned Bosnians, "Don't, don't, don't live under this dream that the West is going to come in and sort this problem out. Don't dream dreams...."
UN officials could be even more explicit. "If anything emboldens the Muslim government to fight on, it's things like this," said Yasushi Akashi, the UN secretary general's special representative, after senior United States officials opened a new embassy in Sarajevo in spring 1994. "They can point to that and say, 'See, the Americans are with us.' We can only hope that the failure of NATO to come to their aid around Gorazde will convince them the US cavalry isn't around the corner."
Clinton's rhetoric did have serious effects in Bosnia; insofar as he used it as a substitute for meaningful action the policy of his administration was not only more duplicitous but in many ways more damaging than Bush's had been. Bush had had a chance to prevent or at least limit the war when it might have been done at minimal cost and despite his protestations of vision in conducting America's policy he was too timid and shortsighted to take it; but Bush had never promised the US cavalry might be on the way. Clinton had promised strong action—had vowed America would help—and when confronted with the need to supply it, he had offered words; those words did more than disappoint—they instilled hope which the Bosnians paid for with blood.
By mid-February 1993 General Ratko Mladic's offensive had left the isolated eastern towns of Srebrenica and Cserska jammed with refugees; and those emaciated people, when they weren't dying from Mladic's shellfire, had begun to starve. Mladic had blocked the aid convoys (which in any event had never succeeded in feeding the city). Clinton, who declared "ethnic cleansing cannot stand"—but who was loathe to consider the sort of forceful commitment the statement implied—was about to witness with the rest of the television-watching world the cleansing-by-hunger of tens of thousands of people.
Clinton finally responded, in late February, with a novel solution: American Hercules transport planes would drop food and medical supplies into Bosnia by air. The flights were carried out under the United Nations humanitarian mandate, having been conceived, as James Gow bluntly puts it, "by the US in place of preparedness to make a stronger commitment by involving the deployment of its own troops."
This was, of course, the fundamental contradiction: Bill Clinton wanted "stronger action" but (like George Bush) had decided early on that he would not deploy American combat troops. In late March, only weeks after his secretary of state delivered to Congress his eloquent affirmation of the moral and strategic importance of Bosnia, Clinton took a leaf from Lawrence Eagleburger's book:
The hatred between all three groups...is almost unbelievable. It's almost terrifying, and it's centuries old. That really is a problem from hell. And I think the United States is doing all we can to try to deal with that problem.
Finally, in a chilling echo of Neville Chamberlain's description of
the dispute over the soon-to-be dismembered Czechoslovakia as "a
quarrel in a foreign country between people of whom we know nothing,"
Christopher in May described the war in Bosnia as "a humanitarian
crisis a long way from home, in the middle of another continent."
From Srebrenica and other villages and towns, the ham radio operators
who provided the eastern enclaves' only link to the outside world were
filling the airwaves with detailed reports of mass killings, of Serb
soldiers cutting the throats of women and children. Sadako Ogata, the
UN High Commissioner for Refugees, sent a summary of these accounts
in an urgent letter to Secretary General Boutros-Ghali. "If only
ten percent of the information is true," wrote Ogata, "we
are witnessing a massacre in the enclaves without being able to do anything
about it." Ogata then made a startling proposal: the United Nations
must move to evacuate the Muslims from the Srebrenica enclave. In the
past the UN had always opposed such evacuations. Now, although she did
not say so, Ogata's proposal would put the UN in the position of helping
the Serbs cleanse the area of Muslims.
The Muslim commanders had also blocked the planned exodus, arguing that it would "undermine the morale" of Srebrenica's defenders and lead to the town's surrender; in other words, Naser Oric did not want to be deprived of the torbari who had once been his sword and were now his shield, and Alija Izetbegovic did not want to have the UN helping the Serbs remove the Muslim majority population from territory that the UN's own...Vance-Owen peace plan had earmarked to remain predominantly Muslim.To the reporters assembled at the Tuzla airfield, General Morillon urged a sober, skeptical attitude. "I did not see any trace of massacres," said the General. "That's very important because we have to calm the fears there.... Srebrenica is in no danger."
Within a few hours, however, reporters would have something more credible to rely on than General Morillon's nose. Simon Mardel, a doctor working for the World Health Organization, had left Morillon's party at Konjivec Polje and hiked to Srebrenica. By ham radio, he reported that between twenty and thirty refugees were dying every day from pneumonia and other illnesses. For months, he said, Muslim doctors had been operating without anesthetics. Refugees were sleeping everywhere on Srebrenica's slushy streets and subsisting on roots and grass and buds. As for the airdropped supplies, the strongest people—officers, soldiers, members of work brigades responsible for digging trenches—took what they wanted, pilfering sacks of flour and grain and hiding them for their families. The weakest—the sick, the wounded, the homeless refugees—got nothing.
Eventually, Sudetic writes, Naser Oric abandoned any effort to organize distribution of the food and simply declared that it would be "everyone for himself."
The mountainsides above Srebrenica now flickered with the flames of a legion of torches each night as desperate people streamed through the forest to the drop areas. Few of the newly arriving refugees..., many of them widows with children,... had the energy to make the journey and fight for food.... Men were killing one another in the forests to get at the flour. Falling pallets, which were as big as refrigerators and smashed into the ground at about eighty-five miles an hour, had crushed to death people who risked waiting inside the landing zones to improve their chances.... The Americans responded to the chaos by...dropping tens of thousands of individual meals in brown plastic wrappers that fell to the earth like vacuum-packed manna from heaven.
By now Mladic's troops were furiously shelling Konjevic Polje, vastly broadening the stream of refugees flooding Srebrenica. General Morillon began to fear that Mladic would seize the entire enclave, which would not only create an enormous humanitarian disaster but would likely scuttle the Vance-Owen peace talks, which at that point, despite the ambivalence of the United States, were still "the only game in town."questions."
On March 11, after consulting with his government in Paris and receiving permission from the Serbs to cross their lines, General Philippe Morillon set out for Srebrenica.
In the White House, members of Clinton's foreign policy "Principals Committee" debated what policy the Adminitration should adopt toward Bosnia. Progress was slow. Among key members of the administration strong differences existed, and in such a situation the President must listen carefully and make a clear and forceful decision, or the conflicting interests of the various departments, and the government's natural inertia, will frustrate any desire he might have to act.
Clinton, though, possessed both the vague impulse to do good and a strong fear that, if he actually did anything to achieve it, he might fall into a trap from which he might be unable to extricate himself. Had not Johnson, the master politician, been destroyed by a trivial, useless war? That Clinton's advisers were strongly divided did not help. "The divisions within the foreign policy group," observes Elizabeth Drew, "contributed to a division in the mind of a President who had few strong instincts on foreign-policy
The "Principals" increasingly left specific proposals behind, and launched into abstract debates over America's role in the world. General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the sole holdover from the Bush Administration, remarked in his memoirs that "it wasn't policy-making. It was group therapy—an existential debate over what is the role of America, etc." With all the disdain of a hardened professional forced to endure the pretensions of a group of amateurs, General Powell traces the poverty of the discussion directly to a political source:
...the discussions [meandered] like a graduate student bull sessions or the think-tank seminars in which many of my new colleagues had spent the last twelve years while their party was out of power.Powell himself did an eloquent job confirming and reinforcing the President's doubts. The spectre of Vietnam haunted him more than it did Clinton, for he had been there, and he had derived from his command a grim determination to fight what he saw as the frivolity and irresponsibility of men like the young President who now sat across from him: "Those of us who were captains and majors in Vietnam," the General had written, "will never let the politicians do this to us again." During the last months of George Bush's presidency, when pictures of Serb concentration camps brought public pressure for action to a climax, the General had spoken out clearly and publicly against military intervention. Personally, he shared Lawrence Eagleburger's "pox on all their houses" attitude. (As he would put it in an interview after he retired, "When the fighting broke out, should the West have intervened militarily as one of the belligerents to put down all other belligerents?"). For those who favor military intervention for strongly idealistic reasons, and whom he clearly believes remain willfully ignorant of the burdens and responsibilities with which military professionals must contend, Powell reserves a withering contempt:
The debate exploded at one session when Madeleine Albright... asked me in frustration, "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?" I thought I would have an aneurysm. American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board.Powell stood out as an immensely popular, uniquely independent figure. To overrule him on a matter of military judgment would have been politically perilous for any president. To a president who had never served in the military; who had sidestepped military service during the Vietnam war and was regarded by significant numbers of Americans as a draft dodger; who had been publicly humiliated in an early, controversial struggle with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs over the so-called "gays in the military" issue—to President Bill Clinton General Powell represented a powerful force that he was loath to challenge.
While Clinton and his advisers met and talked, and met and talked, officials in Christopher's State Department had been working away at their Bosnia "policy review" and hints began to appear in the press of a new, tougher plan, called "lift and strike," according to which the United Nations would lift the arms embargo on the Bosnians, allowing them to acquire heavy weapons, and NATO would strike at the Serbs with its warplanes to protect the Bosnians while, freshly armed, they learned the skills to "defend themselves." The plan had many virtues, although the most striking of these were designed to placate political constituencies at home rather than alter the military situation in Bosnia.
Lifting the arms embargo, for example, had become a popular idea, particularly among congressmen, and for good reason: of all the West's perverse and repugnant policies on Bosnia the arms embargo had come to seem the most blatantly and incomprehensibly unfair. Under what rationale could the international community prevent a member state of the United Nations from defending itself—which was, after all, its explicit right under Article 51 of the UN Charter? To even the least informed voter, this seemed clearly wrong, and giving Bosnians "the means to defend themselves" not only seemed clearly right, it had a reassuringly American, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps sound to it. As for the "strike," protecting Bosnians with NATO fighters and bombers until they could absorb their new weapons and use them to fight for themselves sounded like the sort of low-cost, middle-of-the-road help Americans should be willing to supply. Air power, after all, had not only proved spectacularly potent during the Gulf War, it had seemed hygienic, "surgical," and, even for the dashing Americans in the cockpits, safe.
If "lift and strike" had political virtues, however, its value as a practical policy was doubtful. As John Fox, the State Department official said, during the "policy review...a lot of very good middle force options were raised," but then "these were cut out"; Christopher and other officials came forward with strong rhetoric; and, "after declaring that what's going on in Bosnia is a vital interest..., they then lay out options that everybody knows aren't going to work." For insofar as the purpose was to turn the tide of the war without deploying troops, "lift and strike" was based on logistical and geographic ignorance. As David Rieff writes,
To the question of how the weapons were going to be gotten into Sarajevo or Tuzla, supporters of this approach at best tended to respond vaguely. When pressed, they would concede that some outside force would have to bring in the arms the Bosnians needed. And yet, if one took them at their word, what they were calling for was military intervention in the strictest sense.Officers and Pentagon officials helpfully bolstered this point by providing estimates of the number of troops necessary to open a "land corridor" from Split to Sarajevo at more than one hundred thousand. "Lift and strikes'" main appeal—that it could be labeled an intervention to help the Bosnians without requiring a real intervention—evaporated.
That, however, turned out to be its strength. For "lift and strike" shimmered like a mirage just long enough for Warren Christopher to gather it up, place it in his briefcase, and take it to Europe with him, where he traveled from capital to capital trying to "persuade" Europeans to sign on and support it. Europeans, however, had an obvious problem with "lift and strike," which Christopher and other Clinton officials well understood: they had—the words would soon become a veritable mantra—"troops on the ground." What would happen to their officers and soldiers now delivering food and medicine if the United Nations were to relinquish its "impartiality" and support not only lifting the arms embargo—but, in effect, air strikes on Serb artillery and armor?
Of course, the Europeans' argument would have been more effective. If more aid were getting through—especially to, say, Srebrenica, which since the war began had received a single convoy. For their part, the Bosnians repeatedly declared that they would prefer that the humanitarian troops leave their country if this was deemed necessary for them to receive the benefits of "lift and strike," but it was a sad fact that the Bosnians opinion in such matters did not by any means come first.
Christopher's trip to Europe was not successful—at least not in persuading the Europeans to accept the American policy. In another sense, though, it was a brilliant achievement, for it provided President Clinton with an effective alibi for his own inaction. If the President had not moved to lift the arms embargo against the Bosnians or to ready airstrikes against the Serbs, this was because the Europeans had troops on the ground, and, try as he might, he could not bring them around to accept his proposals. For their part, the Europeans, on matters of great importance to their senior ally, were not accustomed to this sort of "honest consultation." They expected the Americans, in matters of true import, to lead, not to ask.
For this and other reasons, his European hosts did not find the Secretary's presentation persuasive: "I had the feeling, when he came to Brussels," said Willy Claes, at the time the Belgian Foreign Minister, "that he had felt very clearly that there was not a possibility to convince the Europeans." On his return, Christopher himself would be heard to remark on "what a loser this policy is."
Given the choice of whether to back "lift and strike" or not, the Europeans would rather not. Real problems confronted them, of course: they feared shipping in more arms would inflame the war (which was, of course, the point of the policy); they feared that Milosevic, seeing his proxy's gains ready to evaporate, might bring his army to intervene; they feared that, having advanced so close to "peace"—on the Serbs' terms, yes, but that was a sad fact of life—arming the Bosnians would propel the war in precisely the opposite direction. In the end, however, it was British and French and Spanish troops that were on the ground and if the Americans weren't willing to insist—in effect, threaten to breach NATO itself—the Europeans certainly could not take the proposal seriously.
By the time Christopher had returned from his disastrous May tour, Clinton's own doubts had grown. It was then that there emerged this curious fact: "lift and strike" was more effective as a dead policy than a live one. Clinton desired to act in Bosnia but the Europeans would not cooperate; thus the President was stymied. During the continuing diplomatic squabbling over the Vance-Owen plan, the imposition of a no-fly zone, the tightening of sanctions, "lift and strike" would stand forth as the single grand idea that Bill Clinton would put forward to fulfill his promise to save Bosnia—if only the Europeans, who, of course, had troops on the ground, would let him. Indeed, as James Gow points out in Triumph of the Lack of Will,
No sooner had the UK and France implicitly acknowledged that US pressure would be irresistible and that 'lift and strike,' along with the withdrawal of UNPROFOR, would be inevitable, then the US in September placed a six-month moratorium on its call to lift the embargo.
Ironically, the Clinton Administration, having ebbed and flowed in arguments with the Allies on the arms embargo question, pulled back from the brink when finally forced to confront the real implications of withdrawal, lift and strike....Bill Clinton had thus managed to shape the perfect policy: a rhetorical policy, one consisting solely of words. It brought moral credit; it carried no risk. As the President remarked one day in April, "The US should always seek an opportunity to stand up against—at least speak out against inhumanity." These verbs—to stand up against and to speak out against—Clinton blends together in a single sentence as if they were one and the same, in fact they are very different. For Bill Clinton, as the Bosnians were slowly discovering, speaking out against inhumanity often seemed a means to avoid standing up against it.
Could he have stood up against it? After all, Colin Powell and his own military opposed him, the Europeans were skeptical and reluctant, and, most important, the problem had grown much more complicated since the first days of the war during the Bush administration. And yet, despite the accepted mythology, a majority of Americans tended to support taking strong action in Bosnia—if, that is, it was coordinated with the United States' allies. As Wayne Bert puts it in The Reluctant Superpower,
The power of the President is considerable, and a determined president who was willing to take responsibility for Bosnia policy might well have forged a coalition that could have surmounted the many obstacles and used force to get a satisfactory settlement. More than one European agreed with a diplomat who said that the President "should stop asking them their own opinion on what he plans to do and start telling them instead what he plans to go ahead with, preferably with their support."
Such an approach was inconceivable for Clinton, for he had no commitment to making the sacrifices it would have taken to stop the war; rather, as Gow says, he took a "stand on principle against 'ethnic cleansing' without being prepared to do what was necessary to stop it."
As Owen points out, rhetoric creates illusions; it makes people "dream dreams." And making people dream those dreams, and act on them, was in retrospect Clinton's greatest failure. His rhetoric, however, would soon be trumped by a supremely independent Algerian-born Frenchman who, by the force of his own personality, would help impose on the Bosnians the supreme rhetorical policy of the entire war.
On March 10, 1993, the Commander of the United Nations Protection Force in Bosnia, General Philippe Morillon, climbed into his armored car at Tuzla and set off for the imprisoned city of Srebrenica. Under his command were a column of white United Nations trucks and jeeps, loaded with food and medicines. Though he had received assurance from General Mladic personally that his convoy would be permitted to enter the city, Serb commanders halted the convoy: no food would be allowed into Srebrenica. After hours of discussion Morillon finally decided to leave the convoy behind and enter the city himself. Though he was permitted to proceed with two patrol cars, an armored vehicle, and one truck loaded with medicine and sugar, he was directed toward a treacherous mountain road that, as the Serbs knew, had been mined. As the tiny caravan crossed the front line into Muslim territory the truck hit a mine; it had to be left behind.
It was already dark when General Morillon drove slowly in his white car through the Dantesque main street of Srebrenica. Refugees had continued to flood the town. In the streets fires smoked and sputtered: the last trees having long since been cut down, refugees burned plastic bottles and garbage, filling the streets, already stinking of unwashed bodies and urine and excrement, with noxious fumes. The next morning Morillon rose and met with Naser Oric and his commanders, along with several civilian leaders, to discuss the future of the enclave. Morillon urged the Muslims to avoid provoking the Serb soldiers who surrounded them. He would try, said the general, to negotiate a ceasefire, seek to arrange with the Serbs to let some aid convoys into the town. And then he suggested a broader, long-term strategy: Srebrenica, said the general, might become a demilitarized zone.
Naser Oric and his commanders were not pleased with the suggestion, for it seemed to raise more questions than it answered—most obviously, who would protect the town from the Serbs if the Muslims gave up their weapons? Could they really depend on the United Nations to protect them? But the situation of Srebrenica had become too dire; when Oric's men radioed political leaders in Sarajevo to ask them about Morillon's proposal, they were told, according to a participant in the meeting quoted by Honig and Both, "Sarajevo supported it because there was nothing else."
There was, however, General Morillon. Since his arrival, Srebrenica had been quiet; the incessant shelling and firing had stopped. Even as Morillon was discussing the town's future, a radio operator in the Presidency Building was sending Oric a coded message from Srebrenica's mayor, Murat Efendic, who was exiled in Sarajevo: "Whatever happens, prevent Morillon from leaving Srebrenica until he provides security for the people there," Efendic said. "Do it in a civilized way. Use women and children."
Oric did precisely that. Women went house to house, bringing out into the streets hundreds of mothers and children. They sat and put together crude posters—"Don't Abandon Us!" "If You Leave, They Will Kill Us!" "We Are Hungry! Give Us Bread!"—and by the time General Morillon was about to climb into his car that afternoon it was surrounded by a roiling ocean of shouting and crying women and children, some of whom were sitting down in front of its wheels. Morillon stood on the hood and addressed the women, assuring them that he would not abandon their town. Though he was eloquent in his appeal, the woman refused to budge. He asked Oric to help clear the way but the military leader sadly admitted that confronted with such a problem he was powerless.
Finally Morillon went off to sleep and, at two o'clock in the morning, slipped quietly out of town on foot, to wait in Potocari, two miles away, for his driver to meet him. Unfortunately for him the women, who had deployed themselves in eight-hour shifts, were watching, and they blocked his car once more; indeed, when the General walked sheepishly back into town the crowd of women and children had grown larger than before.
The General abruptly changed tactics. Soon the women and children filling the square around his car would gaze up to see the handsome general with the penetrating gaze standing at attention on the balcony of the Post Office, brandishing in one hand the blue flag of the United Nations. He gazed down at the women, the flag flapping in the wind. "You are now under the protection of the UN forces," the General declared dramatically to the people of Srebrenica. "I will never abandon you."
It was a startling and wholly unexpected turn of events and, for UN officials, not a particularly agreeable one. Morillon had essentially made use of his own captivity to place a United Nations shield over the town. And he had done this wholly on his own authority, as an act of grandiloquent inspiration. The next day, when Oric and the other commanders told Morillon he would be permitted to leave, the General refused. Only working from within the miserable, vulnerable pocket of Srebrenica, he now believed, would he be able to negotiate the delivery of aid, the evacuation of refugees, and, finally, a ceasefire and the demilitarization of the enclave.
The Serbs, outraged, declared that they would permit food convoys to enter Srebrenica only after the General left the enclave—hardly a believable promise since they had permitted only one convoy through during the entire siege. Meantime the Serbs shelled and bombarded the villages around Srebrenica, seizing one after another, making their way steadily closer to the town itself. Naser Oric, seeing that Srebrenica must soon fall, approached Morillon and asked if it could be made an "open town" and taken under the protection of the UN forces. Morillon laid down his conditions, as quoted by Honig and Both:
My intention is that except for some [civilian police]..., all men who wish to stay here must give weapons to my command post here in Srebrenica. Those who want to continue to fight must go to the hills....
Unfortunately, the Serbs, unimpressed with Morillon's proposal to disarm the Muslims and determined now to seize the town, continued to advance. On March 19, the Serbs finally permitted an aid convoy to enter Srebrenica. The trucks were mobbed by desperate people. As soon as the food and medicine had been unloaded, seven hundred women and children fought their way aboard. Although the temperature was far below freezing, they waited all night aboard the trucks; several woman and children suffocated; others froze to death. When they arrived in Tuzla, their condition shocked the doctors waiting to receive them. According to Honig and Both,
The refugees were hungry, cold and dirty and were surrounded by a sickening stench. Their wounds had been neglected and amputations had to be performed immediately as gangrene was eating away at people's bodies.On March 26, Morillon met with Milosevic and Mladic in Belgrade and obtained a ceasefire along with the Serb general's pledge to allow food convoys into Srebrenica and, for the first time, evacuate those who wished to leave. Again, when the white trucks arrived desperate refugees virtually rioted in their attempts to force their way on; on the first convoy, twenty-four hundred people jammed into space meant to transport seven hundred.
Younger women fought and sometimes severely injured their elders; some women threw their infants into the arms of anyone on the trucks willing to take them in a desperate attempt to save their lives. Doctors in Tuzla found the trucks covered with blood and vomit and after the refugees poured out, invariably several corpses would be left behind, usually those of children.
It was clear to all, of course, that the United Nations was now doing General Mladic's job. He expansively urged that three hundred trucks should be sent in daily to empty the town more rapidly. By this point, however, "the Bosnian government was getting worried and opposed further evacuations," as Honig and Both write.
It wanted Srebrenica to become a safe haven, protected by UN forces. If the evacuations from Srebrenica continued at this rate, there would soon be no substantial civilian population left. Without civilians whose lives were directly under threat, the pressure on the United Nations to deploy peacekeepers in Srebrenica would subside. [Emphasis added]On March 26, Muslim soldiers in Tuzla blocked a convoy filled with Muslim refugees, threatening to send the desperate people back to Srebrenica. "The convoy is not allowed to come in," said one Muslim officer. "We are ready to sacrifice these people." Although these people were eventually allowed into Tuzla, the positions of the Serbs and the Muslims were now completely reversed. The Serbs, who had blocked all access to Srebrenica, now permitted the UN to evacuate as many people as it could. The Bosnians, who had demanded that the way be opened to food convoys and the evacuation of refugees, now blocked all efforts to evacuate their people from Srebrenica.
Realizing that the Bosnians were now preventing the united Nations from, in effect, cleansing more muslims from Srebrenica, General Mladic became determined to seize the city. His artillery and tanks launched a vicious attack, capturing one by one the villages encircling it and sending survivors scurrying for town. Deeply alarmed, General Morillon set off once more for town—he had developed what his superiors and some of his staff considered an unhealthy obsession with Srebrenica. But the Serbs turned his convoy back; when Morillon tried to pass through Zvornik with only two vehicles he found himself surrounded by a crowd of infuriated Serb women. In a hellish echo of his experience in his beloved Srebrenica, the women shrieked, beat on his vehicle, and scrawled "Morillon Hitler" and other obscenities on his white United Nations car. To make Morillon's humiliation complete, he had to be rescued from the mob of screaming women by Mladic's chief of staff, who was flying in a helicopter that violated the United Nations' own no-fly zone to reach him.
On April 12 Serb gunners launched two artillery bombardments that killed fifty-six people and wounded many more. During the next three days the Serb attacks increased steadily in ferocity. One by one the Muslims ran out of ammunition. Srebrenica, it was clear, had only hours left to live. Thinking of Bratunac and Kravica and all the other massacres and counter-massacres, killings, and revenge, the men of Srebrenica knew what fate to expect.
On April 16, as Russian and American envoys sat in Belgrade struggling to convince Slobodan Milosevic to "use his influence" with General Mladic and Dr. Karadzic to halt the Srebrenica offensive, United Nations negotiator David Owen was having an ominous telephone conversation:
I had rarely heard Milosevic so exasperated, but also so worried: he feared that if the Bosnian Serb troops entered Srebrenica there would be a bloodbath because of the tremendous bad blood that existed between the two armies. The Bosnian Serbs held the young Muslim commander in Srebrenica, Naser Oric, responsible for a massacre near Bratunac in December 1992 in which many Serb civilians had been killed. Milosevic believed it would be a great mistake for the Bosnian Serbs to take Srebrenica and promised to tell Karadzic so.Owen writes as if he took Milosevic's "worries" and "fears" at face value; it is, as is often the case, hard to know what the former foreign secretary really thinks. As for Milosevic, he is both a celebrated liar and a leader who, certainly in the spring of 1993, retained very strong influence over the Bosnian Serb Army—which until scarcely a year before, after all, had been simply a part of the Yugoslav National Army. The idea that Milosevic found himself "exasperated" by General Mladic's launching an offensive a few miles from the border of Serbia itself is difficult to believe. The words Dr. Owen so scrupulously records admit of another, more plausible explanation: in case Mladic does take the enclave, and his men go on to murder a great many people—for the very reasons Milosevic suggests—the Serb President wants an alibi. He tried to stop it; he did his best for the forces of good; Mladic proved uncontrollable.
As Milosevic chatted with Owen, General Mladic's men broke through the Muslim lines and surged toward the town. An unnamed eyewitness, quoted by Honig and Both, describes these last moments of the siege:
We were sitting in the basement and shells were exploding every five seconds....I went on to the balcony but immediately a machine-gun salvo hit the wall next to me. I went back to the basement. We could hear the shooting come closer and we thought we were going to be killed. Then suddenly I heard outgoing shells—a different sound. Either the Serbs had entered, or it was us!He goes upstairs, finds a window, and cautiously surveys the main street.
I saw more than a hundred men running up the hill towards the Serbs and I heard shouts: "Naser! Naser!" Later I heard that Naser Oric and two groups of 150 men had pushed back the Serbs 500 metres that day....The artillery man who had fired the shells... told me they had kept fifty shells for a critical moment.But this was not all. In Belgrade the Russian and American envoys had been hard at work. So had the diplomats in the United Nations Security Council laboring in far-off New York.
Two hours after Naser pushed back the Serbs, there [came a radio] announcement that Srebrenica had been declared a safe area. We all jumped into the air and fell into each other's arms, crying and laughing at the same time. We had been saved.After so many months of siege they still had faith. Had they already forgotten the words of General Morillon: "I will never abandon you."? True, he had been gallant, Morillon, but he was soon gone. Now, from New York, the diplomats and politicians of many nations gazed on Srebrenica, imagined the horror that might come when the Serbs overran the town, and moved to protect it—but only with words.
The French had concluded in their official estimate that forty thousand troops would be required "to oppose any aggression" on the "safe" areas. And yet few nations, after having uttered the words "safe areas" and raised their hands proudly to vote, proved willing to risk their troops. To "oppose any aggression" from the forces of General Ratko Mladic, Srebrenica would be provided not with thousands of troops but was one hundred forty lightly armed Canadians. A year later the Canadians were relieved by five hundred seventy Dutchmen.
And just what were these "safe areas" that this handful of men were meant to "guard"? A United Nations relief officer gave this answer:
Violence, black-market activities, prostitution, theft are becoming the only activities of the population. Tensions are mounting between the majority refugee population and minority local population. As always the women, children and elderly are most at risk. The enclave must now be recognized for what it is, namely a closed refugee camp of 50,000 persons without adequate facilities for more than about 15,000."Safe havens" consisted of little more than words on scraps of official paper. Like the beautiful phrases of the Dayton Accord, which painted a picture of a reunited Sarajevo and "guaranteed" that the Serbs could live free and without fear in their old neighborhoods, Under Muslim control, such words, if the powerful nations of the world were not prepared to add flesh to them—to exercise their will and make them real—amounted to little more than a cruel fiction. In the bloody summer of 1995, which led to the fictions of the Dayton agreement, this would become terribly clear.
This is the third in a continuing series of articles
 See Chris Hedges, "Serbs in Bosnia See No Peace for Their Dead...," The New York Times, January 18, 1996.
See "The US and the Yugoslav Catastrophe," The New York Review, November 20, 1997, and "America and the Bosnia Genocide," The New York Review, December 4, 1997, the first two of the present series of articles.
 See Stephen Kinzer, "Muslims to Take a Sarajevo Suburb Sooner Than Expected," The New York Times, February 20, 1996.
 See Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (University of California Press, 1996), pp. 1-5.
See Chris Hedges, "Postscript to Sarajevo's Anguish: Muslim Killings of Serbs Detailed," The New York Times, November 12, 1997.
See Stephen Kinzer, "As Leaders Urge Them On, Serbs Clog Roads Out of Sarajevo," The New York Times, February 22, 1996.
Demands for tightening of sanctions, etc., quoted in "People in Glass Houses: Bush Should be Careful Whose Foreign Policy He Calls 'Reckless,'" Decision Brief (Center for Security Policy, Washington), July 28, 1992, page 1. "Whatever it takes to stop the slaughter of civilians" quoted in Mark Danner and David Gelber, writers, Peter Jennings, correspondent, "While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy," Peter Jennings Reporting, ABC News, ABC-51, p. 9 (March 17, 1994).
"People in Glass Houses: Bush Should be Careful Whose Foreign Policy He Calls 'Reckless,'" Decision Brief, p. 1.
 Quoted in "Method to the Madness," Decision Brief (Center for Security Policy, Washington), October 2, 1992, p. 3.
During spring and summer 1992, when the
Serbs were seizing huge chunks of Bosnia and "cleansing" it of
Muslims, State Department analysts were following events there closely,
compiling lists of atrocities and tracking deportation to concentration
camps weeks before press disclosures. See "America and the Bosnia Genocide,"
The New York Review, December 4, 1997, p. 59.
 See "While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy," p. 8.
Drawn from an unbroadcast section of an interview with ABC News, "While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy," January 1994.
See Jean E. Manas, "The Impossible Trade-off: 'Peace' vs. 'Justice' in Settling Yugoslavia's Wars," in Richard H. Ullman, editor, The World and Yugoslavia's Wars (Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1996), p. 43.
 See "The US and the Yugoslav Catastrophe," pp. 62-64.
 Dick Morris, Behind the Oval Office: Winning the Presidency In The Nineties (Random House, 1997), pp. 245, 253.
 See David Owen, Balkan Odyssey: An Uncompromising Personal Account of the International Peace Efforts Following the Breakup of the Former Yugoslavia (Harcourt Brace, 1995), pp. 106-107.
Delivered before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, February 10, 1993. Quoted in Roy Gutman, A Witness to Genocide (Macmillan, 1993), pp. xli and xxxviii.
Drawn from an unbroadcast section of an interview with ABC News, "While America Watched: The Bosnia Crisis," January 1994.
 See Morris, Behind the Oval Office, p. 245.
 See Noel Malcolm, Bosnia: A Short History (New York University Press, 1996), pp. 25, 249.
 From "Report of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, February 19, 1993"; cited in Honig and Both, Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, p. 82.
Drawn from another unbroadcast section of an interview with ABC News, "While American Watched," February 1994.
See my "America and the Bosnia Genocide," for a more thorough description of the Serbs' campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Since the publisher, W.W. Norton, with the author's kind permission, agreed to make available Blood and Vengeance as a work-in-progress in manuscript, all quotations must be considered subject to change before the book's scheduled publication in June 1998. Though in this review Ihave drawn only from the passages on the early years of the war, Sudetic's narrative covers centuries in the history of the Srebrenica region.
Quoted in Laura Silber and Allan Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (Penguin, 1997), pp. 269-270.
 Birtley, as Strobel describes, soon ran out of food and his batteries ran low, and then, as he watched with UN peacekeepers at an observation post, he was struck with shrapnel from a Serb mortar. His leg was shattered in four places, and an emergency operation just managed to save it (a colleague filmed the operation with Birtley's camera). Birtley was finally smuggled out of Srebrenica on a UN helicopter.
 See "America and the Bosnian Genocide," The New York Review, December 4, 1997.
Quoted in Roy Gutman, Witness to Genocide, pp. xli-xlii, and in Bert, The Reluctant Superpower, p. 105.
 See Elizabeth Drew, On the Edge: The Clinton Presidency (Simon and Schuster, 19TK), p. 146.
 See Colin Powell, My American Journey (Ballantine, 1995), pp. 560-561.
 For Claes, see ABC News, "While America Watched," p. 11. For Christopher, see Elizabeth Drew, On the Edge, p. 159.
See Colin Powell, My American Journey, p. 561.
See David Owen, Balkan Odyssey, pp. 134-135.