The New Yorker
Hypocrisy in Action: What's the real Iran-Bosnia Scandal
By Mark Danner
May 13, 1996
Hypocrisy may be the mother's milk of politics, but there are occasions -- the controversy now being manufactured in Congress over "secret" Iranian arms shipments to Bosnia is one -- when the glass runs over. In the coming weeks, citizens will watch as that late-twentieth-century American art form, the full-dress political scandal, enters its decadent phase. Panelled committee rooms, indignant congressmen, stubborn Administration witnesses -- all the familiar trappings will be on display. But the inquisition will plumb only an emptiness: a secret that wasn't a secret, a crime that wasn't a crime. And the real crime, the real secret hypocrisy of our dealings with Bosnia and Iran, will lie in plain sight, unsought and undisturbed.
In September of 1991, the United Nations imposed an arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia. The embargo, predictably, favored the Bosnian Serbs, for they had ready access to the arms stockpiles and factories amassed by the Tito regime. President Bush, determined to avoid an election-year involvement in a messy Balkan war, firmly supported the embargo; and in September of 1992, when a plane loaded with Iranian arms landed in Zagreb, his Administration strongly protested.
That summer and fall, as ghastly images of Muslim prisoners in Serb concentration camps appeared on television, candidate Bill Clinton called for the use of "whatever it takes to stop the slaughter" in Bosnia. But while Clinton, as President, did prove different from his real-politik predecessor in his sympathy for the Bosnians, he shared Bush's unwillingness to take risks. In the late spring of 1993, Clinton shelved his first Bosnia policy, "lift and strike" -- so called because it envisaged lifting the embargo and initiating American air strikes -- in the face of strong objections from our European allies. Even so, Republicans in Congress argued vehemently, with Senator Bob Dole arguing most vehemently of all, that the embargo should be lifted -- unilaterally, if necessary -- so that the Bosnians could "defend themselves." These critics tended to sidestep the fact that the United States would be obliged to send troops to evacuate European peacekeepers and that, in any case, lifting the embargo, by encouraging an all-out Serb offensive, might lead to the destruction of the Bosnians.
In March of 1994, Clinton Administration offcials scored a diplomatic success in the Balkans by fashioning a tenuous "federation" between Bosnian Muslims and Croats. By now, American intervention - so often dangled before the hapless Bosnians - had been effectively ruled out, and only Bosnian and Croat victories over the triumphant Serbs could "even the playing field" and make possible a broader settlement. And so, during the last days of April, 1994, when the Croatian President, Franjo Tudjman, approached the American Ambassador, Peter Galbraith, and inquired what the Clinton Administration would say to his establishing a full-scale "pipeline" of arms from Iran to Bosnia (a modest stream of weapons was already flowing from Islamic countries, Iran included), Galbraith responded that he had "no instructions." This non-answer answer, we now learn from the Los Angeles Times, in almost the only bit of genuine news in this affair, had been formulated the night before, "at the highest levels" -- that is, with the involvement of President Clinton himself.
Within a week, an Iranian cargo plane touched down at the Zagreb airport and began unloading its cargo of arms; a week after that, news of the shipments appeared on the front page of the Washington Post. Within months, Congress passed a law forbidding the Administration to enforce the embargo. In April, 1995, the Post again reported that, with Washington's "tacit acceptance," Iran had continued to deliver "large quantities of arms to Bosnia's Muslim-led government." This non-secret secret policy soon bore fruit. The rearmed Croatians and Bosnians won decisive victories; and the ethnic cleansing and bloodletting of that summer, along with the savagery of the Serb counterattacks, made possible the map, faintly inscribed though it is, that was conceived at Dayton.
From a clutch of congressional committees we will now hear this or that honorable member profess himself, like Captain Renault, "shocked, shocked" to learn that Iranian arms had cleared the way for Dayton. Since the Iranian shipments had become a matter of public record a few days after they began, the grounds for shock -- Senator Dole has accused the Administration not only of "misleading the American people" but of "duplicitous" behavior -- seem to be rather thin.
But one Dole statement has the ring of truth: the Clinton Administration has allowed a strong Iranian presence in the Balkans, and that presence now constitutes "one of the most serious threats to our military forces in Bosnia." And it is true that Clinton's policy, while a tactical success, looks to be a strategic failure. Speaker Newt Gingrich blames this on "extraordinarily amateurish" policymaking; but the causes lie deeper, both in the sad hypocritical history of the United States in the Bosnian war (the Americans promised help, but only the Iranians delivered) and in the way our national-security apparatus functions -- or, rather, a decade after Iran-Contra -- malfunctions.
The story, when it's pieced together, seems a bureaucratic version of a door-slamming French farce. President Clinton, his National Security Adviser, Anthony Lake, and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott meet aboard Air Force One -- it is April 27, 1994, and they are returning, aptly, from Nixon's funeral -- and decide to instruct Ambassador Galbraith to say he has "no instructions" regarding the Iranian shipments. No one mentions this to the Director of Central Intelligence or to the Secretary of Defense. C.I.A. officers monitoring arms traffic soon begin to suspect that -- shades of Iran-Contra! -- someone is conducting a covert operation without the Agency's knowledge. Meanwhile, in the fall of 1994, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke drafts a program whereby Turkey, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia would replace Iran as the main arms suppliers to the Bosnians. Holbrooke's program -- which would have greatly reduced the Iranian presence in Bosnia -- is finally rejected by Lake and Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who fear angering the Europeans.
But the Bosnians, excited by Holbrooke's idea, are chattering on about it, and the C.I.A. is listening. Finally, Ambassador Galbraith, in a discussion with his (by now highly suspicious) C.I.A. station chief, manages to leave the impression that he himself is indeed "in the loop" on the Iranian shipments. The C.I.A. man reports this to Langley, and James Woolsey, the Director of Central Intelligence, takes the matter to the White House, whereupon Lake, who helped initiate the policy in the first place, orders a formal investigation by the President's Intelligence Oversight Board. Six months later, the board apparently concludes -- the report has not been released, though Congress is demanding it -- that nothing illegal has been done, and the White House is guilty only of "excessive secrecy." And thus, in this political season, the scandal begins.
One hears in this odd tale a faint echo of an earlier time, when the perversion of national-security bureaucracies rendered them impotent to carry out their duties. The President keeps vital information from his intelligence chief and his Defense Secretary; the C.I.A. spends its time tracking what it believes to be rogue covert activities, and then tattles to the White House. Meanwhile, a plan to replace Iranian arms with arms from friendlier sources is rejected because it might anger the Europeans. And, beneath the layers of hypocrisy in the burgeoning scandal, this last seems the saddest. After all the hearings and debates and trials over covert action and public disclosure and hypocrisy in high places, when an occasion arises in which the intelligence bureaucracy might serve some useful function, it -- and the national-security agencies around and above it -- find themselves too choked by the ghosts of scandals and controversies past to do anything of much use.