When Srebrenica fell to a Serb separatist attack 25 years ago, Bosnia’s Muslim-led government was reeling from the mass killings under way in the small enclave. So Bosnian officials were stunned when Washington’s immediate response was to coax them to make new concessions – including acceptance of their country’s eventual partition on ethnic lines.
Declassified documents from the period and interviews with some of the protagonists reflect the determination of Bill Clinton and his foreign policy team to find a solution to the three-year conflict at all costs before his re-election campaign began in earnest in 1996 – even if that meant rewarding the Bosnian Serb leaders for their policy of ethnic cleansing by granting them their objective: secession.
More than 8,000 men and boys were slaughtered after Srebrenica, supposedly a UN “safe area” was captured by Serb forces, in the first European act genocide since the Nazi era.
In phone conversations with other foreign leaders as the mass executions were under way, however, Clinton repeatedly expressed his disillusion with the Bosnian army for failing to defend Srebrenica. And in the same week as Srebrenica succumbed, Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, put the finishing touches to a hard-headed “endgame strategy” for extricating the US from the Bosnian catastrophe.
That strategy, begun by Lake’s team in the weeks before the Srebrenica attack, was to try to force a peace deal based on a roughly even division of the territory. If that failed, the plan was to withdraw the UN peacekeeping force (Unprofor), lift the arms embargo on Bosnia and to give its Muslim-Croat Federation some initial support with airstrikes until it was strong enough to fight the Serbs on its own.
But the price of such US support was high. The Bosnians would potentially have to swallow further concessions, including the surrender of the territorial integrity they had been fighting to defend. According to the first annex to the endgame strategy, titled “gameplan for a diplomatic breakthrough in 1995”, (part of a cache of documents declassified by the Clinton presidential library) the first step was to have “a heart-to-heart talk with the Bosnians” to persuade them that in the aftermath of Srebrenica, “they need [to] think more realistically about the shape of a settlement”.
The Federation might have to accept less than half the country, and the US would consider “pressing the Bosnians to agree that the Serbs can conduct a referendum on secession after 2-3 years”.
“If the Bosnians cannot persuade the Serb population that their best future lies in reintegration, there is no point blocking the peaceful separation of the Union along the lines of the Czechoslovak model,” the proposal suggested.
The suggestion alarmed some members of the administration. David Scheffer, an adviser to the ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, who was attending White House meetings on Bosnia, wrote to a colleague: “It’s a very slippery slope. The Serbs have seized enormous territory through ethnic cleansing, and then we hold a ‘democratic’ referendum to confirm such aggression? A very transparent act of appeasement.”
Scheffer, who wrote an account of the period in his memoir, The Sit Room, suggested that Lake and his team may simply have been trying to be provocative to trigger a debate.
“Lake was kind of an intellectual, and he would put things on the table for intellectual feasting, as opposed to pragmatic policymaking,” he said.
Alexander Vershbow, who was senior director for Europe in the national security council (NSC) at the time and helped write the “endgame strategy”, said the position paper was a compromise between different US agencies.
“There was a lot of pulling in different directions within the interagency [process] with the Pentagon perhaps being the most ‘realist’, and the state department and NSC with a more pro-justice side of the argument, looking to get the best deal possible for the Bosniaks [Bosnian Muslims],” Vershbow said.
It did not feel so conceptual to the Bosnian leadership, when the wartime president, Alija Izetbegović, came under American pressure to agree to a Serb referendum, even as news of the Srebrenica killings was emerging.
“There was a huge, huge pressure at totally the wrong moment,” said Mirza Hajrić, who was then foreign ministry spokesman and went on to be chief adviser to Izetbegović.
“We were facing the tragedy of Srebrenica. It was a huge moral defeat for the international community and the most tragic event in in the war, and you had the Americans trying to break you on this basic thing. Why would you reward these people who in July 95, planned and executed genocide?”
Hajrić, now ambassador to Australia, said Izetbegović adamantly rejected any suggestion of a Serb referendum. He believes the urgency of Washington’s approach was driven by the Clinton’s administration’s desire to have the Bosnian problem off US television screens ahead of the 1996 election campaign.
Clinton was certainly very aware of what Americans were seeing on TV. In a telephone conversation with the British prime minister, John Major, on 14 July, the president appeared not to be aware of the scale of the massacre, and sought to play down its significance.
“The casualty rate has gone way down and central Bosnia is at peace because of contributions made by Unprofor. The average TV viewer … thinks it’s as bad or worse than it was in 1992,” the president said, adding that Congress felt the same way. “There’s no telling them it’s different.”
Immediately after Srebrenica’s fall, France’s president, Jacques Chirac, tried to rally western leaders to support the recapture of Srebrenica by force, comparing the situation to the war against the Nazis.
“France is prepared to throw all its forces into the effort to restore the situation in Srebrenica – or we do nothing. But if the option is to do nothing, then that is exactly the situation we were in in 1939, and France will withdraw,” the French president told Clinton on 13 July.
Chirac’s gung-ho spirit was in marked contrast to France’s reluctance to approve Nato airstrikes to deter the Serbs from Srebrenica, a caution shared with the British, who also had many peacekeepers on the ground. US officials dismissed Chirac’s appeals as theatrics and noted, in internal administration memos, that his enthusiasm was not shared by his own generals.
While attempting to humour Chirac, Clinton complained about the Bosnian army, which had fled rather than trying to fight the Serbs.
“In Srebrenica there were about 3,000 Bosnian troops but they … left without putting up a fight,” Clinton said. “I will talk to my military advisers, but they are very sceptical about bringing in forces with helicopters, especially if the Bosnians won’t fight. We cannot defend democratic values in the abstract.”
In the end, the US and its allies agreed to make a stand over the last Muslim enclave standing in eastern Bosnia, Goražde, threatening massive air retaliation if it was attacked. A Croatian offensive against the Serbs in western Bosnia in August 1995 redrew the map, and forced the Serbs to the negotiating table without the promise of a referendum.
The war ended, a foreign policy achievement for Clinton, who went on to win re-election in 1996. The Clinton papers serve as a reminder, however, of how close the US came to giving up on Bosnia.