Mark Danner

Slouching Towards Dayton

Near the lovely North Portico of the White House, on a mild and breezy evening in mid-June 1995, the President and First Lady danced alone.


Near the lovely North Portico of the White House, on a mild and breezy evening in mid-June 1995, the President and First Lady danced alone. In the background musicians of the Marine Band played. Moments before, President Jacques Chirac and Mrs. Chirac of France had said their goodbyes. As Hillary and Bill Clinton danced, the President’s foreign policy advisers-Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, Samuel Berger, Richard Holbrooke-stood together looking on, for the night was warm and clear and beautiful and the White House, Holbrooke writes, “exuded all its special magic.”

However seductive these romantic trappings, Richard Holbrooke, then Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs, found himself preoccupied with other things. “I looked at Christopher, concerned that we would lose the moment,” a moment Holbrooke had anxiously awaited since early that morning, when the “pre-brief”-a normally placid, pro forma meeting during which the President’s aides and advisers prepare him for a session with a foreign leader—had “degenerated into an angry and contentious discussion.” The anger and contention stemmed, as they had so often that spring and summer, from the unfolding catastrophe in Bosnia, where Sarajevo and Srebrenica and the other eastern enclaves were under heavy siege, and Western leaders who had contributed soldiers to the United Nations peacekeeping force were threatening to withdraw their troops—a dangerous operation which President Clinton had pledged to assist with twenty thousand American soldiers.[1] During the meeting, Holbrooke writes,

The presentation given by members of the National Security Council staff was, in my view, misleading as to the situation, and especially the nature of American “automaticity” in assisting a UN withdrawal. When I started to offer a contrary view, the President, obviously disturbed that he was receiving contradictory information before [seeing] an important visitor, cut me off sharply.

In the car on the way to the French embassy, where President Chirac expected Holbrooke and Secretary of State Christopher for lunch, the younger man expressed his “astonishment at what had just happened.” Christopher, who, according to Holbrooke, had been “much sobered by the meeting,” agreed that they must speak to the President as soon as they could.

And so we arrive at that magical night, the Chiracs having just departed after a pleasant dinner, the music playing, the First Couple tracing their solitary course across the White House dance floor. Finally the Clintons break, turn, stroll over to the North Portico. Holbrooke seizes his chance.

“I hate to ruin a wonderful evening, Mr. President,” I began, “but we should clarify something…. Under existing NATO plans, the United States is already committed to sending troops to Bosnia if the UN decides to withdraw. I’m afraid that we may not have that much flexibility left.”

The President looked at me with surprise. “What do you mean?” he asked. “I’ll decide the troop issue if and when the time comes.”

There was silence for a moment. “Mr. President,” I said, “NATO has already approved the withdrawal plan…. It has a high degree of automaticity built into it, especially since we have committed ourselves publicly to assisting NATO troops if the UN decides to withdraw.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When one considers that from Bill Clinton’s first inauguration the sine qua non of his policy toward Bosnia had always been his refusal to send American ground troops, it is astonishing that he was unaware that he had irrevocably committed himself, in some circumstances, to do just that. More important, his ignorance of the implications of his pledge in effect poisoned his administration’s entire policy toward the Bosnia war, for it meant the President himself was unable to see clearly the terrain-bounded, on one side, by his refusal to send troops and, on the other, by his resulting need to keep the European peacekeepers there-for which the country’s strategy should have been shaped.

Nor, finally, could the President have been able to grasp the larger implications of the Bosnia “endgame.” As Holbrooke writes,

It was not an overstatement to say that America’s post-World War II security role in Europe was at stake. Clearly, we had to find a policy that avoided a UN withdrawal. That meant a greater US involvement.

In a war fraught with reversals and ironies, we have reached perhaps the greatest of them all; for here Bill Clinton, Arkansas governor, comes squarely face to face with George Bush, foreign policy president. It was President George Bush who, during 1990 and 1991, largely ignored the ample signs of Yugoslavia’s collapse; it was President Bush who after the Serbs attacked the Slovenes during July 1991, and despite changes enacted only seven months before that had explicitly made such “crisis management” part of the alliance’s mission, chose to “hand off” the conflict to the Europeans-and to the militarily toothless European Union, not NATO; it was Bush who during late summer and fall of 1991 turned aside suggestions that American warplanes and ships attack Serb gunners shelling Dubrovnik and Vukovar; and Bush who in early 1992 turned aside a French suggestion that peacekeepers should be sent to Bosnia to prevent war from breaking out.

Had President Bush made a different decision in any or all of these cases, he might have succeeded in greatly circumscribing, or even preventing altogether, the Bosnian war. But Bush and his advisers, notably Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and Adviser for National Security Affairs Brent Scowcroft, both of whom had personally served in Belgrade and suffered from the handicap of believing they understood what was happening in the country better than they really did, had maintained a consistent and admirably unhypocritical position, which Secretary of State James Baker had earlier summarized in a homely expression: “We got no dog in this fight.”

Three years and hundreds of thousands of dead later, George Bush’s successor had been forced to realize what was at stake in Bosnia: the Atlantic alliance. Perhaps Bush officials had assumed, as many of their European counterparts had, that the Serbs were certain to win a swift and overwhelming victory. But partly because of the Europeans’ own efforts in contributing “humanitarian assistance,” that quick triumph had eluded Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s protégés, and now few could deny that four years of savage war allowed to rage unchecked on the European continent had at last, and by a circuitous route, reached the point of threatening the institutions-military, political, financial-that since World War II had linked Europe and America. The Americans did indeed have a dog in this fight.

If Holbrooke’s normally impeccable reasoning here seems somewhat paradoxical-“Clearly, we had to find a policy that avoided a UN withdrawal. That meant a greater US involvement”-this is because Clinton’s abrupt comprehension had indeed turned matters upside-down: if the Europeans, who had for so long irritated the Americans by preventing or limiting by their presence the unleashing of air attacks against the Serbs, withdrew from Bosnia, the Americans would be forced to send troops. To prevent such a retreat, the Americans must become more involved.

If Holbrooke’s explanation to Clinton did indeed “ruin a beautiful evening,” sending the President stalking off with his wife, it is perhaps because Clinton, with an election looming just on the horizon, had instantly grasped the political import of what Holbrooke had said. Until a moment before, standing comfortably in the White House North Portico, Bill Clinton had believed that the choice facing him on what surely was his administration’s potentially most serious and politically damaging foreign policy issue was whether or not to dispatch American troops. In view of the tangled situation on the ground, the strong resistance of US military officers, and, above all, the skepticism Americans expressed in their responses to opinion polls, Clinton’s answer, at least until after the election, would continue to be “no,” however bad things in Bosnia became. But that secure and comforting world had suddenly collapsed and Clinton had now to accept that the choice facing him was very different: between sending American troops to cover an ignominious retreat-“to implement a failure,” as Holbrooke puts it-or sending them to ensure an end to the war.

Several thousand miles away the exhausted, malnourished, unwashed people of Sarajevo were awakening to a deafening bombardment, its ground bass the new weapon of terror, the 500-pound rocket-bomb. Across Bosnia, Serb gunners shelled the miserable people who in their thousands had fled the Serb advances only to find themselves packed into Srebrenica and other UN-guaranteed “safe areas,” while an ocean away, a man enjoying a “magical evening” who had heard a few startling words of truth at long last began to force what would become a change in Bosnians’ lives. But not immediately, and not before Srebrenica was lost and with it the lives of many thousands.


During the days after President Chirac’s visit-even as General Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, and General Momicilo Persilic, chief of staff of the Yugoslav National Army, chatted on the telephone, held planning sessions in Belgrade, and generally worked hard to put in place all the pieces of the intricate assault on Srebrenica-senior officials of the Clinton administration gathered together to undertake a Bosnia “policy review.” Anthony Lake, the President’s special adviser for national security affairs, invited officials from the various departments-State, Defense, CIA, among others-to meetings to discuss an “endgame” approach which would take the Americans beyond “daily crisis management” to “planning strategically.” Lake did not, however, invite Richard Holbrooke. “Disturbed by this exclusion,” Holbrooke writes,

I consulted Vernon Jordan, one of the wisest men in Washington and a close friend of the President…. I told Jordan that I was considering departure [from government] before the end of the summer. If Bosnia policy was going to be formulated without my involvement, then there was little reason to stay.

If the words here seem tinged with petulance, the writer has reason: that the Assistant Secretary for European and Canadian Affairs was excluded from contributing to a new policy to end the war in Bosnia raised questions about how President Clinton was conducting the country’s foreign relations.

The deep contradictions in the Clinton administration’s approach to Bosnia can be traced, as can so many others, back to Bill Clinton’s campaign for president in 1992, when he and his advisers seized on the Bosnia war, particularly its highly publicized killings and savageries, as a potent political weapon against President Bush. On a campaign stop on August 5-shortly after reporters revealed that the Bosnian Serbs had been running concen-tration camps in northern Bosnia-candidate Clinton declared that Americans “cannot afford to ignore what appears to be a deliberate and systematic extermination of human beings based on their ethnic origin.” If he were elected, Clinton vowed, he would take strong action. “I would begin with air power against the Serbs to try to restore the basic conditions of humanity.”

As a political technique, this was highly effective, whether or not the man uttering those courageous words had thought them through or believed them. Certainly the man who wrote the words, Anthony Lake, believed them. Lake, who had served with Holbrooke in Vietnam when they were both young foreign service officers, was well-known within the foreign policy “community” for having resigned from Henry Kissinger’s staff in 1971 in protest over the United States’ so-called “incursion” into Cambodia. Such resignations on principle have not been usual in American diplomatic history, at least not until Bosnia.[3]

Coming from Clinton, and against the background of the savage pictures from Bosnia and the resolute refusal of President Bush to act decisively to prevent the atrocities, Lake’s strong words put Bush on the defensive on what should have been his own ground. And yet however potent the words proved politically, and however sincerely Lake and many other members of the campaign, notably Al Gore and Madeleine Albright, agreed with the sentiments the words expressed, the fact was that when it came to Bosnia Clinton had no policy. Or rather, after the candidate’s dramatic statements, the new administration found that it had inherited from its campaign chrysalis half a policy: the new President had expressed his strong sympathy for the Bosnian Muslims. He had condemned the Bosnian Serbs. He had cast the conflict in high relief as a human rights issue-an issue of genocide (though he never used the word) and of the moral obligation, on the part of civilized nations and particularly the United States, to ensure that “the terrible principle of ‘ethnic cleansing’ [not] be validated” and to “restore the basic conditions of humanity.”

On all of these points Clinton’s statements during the campaign had not only reversed the fundamental precepts of Bush but of the European allies as well. Under the flag of the UN, the Europeans had troops on the ground accompanying “humanitarian deliveries”; they opposed air strikes, which they believed would put those troops at risk; they held up, as the heart of their policies, the “principle of neutrality.”

Shortly after Clinton took office, Richard Holbrooke paid a visit to the White House to have lunch with his old friend Tony Lake, for though Holbrooke remained a private citizen (he had been encouraged to expect that the President would nominate him to become ambassador to Japan), he had a deep interest in Bosnia, had made his own “fact-finding” trip there, and now “felt obliged, almost compelled, to offer some unsolicited thoughts” on Bosnia policy to the new administration. As he lunched with Lake in his West Wing office, Holbrooke tells us, he “urged him to press for a greater American effort to stop the accelerating catastrophe….”

[Lake] protested, arguing that while people were still dying in large numbers, “you don’t know how many more people would now be dead if it were not for our efforts.” I replied that this was true but irrelevant.

The pathos in this exchange is all the more convincing, perhaps, because the writer seems unaware of it. Lake the idealist discovered very quickly that any policy his president might approve would fall far short of the brave words he had written for him; the sentiments may have been idealistic and popular, but to act on them would require a commitment Bill Clinton had never considered. Dick Morris, Clinton’s influential former adviser, is admirably blunt:

Noninvolvement in Bosnia 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.”[4]

Lake, having resigned in public protest over the expansion of the war in Vietnam, had based the words he had written for Clinton on a simple belief that the Bosnian war must be stopped because of the horrors it was visiting on unarmed people and because the Serbs’ gruesome strategy of ethnic cleansing had inflicted terrible wrongs that must be set right. To make good on his promises, however, President Clinton would have to become involved in a foreign war that Americans cared little about and that might put at risk his much-promoted plans for the country’s economy and its health care.

By the time Richard Holbrooke came to lunch in the White House, Lake may already have had intimations of what the result would be. Clinton’s rhetoric had greatly encouraged the Bosnians, leading them to believe the new American president would come to their rescue and reverse ethnic cleansing; as for Bill Clinton, he had spoken, had made a comfortably right-thinking position his own. And if, having taken that position, he would nonetheless decline to support, with America’s great military power, what he had himself defined as a “just” conclusion to the war, Clinton’s words would at least lead him to reject or slight diplomatic ideas (such as the Vance-Owen plan, put forward just as Clinton took office) which “compromised” his idealistic goals. Kissinger himself, in words that must have been painful for his one-time protégé, Lake, to read, summarized the result unflinchingly. President Clinton, wrote the former secretary of state,

committed his administration to acting on an aggressive, forceful policy of reversing Serbian seizures of land, of protecting Bosnia as a multi-ethnic society. And, from the beginning, he never adopted the level of force necessary to achieve these large aims. From the beginning, he proposed objectives that were totally incompatible with the means proposed for achieving those objectives. These commitments to higher moral principles unmatched by higher use of force led to a gradual emasculation of the people we were supposed to be protecting…. We drifted into a pattern of behavior in which we were not willing to stop the war by force. But we were also not willing to accept a peace plan that could stop it by diplomacy. Thus, we inflamed the situation without providing the means for dealing with that inflammation.[5]

Though Clinton proved rather less consistent than Kissinger suggests, and though he could boast some real diplomatic accomplishments-especially his diplomats’ brokering of the 1994 Washington Agreement between Bosnian Muslims and Croats-for more than two years the President’s policies led to the worst of all outcomes. Rather than relinquish his high moral position-a position he refused to act upon, or to make any real sacrifice to support-Clinton would, in effect, help to prolong the war.

One can’t know how clearly Lake might have seen this injurious and reprehensible scenario taking shape before him. As a man who had resigned over the Cambodia invasion, he surely cannot have been happy about it. Nor can he have been pleased to hear Holbrooke, a colleague and rival who came to see him free of the burdens of office, hector him about what he, Lake, already knew-and to do it, as Holbrooke himself recalls, with such harsh accuracy:

Even if, as Tony claimed, the situation was better than if the Bush Administration were still in of-fice, it still fell far short of what it should be, and of what the world had been led to expect by Governor Clinton’s campaign rhetoric, which Tony was once so proud of having written. Agitated, Tony said he was doing his best and asked me to be patient. The meeting ended coolly and inconclusively.

Coolly, no doubt; inconclusively, hardly. Signs of its conclusion would present themselves unmistakably two years later, when the national security adviser excluded the assistant secretary for European affairs from the vaunted Bosnia “policy review.”

Holbrooke’s exile was short; Vernon Jordan had a word with the secretary of state and with the President and, Holbrooke writes, “the situation eased.” Thus was the assistant secretary permitted to take part in the dreary business of “policy planning,” in which bureaucracies grind out papers, “principals” representing their departments meet and debate them, and those who leave disgruntled telephone a favored reporter and “leak” their concerns into the pages of the country’s leading newspapers.

Under the guise of this exercise, however, Lake-who as national security advisor is supposed to play the “honest broker” mediating between departments and ensuring that the President receives an unbiased view—had determined that matters would take a different course. According to Bob Woodward, who is clearly following Lake’s account, before passing on the recommendations from the other departments, Lake in late June 1995 gave the President his own paper detailing what he called an “Endgame Strategy,” which proposed a set of “carrots and sticks” to force all sides to the negotiating table:

Lake proposed that Clinton send him as a secret emissary to the allies so he could explain that Clinton had made firm and final decisions on the future course of US policy on Bosnia. The foundation [of the proposal] would be an assertion that the United States would implement this new, long-term policy by itself, outside the umbrella of the United Nations and NATO, if necessary.

After two years of largely blaming the Europeans-for the failure of the “lift and strike” strategy, for their consistent reluctance to agree to allow NATO planes to bomb the Serbs—President Clinton would boldly declare his readiness to strike out on his own. But in what cause? The plan, Woodward tells us,

included massive bombing of the Serbs if they did not cooperate and agree to peace negotiations. It also put pressure on the Bosnian Muslims by saying the United States would lift the arms embargo as the Muslims wanted, but if the Muslims did not negotiate, the United States would leave the region, effectively abandoning them. This was called “Lift and Leave.”

It makes for a dizzying journey, this rush down the road from defender of “ethnically cleansed” Bosnian Muslims to singleminded and fiercely disinterested enforcer of negotiations. It is unclear what precisely the terms of such negotiations might be, what place “justice”-that is, return of captured and “cleansed” territory-will have in them; but for the Bosnians, the signs were not good. For to take the road by way of justice is to follow the costly and difficult and messy way to a settlement; and his insistence on justice, together with his reluctance to bear those difficulties, had always been the central contradiction in Bill Clinton’s position. Now, in the blink of an eye, all this has changed. Nothing must stand in the way of talks, talks that must at last bring the conflict to an end. Though he threatens “massive bombing” of the Serbs, the President has not changed his position on dispatching ground troops; indeed, before the threat of the UN soldiers’ departure, and its now-appreciated implications, all the squeamishness about “ratifying ethnic cleansing” has vanished; so as well has talk, which Clinton officials habitually applied to European peace plans from Vance-Owen onward, of “rewarding the aggressors”:

“I want to get the diplomatic process back on track,” Clinton said, adding that he felt stuck because under the UN agreements the United States and the other allies were prohibited from talking to the [Bosnian] Serbs, who were the aggressors. “We need to get them back to the table.”

The Serbs’ thoughts, however, were by now far from Washington and its “policy review” and far as well from the peace table. On June 21, a Bosnian Muslim military scout observed Zeljko Raznjatovic, the celebrated criminal and militia commander popularly known as Arkan, leading thousands of his famously savage “Tigers” across the Drina and into Bratunac, a town a few miles north of Srebrenica. All that night and those that followed Serb soldiers drove tanks and armored vehicles, as well as truckloads of fuel and ammunition, across the Drina bridges; and General Ratko Mladic began speaking daily to General Momiclo Perisic in Belgrade, and making frequent flights to Belgrade to meet with the Yugoslav National Army chief of staff.

The signs of an imminent attack were seemingly impossible to miss, and indeed they were not missed. The nations of the West, however, having grown accustomed to their impotence, chose to interpret the signs as they liked, and the Serbs, having for four years taken the psychological measure of the Western leaders, designed their attack especially to let the Americans and the British and the French and the Dutch think what they preferred:that the Serbs’ aims were limited, that they could not possibly mean to conquer a “safe area” guaranteed by the United Nations.

And so on July 13, when-as everyone could see on television-General Mladic and his men finished loading the women and children on buses and expelling them from Srebrenica but kept the men back “for interrogation,” the officials running the most powerful nation on earth were able to look on from the White House and tell themselves that their knowledge was limited, that, as Holbrooke says, “precise details of what was happening were not known,…but there was no question that something truly horrible was going on.” And what, after all the raids and massacres and fighting between Muslim and Serb during the last three years, might that “something truly horrible” be?

Holbrooke writes that he pushed for air strikes against the Serbs-“in other parts of the country, as well as at Srebrenica”-but this proposal “had been rejected by the Western European nations who had troops at risk in Bosnia, and by the Pentagon.”

Everywhere one turned, there was a sense of confusion in the face of Bosnian Serb brutality. The first line of opposition to any action was the Dutch government, which refused to consider air strikes until all their soldiers were out of Bosnia…. The Serbs knew this, and held the bulk of the Dutch forces captive…until they finished their dirty work at Srebrenica.

There was another proposal, however, one that came directly from Clinton’s recent dinner guest. On July 13, as General Mladic and his soldiers finished “cleansing” Srebrenica of its women and children, Jacques Chirac, according to Woodward, called Bill Clinton:

“What do we do next?” Clinton asked Chirac.

Chirac was full of moral indignation. This was like World War II. The Serbs were separating the men and taking them off to camps. “We must do something.”

“Yes,” Clinton said, “we must act.”

Chirac had a breathtaking suggestion. They ought to go in with French ground forces and American helicopters to recapture the city.

In Woodward’s account, Bill Clinton is “clearly stunned” by this outlandish suggestion. Holbrooke, however, gives a more plausible version; Chirac’s proposal, he writes, “had already been discussed through official French channels, and run into fierce opposition not only from the British and the Pentagon, but from Chirac’s own generals.” Such opposition might be overcome but the former cavalryman and new French president would need Clinton’s support. It was not to come. Clinton, surrounded by aides and officials listening in on the conversation, “made it clear,” according to Woodward, “that he didn’t consider [Chirac’s proposal] practical and wouldn’t go along.”

Clinton put down the telephone, looked at the faces of the men around him and, according to Woodward, addressed a young naval officer who had come into the office to set up the telephone.

“What do you think we should do on Bosnia?” Clinton asked.

“I don’t know, Mr. President,” the dumbfounded aide replied.

As the President spoke, on a soccer field in the Serb town of Bratunac, Bosnian Serb soldiers and militiamen were lining up thousands of men. These were the men of Srebrenica. The Serbs raised their automatic weapons and shot them down.

This is the seventh in a series of articles.

Books discussed in this article

By Richard Holbrooke
448 pages, June 1998, $25.95 (hardcover)
published by Random House

By Tom Gjelten
278 pages, $13.00 (paperback)
published by HarperPerennial

By Bob Woodward
475 pages, $15.00 (paperback)
published by Touchstone


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

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

[3] During 1992 and 1993 no fewer than four American diplomats and officials—Marshall Freeman Harris, Richard Johnson, George Kenney, and Stephen Walker-resigned to protest their country’s policies in the former Yugoslavia.


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

[5] Quoted in Michael Kelly, “Letter from Washington: Surrender and Blame,” The New Yorker, December 19, 1994, pp. 44-51.