Bill Clinton and Bosnia

Author: Taylor Branch
Uploaded: Friday, 06 November, 2009

Pending the release (if ever) of the former US president's official White House tapes, this extract from a recent book by his close friend and confidant documents only too credibly - and shockingly - the depths to which French and British policy towards Bosnia sank during the 1992-5 war.

On Bosnia, the president said his government first had been divided over proposals for direct intervention to stop the infamous spasms of violence, the ethnic cleansing, that had plagued the former Yugoslavia since the end of the Cold War. He said General Powell and others had recommended against various military options, arguing that air attacks were tempting and safe but could not compel a truce, and that ground troops would be exposed among hostile foreigners in difficult terrain. Within weeks, the new administration had explored ideas to relax the international embargo on arms shipments to the region, reasoning that the embargo penalized the weakest, most victimized nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Unlike its neighbours in Serbia and Croatia, the heavily Muslim population of Bosnia was isolated without access to arms smuggled across the borders. The Bosnian government wanted the embargo lifted so its people could defend themselves, thereby opening a chance for military balance among the antagonists that could lead to a political settlement.

Clinton said US allies in Europe blocked proposals to adjust or remove the embargo. They justified their opposition on plausible humanitarian grounds, arguing that more arms would only fuel the bloodshed, but privately, said the president, key allies objected that an independent Bosnia would be ‘unnatural’ as the only Muslim nation in Europe [sic]. He said they favoured the embargo precisely because it locked in Bosnia's disadvantage. Worse, he added, they parried numerous alternatives as a danger to the some eight thousand European peacekeepers deployed in Bosnia to safeguard emergency shipments of food and medical supplies. They challenged US standing to propose shifts in policy with no American soldiers at risk. While upholding their peacekeepers as a badge of commitment, they turned these troops effectively into a shield for the steady dismemberment of Bosnia by Serb forces.

When I expressed shock at such cynicism, reminiscent of the blind-eye diplomacy regarding the plight of Europe's Jews during World War II, President Clinton only shrugged. He said President François Mitterrand of France had been especially blunt in saying that Bosnia did not belong, and that British officials also spoke of a painful but realistic restoration of Christian Europe. Against Britain and France, he said, German chancellor Helmut Kohl among others had supported moves to reconsider the United Nations arms embargo, failing in part because Germany did not hold a seat on the UN Security Council. Clinton sounded as though he were obliged to start over. He groped amid these chastening constraints for new leadership options to stop Bosnia's mass sectarian violence.

Excerpted from The Clinton Tapes: wrestling history with the President, by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster, New York, September 2009

Back To News Index
home | about us | publications | news | contact | bosnia | search | bosnia report | credits
bosnia report
Bosnia Report is a bi-monthly magazine which publishes articles and other information about Bosnia-Herzegovina and related issues. Use the links below to access the current issue or archives.

current
archive

Search our archives: