The Bosnian War Cables

The 20th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords is a time to reflect on the power of American diplomacy. But it is also a time for a reckoning of America’s dismal diplomatic response to genocide in the heart of Europe.

A Bosnian Muslim woman, survivor of Srebrenica atrocities in 1995, Sehida Abdurahmanovic, arrives at Potocari memorial cemetery, near Srebrenica, on March 31, 2010, to visit graves and pay her respects to relatives, victims of the Bosnian-Serb ofensive in July 1995. Serbia's Srebrenica apology on Wednesday March 31 met with bitterness and cynicism in Bosnia where Muslim survivors of the massacre slammed Belgrade for dodging the term genocide and Bosnian Serbs felt betrayed. AFP PHOTO / ELVIS BARUKCIC (Photo credit should read ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty Images)
A Bosnian Muslim woman, survivor of Srebrenica atrocities in 1995, Sehida Abdurahmanovic, arrives at Potocari memorial cemetery, near Srebrenica, on March 31, 2010, to visit graves and pay her respects to relatives, victims of the Bosnian-Serb ofensive in July 1995. Serbia's Srebrenica apology on Wednesday March 31 met with bitterness and cynicism in Bosnia where Muslim survivors of the massacre slammed Belgrade for dodging the term genocide and Bosnian Serbs felt betrayed. AFP PHOTO / ELVIS BARUKCIC (Photo credit should read ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Twenty years on, the Dayton Peace Accords continue to be invoked as a triumph of American diplomacy, a bold display of superpower knuckle-busting that imposed a political settlement on the Balkan’s bitterest of enemies.

Through a period of 20 days in November 1995, Richard Holbrooke, one of his generation’s most distinguished diplomats, strong-armed Bosnian, Serb, and Croatian leaders into ending the bloodiest post-Cold War conflict on European soil. It was an imperfect deal: It broke the country of Bosnia-Herzegovina into a Bosnian Muslim and Croatian federation, and a Bosnian Serb region under a shared federal authority. But it ended a war that had killed approximately 100,000 people, the majority of them Bosnian Muslims slaughtered in cold blood by Bosnian Serb forces under the command of Gen. Ratko Mladic, dubbed the Butcher of Bosnia, who is being tried at The Hague for war crimes and genocide.

Still, the triumph of Dayton masks the more unsettling story of American diplomatic dysfunction and drift that defined the Clinton administration’s approach to the Bosnian War for nearly three years before Dayton. It would take the shock of the July 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, the worst act of mass slaughter on European soil since World War II, to compel American policymakers and their allies to devise a coherent strategy for ending the Bosnian War.

With the approach of the 20-year anniversary of the Dec. 14, 1995, signing of the Dayton Accords in Paris, the National Security Archive and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide are publishing scores of declassified  White House, State Department, and foreign government cables detailing the diplomatic indecision and disarray.

The documents, some of which have never before been made public in full, detail the series of U.S. half-measures — from food airdrops to the establishment of undefendable safe areas — that shaped a policy intended to create the impression of “doing something, when, in fact, we were not willing to do anything seriously,” Jenonne Walker, the senior director for Europe on the National Security Council during the Bosnian War, recalled during a conference of key participants and policymakers organized by the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s genocide prevention program and The Hague Institute for Global Justice in The Hague this past summer.

“We thought it was folly to call something a safe area that we had no means or intent of keeping safe,” Walker said, according to a transcript of the Hague conference. “But we had zero political or moral credibility because we were not willing to participate ourselves.”

The documents, which were made available to Foreign Policy in advance of their public release on Monday, also shed light on a critical agreement among the United States, France, Britain, and the United Nations to secretly allow a pause in the NATO bombing campaign in the spring of 1995 after Serb forces seized U.N. peacekeepers as hostages. Weeks after the pause was agreed upon, the U.N.’s military leadership dismissed and delayed calls for air support for a tiny contingent of Dutch peacekeepers who formed a final line of defense against the worst act of mass slaughter since World War II. The decision to withhold air power, in the words of one Dutch officer, Kees Matthijssen, was a “game-changer” that set the stage for the all-out Serb offensive against Srebrenica.

A Fresh Start

During the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton denounced President George H.W. Bush’s handling of the Balkan war as lacking “moral leadership.”

In the first month after he was sworn in, President Clinton authorized the use of American planes to airdrop food, medicines, and other supplies in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which had become a hub for thousands of Bosnian Muslims driven from surrounding villages by the Bosnian Serb Army. The Clinton administration pressed for war crimes charges and reinforced sanctions.

Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the administration’s most hawkish cabinet member, was growing increasingly frustrated by American inaction, arguing that it undermined U.S. credibility in the world and encouraged the Bosnian Serbs to commit atrocities. The president’s high-minded campaign pledge added up to empty rhetoric without concrete action aimed at stopping the killing.

On April 14, three months after Clinton was sworn in as America’s 42nd president, Albright proposed establishing a series of “U.N. protection enclaves” in Bosnia that would be defended by U.S., NATO, and Russian ground forces with the support of American air power. The model, she said, would emulate the security zones set up in 1991 by the United States and its allies in Kurdish sections of northern Iraq following the Gulf War.

“We have never tested the proposition that American military intervention might intimidate the Bosnian Serb militia and their patrons in Belgrade,” she wrote in a memorandum to the national security advisor, Anthony Lake. “I understand that deciding to use American forces in Bosnia would be crossing the Rubicon. But we should think about whether sweeping the problem under the rug creates more problems. If we say we would never impose a settlement we are blessing ethnic cleansing.”

But Albright had few allies. On Feb. 5, 1993, Clinton’s advisors agreed to a plan to use U.S. military force in Bosnia, but only after the warring parties agreed to a political settlement. American firepower would not be used to protect civilians at risk of violence.

Killing a Peace Plan With Feint Praise

Yet even as the administration stepped up its role in the Balkans, Clinton’s national security team largely dismissed what it viewed as an unimplementable U.N.- and European-backed diplomatic initiative — the Vance-Owen plan — designed to stop the fighting and bring the war to an end. A U.S. national intelligence assessment in 1993 concluded that the Vance-Owen plan — which called for dividing Bosnia into 10 semiautonomous regions representing the country’s Muslims, Croatians, and Serbs — “holds little prospect of preserving a unitary Bosnia in the long run.”

“Vance-Owen has a terrible map and would require lots of American blood and treasure,” Vice President Al Gore groused at a Feb. 5, 1993, White House principals meeting. “The American people will not want to send our boys there.”

Despite Washington’s misgivings, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher argued that “we should not throw out Vance-Owen at this point and do it ourselves,” citing concern about alienating key European allies, like Britain and France, that had peacekeepers in Bosnia, influential members of U.S. Congress, and Russia. In the end, the Bosnian Serbs refused to sign the deal, essentially killing it off, leaving the West with no alternative in its place to end the war. “The collapse of the Vance-Owen plan in the spring of 1993 left behind a policy vacuum that was not filled until the aftermath of Srebrenica with the American-led diplomatic initiative that resulted in the Dayton peace agreement,” according to a report from the conference in The Hague this past summer.

In its place, the United States backed a number of initiatives — including the establishment of safe areas, the lifting of a U.N. arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims, airstrikes against Bosnian Serb forces — that either failed to gain backing from the U.N. or its European allies or were viewed by many in the administration as woefully inadequate. In August 1993, the U.S. national intelligence officer for Europe warned the CIA’s chief, James Woolsey, that unilateral U.S. airstrikes against the Serbs would “break the international coalition” and lead to a split in the U.N. Security Council among the United States, its Western allies, and Russia.

With the collapse of the Vance-Owen plan, the focus of attention shifted from ending the war to protecting its civilian victims.

While Albright’s proposal of using U.S., European, and Russian soldiers to provide security for protected areas never got off the ground, Washington and other key powers settled on a far more limited plan for protecting civilians with lightly armed U.N. peacekeepers in a series of Bosnian Muslim enclaves.

In May 1993, the United States, Britain, France, Spain, and Russia reached agreement on a joint action program that called for the establishment of “safe areas” throughout Bosnia to protect Muslim villagers. It set the stage for the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the establishment of six safe areas, including Srebrenica.

Behind closed doors, U.S. policymakers expressed little confidence in the U.N.’s capacity to defend the safe areas. At a May 17, 1993, White House meeting, Clinton’s principal national security advisors concluded that “we will not … agree to use air power to help defend safe havens that contain allied forces, citing as necessary our basic reservations about the limits of air power and the lack of an end point to the safe haven strategy.”

It was a “fake policy” designed to create the appearance that the U.S. was doing something it wasn’t doing,” said Walker, the former National Security Council staffer. “Many of us thought it was an embarrassment.”

During the same meeting, the principals vowed to continue to press for an end to the U.N. arms embargo on Bosnia and for airstrikes, “making clear our reasons for believing it is the best course but will not press it to the point of shattering relations with Allies or the Russians.”

The NATO Air Campaign Runs Aground

Throughout the war, the United States had pressed the U.N. and its European allies to adopt a “strike and lift” strategy. First, the United Nations would lift the U.N. arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims, permitting them to import weapons to defend themselves. Next, NATO fighters would step up airstrikes against the Bosnian Serbs in an effort to prevent them from ethnic-cleansing Bosnian Muslims and to push them to the negotiating table. But the French and British governments, which had the most peacekeepers on the ground, were not willing to go along.

By August 1993, the United States had prevailed on the United Nations and European governments to authorize the use of air power. But to secure backing from the U.N. and allies, Washington agreed that NATO would place authority for authorizing airstrikes in the hands of U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. For a while, the strategy seemed to work.

On Feb. 5, 1994, Boutros-Ghali approved a request by Britain, France, and the United States to bomb the Bosnian Serbs if they failed to meet a 10-day deadline to pull back their heavy weapons from Sarajevo.

But when a U.N. commander in Bosnia ordered airstrikes on April 10 to halt a Bosnian Serb offensive against the city of Gorazde, the Serbs seized 150 U.N. personnel as hostages. “The Bosnian Serb side quickly realized that it had the capacity to make UNPROFOR [the U.N. Protection Force] pay an unacceptably high price if air power was used on its behalf,” recalled Shashi Tharoor, the U.N.’s Bosnia desk officer at the time.

The air campaign ran aground by May 1995.

The Serbs had withdrawn their heavy weapons from a U.N.-monitored collection point that had been set up the previous year. The U.N. commander in Sarajevo, British Lt. Gen. Rupert Smith, issued an ultimatum to return the weapons and on May 25 launched airstrikes when they didn’t comply. But the Bosnian Serbs retaliated by shelling several U.N. safe areas, including Srebrenica and Tuzla, and seizing some 400 U.N. personnel as hostages. Some were used as human shields to deter further airstrikes.

The Secret Pause

The hostage crisis prompted a retreat by Western powers.

On May 27, 1995, Clinton, French President Jacques Chirac, and British Prime Minister John Major spoke by telephone to discuss the hostage crisis.

Chirac later told Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic that he had secured “President Clinton’s agreement that air strikes should not occur if unacceptable to Chirac,” as a U.N. special representative recounted in a diplomatic cable.

On May 28, one day after Clinton spoke to his British and French counterparts, Clinton’s top national security advisors met in the White House Situation Room, where they agreed to a secret open-ended pause on airstrikes of an indefinite duration.

“The U.S. will not press allies with troops on the ground for further strikes now, but … the possibility of further strikes will not be ruled out, according to an official account of the principals’ meeting. “[P]rivately we will accept a pause, but make no public statement to that effect.”

The United States also pledged to “strongly” support efforts by France and Britain to bolster the U.N.’s firepower and draw up tougher military rules of engagement, while supporting an effort to regroup U.N. peacekeepers into more defensible positions to “reduce the risk.”

“Should strikes again become necessary, a more robust approach permitting the U.N. and NATO to respond at the time and place of their own choosing should be followed,” according to the account.

But the White House ruled out the prospect of sending American ground forces into Bosnia in support of their European allies.

It remains unclear precisely what orders were transmitted to the U.N. about the decision to pause the use of air power. But the plan quickly filtered down to the U.N.’s French force commander, Gen. Bernard Janvier, who issued a fateful May 29 directive: “The execution of the mandate is secondary to the security of U.N. personnel. The intention is to avoid all loss of life in the defense of indispensable positions and to avoid all hostage taking.”

“We are no longer able to use air power because of the obvious reason that our soldiers are on the ground,” Janvier subsequently  told the U.N.’s top political official, Yasushi Akashi, and Smith, U.N. commander in Sarajevo. “Whether we want it or not, the Serbs are controlling the situation.”

Robert Frasure, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs, singled out Clinton for abdicating leadership to Chirac, citing “insufficient energy and leadership at the White House of late which has handed control of this issue … to the impulsive, dynamic Chirac.”

“At the risk of sounding petulant,” wrote Frasure, who died in an August 1995 car accident in Bosnia, in a July 1, 1995, cable to Secretary of State Christopher, “[u]p to now we had four or five Bosnia policies all cohabitating amicably under the administration with no sense of discipline.”

Holbrooke was even more scathing. The Clinton administration’s Bosnia policy, he confided to the U.S. ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, was “a shambles beyond belief, according to an entry in Galbraith’s contemporaneous diary, major portions of which are being made public for the first time this weekend.

The Final Chapter

On July 6, 1995, the day Bosnian Serb forces began their notorious final assault on the village of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia, Thom Karremans, the Dutch commander of a small contingent of some 300 U.N. peacekeepers defending the town, issued a desperate plea to his superior for NATO air support. By that stage, Srebrenica had become a magnet for thousands of displaced Bosnian Muslims fleeing Bosnian Serb attacks against their villages. Srebrenica was being defended by an outgunned contingent of Bosnian Muslim forces, from the army’s 28th Division. The western section of the enclave, known as the Bandera Triangle, had become a “staging ground for Bosnians to mount raids” against nearby Serbian villages to steal food.

But Gen. Kees Nicolai, a Dutch chief of staff for UNPROFOR in Sarajevo, declined to send the request up the U.N. chain of command, certain it would be summarily rejected. Nicolai explained to his compatriot that Janvier, the U.N. force commander, had recently implemented new “very restrictive” conditions requiring that NATO air power in Bosnia could be used only as a “last resort,” and in this instance it would only be possible if the Dutch battalion in Srebrenica had “first used their weapons.”

Anticipating a bloody assault on the town, the two Dutch officers devised a ruse to provoke the Bosnian Serbs — who were threatening to overrun the Bosnian Muslim enclave — into engaging the peacekeepers in a firefight, providing a pretext for inviting airstrikes. Karremans set up a series of blocking positions on the town’s outskirts, signaling to the Serbs that the U.N. was attempting to impede their plans to take the town.

The Serbs took the bait, opening fire on U.N. positions at 6:30 p.m. on July 10 and triggering another call for air support. This time Nicolai passed on the request to the U.N. force commander, Janvier, at U.N. headquarters in Zagreb, Croatia. But the “massive” display of air power that Karremans expected never came. Instead, two NATO planes, including a Dutch F-16, showed up 18 hours later, dropping a single bomb in the vicinity of a Serb tank, but ignoring some 40 other targets, including artillery pieces and rocket launchers that Karremans had identified in advance.

The tepid military response, according to Dutch officers, sent a clear message to the Bosnian Serbs that they could enter Srebrenica without facing the threat of NATO air power. The Serbs quickly overran the town, setting the stage for the massacre of more than 7,000 males, which would mark the worst act of mass killing in Europe since World War II.

The Dutch government didn’t learn until much later that the decision not to bomb the Serbs more forcefully could be traced back weeks earlier to the telephone conversation by Clinton with his French and British counterparts, which was implemented by senior U.N. military officials.

The Dutch prime minister at the time, Wim Kok, said that the bombing pause was “not communicated” to his government. “It remains puzzling for me why this very important decision to have a pause, an unqualified pause — not forever, but at least for the time being — was completely undisclosed to the government of a country that had huge responsibilities in Bosnia, and particularly in Srebrenica,” he said at the conference in The Hague this past summer.

The logic of politics: Things Have to Get Worse Before they Can Get Better

Gen. Mladic’s decision to execute 7,000 Bosnian Muslims exposed the fecklessness of U.N. and Western pledges to protect civilians from mass abuses.

But it was also a disastrous strategic blunder, triggering a far more assertive military response to the Bosnian Serbs, and setting the stage for reinvigorated U.S. and European efforts to end the war.

On July 21, 1995, the U.S. and other major powers gathered in London, where they delivered an ultimatum to halt an ongoing offensive. Boutros-Ghali relinquished the authority to approve all NATO airstrikes, delegating that power to his commanders.

France and Britain established a rapid reaction force with the military capacity to fight. Backed by NATO air strikes, the U.N. force ultimately helped break the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo.

At the Hague this past summer, Lt. Gen. Rupert Smith described the change in attitude towards the use of force: During the July 1995 London Conference, Prime Minister John Major urged Smith to respond forcefully to future Bosnian Serb challenges. “The next time there is an attack on Gorazde, on the British battalion, we are going to bomb,” Smith recalled Major telling him. “We are going to bomb and not stop bombing, and you Smith are going to hold the key.”

The United States, meanwhile, was making progress on another front. In March 1994, the U.S. had brokered an agreement between the Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats to join forces against the Bosnian Serbs. The following month, the U.S. assured Croatian President Franjo Tudjman that Washington had no objection to a clandestine arms channel that was ferrying arms from Iran, Turkey, and other Arab governments to the Bosnian Muslims, thereby intensifying the flow of weapons.

In late July 1995, Galbraith delivered a secret diplomatic demarche to the Croatian government indicating support for a new Croatia plan, dubbed Operation Storm, to launch a major offensive to retake Kraijina, a Serbian controlled swath of Croatia, and to help the Bosnian Muslims break the siege across the border in Bihac.

“With the Serbs attacking the Bihac enclave from Croatian territory, and the Sarajevo [government] requesting your assistance, we cannot dispute your right to intervene [militarily] to repel the Serbs,” according to the U.S. demarche, which was cited in Galbraith’s diary. “We appreciate…your willingness to help defend the Bosnians.”

Croatia’s Operation Storm, which began on Aug. 4, 1995, routed the Kraijina Serb defenses within days,  breaking the Bosnian Serb siege of Bihac. The operation fundamentally altered the balance of power in the region, setting off the flight of more than 150,000 Croatian Serb civilians to Serbia, and bringing the Serbs to the peace table.

“The Serb leadership understood that the time had come to sit down at the negotiating table,” said Joris Voorhoeve, the Dutch Defense Minister from 1994 to 1998. “My wish, of course is that the policies that helped save Gorazde, including the threat and use of real military power, had been applied five weeks earlier.”

“That might have made a difference to the 8,000 people who were killed in Srebrenica,” he added. “There is an unfortunate logic in politics: things sometimes have to get worse before they get better. They have to get worse to make everybody understand that muddling through will not work any more and something radically different is necessary.”

A lingering question for the participants at the Srebrenica conference in the Hague this past summer centered on whether the slaughter at Srebrenica could have been averted if the international community had confronted the Bosnian Serbs with credible air strikes.

David Harland, the head of U.N. civil affairs during the Bosnian war, told the Hague gathering last summer that he is convinced the Bosnian Serbs would have halted their assault on Srebrenica if the U.N. had approved the Dutch request for air support. “People who are now dead would be alive if [the U.N. peacekeeping mission] had done those things it was mandated to do but did not have the political will to do.”

Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, and a former political officer with the U.N. in Bosnia during the war, said investigators with the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) concluded that Gen. Mladic had not initially intend to overrun Srebrenica, but simply to force the Bosnian Muslims into an easily controlled area in the enclave’s “urban core.” The decision to seize the town was taken on July 9, 1995 three days after U.N. headquarters declined the Dutch contingent’s request for air support. The Bosnian Serbs “continued the mass killing,” Zeid said, after realizing “they were not being exposed, because day by day the U.N. was not saying anything.”

Gen. Smith speculated that Mladic gave the order for the mass killing because he lacked the manpower to oversee thousands of male prisoners while fighting the Bosnian Muslim forces in the enclave. “The simple solution is: kill the prisoners,” Smith said.

But Muhamed Durakovic, the one survivor of the Srebrenica massacre at the Hague conference, said it was clear to him the killing was part of a well-thought plan to cleanse eastern Bosnia of its Muslim population.

“If someone wanted to just kill a few thousand prisoners and get rid of them, they did not have to chase us around for months and kill everyone they found,” he said.

Photo Credit: Elvis Barukcic/ AFP/ Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch