Obituary

How Bob Dole Saved Bosnia on Capitol Hill

Dole’s Bosnia advocacy throughout the 1992-1995 war made him the most consequential Bosnia hawk in Congress.

By , an associate professor at the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Political Sciences.
Sen. Bob Dole, Sen. Joseph Lieberman; Sven Alkalaj, Bosnian ambassador to the United States, and Sen. John Warner all put their hands together in the center in a gesture demonstrating team success.
Sen. Bob Dole (right) is joined by Sen. Joseph Lieberman; Sven Alkalaj, Bosnian ambassador to the United States, and Sen. John Warner on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 26, 1995, after the Senate voted overwhelmingly to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia. Doug Mills/AP Photo

As a Bosnian growing up in Malaysia during the Bosnian war in the early 1990s, U.S. Sen. Bob Dole was a larger-than-life politician. He was an eloquent supporter of Bosnia in the United States who gave a voice to Bosnians on the U.S. and global stages. At a time when most European officials had let Bosnians down in their time of need, Dole spoke and acted with firm conviction. Many Bosnians felt he was saying precisely what they wanted to convey to the global public.

Many years later, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Congress’s role in shaping the United States’ Bosnia policy during the 1992-1995 war. I gained access to Dole’s Senate papers from the institute named for him in Lawrence, Kansas. The senator’s hundreds of papers on Bosnia were truly impressive, reflecting his commitment to supporting the newly independent country in Europe.

Dole’s interest in Yugoslavia began years before the country broke apart. Starting in the mid-1980s, Dole took up ethnic Albanians’ cause in Yugoslavia. As such, he was well informed and understood the nationalistic forces that were unleashed as Yugoslavia descended into chaos in the 1990s.

As a Bosnian growing up in Malaysia during the Bosnian war in the early 1990s, U.S. Sen. Bob Dole was a larger-than-life politician. He was an eloquent supporter of Bosnia in the United States who gave a voice to Bosnians on the U.S. and global stages. At a time when most European officials had let Bosnians down in their time of need, Dole spoke and acted with firm conviction. Many Bosnians felt he was saying precisely what they wanted to convey to the global public.

Many years later, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Congress’s role in shaping the United States’ Bosnia policy during the 1992-1995 war. I gained access to Dole’s Senate papers from the institute named for him in Lawrence, Kansas. The senator’s hundreds of papers on Bosnia were truly impressive, reflecting his commitment to supporting the newly independent country in Europe.

Dole’s interest in Yugoslavia began years before the country broke apart. Starting in the mid-1980s, Dole took up ethnic Albanians’ cause in Yugoslavia. As such, he was well informed and understood the nationalistic forces that were unleashed as Yugoslavia descended into chaos in the 1990s.

On Capitol Hill, Dole led the charge to support Bosnia. Frequently partnering with then-Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Dole’s bipartisan, ad hoc group of senators—which included then-Sen. Joe Biden—advocated an assertive U.S. role in ending the war. Their primary objective was to steer first the George H.W. Bush administration and later the Clinton administration into taking more decisive stands on Bosnia.

A major obstacle to Bosnia’s self-defense efforts during the war was the 1991 U.N. arms embargo on Yugoslavia, which prevented Bosnia from arming itself and froze the military superiority of Serbia and Bosnian Serb forces. The Bosnian government sought to have the embargo lifted and invested significant diplomatic energy toward this end, and efforts to lift the arms embargo soon became Congress’s focus as it formulated U.S. policy toward the country. Congressional Bosnia hawks, led by Dole, undertook a sustained campaign to lift the embargo and provide military assistance to the country.

Dole’s multipronged approach included not only legislating foreign policy in Congress but also shaping U.S. public opinion and pressuring the executive branch to act. In late 1992, Dole and Biden introduced bipartisan legislation that would provide U.S. military assistance to the Bosnian government once the embargo was lifted. Dole and 12 other senators wrote to then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush, stating “the genocide of the people of Bosnia is continuing. … We believe that the U.N. arms embargo against Bosnia must now be lifted.”

Dole also published an open letter in the Los Angeles Times addressed to then-Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, in which Dole accused Milosevic of having “savagely pursued your dream of creating a ‘Greater Serbia,’” which had brought “genocide to Bosnia-Herzegovina.” He called for NATO airstrikes against Serbia’s military assets if Milosevic did not end the bloodshed in Bosnia.

By early 1993, a new administration was in place in Washington. Dole continued pressing for airstrikes on Bosnian Serb targets and lifting the embargo. He also forcefully opposed various European peace proposals that essentially called for carving up Bosnia.

With Britain and France opposed to intervention, Dole’s leadership on this issue was beginning to strain trans-Atlantic relations. Former British Prime Minister John Major wrote in his memoir that “the most strident criticism of our [Bosnia] policy came from American Senate and Congressional hawks” adding that when he visited Washington in 1993, the “American opinion had become almost evangelical for the policy of lift and strike—lifting the arms embargo and starting air strikes against Bosnian Serbs, which greatly concerned us.”

In the Senate, Dole kept working to legislate U.S. policy on Bosnia. In early 1994, the Senate adopted a Dole amendment that placed the Senate on the record as saying Serbia was directly involved in the conflict in Bosnia. It further stated that Bosnia had been unable to defend itself due to the international arms embargo and called for its lifting. The amendment was adopted in the Senate by a vote of 87 to 9 and represented a significant victory for the pro-Bosnia camp.

The senator who had devoted so much energy to Bosnia paid a visit to the country in June 1994. Dole visited the besieged Bosnian capital of Sarajevo with Biden and Sen. John Warner. They met with then-Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic and other officials. In a letter he sent to Izetbegovic following the visit, Dole wrote he was “deeply moved by the courage of the Sarajevans.”

Back in Washington, in late 1994, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton’s administration announced it had ordered the military to end its participation in the enforcement of the arms embargo on the Bosnian government. This was a significant move for Bosnia, indicating that U.S. policy was tilting in a pro-Bosnian direction. Pressure from Capitol Hill was an instrumental factor that led to this decision.

Then came the 1994 midterm elections, which proved to be a game-changer. The Republican victory was a rebuke to Clinton’s first two years in office. Far more importantly for Bosnians, Dole assumed the position of majority leader, with Bosnia at the top of his legislative agenda.

Dole soon introduced the 1995 Bosnia and Herzegovina Self-Defense Act, the most significant piece of U.S. legislation on Bosnia during the war. Co-sponsored by Lieberman, Biden, and others, the bill called for a termination of the U.S. arms embargo on Bosnia.

The bill languished in the Senate for several months but was put to a vote following the Bosnian Serb capture of Srebrenica in July 1995. It passed by a 69-29 majority with 21 Democrats and 48 Republicans on board. A related bill in the House was adopted by a 298-128 majority. The Senate and the House votes indicated comfortable majorities in both chambers. This bipartisan support was instrumental in passing the pro-Bosnian legislation and reflected a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the Clinton administration’s approach to the conflict.

Yet Clinton vetoed the legislation. To forestall a new vote in Congress that could have overridden the presidential veto, the administration offered an alternative policy avenue by undertaking the most serious diplomatic initiative since coming to office. This was essentially the beginning of Richard Holbrooke’s shuttle diplomacy, which paved the way to the Dayton peace accords.

After the peace talks’ success, Clinton asked Congress for support in implementing the peace agreement. U.S. troops were to be deployed to safeguard peace. Republican opposition to troop deployment in Bosnia was well known, and Dole himself had never advocated for U.S. boots on the ground. Yet Dole decided to support Clinton’s decision to deploy U.S. troops to Bosnia and even helped move a number of Republicans on this issue.

Dole’s assertive advocacy for Bosnia and his leadership throughout the 1992-1995 war marked him as the most consequential Bosnia hawk on Capitol Hill. His work with Lieberman and Biden reflected his commitment to a bipartisan foreign policy. And Dole’s decision to support Clinton’s troop deployment to Bosnia rather than oppose it for his own political gain affirmed that the Kansas senator was not merely a politician. He was a statesman.

For all his efforts in the 1990s, Dole was named an honorary citizen of Sarajevo and was recently awarded with a “Key to Sarajevo.” He will be remembered as a true champion of the Bosnian cause on Capitol Hill.

Hamza Karcic is an associate professor at the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Political Sciences. Twitter: @KarcicHamza

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