As former President Bill Clinton released hundreds of classified intelligence documents about the war, he said Washington had to take action in Bosnia whatever the US public thought about it.
In his speech at a forum about the Bosnian war on Tuesday, Clinton insisted that foreign policy decisions like the US intervention in Bosnia should not be made on the basis of public opinion, which he said was often apprehensive.
“Oftentimes when a proposed course of action is unpopular, it’s not exactly like the voters are telling you not to do it. It’s basically like a giant, blinking yellow light,” he said at the forum entitled ‘Bosnia, Intelligence, and the Clinton Presidency’ at his presidential library in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Clinton was reflecting on America’s role in stopping the 1992-95 war, and the conflict’s role in shaping his presidency, as he released 343 previously classified intelligence documents.
“Bosnia in some ways became a metaphor for the struggles of the 21st century,” Clinton said of the dilemmas he faced over diplomacy and intervention as the war erupted after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The 2,346 pages of declassified documents show that it was difficult for him to persuade US allies to intervene.
Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright also told the forum about Washington’s problems with Europe over intervention in the war.
“The Europeans were completely obnoxious, because it was in Europe,” she said.
“They were at the same time saying, ‘why don’t you let us do it?’ and then they didn’t do it.”
Albright emphasised the importance of intelligence in mobilising global public opinion, detailing the effort it took to inform the public about the murder of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in mid-July 1995 by using photographs obtained by US intelligence operations
“It was hard to persuade people about what really happened,” explained Albright.
“I managed to get these images declassified, but there were a lot of questions floating around about what had happened, and what the Dutch [UN peacekeepers in Srebrenica] had been doing. I passed the pictures around the [UN] security council and it was silent… it was really chilling to everybody. It was an amazing example of how you can use intelligence,” she said.
Albright also discussed the internal disputes that occurred in the situation room regarding intervention in Bosnia.
“We all argued, and that’s actually what it’s supposed to be about,” she said of her discussions with then-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Colin Powell. “Principals committees, you shouldn’t have everybody there saying, ‘Yes, sir. Yes, sir.’”
The declassified documents contain information that was previously not released about US government assessments of the situation from 1990 until 1997, ranging from the impact sanctions were having on the Serbian economy to the likelihood of war between Serbia and Albania and the use of rape as a tool of war in Bosnia.
The documents also detail the arduous process of forging the Dayton peace accords that ended the war in 1995.
One such memo, dubbed ‘Cocktails for Peace’, and dated November 17, 1995, describes the evolution of Serbian strongman leader Slobodan Milosevic’s stance during the peace talks.
Don Kerrick, a member of the American negotiating delegation, wrote to Tony Lake, the US National Security Advisor: “Last night, after your departure, spent bizarre two hours with Milosevic in our map room looking in great detail over Gorazde [a Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia]. After four Scotches, Milosevic offered up more forthcoming corridor to Sarajevo. Falls short of Contact Group proposal, but better than previous offer… Milosevic has invited U.S. delegation to another lobster feast tonight… We have accepted – someone has to do it.”
At the forum, former NATO allied commander Wesley Clark remembered the difficulties of eking out the Dayton accords, saying that it was during the third night with no sleep that he and his team managed to reach a peace deal.
“I learned at [US military academy] West Point how to do an operations plan but I never learned how to do a ceasefire agreement,”Clark said.
Clinton acknowledged that the peace deal had its drawbacks, saying that Bosnia’s institutions are still not considered strong enough by European Union standards.
“Like all of history, there are still many questions pending, but the peace has held because good people were being given good information and made good decisions,” he said.
At some moments during his 45-minute speech, the former president became teary-eyed. While celebrating the lasting peace in Bosnia, he also remarked that he regretted the inaction over the massacres in Rwanda during his presidency.
“When it comes time for the documents to be released about Rwanda… there aren’t any,” he said. “Because we missed it.”
The declassified documents on the conflict in Bosnia can be seen here.