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Bill Clinton and the Slow Rescue

Uncorked by spiraling violence, the fermenting ethno-sectarianism of Yugoslavia’s breakup poured onto the desks of the incoming Clinton administration. During his campaign for the presidency, candidate Clinton took issue with President Bush’s inaction in the Balkan crisis. Once in the Oval Office, the new commander-in-chief soon walked in his predecessor’s steps. Warren Christopher, the arriving secretary of state, signaled the new administration’s non-involvement message during an appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation program: “[T]he United States simply doesn’t have the means to make people in that region of the world like each other.”1 Two weeks later, the president himself echoed similar disengagement sentiments when he intoned: “The United States should always seek an opportunity to stand up against—at least speak out against—inhumanity.”2 Speaking out, however, was as far as he was willing to go. Throughout Clinton’s early handling of the Bosnian crisis, he faced criticism at home and internationally from human rights groups and media commentators. He dismissed and deflected the invective as best he could until he changed course near the 1996 presidential election. Overall, he did enough to appear halfresponsive to the plight of the Bosnian victims in the meantime.

Like previous and future administrations in non-interventionist cycles, the Clinton White House looked to troop-less approaches by falling back on airstrikes alone. Because American airpower was often a ready weapon to avoid deploying ground forces, it became the instrument of choice, after economic sanctions. The internal discussion among Clinton policy makers revealed divisions. Colin Powell adamantly opposed sending American GIs in harm’s way until the White House put forward clear political objectives for ground forces. The Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff despaired of the way America backed into the Vietnam War without a set of precise priorities. His hesitancy set off Madeleine Albright in what was a widely quoted outburst. The US representative to the UN (before being named secretary of state) declared: “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” The four-star Army general shot back that US armed forces did not consist of “toy soldiers” to be “moved around on some sort of global game board.” In his thinking, “tough political goals” must be defined first so that military forces “would accomplish their mission.”3

The Clinton foreign policy team next searched for coalition partners for its “lift and strike” blueprint. This strategy proposed lifting the arms embargo, which hurt the outgunned Bosniaks more than the Serbs, who had access to the central Yugoslav armories. To compel the Serbs to allow the flow of humanitarian supplies, the United States also advocated striking them with air bombardments. The plan went nowhere with America’s allies. The British and French, who supplied most of the soldiers in UNPROFOR, scuttled it out of fear that the Serbian military would lash back at their forces. London and Paris argued that Washington first commit soldiers to the UN peacekeeping mission before launching airstrikes. Even as Christopher traveled to Europe to sell the lift and strike option, his boss went “south on this policy.” White House aides reported that Clinton’s “heart isn’t in it” because of doubts about settling the bitter ethnic feuds. But the US administration blamed the Europeans, since Washington had no policy except to state “all options are on the table.”4

So, the policy makers returned to the lift-strike strategy. Four months later, in August 1993, Christopher finally won over the Europeans for NATO airstrikes, but only if both NATO and the UN agreed to targets. Because Russia held a veto on the Security Council and defended its ally Serbia, the so-called dual key arrangement never worked. Moscow always stood against aerial attacks against its Serbian dependency.5

The Clinton White House sought out other ways to keep the United States at arm’s length from becoming embroiled in the Balkans. It latched onto a year-old prescription from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The ICRC proposed “safe areas” to protect the endangered Bosniaks inside Bosnia-Herzegovina. Pushed by the Europeans, the Security Council passed Resolution 824 that embodied the “safe area” concept the next year on May 6, 1993. This resolution identified several Muslim-populated urban centers—Bihac, Gorazde, Sarajevo, Tuzla, and Srebrenica—to be safe areas. As such, the designated safe areas were to be “free from armed attacks and from any other hostile acts.” The resolution, however, carefully skirted the term “safe havens,” which connoted a legal definition in international law of immunity for refugees inhabiting them.

Until it designated geographical safe areas, the UN strove to stay neutral in the ethnic-sectarian conflict. Declaring an area safe signaled a departure in UN neutrality for the world body now saw the besieged Muslims as its wards.6 The irony and tragedy of the so-called safe areas was that they became the most unsafe places. Srebrenica, in fact, was the scene of the most savage massacre of the entire war, where over 8000 Muslim boys and men were shot to death by Bosnian Serb Army in July 1995.

When the Clinton administration backed the Europeans’ safe-area proposal, it masked its failure to win London and Paris over to its lift and strike alternative. More tellingly, it provided political cover for American disengagement from active leadership, while the Washington passed the blame and responsibility to the Europeans for the Yugoslav morass. In non-subtle language, Warren Christopher testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Yugoslavia “at heart ... is a European problem.”7 Even with the Secretary of State’s Pilate-esque testimony, the administration failed to scrub its hands of the worsening Balkans crisis. Within the United States, the plight of the besieged Muslims ignited a liberal internationalist movement to take up Bosnia’s cause.8 In time, liberal internationalism exerted political pressure through media commentary on the Clinton administration to go to the aid of Europe’s latest victims of genocidal-type crimes.

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