The 1995 Blog

1995: The year the future began

The 1995 massacre at Srebrenica and its effects on U.S. policy

Twenty years ago this week, Bosnia Serb forces seized control of the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia and soon after began rounding up, and killing, the Muslim men and boys — some from ambush, most by execution.

The massacre that began July 12, 1995, continued for days and claimed 8,000 lives. It was the worst atrocity of the war of Bosnia, which itself was the deadliest and most vicious conflict in Europe since the time of the Nazis.

The news media this week are recalling the massacre, noting how the world in 1995 did little to thwart or prevent the savagery at Srebrenica, a lightly defended, UN-declared “safe area”; how remains of the victims still are being found, and how some Bosnian Serb leaders of the time — notably Ratko Mladic, who is accused of having ordered the mass killings — are still on trial at The Hague.

Srebrenica massacre_memorial_gravestones_2009_1

Memorializing Srebrenica’s victims

Noted less often by the media is how the massacre stirred a storm of outrage that helped prod the administration of President Bill Clinton to intervene in Bosnia, however belatedly.

Clinton’s inaction on Bosnia — he had deferred to Western Europe leaders to find a way to end the bloodshed — was assailed from across the U.S. political spectrum in mid-July 1995.

William Safire, who wrote for the New York Times from the right, declared in a column after Srebrenica was overrun:

“On the central moral-military challenge of his Presidency to lead the Western world in collective defense against bloodstained aggression — Bill Clinton will be remembered in history as a man who feared, flinched and failed.”

Safire added: “We now see proof that the Clinton policy of passivity [in Bosnia] was wrong.”

Anthony Lewis, a Times columnist who wrote from the left, called the fall of Srebrenica “a signal event in world politics,” adding:

“It is a devastating humiliation of the United Nations. It calls into question the future of the North Atlantic alliance. But most of all it points to the vacuum of leadership in the White House.”

Lewis wrote that at “the heart of the matter is Bill Clinton. He does not want any change in the world’s response to the Serbs, for a simple reason. Change is likely to mean American ground forces, and Mr. Clinton fears that would be politically damaging to him.”

But as I note in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, Clinton soon recognized that deference and non-intervention in Bosnia threatened to do him harm, politically.

Gradually, the administration shed its desultory and deferential approach to Bosnia. In August, Clinton designated Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian Affairs, to lead a U.S. diplomatic initiative to push the warring parties — the Bosnians, Croatians, and Serbs — to negotiate an end to the conflict.


Holbrooke: Voluble and volatile

The voluble and volatile Holbrooke and his small team pursued shuttle diplomacy in late summer and early fall, 1995. And by early September, the balance of power in Bosnia began to shift away from Serb forces that had seized swaths of Bosnian territory in 1992 during the first weeks of the war.

In late August, the Bosnian Serbs besieging the Bosnian capita Sarajevo had fired five mortar shells into the city, one of which killed 37 people in an open-air market. The attack was answered within days by U.S. warplanes under NATO authority, unleashing an aerial bombing campaign on Serb military barracks, ammunition depots, air-defense sites, and communications towers.

It was NATO’s most extensive military action since its founding after World War II, and the sustained bombing eventually forced the Serbs to pull back their artillery, lifting the siege of Sarajevo.

By October, Holbrooke had secured a cease-fire and an agreement among the warring parties to meet near Dayton, Ohio. Their talks began November 1, and three weeks later produced an agreement ending the war that had claimed 100,000 lives.

Twenty years on, it is clear that the Dayton agreement imposed a political rigidity from which Bosnia has been unable to escape. The accords maintained Bosnia as a unified country while establishing within its borders two statelets of roughly equal size: A Serb republic and a Bosnian-Croat federation. Cooperation between the statelets has been at best halting and erratic.

But the Dayton accords did end the bloodshed in Bosnia. As such, I write in 1995, they represented “the first major successful foreign policy initiative of Clinton’s presidency.”

The Dayton effect on U.S. policy was invigorating. It was as if the world’s sole remaining superpower was hitting stride.

Peace in Bosnia was secured by a NATO-led intervention force that included 20,000 U.S. troops, who began deploying at the end of 1995. It was the first in a succession of ever-more ambitious U.S. military operations overseas.

Policy success abroad gave rise to what aptly has been called a “hubris bubble” that kept expanding as the Clinton administration in its second term applied military force in the pursuit of diplomatic objectives.

In December 1998, for example, Clinton ordered four days of bombing of Iraq to punish the regime of Saddam Hussein for not cooperating with U.N. inspectors investigating the country’s suspected stocks of chemical and nuclear weapons. (Clinton at the time was about to be impeached on charges of lying under oath and obstructing justice, in the scandal stemming from his sexual affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The bombing of Iraq invited comparisons to the plot of the 1997 hit movie Wag the Dog.)

Six weeks before the bombing, Clinton signed the “Iraq Liberation Act of 1998,” which committed the United States to supporting efforts to remove Saddam and “promote the emergence of a democratic government” in Baghdad.

In 1999, Clinton ordered the bombing of targets in Serbia to pressure the regime of Slobodan Milosevic to end the persecution of ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo. After 78 days of NATO air strikes, Milosevic gave in and withdrew their troops from Kosovo.

Post-Dayton interventionism — the willingness to deploy U.S. military power in pursuit of foreign policy objectives — lived on after the Clinton administration, as I note in 1995. President George W. Bush in October 2001 ordered the invasion of Afghanistan, base of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization that organized the deadly attacks on the United States the month before.

Eighteen months later, U.S. forces led an invasion of Iraq.

As Peter Beinart perceptively observed in his book The Icarus Syndrome, “The more confident America’s leaders became in the hammer of military force, the more closely they looked for nails” in projecting force abroad.

The post-Dayton “hubris bubble” finally burst in Iraq. After swiftly seizing Baghdad and toppling Saddam’s regime, the U.S. military confronted a long and bloody insurgency, for which it was unprepared.

To this day, U.S. policymakers are still sorting through the effects of the “hubris bubble.” Its puncturing did not foreclose American ambitions abroad, but it did contribute to a decided retrenchment. During the administration of President Barack Obama, the United States has been reluctant to apply military force to diplomatic goals.

As if chastened by the bursting of the “hubris bubble,” the United States has been far more inclined to lead from behind.


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