The CIA has just released a collection of documents called Bosnia, Intelligence, and the Clinton Presidency. At a brief glance, there is nothing sensational, and I would be astounded if a deeper analysis revealed anything other than what the CIA and the powers-that-be are comfortable with as public knowledge. However, that is not to say that it does not make interesting reading. One document in particular elicited more than a few wry grins from me. It is a secret memorandum written by Madeline Albright (U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations) for the National Security Advisor on August 3, 1995, just two days before Operation Storm.
In this memo, Albright advocates that the U.S (belatedly) take leadership with regard to the Bosnian situation, saying “we must stop thinking of Bosnia as a ‘tar baby’”. This term, which conjures up images of Br’er Rabbit lashing out at a ball of tar dressed up by Br’er Fox as a baby and getting himself more and more stuck as he punches and kicks the ‘baby’ for its bad manners, reveals the profound lack of understanding the international community had of the break-up of the Yugoslav federation even as late as 1995. To her credit, Albright tries to explain that it can’t be left to the Europeans to sort out, but she also lets slip that the snide comment by French President Chirac that “there is no leader of the Atlantic alliance” has been chilling her bones for weeks and that “muddle through is no longer an option”. She argues that the previous U.S. strategy, that of giving “primary responsibility to the Europeans”, helping the Bosnians “rhetorically”, and hoping the “parties will choose peace” is “no longer sustainable”. All pretty obvious, but I would observe that this says more about the National Security Adviser whom Albright is briefing (and his master the President) than Albright herself.
She explains that the “failure of our European allies to resolve the Bosnia crisis has not only exposed the bankruptcy of their polity, but it has also caused serious erosion in the credibility of the NATO alliance and the United Nations” and adds that “our failure to act in support of Bosnia threatens to undermine moderate Islamic ties to the United States”. After all, she argues, “[i]f we agree that American troops will be in Bosnia sooner or later, why not do it on our terms and on our timetable?” This is the impetus behind Dayton, a United States that takes “the lead in devising a diplomatic and military plan to achieve a durable peace”.
The memo becomes more interesting when Albright discusses strategy and makes the astute observation that the “essence of any new strategy for Bosnia must recognize the one truth of this sad story: our only successes have come when the Bosnian Serbs faced a credible threat of military force”. She then advocates use of military force, primarily via the air, in order to “compel the Pale Serbs to negotiate a suitable peace settlement”, noting that “[i]n the absence of this support from us to improve the Bosnian military position, the history of this conflict demonstrates that the Pale Serbs will never feel enough military pressure to negotiate a durable peace settlement”. Suffice to say, President Tudjman and General Gotovina, on the cusp of a liberated Croatia via Operation Storm, would have no doubt nodded in agreement.
The candid and somewhat cynical tone of Albright’s memo continues as she discusses UNPROFOR’s “small window of credibility”, the “ascendant threat from Croatia”, and the likelihood of stalemate if the U.S. loses this opportunity to take “control of the situation”. She eventually concludes that if diplomatic initiative fails (as is likely without military intervention) then the Serbs will “pick off as many innocent and helpless persons as international opinion will allow” before all sides “settle in for the winter”.
It is the final proposal, however, that strikes horror into my heart and should make us all realise how willing Madeline Albright was to sacrifice principles for the sake of politics. It underlines the crucial nature of Croatia’s Operation Storm in rescuing Croatia’s sovereignty, but also makes pellucid the jeopardy which Bosnia and Hercegovina faced. Moreover, it suggests that President Tudjman and General Gotovina’s liberation of the Krajina and Bihac, thus helping force the Serbs to the negotiating table, rescued NATO and its allies from an unconscionable compromise with the heinous notion of a Greater Serbia.
Albright suggests that the Bosnian government be persuaded to agree to two possible conditions in exchange for U.S. intervention: 1) that the end-state allow Serbs the “right to secede peacefully from Bosnia and join a potential ‘Greater Serbia’”; and 2) the possible “trade” of “Federation territory for Serb-held territory”. She admits this “means population transfers that we have previously been unwilling to countenance”.
Apparently, this is a case of the end justifying the means, as Albright notes that “in the context of an American leadership role to put military pressure on the Serbs, such transfers are politically and morally defensible”. The only saving grace is that Albright clearly is concerned about the “influence of radical Islamic regimes in Bosnia”. Otherwise, her insistence on “these concessions” and that “the Bosnian Government must be told bluntly” that “support for this initiative is contingent upon its commitment not to seek military gains beyond the Contact Group Plan” is nauseating. How Albright could have thought that ethnic cleansing and appeasement of ‘Greater Serbia’ could ever create a “durable peace” is beyond me.
The situation in Bosnia and Croatia today is far from perfect and I for one am the sort of person who is never satisfied, always trying to make the world a better place. However, it is worth pausing occasionally and recognising (thanks to the hindsight provided by such secret memos) that things could be much worse.