Posted on May 24, 1993 in Washington Watch

Political analysts in Washington have become highly critical of President Clinton’s inaction on the ongoing tragedy in Bosnia. But of even greater concern to these analysts is a growing sense that Clinton’s handling of the situation in Bosnia is following a pattern common to the Administration’s treatment of several other important issues of public policy.

During the 1992 campaign Clinton strongly criticized President Bush’s failure to act decisively on Bosnia. It was at a critical moment in the fall campaign when Clinton seized on the issue of Bosnia in order to establish his credentials as a foreign policy leader and to diminish Bush’s claim to that mantle. Clinton spoke one day and Gore the next to reinforce the message that Democrats were not afraid to “tread on the President’s turf.” Bush, they explained, hadn’t shown consistency, decisiveness or moral leadership. Clinton and Gore, on the other hand, claimed that they would represent a strong and principled American role in the world.

While the candidates might be excused for their campaign rhetoric, even after the election Clinton continued to imply that he would take more effective action to stop the “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia. During the transition period and the first few months of the Administration, the press was told that Bosnia was the number one item on the Clinton foreign policy agenda.

Over the next several months, instead of announcing a new comprehensive Bosnia policy, the Administration followed a policy of incrementally turning up the heat on Serbia, first with an airlift of humanitarian supplies to besieged Bosnian Muslims, then beginning over flights to enforce the no-fly zone, and finally seeking tougher international sanctions on Serbia.

The effort seemed designed to support ratification of the Vance-Owen peace plan—a plan that Clinton had initially been critical of. But all the while the massacres of the embattled Muslim population continued and the resistance of Bosnian Serbs intensified. The Bosnian Serb rejection of the Vance-Owen effort proved to be the major obstacle to ending the hostilities, and presented the Clinton Administration with its toughest foreign policy challenge to date.

And so, a few weeks ago, realizing that some form of decisive action would finally have to be taken, the Administration announced a new initiative which, it suggested, might involve selected air strikes against Bosnian Serb and Serb targets and ending the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslim community in an effort to “level the playing field.”

Clinton was pressured into finally taking this long-awaited step by both the horrors of the war which dominated the nightly television news, and also by influential voices in Congress and among public opinion leaders who had long been challenging him to act.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher was then dispatched by the President to Europe with the tough new proposals in order to secure allied support. But when Christopher returned without European support, the Administration’s resolve dissipated. And, in a sign of his lost resolve, Clinton pulled back from his threats of action, in effect resigning himself to inaction. His reasons were that Europe wouldn’t follow his lead and because all of this was distracting from his efforts to achieve his domestic agenda.

On May 6th, on national television, the President said:

“When I realized that the Bosnian Serbs had rejected the settlement and with it the opportunity to bring an end to the slaughter…frankly, I felt really badly because I don’t want to spend any more time on that than is absolutely necessary, because what I got elected to do was to let America look at our own problems and our own challenges and deal with those things….”

And a few days later in one of his town meetings, the President talked tough at first, but then backed away from promising action, noting, ” I think you’ll see over the next few days that we will take some more steps that will make peace more likely and will make the ending of the conflict more likely.” He concluded by adding, “But this is a European issue and we will not act unilaterally.”

In the end the only steps the Administration hinted that it might take were to dispatch some 500 U.S. peacekeeping troops to Macedonia. This step has been widely ridiculed, since Macedonia has not requested any peacekeeping troops and, of course, because it ignores the real issue—namely the killing of Bosnian Muslims.

The final turnabout came on May 18th when Secretary Christopher totally reversed previous Administration policy when he spoke before Congress and called the situation in Bosnia a “civil war” and placed the blame for the tragedy on both sides equally.

In response to this lack of resolve and then the policy reversal, attacks on the Administration have intensified. A former State Department official noted: “The President seems to be waiting for a consensus to emerge in our Congress and among our allies about what to do… [but] without his leadership no one will agree to do anything.

Even one senior Administration official charged: “We either should have had our ducks in a row before Christopher left or he should have stayed home… we looked like beggars, when we know from experience that the allies will fall in line if we clearly set out what we’re going to do. This business of the President saying we can’t lead if the allies won’t follow ignores the lesson of the past 40 years: they’ll follow if we lead.”

There have also been attacks from long-time critics among politicians and from the media, but probably the sharpest criticisms of Clinton’s failure to act as he had led others to believe have come from the Jewish community.

It will be remembered that on the day of the ceremony in honor of the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, the Nobel Prize winning Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel turned directly to face Clinton on the podium and made an emotional appeal for action to help the Bosnian Muslims. Here in Washington, Jewish organizations have been working with Arab American and Muslim American groups for almost six months in the “American Task Force on Bosnia.” The group’s goal is to help promote an end to ethnic cleansing and to defend the Bosnian Muslim community.

And perhaps the most challenging remarks of all were those of Henry Siegman, the long-time Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress. Siegman, one of the U.S.’s most distinguished Jewish leaders speaking at an Interfaith Rally at the United Nations on May 17th said:

“President Clinton insisted at his press conference this past Friday that he has a clear policy on Bosnia. Unfortunately, he is right. What is clear about his policy is that it abandons Bosnia’s Muslims to Serbian, and now Croatian, slaughter.

...”A measure of President Clinton’s failure of leadership is a statement this past Friday, one he has made often on previous occasions, that American cannot lift the arms embargo against Bosnia’s Muslims or undertake selective air strikes, if our European allies won’t join us in these limited measures. If America’s role in the world is to be circumscribed by the cowardice and craven appeasement of the Europeans, then our leadership of the free world is at an end.

“I speak to you as a survivor of the Holocaust. Hitler’s Jewish victims were betrayed by most of those same European countries that our President refers to when he speaks of the need to act in concert with European friends and allies. Let it be said clearly that in their cowardice and indifference to the human tragedy in Bosnia, in their abandonment and betrayal of Bosnia’s Muslims, these European countries are betraying the memory of Hitler’s victims as well.

“The spineless appeasement of the Europeans, and above all of Lord Owen, who has allowed himself to be used as a tool of Bosnia genocide, is no excuse for American inaction. For if America were to assert clear and decisive leadership, those countries would not defy America; if nothing else, they are too cowardly to do so. For President Clinton to say that America must continue to deny Bosnia’s Muslims the weapons they need to defend themselves, their wives and their children against unspeakable atrocities because European countries won’t agree to a lifting of the embargo is, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, to become an accessory to Serbian atrocities. It is also to concede that violence, hatred and brute force, and nothing else, will determine the fate and shape of the world we bequeath to our children.

“We are here to say to our President and to the world, `We can do better than that!’ For if we don’t, history will not forget, nor will it forgive.”

I quoted Siegman at such length because his view captures those of most of the religious leaders in the U.S., whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish; and they point to the real problem this Administration is having in providing leadership in fulfillment of promises made during the campaign.

This time Clinton backed off in the face of European opposition and polls which showed that U.S. public opinion was not fully in favor of strong U.S. action. Clinton also backed down with regard to campaign promises made on policy with China and Haiti—again in the face of an indifferent American public and other forces of opposition. And on many domestic issues, campaign promises have been broken or compromised into nothingness when opposition to them arose.

From those who want Bill Clinton to succeed, and who supported many of his campaign commitments, the message is clear: Don’t wait for consensus to form at home and in the world before you lead—provide the leadership first and the consensus will form around you.

And for those analysts who know that the post-Cold War world now, and in the future, will present many more Bosnia-style challenges, there is a fear that this current failure of the U.S. to lead creates a dangerous power vacuum. The loss of U.S. credibility resulting from this Bosnia fiasco will only embolden future aggressors.

There is still time to act in Bosnia—and those political forces that want to see action are mobilizing in an effort to convince the Administration to take a meaningful stand. At stake are the lives of Muslims, the peace and stability of Central Europe, and U.S. leadership and credibility in a world that needs both.

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