Behind the Facade

The Guardian’s most recent attempt to prop up the orthodox version of the Srebrenica story is wrong in many respects.  Our detailed comments are in red print.


Bill Clinton pushed ‘appeasement’ of Serbs after Srebrenica massacre

2048.jpgBosnian forensic science experts uncover a mass grave in the eastern village of Kamenica, believed to hold the bodies of men and boys killed by Serbian forces at Srebrenica. Photograph: Danilo Krstanovic/Reuters

Julian Borger in Washington

Sun 26 Jul 2020 10.30 BST

The US president, with one eye on re-election, urged Bosnia’s Muslim-led government to make territorial concessions in 1995, declassified documents reveal

When Srebrenica fell to a Serb separatist attack [This is nonsense.  General Mladic’s approach to Srebrenica with a small force of 300 men and 4 tanks was to issue yet another warning that the killing of Serbs in outlying faming communities would not be tolerated.  It had nothing to do with ‘separatist’ plans] 25 years ago, Bosnia’s Muslim-led government was reeling from the mass killings under way in the small enclave. So Bosnian officials were stunned when Washington’s immediate response was to coax them to make new concessions – including acceptance of their country’s eventual partition on ethnic lines. [Although members of the Bosnian Muslim government had made their routine calls to foreign governments before Srebrenica fell to the Bosnian Serbs, it was around a month before they began to claim there had been a genocide in Srebrenica.  Discussions on territorial exchanges had been going on between the warring factions for many weeks – everyone recognised that their isolated communities in their opponents’ territory would not be sustainable in the long term.] 

Declassified documents from the period and interviews with some of the protagonists reflect the determination of Bill Clinton and his foreign policy team to find a solution to the three-year conflict at all costs before his re-election campaign began in earnest in 1996 – even if that meant rewarding the Bosnian Serb leaders for their policy of ethnic cleansing by granting them their objective: secession.  [Clinton cared little about Bosnia.  His aims were to extract maximum strategic benefit for the US and maximum political credit for himself.  This was why he ran two contradictory policies on Bosnia in tandem – the official US position of support for the peace initiatives led by Vance/Owen and later Owen/Staltenberg, and the lift-and-strike policy favoured by neocons and others.  By early summer of 1995, Clinton was coming under great pressure to change policy.  He needed a pretext to bring matters to a quick conclusion: Srebrenica was perfect.]

More than 8,000 men and boys were slaughtered after Srebrenica, supposedly a UN “safe area” was captured by Serb forces, in the first European act genocide since the Nazi era.  [This figure is totally without foundation.  Indeed, the so-called evidence that supported all the Hague Tribunal convictions for genocide and other atrocities is unverified hearsay thanks to special immunity granted by laws passed in Bosnia (1998) and Croatia (2003) which gave the ICTY’s investigating agency, the International Commission for Missing Persons, complete immunity so that it could never be forced to hand over its primary forensic and DNA evidence for independent examination.]

In phone conversations with other foreign leaders as the mass executions were under way, however, Clinton repeatedly expressed his disillusion with the Bosnian army for failing to defend Srebrenica. And in the same week as Srebrenica succumbed, Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, put the finishing touches to a hard-headed “endgame strategy” for extricating the US from the Bosnian catastrophe. [The US end-game had been in preparation for months.  It started with the Croatian invasion of Western Slovonia and days later the Croatian invasion of Serbian Krijina, when some 355,000 Serbs were expelled from the lands that they and their forebears had lived on for 400 years.  The US was heavily involved in both operations, providing tactical leadership and air support under a multi-million dollar contract with the Croatian government.  The final touch was US air bombardment of Bosnian Serb military assets and the scene was set for the ‘peace plan’ imposed at the November Dayton conference.]

That strategy, begun by Lake’s team in the weeks before the Srebrenica attack, was to try to force a peace deal based on a roughly even division of the territory. If that failed, the plan was to withdraw the UN peacekeeping force (Unprofor), lift the arms embargo on Bosnia and to give its Muslim-Croat Federation some initial support with airstrikes until it was strong enough to fight the Serbs on its own. [These were most likely contingency plans in case the situation became complicated.  But Clinton’s clear determination was to force through a conclusion].

But the price of such US support was high. The Bosnians would potentially have to swallow further concessions, including the surrender of the territorial integrity they had been fighting to defend. According to the first annex to the endgame strategy, titled “gameplan for a diplomatic breakthrough in 1995”, (part of a cache of documents declassified by the Clinton presidential library) the first step was to have “a heart-to-heart talk with the Bosnians” to persuade them that in the aftermath of Srebrenica, “they need [to] think more realistically about the shape of a settlement”.

The Federation might have to accept less than half the country, and the US would consider “pressing the Bosnians to agree that the Serbs can conduct a referendum on secession after 2-3 years”.

“If the Bosnians cannot persuade the Serb population that their best future lies in reintegration, there is no point blocking the peaceful separation of the Union along the lines of the Czechoslovak model,” the proposal suggested. [This proposal was not practicable:  Alija Izetbegovic would accept nothing less than purely Muslim state.  The US well knew this.]


‘You simply die all over again’: the agony of Srebrenica, 25 years on

The suggestion alarmed some members of the administration. David Scheffer, an adviser to the ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, who was attending White House meetings on Bosnia, wrote to a colleague: “It’s a very slippery slope. The Serbs have seized enormous territory through ethnic cleansing, and then we hold a ‘democratic’ referendum to confirm such aggression? A very transparent act of appeasement.”  [David Scheffer was the architect of the notorious ICTY Statute which ignored all the stipulations laid down by the Security Council for the organisation and operation of the ICTY, such as the instruction to enforce only expiating international law.  Scheffer it was who replaced the specific crimes of genocide and rape set down in international law with nebulous concepts such as ‘atrocity crimes’ which, because no one knows what they mean, are highly convenient for a court armed with new crimes like ‘Joint Criminal Enterprise’ and intent on convictions.  The claim that the Serbs had “seized enormous territory through ethnic cleansing’ is untrue:  as many Bosnian Serbs lived in farming communities, Serbs held some 63% of Bosnian land before the start of the war; this figure only increased slightly during the war when Serbs took control of small areas to secure their supply lines and communications.]

Scheffer, who wrote an account of the period in his memoir, The Sit Room, suggested that Lake and his team may simply have been trying to be provocative to trigger a debate.

“Lake was kind of an intellectual, and he would put things on the table for intellectual feasting, as opposed to pragmatic policymaking,” he said. [Scheffer was a fixer, like Holbrooke.  This was the job they did for Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State, who had scored a political coup Shen she forced through the illegal creation of The Hague Tribunal].  

Alexander Vershbow, who was senior director for Europe in the national security council (NSC) at the time and helped write the “endgame strategy”, said the position paper was a compromise between different US agencies.  [This point is probably correct!]


Serbian paramilitaries lead away Bosnian Muslim civilian prisoners taken from Srebrenica. More than 8,000 men and boys were slaughtered after the city’s fall. Photograph: AP

“There was a lot of pulling in different directions within the interagency [process] with the Pentagon perhaps being the most ‘realist’, and the state department and NSC with a more pro-justice side of the argument, looking to get the best deal possible for the Bosniaks [Bosnian Muslims],” Vershbow said.

It did not feel so conceptual to the Bosnian leadership, when the wartime president, Alija Izetbegović, came under American pressure to agree to a Serb referendum, even as news of the Srebrenica killings was emerging.

“There was a huge, huge pressure at totally the wrong moment,” said Mirza Hajrić, who was then foreign ministry spokesman and went on to be chief adviser to Izetbegović.  “We were facing the tragedy of Srebrenica. It was a huge moral defeat for the international community and the most tragic event in in the war, and you had the Americans trying to break you on this basic thing. Why would you reward these people who in July 95, planned and executed genocide?” [This is just propaganda.  Srebrenica fell because the 6,000-strong 28th division of the Bosnian Muslim Army, based in Srebrenica throughout its life as a ‘safe area’, made no attempt to defend the town.   The ICTY was unable to find any evidence to support the claim that the Serbs suddenly decided, on the day they took Srebrenica, to carry out a planned genocide.  ICTY evidence consisted solely of transcripts of alleged interceptions of Serbian military communications – unsupported, of course, by the original recordings which had been ‘destroyed’.]  

 Hajrić, now ambassador to Australia, said Izetbegović adamantly rejected any suggestion of a Serb referendum. He believes the urgency of Washington’s approach was driven by the Clinton’s administration’s desire to have the Bosnian problem off US television screens ahead of the 1996 election campaign. [If true – and we doubt that it is – this was gross hypocrisy by Izetbegovic:  he had refused to stand down as rotating President of Bosnia at the end of his term and had then, contrary to constitutional agreement, called an illegal referendum on Bosnian independence from Yugoslavia.  The Bosnian Serbs had every right to hold their own referendum.]

Clinton was certainly very aware of what Americans were seeing on TV.  In a telephone conversation with the British prime minister, John Major, on 14 July, the president appeared not to be aware of the scale of the massacre, and sought to play down its significance.

“The casualty rate has gone way down and central Bosnia is at peace because of contributions made by Unprofor. The average TV viewer … thinks it’s as bad or worse than it was in 1992,” the president said, adding that Congress felt the same way. “There’s no telling them it’s different.”

Immediately after Srebrenica’s fall, France’s president, Jacques Chirac, tried to rally western leaders to support the recapture of Srebrenica by force, comparing the situation to the war against the Nazis.

“France is prepared to throw all its forces into the effort to restore the situation in Srebrenica – or we do nothing. But if the option is to do nothing, then that is exactly the situation we were in in 1939, and France will withdraw,” the French president told Clinton on 13 July.  [A perfect example of foreign policy decided solely on the basis of unfounded media reports.]


Chirac’s gung-ho spirit was in marked contrast to France’s reluctance to approve Nato airstrikes to deter the Serbs from Srebrenica, a caution shared with the British, who also had many peacekeepers on the ground. US officials dismissed Chirac’s appeals as theatrics and noted, in internal administration memos, that his enthusiasm was not shared by his own generals.

While attempting to humour Chirac, Clinton complained about the Bosnian army, which had fled rather than trying to fight the Serbs.

“In Srebrenica there were about 3,000 Bosnian troops but they … left without putting up a fight,” Clinton said. “I will talk to my military advisers, but they are very sceptical about bringing in forces with helicopters, especially if the Bosnians won’t fight. We cannot defend democratic values in the abstract.” [If, as seems very likely, the Bosnian Muslim government had decided that Srebrenica should be abandoned to the Serbs so that a massacre of at least 5,000 people could be claimed, this would have given Clinton the pretext he had requested from them for all that the US did in Western Slovonia, Krijina and its air  bombardment of the Bosnian Serbs].

In the end, the US and its allies agreed to make a stand over the last Muslim enclave standing in eastern Bosnia, Goražde, threatening massive air retaliation if it was attacked. A Croatian offensive against the Serbs in western Bosnia in August 1995 redrew the map, and forced the Serbs to the negotiating table without the promise of a referendum.

The war ended, a foreign policy achievement for Clinton, who went on to win re-election in 1996. The Clinton papers serve as a reminder, however, of how close the US came to giving up on Bosnia.  [US policy was entirely geared to US advantage, the destruction of Yugoslavia.  This was set in motion when the US made its aid to Yugoslavia conditional on the holding of democratic elections in all the Yugoslav republics.  The loss of this aid propelled Yugoslavia into crisis and ensured its break up.]