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Peter Maass, The Washington Post reporter on Bosnia

Interviewed May 28, 1996

FL: Briefly talk about what your assignment was.


When I started covering the war I had never been to Bosnia before and honestly I didn't know very much about it. I didn't speak the language. And when I first started hearing these stories of atrocities, hearing them from refugees, hearing the words, concentration camp, I disbelieved it. I thought this isn't the kind of thing that happens at the end of the 20th century in Europe. But then as I continued to report on the war, talk to more refugees, as other journalists did the same thing, we found out that these individual stories we were hearing, in fact, were part of a pattern. That this was occurring. And that it was systematic. And that it was engineered by the Serbs, primarily against the Muslims. And so as I continued to report on this, the more I found out. The more I reported, the more I expected the people on the outside world, once they became aware of what was happening, would do something about this. Because this was an attempted genocide. This was occurring in Europe. And it was occurring against a people, the Muslims, who stood for the same sorts of things that we in America say we stand for. Different people, religions, ethnic backgrounds, economic background, living together peacefully, in tolerance. And this idea that they stood for, of tolerance, was under attack, as were these people. And so I expected that there would be a reaction. That there should be a reaction. And there wasn't a reaction, at least not the sort that in my opinion was justified. And for me that was very disillusioning. Because I thought, even though I was fairly cynical, I think, as most journalists probably are about our government, I thought the bottom line was that the American government would not stand aside while a genocide was being committed, or being attempted in Europe at the end of the 20th century. But I guess in this respect I was somewhat naive and I guess I've learned from that experience. As have many other people.

FL: What did you perceive to be this administration's policy or the lack of it.


I suppose the ordinary interpretation of Clinton in general, and Clinton's policy towards Bosnia, is that it was incoherent, that there was no planning and that there were contradictory movements going on. But I think that although on the surface that's what was happening, underneath it there was a consistency. Because they were constantly dodging this responsibility that they had. And the only way to dodge it was to go left, go right. To say one thing one day, do something another day. Because they couldn't just stand up and say we're going to let the Serbs and the Croats have what they want. And so as a result, what you had in practical terms, in terms of Clinton's statements, in terms of the statements of Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, was an incredible inconsistency on the surface. For example, we want the arms embargo to be lifted from the Bosnian government. And then of course when Congress finally gets around to passing a bill lifting the arms embargo, Clinton vetoes it. You would have Clinton or Christopher on one day blaming NATO for being in the way, or blaming the Europeans for being in the way. And then on the other day it would be the Europeans perhaps blaming Clinton for not going far enough. And so you always had this kind of shifting, these changing kinds of excuses. Air cover. You would have them saying it's not feasible to get involved with air campaigns and bombing the Serbs. But then on other days they'd say it's feasible, but the Europeans are standing in our way. And so when you would step back from this, and when I stepped back from it in Bosnia, looking at what was going on, it appeared absolutely incoherent. But underneath it actually was. If you assume as I did, as I believe was the case, that the goal was to keep America out of Bosnia, then it was very successful. Because that's really what happened until this point in August of 1995 when it became absolutely untenable.

FL: Why was it so important to keep America out of Bosnia?


I suppose from the Clinton perspective the reason why it was important to stay out of Bosnia was because they didn't really know what would happen if they became involved. And because indeed, there were powers, forces, the Pentagon, others, and arguments that were somewhat valid, to stay out. And therefore it was like a hot potato. They just did not want to handle it. And I think also you had a problem of leadership. And this maybe was the most crucial thing. Because the other problems of barriers, and reluctance on the part of Europeans, these were one that could be overcome and in other situations, you know with the Gulf War, they were overcome. President Bush did put together an alliance. In this case of Bosnia, President Clinton did not do that. And I think in many respects it comes down to a question of leadership. You've got to put yourself back in 1993, not think of Clinton in '96, but Clinton in '93. Who was he? Where did he stand? Who was he? He was a very unsure President. He had a very shaky relationship with the military. I mean this was the President after all who had smoked it, but not inhaled. Who wanted the military to allow homosexuals to be in the military openly. And who then also in the case of Bosnia, was supposed to be telling the military to do something it didn't want to do, which was to get involved in Bosnia.

And I just don't think that Clinton had the confidence at that point in time, nor the desire to give the military it's marching orders. Nor I think did he have the confidence or the desire to give the European allies marching orders. He was a consensus oriented President. And this isn't just in relation to domestic policy, okay. He want, when he embarks on a policy, if it's overseas, for first off for the military to be in support of it too. And he also want the allies to be in support of it to. But historically, there's always divergent views and interests among the allies. And historically whether or not it's justified America has, by and large on very important questions that it deemed to be to be of it's national interest, given the Europeans allies their marching orders. Clinton wasn't able or didn't desire to do this.

FL: Bring in your conversation with Senator Joe Biden.


I remember this one morning when I was in Zagreb and I had breakfast with Joe Biden, the American Senator. And I asked him, "What is going on in Washington? Why is Clinton so reluctant?" And what he told me was to my mind quite illuminating and very consistent and made sense when you look at the pattern of things, was that Clinton did not have very much confidence, if any confidence at all in dealing with the military. Because Clinton knew, and you've got to remember that this is 1993, not 1996, Clinton knew that when he was talking with Colin Powell, who was then the Joint Chief of Staff, or other senior military figures, that these men were looking on him as the President who smoked but didn't inhale. As the President who evaded the draft, if not dodge it. As the President who wanted the military to allow homosexuals to openly be in the military. And Clinton just did not at the time have the confidence to stand up to them on a question such as Bosnia and say, "Look. Even though you don't want to get involved in Bosnia, it's something that we should do. It's something that is necessary, and therefore we are going to do it." He just didn't have it in him at that time to stand up to the military and to give them marching orders.

FL: Clinton's biographer once said to me "If you look at Bosnia you can see the entire Presidency." Talk a little bit about that.


This kind of quagmire that the Bosnian policy became is symbolic perhaps of the Clinton presidency because of, on the outer level, this great deal of confusion that you had. And also, and this is perhaps most important, our President at the time who himself did not want to chart a direction. And then as a result of that what you had was this kind of swaying back and forth and this lack of resolve at the top, and therefore all the way down the line to get involved and commit to a particular policy and do whatever was necessary, whatever to took to accomplish it. As a result you didn't really have, on the surface at least, much of a policy, because in a way the policy was not to have one, not to get involved. You had confusion, you had mixed signals. And as a result you also had a terrible amount of criticism directed at Clinton for lack of leadership which at the time in '93, '94, was very acute, and very accurate. There really wasn't much leadership and it was something that he really had to learn along the way. When you're President the mistakes that you make as you're learning, cost lives. And that's what happened with Bosnia.

FL: Talk about the flip flops. I would like to ask you about whether there was a cause and effect in terms of Serbian aggression?


The different signals that came from Washington were observed and followed very closely on the ground, particularly by the Serbs because these were the people to whom the signals were directed. And when I say that they had an effect, this was a real effect in terms of people's lives being lost. Because the effect was to either increase offenses or to stop them. And if offenses were increase, people died. And if they were stopped, the killing stopped. And therefore you had several instances, very clear instances, when the Clinton administration and in one case Clinton himself, made an ultimatum. This is when the Serbs had fired several mortars at a marketplace in Sarajevo. I think there were dozens of people killed. So President Clinton himself made an ultimatum. The Serbs must move their guns 20 kilometers from Sarajevo. If they do not do that we will bomb the Serbs. It was a real threat because it had real meaning. Clinton meant it. He had to because the public opinion, the force of it was so strong on him. And as a result, what did the Serbs do? They pulled their weapons 20 kilometers away from Sarajevo. And as a result of that the deaths in Sarajevo that had been occurring as a result of the bombings, virtually ceased for a time until the Serbs realized after a while, after the force of public opinion had abated, that perhaps this threat was no long[er] valid. And so they would once again start these bombings slowly. And when they sensed that there was no direct action from Washington, they continued it. They went just as far as they could go. They were always pushing. And when they sensed that they faced a wall, they pulled back. When they didn't see a wall they kept going. Which is why in the summer of 1995, when he attacks Zebrenizia, one of the enclaves, and there was no firm reaction from America or from Western Europe, they kept going. Because they realized they could. Because they realized there would not be retribution, there would not be bombing attacks from the West because there were no signals to that effect from Clinton or any serious high level American official.

FL: What were the misconceptions that undermined the whole issue?


Well, there was a whole range of simplifications and, in a way, misinformation that was put out by members of the Clinton administration, including Clinton himself. Talking about how this is a struggle that goes back centuries and centuries, how it's a quagmire, how we don't belong there, about how there is blame on all sides, although maybe the Serbs are a bit more guilty, maybe they have committed a few more atrocities. Nonetheless, the Bosnians are no angels whatsoever, and therefore we should not get involved. And these were signals that were constantly, constantly put out by Clinton, by Christopher, by Perry, by everybody all the way down the line. And they had a real effect. Because when you have an entire government apparatus putting out these signals basically saying, "Historically this is a place we should not be involved in. It is a quagmire. It would be worse than Vietnam." People really take notice of that. Even if there are competing points of view out there saying, "No this isn't true." But when it's constantly put out by the government as it was, even though I believe the people in the government knew this wasn't the case, it has an effect. And the effect was to make people doubt. To make people really wonder whether or not we had an obligation to be there. To make people wonder whether or not in fact this was a one-sided war, or whether this was just a messy three-sided civil war. And therefore, I think the government succeeded, and people were confused and figured, "Oh, you know. We really don't belong there."

FL: Talk a little bit about the turmoil inside the Bosnian desk, and how this was so unusual.


I was really surprised by the amount of dissension on the ground, in the embassies in Croatia, embassy in Serbia, embassy in Hungary as well, which was watching these things very closely. I've covered a lot of conflicts, a lot of political events in foreign countries. And interviewed more diplomats that I can really count. And I was really shocked, as happened in many cases when I would go to talk to political officers in the embassies in Zagreb, or Belgrade, and these people rather than giving me a spirited defense of the Clinton policy, or giving me not a spirited defense of it but at least the pro forma defense that they were supposed to give. Instead of that they would virtually grab me by the lapels and say, "What's going on in Bosnia is a monstrous thing. And we should be doing something about it." And there was this one diplomat who said to me, "Look, I don't know if my bosses read my reports, they probably don't. But I know they read your reports." Because I work for the Washington Post. And therefore, he was always willing, as were most of these diplomats, to give me as much time as I needed, to give me as much information as I needed. And they would encourage journalists like myself to get out there and to report as much as possible. Because the messages that they were trying to send, the cables that they were sending to Washington, were not registering.

There was this one time when I was in one of the embassies talking with a senior American diplomat, and this guy, I remember his hands were virtually shaking when we talked. Because he said, "What do we have a military the size that we have for, if they're not willing to do something when the occasion presents itself,

when it's justified, such as it is in Bosnia?" This is him talking. "When they're not willing to bomb the Serbs which is what we should be doing. Then they're not really military. They're boy scouts. And we should be ashamed of ourselves." I was working on a story that day about that subject. So I used that quote in the story that I filed back to Washington. But then this diplomat called me in the evening and he said, "Look Peter, about that remark I made about boy scouts. You can't use that. Because if you do, Colin Powell, who was then the Joint Chief-of-Staff, he's going to track me down. He'll see the dateline on your story. He'll figure out who said it. And that will be the end of my career." And so I had really no choice. I had to send a message to Washington telling them to take that quote out of the story. But this was consistent. These kinds of attitudes. Not absolutely with everybody. But with a surprising number of people. And the degree to which they were so disappointed and furious and unwilling to defend in these interviews that I had, the Clinton policy, was to me very surprising and indicative of what a disaster this policy was.

I suppose if there was a breaking point for me it was the day that the Holocaust Memorial Museum was inaugurated. Because that was a day on which, just by chance, I had this incredible juxtaposition of experiences. Interviewing in Tuzla, in Bosnia, this Muslim doctor who had been forced to amputate limbs with anesthesia and sew up wounds with sewing thread, and then on that same day to watch excerpts on television of Clinton's speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum where he promised to stand up to the bullies, and to never let these kinds of things happen again. And in seeing that speech, and in having yet another reminder as I did on that day by talking to that doctor, about what was really going on, that I realized the absolute, to my mind at least, hypocrisy of the policy and the fact that, in my mind at least, it was really not going to change. Because these outrages, these atrocities, had been going on from quite some time. They had been reported in graphic detail for quite some time. And it was not having an effect. And if the President could stand on the steps of the Holocaust Museum and utter these very nice but meaningless words, then what hope was there?

And so for me it was, in a way, somewhat of a breaking point. I mean I didn't crack or anything like that. I just realized, particularly at that moment, that the efforts that I was making, the efforts other journalists were making, the risks that we were taking, although noble, although right, justified, were not going to have the effect that they should have had. And I felt therefore I had done my duty. I had been there. I had done my best and it was time maybe for others to take my position and carry on the work. But I had done my best and done my duty.

FL: There were a number of places throughout the world that genocide was going on. Where have we gone wrong in America?


The argument that is often made, that there are genocides or attempted genocides occurring all over the planet, and we can't get involved in curing them, because there's just too many. We don't have the resources. It's a justifiable argument but I don't think in the case of Bosnia that it stands up. Because there's a special character to what was happening there. Whereas in most of these other kinds of slaughters that happen on the globe, it can be hard to distinguish the slaughterer from the slaughteree, in terms of where they stand and what they stand for. In the case of Bosnia, the people who were being slaughtered stood for the precise same ideals that we in America say we stand for. Which means tolerance for people of different religions, different ethnic backgrounds, different economic backgrounds, living together. This was the Bosnian idea. This was the notion the Bosnian government at the beginning of the war, stood by and stood for and that these people who were being slaughtered stood by and stood for. It wasn't just a question of saving people's lives. Although it was a question of that. It was also a question of defending ideals that we say we stand for and were under attack in Europe. Which is of greater geographic, political, strategic interest to us than other parts of this planet.

FL: Would you agree that we would settle not because it would bring peace, but because it would be good for the election?


It, the Dayton Agreement was imposed because the war had reached a stage where something had to be done. And so you had ... At the time when this Dayton process began, and the beginning of it is really with the bombing campaign that started in August of '95, when that process began clearly a new policy had to be instituted because the prevailing policy was such a total disaster. It was leading to military, political defeat for the United Nations on a level that was untenable. So something new had to be done. No question about it. Why was the Dayton Agreement itself set up and imposed? There were other options. You could have forced the Serbs to give up more land. You could have decided to arm the Bosnians. You could have decided to continue the bombing campaign which was stopped after just a couple of weeks despite incredible success. The Dayton Accord was I think imposed, because there was a broad desire to stop the war. Because the war was going on a trajectory that seemed to be endless, and because if it continued the possible ramifications in America politically for Clinton would be quite high. If the UN policy was not changed, the humiliation continued, this could bring real disastrous effects for Clinton, as for other Western leaders when the elections came around. So I think with Dayton there was a desire to get it over with on whatever terms were possible. And in fact the only terms that were possible were relatively favorable to the Serbs because they were able to hold on to half of Bosnia under Dayton and the Croats, who also were responsible for aggression, were able to get about a quarter of Bosnia. So not much was left to the Bosnian government. But these were the most feasible terms. And these were the ones that were therefore imposed.

FL: Other options?


There were other options that could have been followed. Lifting the arms embargo against the Bosnian government, continuing the bombing campaign against the Serbs. The problem with those two options was that they would mean a continuation of the war. And in Washington, basically, and perhaps among the American population too, there was a desire to get it over with. This has been going on for too long, it's such a mess. Let's just stop it. Whatever it takes, get it over with. And if what it takes is giving the Serbs half of Bosnia, and giving the Croats a quarter of Bosnia, and leaving the Bosnian government which was the victim of the whole war with just a small part of the country which in the long run is not very self sufficient or tenable, that's fine. Just get it over with. Maybe with this accord, even though it's imperfect, maybe things will work out if we're lucky and whatnot and so it's defensible as an accord. But let's get it over with. And that's what Dayton did. Stop it. Is it an accord that's going to lead to long term peace? Probably not. But that's the question that won't be answered until the election or after the election. And therefore Dayton is just fine for the people in Washington.

FL: How much of their concern was this upcoming election?


Well I wasn't obviously involved in the discussions in the White House or at Foggy Bottom in terms of why Dayton should be followed through. But I think it was very important, the electoral question. It's always been important with Clinton. Not just Bosnia, but in all of his policies. What not only is going to work and what is right, but also what effect this is going to have on his election chances. And certainly when you look at Dayton, it's an accord that does as much for Clinton's election chances, and more for Clinton's election chances, than any of the other options available. And therefore I think it's absolutely no coincidence whatsoever that this is the option that Clinton chose. Because the other options would not have helped his election chances and indeed could have done quite negative things to it, whereas Dayton, as risky as it is, nonetheless is the safest option if he wants to get Bosnia off the front pages, out of the way so that people aren't focusing on it during the election. And in a way, also, he can gain points from Dayton because the war is over, at least for now. And in a way, and this is one of the most remarkable kind of achievements that Clinton has gotten out of Bosnia. The Dayton accord in some circles is regarded as a foreign policy success and Clinton is getting credit for it. And all of the disasters that proceeded it, and the fact that Bosnia has been handed over to the people who cleansed it, this is all forgotten because the one achievement that has happened is that the war has been brought to an end and Clinton is getting credit for that. Hoe's quite a master at coming up with a rabbit out of his hat and this is an example of that.

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