LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Gaining support for U.S. intervention in Bosnia two decades ago wasn't an easy sell for President Bill Clinton, even with some of his closest advisers, before he was backed by NATO and its airstrikes helped end ethnic killings in the region, according to newly released documents.
The CIA recently posted online more than 300 declassified documents related to the conflict, which Clinton is scheduled to discuss during a symposium Tuesday at his presidential center in Little Rock. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and retired Gen. Wesley Clark also are scheduled to speak at the event, called "Bosnia, Intelligence, and the Clinton Presidency."
Bosnia's 1992-1995 war following the breakup of Yugoslavia left more than 100,000 people dead. Bosnia remained independent after the war ended, with the Dayton peace accord, but it divided into two autonomous regions: one for the Christian Orthodox Serbs and the other shared by Bosniaks and Croats.
During the war, Clinton rallied U.S. allies to support airstrikes to end the ethnic killings. Clinton didn't have the support of the United Nations, with Russia – closely aligned with Yugoslavia – wielding its Security Council veto powers of U.S. appeals. But he did have NATO on his side, which provided broad North American and European support for military missions in bombarding Bosnia in 1994 and 1995.
That's a contrast to President Barack Obama's current efforts to gain international support to intervene in Syria.
But the newly released documents show that it wasn't an easy sell for Clinton. At a February 1993 "principals" meeting at the White House, then-White House National Security Adviser Tony Lake cautioned that if they went ahead with air strikes "at the end of the road, we would be under great pressure to help implement a settlement including with forces on the ground."
Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the group that "deciding to use American forces in Bosnia would be crossing the Rubicon. But we should think about whether sweeping the problem under the rug creates more problems," according to notes from the meeting.
When Gen. Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked her what she suggested the U.S. should do, she replied: "NATO action."
Powell expressed some skepticism. "The military will do anything that is decided, but we need to know what `it' is that we are being asked to do," Powell said.
"We can use air power but ultimately must go in and separate the parties," added Powell, who would be named secretary of state himself under the subsequent administration of Republican George W. Bush.
Clinton later asked Powell directly for his advice.
"We can perform this mission," Powell told the president. "But it would be expensive and could be open-ended with no promise of getting out. But if we start down the road of diplomatic engagement, we must be willing to help enforce a settlement."
A little more than a year later, at an April 23, 1994, meeting at the White House to discuss continuing Serb attacks despite NATO's ceasefire ultimatum, Clinton and his top advisers discussed a growing rift between NATO and the United Nations over the war.
The group weighed the possibility of nighttime strikes, and Clinton argued for a pause in airstrikes. As he left the meeting, Clinton asked what he should say to the press, the minutes show. Vice President Al Gore "recommended that he avoid comment" while Lake "said he would background the press."
Raum reported from Washington.
View the documents the CIA posted online: http://www.foia.cia.gov/collection/bosnia-intelligence-and-clinton-presidency