Twenty years have now passed since the brutal subjugation of the besieged town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina, after which 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by Serbs commanded by ex-Yugoslav army general Ratko Mladic. The terrible episode is itself worth commemorating, and its background also merits review for what it reveals about Western – and, especially, Clinton administration – policy toward the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.

When the Bosnian war began in 1992 – during the withdrawal of ex-Yugoslav forces from Croatia and after Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence – Srebrenica was mainly Muslim, with members of that faith accounting for about 64 percent of the town residents, Orthodox Christian Serbs at 28 percent, and the rest identified as Catholic Croats, Yugoslavs, or “other.”    

To remember Srebrenica is, for close observers, to recall the whole Bosnian War. During the Yugoslav breakup, Bosnia-Herzegovina was in in no hurry to leave the Communist state.  Slovenia, however, saw commercial advantages to being a separate country thanks to its elevated standard of living (the highest in the socialist “federation”) and borders with Italy, Austria, and Hungary. In Croatia, nationalist sentiments were most aggravated. Even in both of those “republics,” prominent voices called for maintaining Yugoslavia as a looser federation or customs union. To that, the Serb Communist bosses headed by Slobodan Milosevic said no. Still, the Yugoslav war did not have to happen. Of all the Communist countries, Yugoslavia, with a liberated intellectual life and a record of encouraging free enterprise, could have led the Eastern European transition away from its collectivist heritage to stability and prosperity. It was not to be.

Yet when Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in 1991, Alija Izetbegovic, head of the multiethnic Bosnian presidency, advocated for continuation of a reorganized Yugoslavia comprising Serbia and Montenegro as a core, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia as associated “republics,” and Slovenia and Croatia as sovereign members of a confederation. To that also, Milosevic and his cohort replied negatively, as did the new Croatian president Franjo Tudjman. But the Izetbegovic effort reflected the Bosnian president’s belief that Yugoslavia could be preserved. Although defamed by Serbian propagandists as an Islamist radical, Izetbegovic was a moderate Muslim, and his political organization, the Party of Democratic Action) was (and remains) a movement representing Muslim community interests rather than Islamic ideology. Izetbegovic’s attempts to maintain peace included disarming the Bosnian territorial defense units. The Muslim leader cleaved to the notion that a three-member presidency made up of Muslims, Serbs, and Croats, would keep Bosnia-Herzegovina together.

He was mistaken. In February-March 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina held a referendum on independence, which was boycotted by the Serbs and approved by the rest of the voters. Bosnian self-determination was proclaimed, but Serb radicals and Bosnian defenders in Sarajevo had already established competing barricades in the city. Serbian forces swarmed west across the border between the two Yugoslav “republics,” seizing the Bosnian frontier and expelling and murdering Muslim, Croat, and other inhabitants. 

Thus a new and repellent euphemism appeared in global politics and media: “ethnic cleansing.” The term implied that non-Serbs were filth or infected. Serbian atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina were vile, including mass rapes, the establishment of concentration camps, and the deliberate destruction of cultural monuments such as the National and University Library in Sarajevo and hundreds of Ottoman-era mosques and Croatian Catholic churches. Most of northern and eastern Bosnia succumbed to Serbian aggression quickly. By 1993, numerous Muslim refugees had gathered in the eastern Bosnian enclaves of Zepa, Srebrenica, and Gorazde, surrounded by Serbian troops. Srebrenica fell at the beginning of July 1995, and Zepa at the end of the month. Only Gorazde was held by the Bosnians.

Global attention had been drawn quickly to the merciless rocket, antiaircraft, and other weapons fire poured on the civilians of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, by Serbian forces. Sarajevo was the only symbol of Bosnian identity known to the rest of the world. First, it was the scene of the 1914 assassination of Habsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his consort Sophie, which is often said to have begun World War One. Second, the 1984 Winter Olympics were conducted on the deep snows of its heights. For Yugoslavs, the city, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, represented an island of civility and cooperation between the eight nations of the Communist dominion: Slovenes, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, Montenegrins, Macedonians, and Albanian and Hungarian minorities.     

In 1971, “Muslims by nationality” or “Bosniaks” were recognized by the Yugoslav authorities.  Previously, many had identified themselves as “Muslim Serbs,” “Muslim Croats,” or simply as “Yugoslavs.” “Yugoslavia” means “land of the South Slavs.” Hungarians and Albanians, who are not Slavs, were granted autonomy in 1974.

Yugoslavia also boasted an influential Jewish remnant, although the Holocaust had reduced its numbers significantly. J.B. Tito, commander of the anti-Nazi Partisans and Yugoslav dictator from 1943 to his death in 1980, was a founder of the worldwide “non-aligned” movement – nations supposedly unaffiliated with any power bloc though mainly socialist.  Yugoslavia broke relations with Israel in 1967, after the Six Day War, and maintained a close friendship with the Palestinians. Serbia and other Yugoslav successor states – except for Kosovo – today recognize a state of Palestine as well as Israel, and walk a line between them. 

The suddenly new Army of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina was routinely called “the Muslim army” and was no such thing. It had no jihadist aim and a few thousand mujahideen who came there from other countries, and later caused problems in Bosnia and elsewhere, affected the outcome of no battles. The Bosnian Republic army began its operations with a Serb, Jovan Divjak, commanding Sarajevo’s resistance, supported by many Croats, and Jews, as well as Muslims. It fought for the right of the diverse Bosnian communities to live together, as they had done throughout history.

Just as a Western-oriented Yugoslavia could have led the rest of the European Communist states to a new reality, multiethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina could have become a European Singapore, in which business representatives from around the world could have gathered. Instead, Srebrenica, with its horrors, became a microcosm of the Bosnians’ fate. Why was this?

Serbia was intent on keeping control of the financial levers of ex-Yugoslavia, and believed that its large army could defeat any challenge. Allegations by Belgrade that it was defending Serbia by invading Slovenia (where combat was brief), Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, were absurd.  Slovenia had no common border with Serbia and not one inch of Serbian land was touched by the forces of the latter two countries. Macedonia was allowed to depart Yugoslavia peacefully, proving that Serbian protests against a purportedly illegal “secession” by the other republics were nonsense. The Serbian occupation of Kosovo dated only to its conquest in 1912.      

In a recent visit to Sarajevo, I found that Srebrenica remains an unhealed wound. Corpses have been exhumed and large cemeteries built at the site and in nearby towns, all of which remain under Serbian control. But in explaining why it, and the aggression against Bosnia-Herzegovina of which it was part, took place, Bosnians offer many answers.

The proclamation of an international weapons embargo against the poorly armed Bosnian Army was a major factor. It left the Bosnians defenseless against the well-stocked Serbian forces. So was the abject refusal of the administration of Bill Clinton to assist the Bosnians. Western European fear of a “Muslim state” in Europe played a role, although Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1991 was only 44 percent Muslim, with 31 percent Serbian, 17 percent Croatian, and about eight percent Yugoslav or other. Albania had a Muslim population of 70 percent when Communism fell there in 1991.

While Bill and Hillary Clinton, along with their loyalists, portray the former as bringing  peace to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bill Clinton delayed a response for three years, during which his representatives, Warren Christopher, Anthony Lake, and Richard Holbrooke, pretended to hunt for a solution the Serbs had already proven they would not accept.  

By contrast, as described in Taylor Branch’s The Clinton Tapes, two Republicans, Newt Gingrich, and Bob Dole, “pushed a bill through Congress to break the arms embargo on Bosnia unilaterally… the president vetoed it.”

On the ground in Srebrenica, United Nations “peacekeepers” were sent to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992 and Srebrenica was declared a UN “safe area” in 1993. But the UN detachments refused to protect the beleaguered Muslims. Twenty years ago, the French commander of UN forces in the country, Bernard Janvier, refused a request from the Dutch Battalion (“DutchBat”) in Srebrenica for air strikes to counter Serbian pressure. The Dutch response was little better. DutchBat members stood aside as Serbs segregated men and boys between 15 and 55 – “of military age” – from women and children. The presumptive Bosnian combatants – disarmed and starved – would be exterminated.

In 1999, Clinton acted in Kosovo, because, it seems, of anxiety over a refugee flood into nearby Greece and Italy. Yet Kosovo, which is between 80 and 90 percent Muslim, is arguably more so than Bosnia-Herzegovina, which, like the European history of Albania, gives the lie to claims of an Islamic intrusion.           

One might imagine that Clinton and his international partners were motivated to turn away from the carnage in Bosnia-Herzegovina for the same reason Neville Chamberlain declined to defend the former Czechoslovakia in 1938; it was the scene of “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” Already in the 1990s, international media had rendered this pretext untenable, yet it continues to be employed regarding the bloodshed in Syria, the Russian occupation of Eastern Ukraine, and the humanitarian crises of the trans-Mediterranean refugees and the Rohingya Muslims fleeing Burma by boat.

So much is allegedly known about things that do not matter; and so little is admittedly known about things that do. But from Srebrenica to Syria, one constant is present: the weakness of Democratic U.S. presidents in upholding principles of international law. As Bill Clinton temporized on Bosnia-Herzegovina, so we may expect, will Hillary, if elected, shy away from action against Bashar Al-Assad and his Iranian masters, the so-called “Islamic State,” and other foreign marauders. That has become the template for Democratic foreign policy.