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The Hillary-bosnia Mystery, Cont'd

Hitch does us a service by bringing the slapstick of Hillary's arrival in Tuzla back to something more important, which is the role she played in shaping her husband's Bosnia policy in the first place:

In the event, President Bill Clinton had not found it convenient to keep this promise. Let me quote from Sally Bedell Smith's admirable book on the happy couple, For Love of Politics:

Taking the advice of Al Gore and National Security Advisor Tony Lake, Bill agreed to a proposal to bomb Serbian military positions while helping the Muslims acquire weapons to defend themselves—the fulfillment of a pledge he had made during the 1992 campaign. But instead of pushing European leaders, he directed Secretary of State Warren Christopher merely to consult with them. When they balked at the plan, Bill quickly retreated, creating a "perception of drift." The key factor in Bill's policy reversal was Hillary, who was said to have "deep misgivings" and viewed the situation as "a Vietnam that would compromise health-care reform." The United States took no further action in Bosnia, and the "ethnic cleansing" by the Serbs was to continue for four more years, resulting in the deaths of more than 250,000 people.

I can personally witness to the truth of this, too. I can remember, first, one of the Clintons' closest personal advisers—Sidney Blumenthal—referring with acid contempt to Warren Christopher as "a blend of Pontius Pilate with Ichabod Crane." I can remember, second, a meeting with Clinton's then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin at the British Embassy. When I challenged him on the sellout of the Bosnians, he drew me aside and told me that he had asked the White House for permission to land his own plane at Sarajevo airport, if only as a gesture of reassurance that the United States had not forgotten its commitments. The response from the happy couple was unambiguous: He was to do no such thing, lest it distract attention from the first lady's health care "initiative."

As I've noted before, this account conflicts with the way Hillary describes her own thinking in early 1993. In her memoir, Living History, she writes of hearing Elie Wiesel call for US intervention in April 1993. At the time, she says, "I was convinced that the only way to stop the genocide in Bosnia was through selective air strikes against Serbian targets." She adds that Bill was "frustrated" by European inaction and struggling to chart a course with his advisors while the situation "became more agonizing as the death toll mounted."

Oddly, Bosnia then simply disappears from Hillary's memoir. Three years and 170 pages pass before her next reference to the conflict, which she revisits in the form of her now-infamous 1996 trip to the region after NATO bombing has brought peace. (You can see how she described it here.) That's quite an elision, and one that hardly indicates much passion for stopping a "genocide" that was one of the most important foreign-policy dilemmas her husband faced. 

However, another passage in Bedell Smith's book suggests that Hillary did assert herself in 1995, as the region entered a period of new turmoil:

Two years earlier, Hillary had been dovish on Bosnia. Worried about getting into another Vietnam-style quagmire, she had helped  persuade Bill to back away from the "lift and strike" plan to remove the ban on weapons to Muslim fighters while launching air strikes against Serbian military targets. Now the atmosphere had changed. Republicans as well as Democrats in the Senate were poised to pass a measure allowing the Bosnian Muslims to obtain weapons to fight the Serbs more effectively, and Bill's continued inaction threatened to harm him politically.

After several conversations with Holbrooke, Hillary became "an advocate for the use of force in Bosnia," said one of Bill's top advisors. By the end of June, Holbrooke told Hillary bluntly that Bill needed to show "engagement, not procrastinating and ducking and waiting for something better to happen"....

Hillary by then considered Holbrooke a valuable foreign-policy operative who was not being used effectively by her husband. She believed that Bill was sliding away from involvement in foreign policy, especially in Bosnia. She told another of her husband's advisors that Bill had to shoulder too much as spokesman for the administration. It was "unfair," she said, "to leave him out there as the only one pulling chestnuts out of the fire." Reverting to her copresident role, she asked for "a detailed plan for a foreign policy public relations campaign--communcations offense and defense, not based on level of rank but communication skills." She specified that Secretary of Defense William Perry, CIA Director John Deutsch, UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright, and Holbrooke all be tapped as surrogates to speak for Bill on foreign policy. Conspicuous by their omission were Christopher and Lake, neither of whom was dynamic on television.

What to make of all this? One reading--for those who don't trust Hillary's book--is that she always saw Bosnia as a merely political issue. She didn't want action in 1993 when it threatened her health care plan, but she did want it in 1995 when Bill risked looking weak.

The other reading would be that Hillary truly was moved by Elie Wiesel in 1993 and privately quietly cajoled Bill to act, but to no avail. Bedell Smith's account of her resistance to a more hawkish policy is apparently based on a single source, a May 1993 Newsweek article which contained one quote from a Hillary "friend" who is not identified. That hardly seems like definitive evidence that Hillary is lying. That said, much like Hillary's claim to have urged Bill to stop the genocide in Rwanda, there is no clear evidence suggesting she actually did so.

Verdict: Inconclusive--but suspicious! I say the burden's on Hillary to establish that she really was speaking up about these genocides that moved her so. Thus far, she hasn't made much effort to do so, and I'm not sure she's earned the benefit of the doubt recently.

--Michael Crowley