Paying for the Powell Doctrine: The Delusions behind 200,000 Deaths in Bosnia

January 2002

In the early days of the Bosnian War, Colin Powell, who at the time chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to the conclusion that stopping the fighting would require the use of 250,000 troops. Then-President George Bush took his advice to heart and, fearing another Vietnam, opted to keep U.S. troops at home, safe and sound. Powell’s estimate seemed reasonable because the fighting in Bosnia was vicious, and under the Powell Doctrine, the U.S. government, when intervening abroad, would rely on the military equivalent of a sledgehammer, never a chisel. You can’t miss with a sledgehammer, Powell believed.

In Washington, few politicians challenged Powell’s judgment. The headlines from Bosnia told stark tales of torture, executions, concentration camps, and sieges. Bosnia was in the grip of genocide, and genocide, as everyone knows, is a massive and infernal machine-Evil and Apocalypse entwined-and it cannot be defeated on the cheap. Americans tend to equate the face of genocide with Adolf Hitler, not Radovan Karadzic. If you want to defeat Hitlerian evil, you must, it follows, amass the forces of D-Day and have a great generation on hand to storm the beaches (or mountains or deserts or jungles, as the case may be). Understandably, few politicians wished to send untold numbers of GIs to an obscure and violent country where it was hard to figure out who was committing genocide against whom and where American blood would seep into soil that contained no oil.

If you were in Bosnia at the time, as I was, the situation would not have appeared so fuzzy. You might have wondered, as I did, where Powell was planning to put all those troops, and what they would do. Genocide is a strange animal; it is monstrous, but not a monster. I met and occasionally shared a glass of brandy with more than a few war criminals in Bosnia, and I learned that these were not brave men and women, and that their numbers were not so immense. Many of the atrocities in the war were committed by paramilitary squads drawn heavily from Serbia’s underworld; these soldiers-I use the word with great caution-were excellent killers of civilians and takers of whatever loot they could find, but they would not have fared well against an army, which, at the beginning of the war, the newly independent Bosnian government did not have. That is why the Serbs were able to seize so much territory at the start-they faced no organized opposition. Once it took shape, Bosnia’s army found itself fighting an uphill battle and suffering from an international arms embargo that starved it of the weapons it needed to mount offensives (or defensives).

The siege of Sarajevo was maintained by heavy weapons and lazy soldiers like Dragisa, who made a point of not volunteering his last name when I visited him in the fall of 1992 at his place of work, a fortified machine-gun nest in the hills above the Bosnian capital. His job, and the job of the three soldiers he worked with, was to fire occasionally at the Sarajevans below them. Their aim was to terrify as much as kill. Return fire was infrequent, more a nuisance than a threat. Dragisa, who had a middle-aged paunch, possessed the high ground as well as a big gun and was surrounded by folded coils of ammunition that evoked the image of a pit of lazy snakes. He made himself comfortable in a cozy bunker with a stove. He was a bully, not a fighter. A few miles up the road from his lair, I visited one of his leaders, Biljana Plavsic. Plavsic is now on trial at The Hague as an architect of Bosnia’s genocide, but in 1992 she operated out of a hotel at the Jahorina ski resort, which was closed for business because of the war. After walking down a maze of empty corridors, I found her alone in a small office, shivering in a winter jacket. There was no heat, no electricity. This was no Berchtesgaden.

That is what Bosnia’s genocide looked like from the inside-cowardly and pathetic. This truth had the misfortune of going against conventional wisdom and political convenience, and so it was ignored or disbelieved for far too long. “The Serbs are not ten-foot-tall headhunters who would fight to the last drop of blood,” an American diplomat in Zagreb told me one day. “Why don’t we bomb targets in Bosnia and Serbia? My God, what are we paying $200 billion a year for-what is our military for? If you define our army as a force that won’t risk taking casualties, then we don’t have an army. We have Boy Scouts.” A few hours later, the diplomat called and asked that I not use the quote, even though, as he knew, I would not cite his name. He was afraid that Powell would figure out who was behind the swipe and exact some form of bureaucratic revenge. It was dangerous for American officials in the Balkans to bring inconvenient facts to the attention of their superiors back home.

Genocide is a fearsome word, evoking a phenomenon nearly biblical in its fury; we should not be surprised that politicians retreat in its presence. How can a few thousand GIs defeat it? Would not their weapons be like spears against a tidal wave? But we should not feel helpless in the search for the DNA of genocide and ways to defeat it. Genocide is a policy, not a monster. It is implemented, often imperfectly, by men and women, not Goliaths. With skill and luck, it can be defeated by military intervention. Not always, but sometimes. The genocides of the 1990s in Bosnia and Rwanda succeeded not because they were unstoppable, but because international opposition was almost nonexistent. In Washington, defeating genocide was less important than getting it off the front page, even if that meant letting genocide succeed.

There was another route. The conflict in Afghanistan presented American policymakers with all of the obstacles that stopped them in their tracks in Bosnia: an apparently fearsome opponent (the Taliban, which wasn’t so fearsome once the fighting began); a potentially slippery slope beginning with limited intervention (which wasn’t so slippery in Afghanistan, because, as of this writing, there appears little prospect of long-term military action); and geographical terrain that was unfavorable to the weapons and warriors of a superpower (yet the rugged Afghan mountains did not protect the Taliban from destruction). If we could crush the Taliban in Afghanistan, we could have crushed the Serbs in Bosnia. The missing factor, in the Balkans, was quite simply the desire to fight that war.

Among soldiers, defeat lingers longer than victory because it involves a loss of pride and a loss of lives on a mission that failed. These failures stain the mind forever, like dye on a shroud. That has been the case with the generation of officers who fought in Vietnam and who decided that the next time they were called upon to do violence in a distant land, they would make sure they had all the resources needed to win. Colin Powell, an Army major in Vietnam during the heaviest fighting there, turned those sentiments into national policy when, as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993, he formulated his eponymous doctrine. Distilled to its essence, the Powell Doctrine calls on civilian leaders to do two things in considering war-provide the military with a clear mission and give the military whatever resources it deems necessary to carry it out. Here is how, in a PBS interview that aired in January 1996, Powell described his preference for “decisive force” in a foreign engagement: “If this is important enough to go to war for, we’re going to do it in a way that there’s no question what the outcome will be, and we’re going to do it by [using] the force necessary to take the initiative away from [the] enemy and impose [our] will upon him. If you’re not serious enough to do that, then you ought to think twice about going to war.”

In the winter of 1992, as he fended off demands for U.S. military action in Bosnia, Powell described the flip side of his doctrine. “If force is used imprecisely or out of frustration rather than clear analysis, the situation can be made worse,” he wrote in a Foreign Affairs article entitled “U.S. Forces: Challenges Ahead.” “We should always be skeptical,” he continued, “when so-called experts suggest that all a particular crisis calls for is a little surgical bombing or a limited attack. When the ‘surgery’ is over and the desired result is not obtained, a new set of experts then comes forward with talk of just a little escalation-more bombs, more men and women, more force. History has not been kind to this approach to war-making. In fact, this approach has been tragic.”

In the war on Iraq, Bush the Elder’s administration provided a clear mission-liberate Kuwait-and authorized the decisive force requested by the Pentagon. Powell was thus able to stand before journalists on January 23, 1991, and announce with the confidence of a general who had a half-million troops preparing to attack, “Here’s our plan for the Iraqi Army: We’re going to cut it off, then we’re going to kill it.” When the dust settled after the hundred-hour ground war, the Iraqi Army had not been killed. Enough of it remained to keep Saddam Hussein in power. But the Iraqi Army had been forced from Kuwait, and the loss of American life was slight. Powell was a hero, hailed as a visionary who knew when and how to fight.

Bosnia was everything Iraq was not, or so it seemed. The threat to U.S. security was not apparent. How could a country that most Americans had never heard of become, all of a sudden, so important that we should shed blood for it? In Washington, Slobodan Milosevic was not viewed as a Balkan Saddam or even a Balkan Mussolini. In fact, there was no shortage of American officials treating him as a respectable statesman. Even if Milosevic was guilty of war crimes that threatened our national interest-a big “if” at the time-what should our intervention seek to achieve: a cessation of fighting, a withdrawal of Serb forces from Bosnia, or the downfall of Milosevic? Powell sensed a quagmire. In an October 8, 1992 New York Times opinion piece entitled “Why Generals Get Nervous,” he did not hide his disdain for reporters whose dispatches indicated a need for American action. “We have learned the lessons of history,” he wrote, “even if some journalists have not.”

But journalists were not the only ones who failed to genuflect before the lessons of history that Powell worshipped. In the crucial first year of the Bosnian War, Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was the principal advocate for intervention within the Clinton administration. She was not afraid to speak her mind to Powell, asking him, during one contentious meeting, “What’s the point in having this superb military you are always talking about if we can’t use it?” This was an accusation, and as Powell recalled in his 1995 autobiography, “I thought I would have an aneurysm.”

Powell cherished the warning from George Santayana that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But Powell turned the warning into dogma, failing to realize that the future may not resemble the past, and yesterday’s lessons may not solve tomorrow’s problems. Albright realized this. The daughter of a Czech diplomat who fled to America as the Second World War began, she knew a genocide when she saw it, and she knew the genocide in Bosnia could be stopped, if only the men with stars on their shoulders could look at Bosnia without seeing Vietnam.

The Bosnian Serb Army consisted of approximately fifty thousand soldiers, according to most estimates. They were a less-than-awesome force, not for any lack of armaments-they had adequate stocks of small weapons, mortars, artillery and tanks-but for their training and morale. The army was an ad hoc collection of new conscripts and veterans of the Yugoslav National Army. For the most part, they had not fought to capture the territory they held in Bosnia. They pretty much took what they wanted in the first weeks of the war, when there was no organized opposition to the paramilitary death squads that were the shock troops of genocide. Until the final months of the war, little territory changed hands. Serbs held about 70 percent of the country almost from start to finish. Their principal strategy was not to attack, but to bomb and besiege and wait for the other side to surrender. It was an effective strategy.

General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader who has since been indicted for war crimes, had a sufficient number of loyalists to lead his troops, but the troops themselves were reluctant to stick their necks out. Except for the early days of the war, there were no queues at recruiting outposts in Serb-held territory; instead, there were roadside checkpoints to prevent fighting-age males from escaping to Serbia. Although the vast majority of Serbs in Bosnia supported the war, few wanted to die for the cause; they had no stomach for close combat against people who could defend themselves.

I learned this lesson in Banja Luka, the largest city under Serb control. On a hot afternoon in the summer of 1992, I came across a teenager named Boris. His blond hair was tied into a ponytail and he wore the sort of small-lensed glasses worn by John Lennon; for all I knew, Boris was a Beatles fan, too. The war was not six months old, but already Boris had no appetite for it. “The Serb people are being seduced,” he told me. “They don’t know what is happening. They see what they want to see, or what others want them to see.”

But Boris was no dissident. He would turn eighteen soon, draft age, and when I asked what he would do he didn’t need to think about it. “I will go to the army,” he replied. “It’s better than jail.” I don’t know what happened to Boris, but it seems unlikely that he would have stepped forward when a call went out in his unit for volunteers for dangerous missions. He was not unusual. There were kids like Boris throughout the Bosnian Serb Army, kids who would much rather watch MTV than risk their lives in a war that was destroying a way of life that had been quite agreeable to them.

There was a Wizard-of-Oz quality to the Serb military machine-look behind the curtain and you will not find the ten-foot tall monsters you expect. This state of affairs was illustrated, vividly, in the winter of 1992, when I visited the town of Rogatica, a choke point of the four-year Serb siege of Gorazde, where thousands were killed by the shells or the cold or the lack of food. Gorazde suffered a shortage of everything but ways to die. I was traveling with two British colleagues, and because we didn’t have passes to be in the area, the commander at Rogatica greeted us by threatening to shoot us. We received the usual anti-NATO, anti-Muslim spiel, then were invited to his office, where the ashtray consisted of a spent artillery shell. One of us said something that enraged the commander and he proceeded to blow up again, grabbing my notebook and ripping pages from it.

After threatening, again, to kill us, he quieted down and apologized for his behavior. He returned my notebook. We talked some more and then accepted his invitation for a meal in his canteen. Over bowls of bean soup, he complained about his hard life on the frontline, telling me that his unit seemed to be forgotten by higher-ups, that he was bored, and that he hadn’t had sex for ages. He asked when we had last had sex. An uncomfortable silence prevailed. When schmoozing with frontline soldiers, I prefer to offer appropriate answers rather than accurate ones, if the two happen to vary. But I did not know the appropriate answer in this case, and neither did my colleagues. Our interpreter volunteered that he had had sex with his girlfriend a few days earlier. This revelation cheered the commander. He liked being in the presence of someone who had carnal knowledge that was not months old.

I mention this incident only because the commander was a losing figure. Yes, he would not hesitate to order another round of shelling of Gorazde, but he seemed more interested in his own well-being and self-pity than anything else. Ho Chi Minh would have booted his fat ass out of the army. If Powell imagined Vietcong-like resistance and fortitude in the hills of Bosnia, I wish he could have been with me in Rogatica. Defeating these bullies would not have required massive intervention; in reality, the military equivalent of a nudge would have done the job, and eventually did.

Bosnia’s government did not need foreign troops to fight its war; it had plenty of troops of its own, more than 100,000. It needed weapons. As the wars began in the former Yugoslavia, the United Nations imposed a weapons embargo on all sides in the disintegrating country, and this strategy played into Bosnian Serb hands, because they had ample stockpiles of armaments and a vibrant weapons industry in Serbia to resupply them. The newly formed Bosnian Army, however, had few weapons and no factories. It was surrounded by Serbia and Croatia (a part-time ally, part-time enemy) and resorted, in dire moments, to handmade mortars.

How could the UN refuse to protect the Bosnians and prohibit them from purchasing weapons to protect themselves? The rationale for arms embargoes is that if you starve a conflict of weapons, the fighting will stop or slow down, even if there is leakage due to black-market deals. In Bosnia, the rationale did not hold, because one side, which started the war, had plenty of weapons, and the other side, which had few weapons and did not want or expect a war, was being slaughtered. (About two hundred thousand people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the war, according to an estimate used by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.) The embargo was immoral because it abetted genocide. It nonetheless suited the U.S. and its allies on the Security Council because they wished for the fighting to cease as soon as possible, and the embargo meant the Bosnians had to accept whatever terms the stronger Serbs demanded. The Bosnians needed to realize they could not win the war, and the best way to make them realize that was to make sure they could not acquire weapons that might enable them to win. It was the kind of realpolitik that brings great satisfaction to the Henry Kissingers of our world, and to the Colin Powells.

To better understand the unfortunate logic of the situation, imagine a lopsided boxing match in which the losing boxer has one hand tied behind his back and pleads with a spectator to free the tied hand. The spectator, who just wants the bloody spectacle to end, balks at the request and urges the boxer to take a fall.

The metaphor is a simplification but useful to keep in mind. Different experts provide different opinions on the effect of arming the Bosnians. My view, which is not a minority one, is that lifting the embargo-and, going a step further, providing the Bosnians with weapons-would have stopped the genocide and enabled the Bosnians to retake territory seized by Serbs in the first weeks of the war. After all, the Serbs were not great or even good fighters. When Croatia re-armed and, in 1995, retook a swath of territory that had been held by ethnic Serbs since 1991, the Serbs hardly bothered to fight. They ran. When NATO bombed the Bosnian Serbs in 1995, they caved in after two weeks. In the following years, when troops of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization made occasional arrests of Bosnian Serb war criminals, there were no revenge killings of NATO personnel. Notice a pattern?

It’s important to remember, too, that the provision of weapons to Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, by Russia and the United States, played a key role-along with the U.S. bombing campaign-in giving Northern Alliance fighters the edge they needed to roll over the Taliban.

But what if the Bosnians committed atrocities with the weapons we supplied or allowed them to be supplied with? Would we have then become accomplices to their revenge killings? This was a frequently heard objection, and it had some validity. In 1995, when Croatia reconquered the Krajina region, the scene was not pretty; ethnic Serbs who had lived there for centuries were so terrified that they fled to Serbia, and many who stayed behind were brutalized or killed by vengeful Croats. In 1999, when NATO’s bombing campaign led to the withdrawal of Serb military forces from Kosovo, ethnic Albanians celebrated by “cleansing” Serb civilians who had not retreated; this retaliation was an embarrassment for the Western countries that had ended Serb barbarism, only to see it replaced by an Albanian variant.

Would the same pattern have occurred in Bosnia? I strongly doubt it. The Croatian troops who attacked in 1995 were fighting on behalf of a government that was every bit as nationalist and thuggish as the Serbian regime led by Slobodan Milosevic. The Kosovo Liberation Army, responsible for the killings of Serbs, was a generally disreputable assemblage of young men who wanted to purge every Serb from Kosovo; most Albanians in Kosovo shared their goal.

Bosnia was different. The Bosnian Army, despite the cruelties inflicted on civilians it was trying to protect, did not engage in systematic killing sprees when it managed to retake slivers of territory. Did atrocities occur? Yes. Were they widespread? No. The majority of Bosnia’s Muslims did not wish to live in an ethnically pure state. To be sure, revenge killings would have occurred if their army had retaken Serb-held territory, but not, I believe, on a significant level. If we demand that an army be atrocity-free to merit international support, then no army including, our own, could ever meet that criterion. In Afghanistan, we have had no trouble looking the other way as Northern Alliance soldiers executed Taliban or al Qaeda fighters.

Skeptics also argued that lifting the embargo would not have been enough. The United States, they said, would have needed to train the Bosnians to use the new weapons, and as everyone knows, military trainers are the first step on the slippery slope to full-scale intervention. This argument is no sturdier than a two-legged table. The warfare in Bosnia was primitive. The Bosnian Army needed simple materiel, such as anti-tank guns, mortars and artillery pieces, as well as ammunition. Little training or assembly would have been required by outsiders. The Bosnians were not in the market for smart bombs.
Pentagon and administration officials talked up a geopolitical doomsday in which lifting the embargo would spark a much broader conflict, because Milosevic might send the Yugoslav National Army into Bosnia to defend Serbs, or perhaps the Russians would become involved, leading to a U.S.-Russia face-off in the Balkans. This scenario was paraded around like a strategic missing link, and it, too, was lacking in reality. As subsequent events showed in Croatia and Bosnia, Milosevic did not send in his troops to defend Serbs once they were attacked by stronger forces. And in 1999, when NATO bombed Serbia, the Russians stood aside, grumbling.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that maintaining the embargo was a wise policy. What other options were available, short of dispatching 250,000 troops? For three years, the Clinton administration and its European allies insisted that bombing could not end the war. David Owen, lead negotiator for the European Union, memorably accused pro-intervention editorialists of being “laptop bombardiers.” But by the summer of 1995, Serb behavior in Bosnia became too odious for Western leaders to overlook any longer-the “safe haven” of Srebrenica had been stormed by Serb troops, who massacred thousands of prisoners and took UN peacekeepers hostage. Shortly after, a Serb mortar attack killed thirty-eight people in Sarajevo. A NATO bombing campaign was begun. It was a limited affair, with just thirty-five hundred sorties on Serb targets in Bosnia over eleven days; when compared to NATO’s seventy-eight-day bombing of Serbia in 1999 with more than thirty-eight thousand sorties, the campaign in Bosnia is revealed as a mild slap. Even so, it worked, with no lives lost by the Western alliance. The Serbs swiftly agreed to a peace conference, held in Dayton, Ohio, that ended the war, although on terms that, it turned out, were unduly generous to the architects of the genocide.

To this day, many opponents of bombing insist they were right. The bombing worked in 1995, they say, because the Serbs were weaker, militarily, than they had been in previous years. This is true, but that only means the mild campaign in 1995 would have needed to be a bit stronger if it had taken place in earlier years. How much stronger? Impossible to say, of course, but the degradation of the Bosnian Serb Army was a slow-moving affair; the army that crumbled under NATO’s bombs in 1995 wasn’t that different from the army that existed in the first year or two of the war. Dragisa, the Serb with the big gun in the hills above Sarajevo, was not much of a warrior in 1992, nor was the commander in Rogatica.

Opponents of bombing also note that NATO’s attack coincided with a summer offensive by Croatian and Bosnian troops that swept through northwestern Bosnia, threatening to overrun Banja Luka. Would the bombing have succeeded without that ground threat? The ground offensive certainly helped drive the Serbs to Dayton, but again, in its absence NATO had much more to throw at the Serbs from the air. In any event, once the Serbs became pinned down by NATO’s warplanes, a ground offensive against them could have begun at any time during the war. From the first day, an aerial blitz by NATO would have tipped the conflict in favor of the Bosnian side, forcing the Serbs to retreat, militarily and diplomatically. The crucial role of the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan is a perfect illustration of the extent to which our Air Force can turn the tide of a foreign conflict.

The United States did not need to use its ground troops to stop the genocide. But what if it had? Our GIs would not have objected. Many foreign soldiers in Bosnia were dismayed because they had to stand aside as genocide unfolded before them. For all but the final stage of the war, the feeble UN peacekeeping force had strict orders to use its weapons only in self-defense; its mission was restricted to helping deliver relief supplies.

In the first winter of the four-year siege of Sarajevo, a cosmopolitan city that had hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984, I met Richard Roth, a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne and a farm boy from Maquoketa, Iowa. The Clinton administration opted, in the early years of the Bosnian war, to limit to a handful the number of U.S. soldiers in the United Nations Protection Force, and as far as I could tell, Roth was the only uniformed GI in Bosnia’s capital, where he worked as a communications specialist at the residence of the UN commander. I sensed, as we talked in a reception room at the commander’s villa, that Roth’s bosses at the Pentagon would not have been satisfied with what he was saying.

“Everybody but the Serbs hopes the Americans will get involved,” Roth said as we sipped tea from porcelain cups, which rattled on their saucers when a shell landed nearby. “I think the Serbs are the bad guys, but that’s not the UN’s position. I know we shouldn’t go sticking our noses everywhere, but this is too close to our NATO allies to sit back and do nothing.” Because there were no other American soldiers based in Sarajevo at the time, Sergeant Roth got a lot of attention when he walked around the city in his uniform, with an American flag on his sleeve. Everyone wanted to know, why doesn’t America do something? I think he knew the sad answer but he shrugged it off, telling me, in the caustic way that grunts in Vietnam handled queries about the morass they knew they were in, “I’m not paid to think.” Our cups rattled as another shell hit its target nearby.

Most men and women don’t join the armed forces because the pay is good or the food delicious. They join for other reasons, including a dose of altruism. They believe that maybe they will have the opportunity to represent their country on a just mission that will save lives. They are not afraid to put their lives on the line. They are not Boy Scouts, although their timid leaders treated them as such in the Balkans.

Why are America’s leaders reluctant to intervene except in the most obvious, national-security-threatening situations, as in the Gulf War? The Vietnam precedent plays a paramount role, of course. So, too, does the story of American intervention in Lebanon, where, in 1983, 241 U.S. soldiers who had been sent to Beirut as peacekeepers were killed in a suicide-bomb attack. More recently, the killing in 1993 of eighteen U.S. soldiers in Somalia pretty much eliminated any appetite Bill Clinton might have had for using the world’s strongest military for anything beyond oil-protection duty.

The lessons of Vietnam should not be forgotten, nor should those of Lebanon and Somalia. But one of the lessons politicians and generals drew from those debacles-that the American public has no tolerance for sacrificing GIs overseas-is wrong. Those missions were a political mess, and the deaths were close to pointless. Americans understood that. If a mission is honorable or if Americans believe it is honorable, they will support it. That was the case in the Gulf War, as it was when NATO finally bombed Serb targets in Bosnia in 1995, and four years later, when NATO bombed Serbia. And that was rousingly the case when the Bush administration started its war on the Taliban.

The 1948 Convention on the Prevention of Genocide requires signatories to punish genocide when it occurs. This convention puts a special burden on the United States, the world’s “indispensable nation,” as Madeleine Albright liked to say in her secretary of state days. Of course not every genocide can be stopped with a modest dose of military intervention, and it would be unfair to demand that the United States sacrifice as many lives as it takes to stop mass murder in country X or Y. There are limits to what the United States can do, and limits to what the United States should be expected to do.
What are those limits?

In the spring of 1994, as the genocide in Bosnia progressed like a plow digging into the earth, and as a new and worse genocide began in Rwanda, President Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, who had the most famous conscience in an administration famous for its famous consciences, explained that the U.S. government was not, unfortunately, in a position to stop the bloodbaths that were staining our television screens.

“When I wake up every morning and look at the headlines and the stories and the images on television of these conflicts, I want to work to end every conflict,” he said. “I want to work to save every child out there. And I know the president does, and I know the American people do. But neither we nor the international community have the resources nor the mandate to do so. So we have to make distinctions. We have to ask the hard questions about where and when we can intervene. And the reality is that we cannot often solve other people’s problems.”

Lake’s heart may have been in the right place, but his mind was not. The cowardice of other nations should not be an excuse for our own. As Lake was murderously slow in realizing, the U.S. government could have solved the problems in Bosnia and Rwanda at acceptable rather than extravagant costs, in political and military terms. Regarding Rwanda, just ask Romeo Dallaire.

In October 1993, Dallaire, a lieutenant general in the Canadian Army, was sent to Kigali, Rwanda, to command a lightly armed UN peacekeeping force of twenty-five hundred soldiers that was overseeing a fragile peace accord between the Hutu-dominated government and the rebel Tutsi army. General Dallaire sensed, early on, that Rwanda was slouching toward genocide. In fact, he had hard information from a senior official inside the Hutu Power movement that a mass extermination was being planned. The informant told Dallaire that lists of human targets were being drawn up, death squads were being trained and deployed, and provocations to start the killing were imminent. On January 11, 1994, three months before the genocide began, Dallaire sent a coded cable to his superior at the United Nations, Kofi Annan, who at the time was head of peacekeeping, and now is secretary general.

The cable outlined the informant’s story and requested permission, as a first step, to raid a Hutu arms cache. Dallaire also asked permission to provide protection to the informant. The response from Annan came quickly: The UN forces in Kigali were to do nothing more than oversee the disintegrating peace accord. Raiding arms caches and protecting informers was out of the question. “We wish to stress,” Annan’s cable concluded, “that the overriding consideration is the need to avoid entering into a course of action that might lead to the use of force and unanticipated repercussions.”

It is understandable that Annan, or anyone, would hesitate to intervene before genocide occurs. Perhaps Dallaire was over-reacting, as commanders in the field might do. Perhaps the Hutus would pull back from the brink on their own accord, without the UN’s firing a shot (which, who knows, could make matters worse, not better). It is difficult to sift the false alarms from the real ones. But the UN, like the Security Council members that decide its policies, has what seems to be a standing rule (or should we say a sitting rule?) to dither until blood begins to stain the carpets along the East River and at Foggy Bottom. Often the best and only chance to stop genocide is before the violence becomes widespread; we must be ready to act early and quickly, especially, as was the case in Rwanda, when the required acts are modest.

But Annan and the Security Council did worse than that. Once ten Belgian peacekeepers were massacred by Hutu extremists on the first day of the genocide, April 7, the Security Council decided to withdraw its force from the country, even though Dallaire urged the opposite course, insisting that with more troops, and a mandate to use them in combat, the violence could be stopped. The U.S. government played a key role in keeping the UN out of Rwanda’s genocide. Dallaire has said, on many occasions, that he would have needed just three battalions to “break the embryo of genocide.” In 1998, the Carnegie Commission assembled a blue-ribbon military panel to examine his claim. The panel consisted of more than a dozen senior military officials, including a half dozen U.S. generals.

“The hypothetical force described by General Dallaire-at least five thousand strong-could have made a significant difference in Rwanda,” the report concluded. “A window of opportunity for employment of such a force extended roughly from about April 7 to April 21, 1994, when the political leaders of the violence were still susceptible to international influence. The rapid introduction of robust combat forces, authorized to seize at one time critical points throughout the country, would have changed the political calculations of the participants. The opportunity existed to prevent the killing-and to put the negotiations back on track.”

It would be wrong, however, to condemn the U.S. government for failing to stop the genocide in Rwanda or the one in Bosnia. The situation was more shameful than that. The government failed to attempt to stop the genocides. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that President Clinton wished the killings would finish as quickly as possible, on any terms. For hardly the first time, the quick solution was preferred to the just solution, even though the just solution could be reached at an acceptable cost.

The blind spot at the Pentagon was exceptionally broad. In his occasionally candid memoir, Waging Modern War, published in 2001, General Wesley Clark, who commanded NATO forces during the bombing of Serbia in 1999, recalled that once he got involved in Bosnian issues in the summer of 1994, “I became increasingly concerned about our staff’s lack of experience with the situation on the ground. No one had been there personally.” The Pentagon brass received CIA reports and diplomatic cables, Clark wrote, and perused CNN and the Washington Post, but had not bothered to send anyone of importance to Bosnia to figure out, from a military perspective, what was happening there and what could be done.

In this way, the lesson of the genocides of the 1990s are not much different from the lesson of Vietnam: our political and military leaders can be so out of touch with on-the-ground reality-even if, as was the case in Vietnam, they have plenty of people on the ground-that they are 100 percent wrong in their analysis of what can be done. The delusions are visceral. In Vietnam, the White House wanted to defeat a communist insurrection and persuaded itself that this was possible to do, even though, in reality, it wasn’t. In Bosnia, the White House and Pentagon feared that stopping genocide might become a quagmire involving massive intervention, and persuaded itself that this was the case.

It is not surprising that General Powell, long before he became Secretary of State Powell, threw around inflated force estimates in the early 1990s. He understood less about Bosnia, and what was needed to stop genocide there, than Sergeant Roth from Maquoketa, Iowa. Powell made the mistake of treating a genocidal policy as an unbeatable monster.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.