The Myth: US Saved “Bosnian Muslims”, by Ambassador mo

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Thrown around like small change, some US officials and politicians have tried to use as legitimizing currency the claim that US intervention saved “Bosnian Muslims” (Bosniaks.) (Plenty of forums nowadays were such claim may enhance the US Governments motives, and I leave that for others to debate.) Being less indifferent or even hostile to the plight of the citizens of Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH) than the European powers though does not make the US Government a savior.

To be fair and complete, NATO air and artillery strikes did substantively help the BiH and Croatian forces at the end of the conflict in 1995 to make some military gains. However, such firepower was also turned as a “threat” by at least one US official, Richard Holbrooke, against the Croatian and BiH forces to keep them from liberating much of the country immediately preceding the Dayton talks.

The UN and NATO protected “safe areas” were also never protected as was mandated and committed. The safe areas became killing grounds, Srebrenica only being more absolute in the murders and cleansing. The other 5 “UN safe areas” and “NATO protected zones,” (recall that NATO had the obligation as much as UN to defend,) suffered shelling, sniping and siege: Sarajevo, Bihac, Tuzla, Gorazde and Zepa. The latter was also completely obliterated after Srebrenica by Ratko Mladic’s forces with premeditated decision by US/EU officials to let it be overrun.

From the outset, US political leaders followed if not led European counterparts in the betrayal of BiH. Let me provide a brief timeline, before history is rewritten further to accommodate today’s new agendas and wars.

“Burn it All” – Ratko Mladic

Anthony Lewis of the NY Times reported on June 14, 1992.

“As Serbian forces rained incendiary shells on the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, and its 400,000 blockaded residents faced starvation, the American President turned his back. His weakness is our shame."
Extraordinary dispatches by John F. Burns to The New York Times described life in Sarajevo: shells falling on apartment houses, mosques and churches; civilians huddled in dark basements, occasionally braving the shells to go out in search of food and water. Such scenes have not been known in Europe since 1945.
One Burns report quoted a tape of a radio conversation among three senior Serbian officers outside Sarajevo. The discussion was about which section of the city to hit, and how. Gen. Ratko Mladic said: "Burn it all!"

Anthony Lewis continues to quote then the first President George Bush’s State Department spokeswoman:

“Margaret Tutwiler, the State Department spokeswoman. She told reporters that she knew of no "serious, responsible person in here" who had even discussed the idea of military intervention. Then she added:
"We have a totally clear conscience."

(Around two dozen State Department officials actually resigned in protest of this policy including Paul Williams and Steve Walker to name but two).

Not Backing a Losing Horse – New President Bill Clinton

Presidential candidate Bill Clinton had spoken forcefully in his campaign of doing something, but once elected …

President Clinton was advised that the BiH Government forces were about to be overrun and lose the war and country. It was the prevailing wisdom. And, why should the US back a “losing horse in a race that was about to end.”

This policy effectively continued for two more years as the killing and ethnic cleansing continued. NATO and the UN committed to protect designated “safe areas/protected zones” more to make it appear that they were doing something than actually doing it. Srebrenica and Zepa are proof of will and sincerity. As subsequent NATO air strikes on Mladic’s forces evidenced, it was not a matter of means or effectiveness with minimum or no risk.

Bosnian Defenders Bring war to Stand-off

Of course, the Bosnian horse did not lose, even if it did not win. The worst thing that could happen from the perspective of those capitals that were opting to stay on the sidelines is for the war to continue without a clear winner. Since BiH was supposed to lose, it was upsetting the prevailing view. If BiH had disappeared from the map, world leaders would have been happy to say nice things about the passing of this historically multi-ethnic society. However, BiH surviving was an embarrassment and a challenge. Some even began to find blame with the BiH defenders rather than those responsible for aggression and genocide. (Again there were many exceptions including most notably then UN Ambassador Madeline Albright within the Administration and Richard Perle outside.)

What scared most US and European policy makers is that the war could continue indefinitely without their ability to “manage” it. It was a symbol of their hypocrisy or ineptness or both. It was mocking them, without a word necessary.

However, to bring about a conclusion, it was determined that the strongest and most belligerent party, Milosevic’s and Mladic’s Belgrade, would have to be satisfied.

Betraying the “Safe Areas” - Srebrenica

At first, EU and US officials tried to convince us – I had just become BiH Foreign Minister after the killing of my predecessor - to trade territories, particularly Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde. After we refused, they gave Mladic and Milosevic a yellow light to attack the enclaves – again despite a clear obligation by NATO to protect such “safe areas” – and to create facts on the ground by violence what we refused to trade at the negotiating table. Belgrade was demanding these territories – to make more contiguous territories for a new Republika Srpska to be carved out of BiH - as condition to engage in a US negotiations initiative led by Holbrooke. (See Special BBC Report - )

BiH Defenders Had Turned the War

A few months later, Mladic was looking to consume even more of BiH. He would have taken and cleansed it all, given the military opportunity. I demanded that NATO forces not repeat Srebrenica and Zepa and react to Mladic’s continued shelling and siege of Sarajevo. President Izetbegovic thought that my bluff would not work, but I had a sense that I had one card to play that would compel Holbrooke to act – he also needed Sarajevo and me to agree to what he saw in very personal terms, “his” negotiations initiative.

NATO air strikes followed, the siege of Sarajevo was loosened and then lifted and the military initiative was turned in favor of the BiH forces. This is where American action did help the BiH defenders; however, it is also true that it was BiH civilians and soldiers who had by then, (three plus years into the war,) blunted Belgrade’s/Mladic’s advance and were holding Serbian forces to a standoff or even gradually advancing despite being severely outgunned. The BiH soldiers first deserve credit for turning the tables on Mladic and before NATO acted. (In the Bihac region, BiH and Croatian forces had already by then won a significant battle to lift the siege and liberate that region.)

The Final Bluff to Save Mladic’s Gains & Republika Srpska

As the BiH forces were advancing toward Banja Luka, the key town occupied by Serbian forces within BiH, Richard Holbrooke hurriedly traveled to Sarajevo. He wanted to meet with President Alija Izetbegovic alone. However, the President insisted that I be part of the meeting.

Holbrooke started immediately to insist upon a cease-fire. When Izetbegovic hesitated Holbrooke insisted that BiH forces were in fact losing in the field and told Izetbegovic that “your generals are lying to you and the Croatians will stab you in the back.” Izetbegovic and I held firm. An irate Holbrooke began to physically crowd the seated Izetbegovic, and I stepped in with my body to push away Holbrooke. Soon thereafter, I traveled to Zagreb, Croatia, and coordinated military action in BiH was agreed. (Holbrooke had clearly been lying to Izetbegovic during our meeting a few days earlier in Sarajevo.)

However, only 3 days into what was to be a one-week campaign to conclude the war, Holbrooke and European officials had directly threatened NATO action if Croatian forces did not cease. President Izetbegovic, now alone in Sarajevo, felt a similar threat coming at the advancing BiH Army. A cease-fire took effect with Mladic’s forces still controlling approximately half of BiH.

Until a few years ago, I was not necessarily certain if BiH forces could have liberated Banja Luka. A CIA officer approached me at a recent talk I gave and confirmed that BiH forces very much could have taken Banja Luka and liberated all of western BiH, “Krajina.”

Holbrooke’s threat most likely was a bluff. In a recent interview conversation with David Harland (then high functionary within UNPROFOR – UN peacekeepers in Balkans – and subsequently lead investigator/author of UN General Assembly mandated “Srebrenica Report”) told us on camera that Holbrooke was bluffing. (See “Fruits of Genocide – from Srebrenica to Prijedor” - (

Perhaps I may have been inclined to call Holbrooke’s bluff. It was evident that there was not a unified position in Washington. However, President Izetbegovic also had a much greater responsibility if this was not a bluff. Perhaps we all had more optimism that through negotiations and a focused even if lengthy peace process, the means for BiH reintegration would be put into motion, particularly the return of ethnically cleansed refugees.

Saving Mladic from Defeat in the Field– Securing Legitimacy for Milosevic’s Project at the Table

That has not happened. Rather, what Mladic had ethnically cleansed on the ground was wrapped into a veneer of legality and handed to Milosevic during the Dayton talks.(Above photo of start of Dayton talks was last that media was given access and allowed arm twisting to occur without benefit of transparency). Again, the threat that BiH would be blamed and bear the consequences of Dayton talks collapsing played a decisive role in the course and outcome of constitutional and territorial talks. There was also the overbearing concern of all BiH officials for citizens that had already suffered far long. Finally, there was the hope that an "imperfect peace" would be under Washington's and European direction steered into something more functionally as well as morally right.

Rather than saving, US officials allowed BiH and Croatian forces to only establish some new facts on the ground that would serve to more readily facilitate an ideological as well as territorial divide already pre-negotiated with Milosevic even before Srebrenica. Perhaps they saw Alija Izetbegovic as a poor poker player, but as officials themselves wrote in the “Secret History of Dayton,” they felt more uncomfortable in calling “Milosevic’s bluff.” (Read excerpts at -

Who was Saved?

First, let’s set the record straight: the BiH Government was not just “Bosnian Muslims.” In Dayton, BiH’s delegation included Croats, Serbs and Jews/”Others.” What is now evident is that at the end of war and in Dayton, a multi-ethnic BiH lost in favor of one delineated by ethnic lines under the constant threat of ultra-nationalist forces in Republika Srpska. The Muslim factor comes into play mostly now as another post “9/11” bogeyman to keep BiH from reintegration employing the argument of Muslim domination.

Not only were “Bosnian Muslims” and BiH not saved by European and US governments, but it is the prejudice or at least indifference that maintains the status quo of a country divided and thus not moving adequately closer to Euro-Atlantic integration. (This is despite significant contributions from multi-ethnic BiH military working with allied forces in places as Afghanistan and Iraq.)

Rather than helping save Bosnian Muslims, prejudice in Washington and European capitals directed at Bosnian Muslims is the primary factor in keeping the country divided based upon Mladic’s and Milosevic’s handiwork.Indeed, now I would not be offended by the "myth" if today's reality of US policy was to counter the mistakes of the past and help BiH regain its multi-ethnic character, a shared value system with United States society. Unfortunately the opposite has been the net result if not necessarily objective of US policies over most of the last decade plus.

By Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey

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About the author


"Voice of the Global Citizen"- Diplomatically Incorrect ( provide film and written reports on issues reflecting diplomatic discourse and the global citizen. Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey (@MuhamedSacirbey) is former Foreign Minister Ambassador of Bosnia & Herzegovina at the United Nations. "Mo" is also signatory of the Rome Conference/Treaty establishing the International…

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