How Bosnia’s Politicians Forgot the Sacrifice of State Department Friends

The resignations of four State Department officials protesting US inaction on the Bosnian war helped turn the tide of US opinion – but Bosnia has never recognised or rewarded their principled action.
In late August 1992, George Kenney resigned as acting head of the Yugoslavia desk at the US State Department. In his resignation letter, Kenney wrote that he could no longer support the Bush Administration’s approach to Bosnia and, therefore, his act was meant to “help develop a stronger public consensus that the United States and the West must act immediately to stop the genocide in Bosnia and prevent this conflict from spreading throughout the Balkans.” An editorial in The New York Times praised Kenney’s decision as “a reverberating message.”

Kenney’s resignation came a few weeks after Roy Gutman of Newsday reported on Bosnian Serb-run concentration camps in Bosnia. The exposure of the camps to the Western public generated pressure in the US for the Administration to act.

That year, President George W. Bush was running for re-election and opposed military intervention in Bosnia. His top foreign policy officials, including Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, were traditional “realists”, concerned with America’s national interests and opposed to interventions where those interests were not at stake.

On the campaign trail, then-Governor Bill Clinton spoke out against the UN-imposed arms embargo and called for airstrikes. He promised a more assertive US role in ending the war. Clinton’s victory in 1992 raised expectations arising from his campaign rhetoric. Many Bosnian and pro-Bosnian voices in the US hoped that the new president would put in motion a new policy towards Bosnia.

But, after the inauguration in 1993, the Clinton Administration soon distanced itself from Governor Clinton’s campaign rhetoric on Bosnia. New priorities took precedence. The arms embargo was not lifted and there were no airstrikes in Bosnia. An attempt in spring 1993 to convince European allies to do so multilaterally failed to get support, prompting the Administration to back down.

By the summer of 1993, several months into the new Administration, it became clear to Bosnia observers that there was no major change of policy. This was a major disappointment to the pro-intervention camp in the US. In August 1993, three State Department experts resigned in protest.

First, Bosnia desk officer Marshall Freeman Harris resigned in early August. His act came as Bosnian Serb forces put increasing pressure on Sarajevo that summer. Harris felt that the Clinton Administration was pressuring the Bosnian government into accepting partition at the Geneva talks.

He wrote in his resignation letter that, “I can no longer serve in a Department of State that accepts the forceful dismemberment of a European state and that will not act against genocide and the Serbian officials who perpetrate it.”

A few days later, Jon Western followed suit. Western had worked as an analyst at the Intelligence and Research Bureau at the State Department. His task was to investigate war crimes in Bosnia. The work took a toll on him and, as a result, he felt “depressed.” He, too, expressed dissatisfaction with the Administration’s handling of Bosnia.

Then, in late August 1993, Stephen W. Walker also resigned. He had worked on the Croatia desk at Foggy Bottom. In his letter to the Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Walker wrote: “Genocide is taking place again in Europe, yet we, the European Community and the rest of the international community stand by and watch.”

These three resignations from the State Department in August 1993 were widely reported in the US media, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. These acts, by Harris, Western and Walker, represented the most significant open dissent within the State Department over US policy towards Bosnia.

What the State Department experts who resigned over Bosnia had in common was relative youth, their everyday work on Bosnia, which took a toll, their conviction that genocide was being perpetrated and that nothing was done to stop it, their unhappiness with the Administration’s Bosnia policy and their willingness to sacrifice their careers for a principle.

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, ‘A Problem From Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power wrote eloquently of these resignations and how the war in Bosnia profoundly affected each of them. Her portrait of these experts is of principled and promising young men who could not stand inaction and who sought to draw attention of top decision-makers and the public to what was happening in Bosnia. According to Power, these four resignations – including Kenney’s in 1992 – constituted the largest such protest at official US policy since the Vietnam War.

After resigning, the experts sought new employment and pursued different careers. Kenney was the most controversial, as he quickly revised his views on the war in Bosnia and backtracked his previous convictions. Western pursued an academic career and published on international interventions. He died last year. Harris worked for Congressman Frank McCloskey and, along with Walker, remained committed to Bosnia.

Despite their support and sacrifice for Bosnia in the early 1990s, the story of these experts is relatively little-known in Bosnia and the region. Their sacrifice had largely been forgotten. It was Power’s book of two decades ago that brought their stories back to life.

What is more, they were never properly recognized and honoured by Bosnian politicians and decision-makers. Since the war ended, Bosnian politicians and institutions did honour some international friends of Bosnia who spoke up for the country three decades ago. But not these experts.

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