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See no evil, make no policy: a former State Department insider reveals how his bosses ignored atrocities in Yugoslavia and stayed a step behind the journalists.

The Bush administration pronouncements on the Yugoslav crisis between February and August exhibited the worst sort of hypocrisy. I know; I wrote them. For seven months, in addition to other duties, I was responsible for drafting most public statements on the crisis in Bosnia from the State Department's Yugoslavia desk in Washington. My job was to make it appear as though the U.S. was active and concerned about the situation and, at the same time, give no one the impression that the U.S. was actually going to do something significant about it.

The goal from the beginning was not good public policy, but good public relations, and from that perspective, the administration's approach was a smashing success. It managed to downplay the gravity of the crisis and obscure the real issues. Of course, it did so at the expense of civilian casualties in numbers that are not yet known. Unable to abide this policy, I resigned on August 25. Before I left, however, I got a first-hand, behind-the-curtain look at how the State Department bureaucracy, taking its cues from Bush and Baker, created policy that could not be squared with reality, let alone defended. The trick in this instance was to ignore any facts--whether they pertained to atrocities, rumors of concentration camps, or starvation--that would complicate the policy goal of not getting involved.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Bosnia was an instance in which good policy did not necessarily make for good politics, and Bush was committed to staying aloof for reasons that, as far as I could tell, had everything to do with cowardice, apparently fearing an election-year backlash in the polls for intervening abroad. (Democrats were already pounding Bush for caring more about foreign affairs than America's domestic woes.) Bush refused to take even the most timid of steps--like demanding a full accounting of the rumors of atrocities.

Making matters worse, officials at State made virtually no effort to spark Bush to action. Guided by the notion that higher-ups at the White House were concerned more with winning in November than righting any wrongs abroad, department brass simply lacked the guts to confront Bush's senior cabinet officers with arguments that American policy was off course. So timid were State bureaucrats--both senior foreign service officers and appointed officials--that they refused even to probe into reports of Serbian concentration camps. As a result, their policy recommendations, when they did turn them out, were illconceived. The only senior person who clearly stood against the administration policy was State Department spokesperson Margaret Tutwiler, but acting essentially alone, she had little impact.

Later, when the sordid details were exposed by the press, State officials refused to acknowledge either a policy failure, or more importantly, an institutional failure to persuade the White House to seek constructive alternatives. A defeatist mentality pervaded the State Department to the lowest ranks; the ethos was that because we can't get involved, we won't get involved.

State of disgrace

American policy was most difficult for me to accept in late July and early August, when Roy Gutman's Newsday stories provided the first detailed account of concentration camps. Even to the administration, Gutman's reports were a revelation. Because the situation in Bosnia was deemed too dangerous, U.S. officials were not allowed to travel in Bosnia as Gutman did. We had had some reports of concentration camps, but essentially we knew very little and far less than Gutman. We could not corroborate his details, but the reports seemed plausible.

I knew about the first story before it was in print because Gutman had talked with the U.S. embassy in Belgrade; I was told that Gutman had an important article coming out and to watch for it. When it was published, I made copies and circulated it widely within the department: to the State Department's European Bureau's "front office"--specifically to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Ralph Johnson--and to senior aides in Washington on the "seventh floor," where the State Department's top management sits. Around the building, I argued that we had to react. I suggested we set up teams to debrief refugees and collate accounts to get a better picture or events, and that we begin to lay the groundwork for possible war crimes trials. I also recommended that we request a strong, new UN Security Council resolution condemning the camps and demanding access and proper treatment of detainees.

What happened? Senior officers listened politely, told me I had some "good ideas," then did nothing; they neither demanded a fuller accounting, nor passed along any sense of urgency to officials at the White House. Two weeks or so later, when more Gutman stories began to appear and when ITN television broadcasted shocking footage of Serbian concentration camps filled with starving and physically abused men, the public reacted. Only then did State and White House officials wake from their slumber. But they took the most superficial of steps, seeking what were essentially unenforceable UN Security Council resolutions. This was to be the pattern throughout: Policy was media-driven, responding only when confronted by what the press had been able to find out, and then in ways that were entirely inadequate.

We were nudged by journalists with questions like, "What did the State Department know about these concentration camps?" But the real issue was what State would do to find out more. The danger, from the seventh floor's point of view, was that discovering additional horrifying details would multiply demands that the United States intervene. On the one hand, State officials were not prepared to consider journalists' accounts "credible," or "authoritative." On the other, the State Department would not seek information on its own. There was no way for dissonant information to get through the door, making State Department brass look something like children who block out the world by covering their ears and humming loudly.

The United States could easily have conducted an investigation of its own. I proposed sending teams of foreign service officer volunteers into Bosnia to corroborate the journalists' reports. The European Bureau at State firmly squashed this idea. The result was that the administration continued to ignore stories while doing nothing to pursue actions which would prevent the deaths of innocent people.

And while the administration was not seeking out reliable data, it also withheld what little information it had. On September 24, the administration submitted a report to the UN, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 771, which called upon members and international humanitarian organizations to submit whatever material they possessed relating to atrocities and war crimes. The U.S. report listed 31 violent acts. But for more than five months the American embassy in Belgrade had sent to Washington at least one cable per day on the situation in Bosnia, and each cable reported up to dozens of cases of Serbian atrocities. That makes at least 500 incidents the department did not forward to the UN.


There were also internal debates about starvation. In late April, when the United States sent several planeloads of supplies to Bosnia, I had information indicating that Sarajevo would quickly face food shortages unless the West made delivery of supplies to Sarajevo a priority and forrealized a relief operation. But senior officers didn't believe that Sarajevo was experiencing or would necessarily ever experience real shortages. To them, aid seemed a "slippery slope" leading inexorably to U.S. military involvement. It gives me no pleasure to say that I was right about the need for food. The West, however, did not begin relief flights until the end of June.

The European Bureau worried that a precipitous U.S. response might prove unnecessary as much as it worried about the Sarajevans' welfare. The chief concern was that the United States could send lots of aid only to discover Sarajevans eating pasta and drinking brandy in their basements. The bureau judged from CNN pictures of Sarajevans running from mortar fire that there were still plenty of wellfed people in Sarajevo. I actually heard this argument from senior officers. Remarkably, we had no Americans there who could provide credible information to advise us one way or the other.

The front office was so committed to stasis that eventually it no longer believed reports of starvation coming from our embassy in Belgrade. Maybe the embassy didn't have the full story. After all, officials could talk only to a limited range of people, many of whom, the front office thought, brought strong biases to their comments.

The skeptics need only have picked up a telephone. I talked to the political section in Belgrade ev| ery day and I knew there were desperate food shortages in Sarajevo and throughout Bosnia. By May, the embassy was telling me informally that up to 20,000 Sarajevans could die of hunger and hunger-related illness unless they got food soon. So every day, openly and subversively, I tried to get the State Department spokesman to describe the gravity of the situation. If we officially talked about the problem, I reasoned, the press would keep asking what we would do about it. Public pressure might force us to do what our own reports had not.

I won most of my fights with the Bureau on the issue of starvation because I had an ally in Margaret Tutwiler. While I spoke with her on only a few occasions, I passed material to her---cables marked with highlighter, for instance---outside the regular chain of command. Tutwiler regularly overruled the Bureau in deciding to give details of what we knew to the press. The Bureau hated her changing "their" statements, but she had the power and they had to comply.

Underlying the atrocities, the camps, and the starvation was the fact of Serbian aggression. The senior officers in the European Bureau bent over backwards to be "even-handed" in attributing responsibility for the conflict. Denying the overwhelming preponderance of evidence that Serbia was responsible for the conflict, senior officers took every opportunity to find fault with Croatian and Bosnian efforts to defend themselves.

Our discussions about how to characterize the conflict without taking sides often bordered on the absurd. Supported by others at the working level, I drafted press guidance--material for State Department spokesmen--which consistently referred to and condemned Serbian shelling of Bosnian civilians. The Serbs, after all, had more than 100 pieces of heavy artillery around Sarajevo, while the Bosnian government defenders had fewer than a dozen. This was essentially a Serbian siege in which the Bosnians were shooting back as much as they could. But senior officers in the Bureau pressed repeatedly to have spokesmen say that "all sides" were shelling each other, without focusing blame on Serbian forces.

Most of them knew better. In fact, virtually every official at the U.S. Department of State who deals with Yugoslavia believes that over the past year and a half, U.S. responses have been a monumental debacle. By my own count only six staffers below the level of under secretary supported the administration's line. Nearly every other appointee and civil and foreign service person--senior and junior--knew that the policies of economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure against Serbia could not be expected to produce results.

That a great many people were administering a policy they recognized as futile was only part of the problem. The system was--and still is--at fault, too. Its incentives distort reality with rules that reward caution but penalize imagination. It is inwardly centered and more concerned with procedural protocols than with competition of ideas. The system is there to make our country look good, as opposed to making it do good, and it is politicized from top to bottom. Currently, the only way to make an audible sound of protest is to resign.
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Author:Kenney, George
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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