Turning point for president: the Holocaust

May 09, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's heart tells him what h must do in Bosnia: Stop the slaughter by any means necessary. Stop the slaughter that evokes the dark days in Europe when Nazism ran free on the continent.

But that is not the only advice the president is getting as he grapples with the most difficult foreign policy issue of his presidency.

Lord Owen, the would-be British peacemaker, tells him that as long as the Bosnian Serbs are even considering a peace plan, it would be folly to attack them. Leaders in most European capitals agree.

United Nations officials in the Balkans say that air strikes would endanger Western troops already on the ground as U.N. peacekeepers trying to deliver humanitarian aid.

Military commanders in the Pentagon say they could put troops in Bosnia in a matter of days, but fear it could take years to extricate them from the civil war in the former Yugoslav republic.

In public opinion polls, a majority of the American people register opposition to any U.S. military involvement in the distant Balkans.

Mr. Clinton has heard all this. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher said in a recent interview that the president has lain awake at night wrestling with it.

But for Bill Clinton, the defining moment may have come on April 22, while standing in a cold April wind at the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, with Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel at his side.

A powerful impact

No event in world history should be compared to the Holocaust, Mr. Wiesel has written. And yet, while making his remarks at the memorial's dedication two weeks ago, the Holocaust survivor turned to Mr. Clinton and, speaking "as a Jew," implored the young president to try and stop the nightmare in Bosnia.

The murder, mass rape and attempted genocide raging across the Balkans come under the banner of Serbian "ethnic cleansing." But to Holocaust survivors -- and to those who know their awful history -- it resembles something else that was never supposed to happen again

"I have been in the former Yugoslavia," Mr. Wiesel told Mr. Clinton on April 22. "I cannot sleep for what I have seen. . . . We must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country."

People who are close to Mr. Clinton say those words had a powerful impact on the president and that within days, he began discussing possible air strikes and other military options against the Serbs.

Ultimately, if the decision to interject U.S. military power in Bosnia is made, the primary reasons will be morality, not geopolitical strategy, several sources close to the president say. And it will be made over the objections of many of Mr. Clinton's foreign policy experts.

"I think he had a real epiphany during the week of the Holocaust dedication," said Sara Ehrman, a deputy political director at the Democratic National Committee and a Clinton friend for 21 years. "That's when it all came together."

Clinton is outraged

Added Marc Ginsberg, a Washington lawyer who worked on Mr. Clinton's campaign and is a longtime family friend of both of the Clintons, "Bill Clinton understands what's happening in Europe today, and what happened in Europe in the 1940s -- and it's why he's taking such forceful action."

Mr. Clinton's public posture has been wavy.

He first made the connection between Bosnia and the Holocaust in the middle of last year's presidential campaign.

In July, haunted by pictures of blank-eyed Bosnian children felled by snipers, angered by accounts of mass rape and other atrocities, Mr. Clinton began demanding that his staff help him formulate a response.

"He kept saying, 'We need to do something about that,' " recalled Nancy E. Soderberg, the top foreign policy aide during the campaign.

Ms. Soderberg, now staff director of the White House National Security Council, also distinctly remembers the image that haunted Mr. Clinton the most:

"It was that picture of a very thin guy in a detention camp behind barbed wire," she said. "That's the one that really struck him."

On the road, Mr. Clinton authorized his campaign in Little Rock, Ark., to release a statement under his name on Aug. 4, comparing Serbian aggression to the Third Reich.

"I am outraged by the revelations of concentration camps in Bosnia and urge immediate actions to stop this slaughter," Mr. Clinton's statement said. "The United States and the international community must take action. If the horrors of the Holocaust taught us anything, it is the high cost of remaining silent and paralyzed in the face of genocide."

At a campaign stop the following day in East St. Louis, Ill., he called on President George Bush to "do whatever it takes to stop the slaughter of civilians," adding that "we may have to use military force . . . against the Serbs to try restore the basic conditions of humanity."

But those who anticipated forceful action in the Balkans once Mr. Clinton stepped into the presidency had to wait. Talking as a candidate is easier than being a president.

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