Photo: Michael Stravato/AP
Joe Biden was among the most aggressive of any American politician in advocating for the U.S. to respond militarily to the Yugoslav civil war. As the multi-ethnic nation disintegrated in the early 1990s, Serbia and Croatia began a bloody battle for control of large swaths of the former Yugoslavia. In Bosnia, Serb forces committed widespread atrocities, particularly against Muslims. While Muslims represented the largest ethnic group in Bosnia, they had almost none of the military capabilities, heavy weapons, or equipment that Serbia and, to a lesser extent, Croatia deployed there. There is no doubt that Serbia, as the most dominant military power, proved more murderous than its adversaries, but Croatia also engaged in significant war crimes during Yugoslavia’s collapse, including the single-largest forced displacement campaign of the war, against the Serbian population of Krajina.
Biden repeatedly called for use of force, lifting of arms embargoes, airstrikes, and deployment of U.S. troops to attack Bosnian Serb forces. He has boasted, “I’m the first guy to call for airstrikes in Bosnia and wrote that lift-and-strike policy” — which meant lifting the arms embargo against Bosnian forces and conducting U.S. airstrikes against Serbian positions. Biden asserted that the U.S. had both moral and strategic justifications for intervening.
Biden repeatedly called for use of force, lifting of arms embargoes, airstrikes, and deployment of U.S. troops to attack Bosnian Serb forces.
If fighting broke out with U.S. forces deployed to Bosnia, Biden said the president’s authorities were clear: “I think the Constitution’s triggered. Forget the War Powers Act. I think we have to have consensus.” Biden, whose fights with the Reagan administration over congressional war powers had become legend, noted that Republicans who opposed Clinton’s military action and wanted congressional authorities respected “have found God” and seemed to be changing their tune on the War Powers Act. Biden and other Democrats then resurrected their campaign to clarify the law. “The whole purpose of this is to end this tortuous, God-awful conflict that talks about procedure instead of allowing us to know what procedure is and get to the substance of whether or not it makes sense to send troops in the first place,” Biden said. Still, he was clear on limitations around launching a ground war: “The president can no more send 25,000 troops to Bosnia without congressional approval than he can fly.”
While many of Biden’s specific policy proposals for U.S. military involvement in the Yugoslav civil war focused on arming and supporting Bosnian Muslims and at times Croatia, he also wanted to dramatically expand the war beyond attacking Bosnian Serb forces and called for direct U.S. attacks against Serbia’s capital. Biden said that in 1993, “I was suggesting we bomb Belgrade. I was suggesting that we send American pilots in and blow up all of the bridges on the Drina. I was suggesting we take out his oil supplies. I was suggesting very specific action.”
As the bloodshed deepened and reports emerged of Bosnians being held in concentration camps, Biden ferociously sought to use his platform to draw attention to the grave realities facing Bosnian Muslims. He blamed inaction from the U.S. and the international community for allowing it to happen. But Biden also frequently cast his aggressive positions as defenses of the U.S. and NATO’s standing in the world. “I see a vital U.S. interest. It’s called the stability of Europe. That’s the vital interest,” Biden said on “PBS NewsHour” in 1993. “Who thinks NATO is going to be around five years from now, sustained by public opinion and a hundred billion dollars’ worth of U.S. funds, if NATO can’t play any role in bringing peace in this area of the world, or at least stopping the extent of the aggression?” Biden also blasted European allies for not joining a military campaign, accusing them of “moral rape.”
“I was suggesting we bomb Belgrade. I was suggesting that we send American pilots in and blow up all of the bridges on the Drina. I was suggesting we take out his oil supplies. I was suggesting very specific action.”
In 1994, Biden criticized the U.N. for imposing what he called “idiotic rules of engagement” that slowed the pace of NATO airstrikes. “I believe we should be using airstrikes much more aggressively,” Biden said. A year later, he attacked Clinton’s veto of a bill that would lift what Biden termed “the illegal and immoral arms embargo” against Bosnia. Even with the embargo in place, the U.S. signed a military cooperation agreement with Croatia and began quietly approving contracts for private U.S. military companies and retired U.S. personnel to train Croatian military forces. “These Bosnian Muslims and Croats know how to fight,” Biden said. “They’re ready to fight. Just think if they had anti-tank weapons.”
In July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces carried out a mass killing operation of Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, Bosnia, after seizing the town, which had been declared a U.N. safe zone in 1993. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia later determined that more than 8,000 people were killed during the massacre and ruled that the Bosnian Serb operations constituted genocide. From Biden’s perspective, he had spent the previous two years warning that absent major international military intervention, it was precisely this horrifying scenario that would unfold.
Following the fall of Srebrenica, Biden denounced what he called the “bankrupt policy in the former Yugoslavia, begun by the Bush administration and continued with minor adjustments by the Clinton administration.” He said the U.N. had been “definitively discredited.” In September 1995, NATO launched the largest military action in its history, carrying out a 20-day bombing campaign while aiding Croat and Bosnian ground operations against Bosnian Serb forces.
Biden was never satisfied with the extent of U.S. and international military action. By the end of 1995, the war was officially declared finished. Biden was one of only five senators to vote against withdrawing U.S. troops from Bosnia in 1998. Throughout the 1990s, Biden was determined to “punish” Serbian president Slobodan Milošević for the war in Bosnia; he would ultimately get his wish in 1999, when the U.S. led a 78-day NATO bombing campaign against Serbia and Montenegro that would put in motion Milošević’s downfall.