U.S. negotiator justifies arms-to-Bosnia decision

WASHINGTON (AP) — The decision to allow Iranian arms to flow to the Bosnian government was “a tough call” but eventually was justified by the U.S.-brokered peace agreement, former diplomat Richard H. Holbrooke said Tuesday.
“There never was a covert action. We never considered one,” Holbrooke told the Senate Intelligence Committee, one of several congressional panels examining whether laws were broken.
One question being studied is whether the Clinton administration violated the requirement that Congress be notified of covert activity abroad.
Holbrooke, a former assistant secretary of state who led the U.S. negotiating team at last year’s peace talks in Dayton, Ohio, said Bosnia’s then-prime minister, Haris Silajdzic, appealed to the administration in 1994 to urge other governments to send arms to his country. The agreement was initialed in Dayton last November and signed in Paris the next month.
“We never did. Not once. Never,” Holbrooke said, although all parties fighting in former Yugoslavia’s ethnic wars already were receiving arms in violation of an international embargo decreed by the United Nations.
Because of defeats the Bosnians were suffering from rebel Bosnian Serb forces, Holbrooke said, “I was nearly desperate with concern they would not make it through a third winter.”
As for the unease expressed in Congress that the administration’s action opened the door for Iranian involvement in Bosnia, “This was bitterly debated inside the administration,” Holbrooke said. “It was a tough call, but thank God it was made.”
He compared the Bosnian government to a patient on life-support systems. “You make sure the oxygen gets through to the patient. Then you worry about the source of the oxygen,” said Holbrooke, who left the State Department in February and now works for a New York banking firm.
Clandestine arms from Iran and other countries made the Bosnian army a more potent fighting force, eventually bringing victories that led to the Dayton negotiations.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the committee chairman, opened Tuesday’s hearing by detailing findings of interviews by committee staff with parties involved in discussions leading to the arms shipments to Bosnia via Croatia.
Specter cited the following:
ù “The U.S. ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, considered covert U.S. help to the Bosnians by December 1993 and encouraged others to propose covert actions by March 1994.
ù “In April 1994, Ambassador Galbraith wanted to send a more explicit signal to the Croatians than the ‘no instructions’ message he ended up delivering.”
“We are discussing something that never happened,” said Holbrooke, who added that many options were discussed and rejected. He also pointed out that Congress subsequently passed legislation prohibiting the administration from enforcing the U.N. embargo.
“You and your colleagues did not distinguish between sources for the arms,” said Holbrooke.
Sen. Robert Kerrey, D-Neb., vice chairman of the committee, responded heatedly, “Do you believe the administration said, ‘Gee, now we can use Cuban arms, we can use Iranian arms?”
“Senator,” Holbrooke said, “with all due respect, the law was airtight and unambiguous.”
“Ambassador, with all due respect, we have passed laws that were airtight and definitive in the past that administrations ignore,” Kerrey responded. “So please don’t pick one selectively.”
In a speech Tuesday, Holbrooke’s former boss, Secretary of State Warren Christopher described Iran as the world’s principal sponsor of international terror.
Tehran “actively encourages” militant groups to attack targets in Israel, he said, providing up to $100 million dollars a year to the extremist Hezbollah, he said.