Biden’s international experience invaluable to Obama
September 11, 2008
As you are reading this, I am sitting on a beach in a small seaside resort in Croatia. Mountains tower 5,000 feet above, and the Adriatic Sea is crystal clear and deep blue.
If I could look 300 miles across the nearby islands and the narrow Adriatic due west, I would see the backside of the Italian boot. I am 30 minutes from the Bosnia border and a long day’s drive on mountain roads to Sarajevo in Bosnia where World War I began.
Two and a half hours south of me is Dubrovnik, a rival to Venice when Venice was at the peak of its power . Dubrovnik is a beautifully preserved walled city. It is now the main tourist venue and cruise stop on the Adriatic seacoast.
My husband is a native of Croatia and nearly every year we visit relatives and vacation in the area. As far away from home in Grand County as we are, thoughts of the U.S. political scene are very close. Some of Croatia’s history in the past 15 years has been shaped by Sen. Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate for vice president.
Croatia is a part of the old Yugoslavia, which broke up violently early in the 1990s.
Serbia was also a large part of Yugoslavia. The war between the two was the bloodiest and worst conflict in Europe since World War II.
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It gave birth to the term “ethnic cleansing,” as the Serbs used mass murder, rape and terror to drive Croatians out of areas where Serbian ethnics also lived. The worst of the conflict took place in Bosnia, which contained ethnic Serbs, ethnic Croatians, and westernized, ethnic Muslims, whose culture was virtually indistinguishable from their Serb and Croatian neighbors.
The then-Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, died in the middle of his trial for war crimes at the Hague in 2006, and just this summer one of the leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadjic, was finally apprehended and is awaiting trial for crimes against humanity in the Hague.
One more Bosnian Serb wanted for war crimes is still on the loose; the saga is not over yet. Serbia itself has moved on. Many in Serbia look forward to allying themselves with the West, at least in enough numbers to elect Western-leaning leaders to govern them.
So what did Joe Biden have to do with any of this? As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it was largely through his leadership that the United States got involved in 1992 to halt the ethnic cleansing that had jolted the conscience of the civilized world. President Bill Clinton had resolved not to get involved in the conflict, passing the buck to Western Europe while being sensitive to the fragile situation of Russia, which was just emerging from Communism. Russia viewed Serbia as an ally.
Joe Biden visited Milosevic in 1992 and stared him down in a meeting that was for the history books. Biden, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that oversaw Balkan issues, was aware of the atrocities and ethnic cleansing and he believed the Bosnian Serbs took their orders from Serbia’s President Milosevic.
During the three hour meeting, in which Milosevic denied everything, Joe Biden looked him in the eye and said, “I think you’re a damn war criminal and you should be tried as one.” Milosevic didn’t even blink. There is a vivid and chilling description of these events in Biden’s most recent book, “Promises to Keep.”
Biden then reached across the aisle to Sen. Bob Dole and the two of them set about to move the United States to taking a larger role to stop the bloody conflict. They finally persuaded Bill Clinton to take action.
Western Europe had been paralyzed. Their alliances reverted to the old pre-World War I days: Germany and Austria supported the Croatians; the French and Russians backed the Serbs, and Maggie Thatcher alone raised her voice imploring the waffling English to help stop the conflict. NATO was torn apart over the issue.
Only U.S. leadership could stop the violence. Sadly, nearly 300,000 people were victims of ethnic cleansing and violence before the United States got involved and took the leadership to put an end to the horror.
Joe Biden’s knowledge of the region went back to 1979, when he and the diplomat and government advisor of several presidents, Averell Harriman, attended the funeral of a Yugoslav vice president. My husband was part of that diplomatic mission, and his respect for Biden’s judgment dates to that time.
After the funeral, Biden and Harriman met secretly with the Yugoslav president, Tito. All three discussed their mutual fears of a bloody civil war when Tito died. Both Harriman and Tito were in their 90s.
That eyeball-to-eyeball with world leaders is a hallmark of Sen. Biden. His knowledge of the region and those currents of conflicts could have served the Bush administration well in dealing with post-invasion Iraq, because there were some similarities in the resulting ethnic conflict and in the conduct of modern urban warfare. To Biden’s frustration, the Bush administration did not tap into these insights.
As we go forward, the conflicts in the region continue in Georgia and Sen. Biden has already gathered an on-the-scene feel for it in the past month. There is no one in my mind who understands that part of the world better than he does. What he would bring to an Obama presidency is, as the saying goes, “priceless.”
There was a joke at the time when President Clinton was dragging his feet in taking the leadership in the Bosnian intervention . The reason the United States did not want to get involved, the joke goes, was because there was no oil there.
The irony concerning Georgia is that there is oil involved now. A strategic pipeline from the Baku oil fields goes through Georgia to Europe and an agreement has already been signed with Russia by Serbia to take an oil pipeline through Serbia to Montenegro’s seaport on the Mediterranean, a couple of hours drive from Dubrovnik. What goes around finally comes around and we should all feel fortunate that Sen. Joe Biden may be the next vice president, serving with a President Obama, who vows to listen to his advisers.
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