Biden Played Less Than Key Role in Bosnia Legislation

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The moment when Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. looked Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in the eye and called him a "damned war criminal" has become the stuff of campaign legend.

The Democratic vice presidential nominee brings up the 1993 confrontation on the campaign trial to whoops of delight from supporters. Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) mentioned it when he announced he had chosen Biden as his running mate.

During last week's debate with his counterpart on the Republican ticket, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Biden twice gave himself credit for shifting U.S. policy on Bosnia. The senator from Delaware declared that he "was the catalyst to change the circumstance in Bosnia led by President Clinton." At another point he noted: "My recommendations on Bosnia -- I admit I was the first one to recommend it. They saved tens of thousands of lives."

But, despite the bravado, Biden was not a key player in the legislation that ultimately forced Bill Clinton to lift an arms embargo imposed by the United Nations on Bosnian Muslims fighting the Serbs, according to congressional officials involved in the issue and a review of Biden's speeches and voting record.

In his autobiography, "Promises to Keep," Biden says that the pivotal Senate vote came "nearly three years after I called for the plan" to unilaterally lift the embargo. But the charge actually was led by then-Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), who has since become an independent.

"His views were consistent with what we were doing," said Stephen G. Rademaker, then a House Republican aide who initially drafted the legislation and brought it to Dole's attention. "But I never regarded him as a leader in the effort."

Biden's foreign policy expertise -- honed over 36 years in the Senate -- is the main reason Obama selected him as his running mate and offers the strongest contrast with Palin. Last month, when Palin was getting a crash course in diplomacy by sitting down with world leaders at the United Nations, Biden's Senate office released a self-described "partial" list of leaders that Biden had met with, totaling about 150 names from nearly 60 countries, territories and international organizations.

Biden has used those experiences to develop a deep understanding of international issues, and to insert himself in some of the most critical foreign policy debates in the past two decades. He can be blunt and to the point in his diplomatic exchanges, and he embraces proposals that sometimes end up being ahead of the curve. He focused on deficiencies in U.S. policy toward Bosnia, he called for NATO expansion before it became fashionable and most recently prodded the Bush administration to back a $1 billion package to rebuild Georgia after the Russian invasion.

Biden opposed the Persian Gulf War but voted in favor of the 2002 Iraq war resolution, a position he has since lamented as a "mistake." He also was a fierce opponent of the 2007 "surge" of U.S. troops in Iraq.

As the incident with Milosevic shows, Biden is hardly shy about emphasizing his own role in world affairs. Biden's book portrays him frequently confronting Clinton and bucking him up on Bosnia when the president had doubts about his own policy. But the hard legislative work was left to others. Biden did take an early stab at prodding action, writing an amendment in 1992 -- opposed by George H.W. Bush's administration -- that authorized spending $50 million to arm the Bosnian Muslims. But the legislation that became known as the Dole-Lieberman bill was first crafted by House Republicans after Clinton took office, and Biden chose not to pick a fight with the new president even though other Democrats signed on to the measure.

In April 1993, Biden spent a week traveling in the Balkans, meeting with key officials, including a three-hour session with Milosevic. The trip was detailed in 15 pages of the senator's autobiography. Aides said that Biden insisted there be no news media allowed because he did not want the Serbian leader to use the visit as propaganda.

By all accounts, the meeting was tense. Milosevic spent a lot of time poring over maps and expressing concerns with peace proposals crafted by a group of international mediators. Milosevic denied he had much influence over the Bosnian Serbs, but then immediately summoned Radovan Karadzic, their leader, with a curt phone call.

According to Biden's book, Milosevic asked the senator what he thought of him. "I think you're a damn war criminal and you should be tried as one," Biden said he shot back. Milosevic, he said, did not react.

Milosevic is now dead and only a handful of people were in the room. Ted Kaufman, then Biden's chief of staff and now an aide in his vice presidential campaign, said the incident occurred exactly as Biden recounted it.

But John Ritch, then deputy chief of staff on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, does not remember such a blunt statement, but rather that Biden more gently made the case that Milosevic could be a war criminal. "The legend grows" regarding the meeting, Ritch said. "But Biden certainly introduced into the conversation the concept that Milosevic was a war criminal. Milosevic reacted with aplomb."

A third Biden aide in the room did not recall the confrontation and a fourth declined to comment.

Upon his return to the United States, Biden issued a 36-page report on the trip, laying out eight policy proposals, including airstrikes on Serb artillery and lifting the arms embargo. The report, largely written by Ritch, does not mention the war-criminal exchange in the two pages devoted to the Milosevic meeting. But the day after it was issued, Biden appeared on NBC's "Today" show and said he had called Milosevic a war criminal to his face. "This guy looked at me as if I said, 'Lots of luck in your senior year,' " Biden said.

Biden continued to make fiery statements on Bosnia, demanding action. Richard C. Holbrooke recalled that when he was nominated as assistant secretary of state for Europe in late 1994, Biden "in no uncertain terms made it clear to me that the policy on Bosnia had to change and he would make sure it did. He believed in action, and history proved him right."

"When you look back, Senator Biden got Bosnia right earlier than anyone. He understood that a combination of force and diplomacy would revive American leadership and avoid a disaster in Europe," said James P. Rubin, a Biden aide at the time who later became spokesman for Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

But when it came to votes on the floor, Biden did not consistently follow through. In deference to Clinton, Biden supported a competing version of the Dole-Lieberman bill that called for first working with the United Nations. "My position is simple and straightforward," Biden said on the Senate floor before a vote on the bill in May 1994. "We should lift the arms embargo, but we should first make one more attempt, in good faith, to end it where it began -- in the U.N. Security Council."

But Russia was poised to veto any effort that would harm its Slavic cousins. "Suggesting that the president should ask the Security Council to end the embargo amounted to little more than sending him on a fool's errand," said Rademaker, who called the alternative bill "nothing more than political cover for senators to vote no on Dole-Lieberman, thereby sparing the Clinton administration political embarrassment over its failed policy."

By the time Biden signed on to the Dole-Lieberman bill, two years after his encounter with Milosevic, he was listed only as the ninth co-sponsor.

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