Sending out an SOS

Since 1990, former Sen. Bob Dole has been warning the world -- and two U.S. presidents -- about Serbian tyrant Slobodan Milosevic's pending bloodletting. Why wasn't anyone listening?

Published April 19, 1999 11:30AM (EDT)

Bob Dole takes no pleasure in saying "I told you so."

In an interview with Salon last week, Dole recounted the first time he heard the name of the tiny Yugoslav province that is now dominating global news headlines. "In 1989, we started getting these letters from Albanian-Americans who were telling us what was happening in Kosovo," the former presidential candidate and Senate majority leader recalled. "Like everybody else, you had to get out your atlas and find out where it is."

Those letters, which gave first-person accounts of the brutality of the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, motivated Dole to become an expert on the region. He led a delegation of seven senators on a tour of Kosovo soon after, in the summer of 1990. He wrote bill after bill expressing his outrage at Milosevic's rule. He devised a legislative strategy to funnel U.S. funds directly to the democratic leaders in the region, sidestepping the corrupt Milosevic regime.

He passionately urged diplomats, senators and Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton to pay attention to the "continuing repression of the democratic movement in Kosovo," as he said on the Senate floor on June 28, 1990. "I am particularly concerned about the potential for increased violence against the population in Kosovo."

But no one was listening.

"Sometimes these things are just so hard to move," Dole said in the interview. "But you look back and -- just the deaths, 250,000 refugees, a million still not in their homes -- the destruction's gotta add up in the billions. You add it all up over a decade, and they're staggering figures. We can argue that there have been ethnic hatreds for 600 years, religious hatreds, but these people were living side by side till Milosevic started stirring the pot."

Anyone looking at the current quagmire in Kosovo and wondering if any of this could have been avoided should spend a few minutes reviewing what Dole's been trying to tell us for the last decade. Back when Clinton was still governor of Arkansas, Dole was telling then-President Bush that the "situation in Yugoslavia grows more grave by the minute." Before Milosevic had turned his armies toward Bosnia, Dole was urging the Senate to issue an ultimatum that Milosevic cease his "perverted agenda of slaughter." Seven years ago, Dole said, "We are late. I just hope we are not too late."

"He's been out there for a decade saying we need to get involved," says Mira Baratta, Dole's Senate foreign policy advisor from 1989 until Dole retired from the Senate to run for president in 1996. "And no one's been paying attention. Or they pay attention for a while and manage the problem, but they don't solve it."

With all the uncertainties of the current NATO operation -- whether the campaign of airstrikes will ultimately work, how long the GOP Congress' whimsical support for the operation will last, whether President Clinton will eventually agree to send in ground troops -- one must also wonder if the tragedy of Kosovo could have been avoided had anyone been listening to Dole.

"His perspective as a World War II veteran provides him with a very critical perspective and really influences his attitudes," Baratta says. "He believes that we have a fundamental American interest in Europe, and, two, that we saw the extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust attempted, and that 'Never again' actually means something. He fought against the Nazis in Italy, so when he sees the images of the Albanians being put on these trains out of Kosovo, I wouldn't be surprised if he's thinking about World War II and the Holocaust. In terms of mind frames, that's a fundamental part of understanding him."

In June 1990, after hearing Ambassador Max Kampelman's descriptions of human rights abuses and the importance of protecting minority rights in Yugoslavia, Dole offered a non-binding "Sense of the Senate" resolution, which urged Milosevic to "to assure the full protection of the human and civil rights of the Albanian nationality" and "to begin a genuine dialogue with democratic groups in Kosovo."

Sense of the Senate resolutions are just talk, and talk, as we know, is cheap. Dole still hadn't witnessed any of Milosevic's oppression firsthand, and the collapse of the Soviet Union dwarfed any American concerns about Yugoslavia.

But just a couple months later, in August 1990, Dole led a delegation of seven Republican senators to Eastern Europe. Along with stops in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, Dole and his colleagues made a point of adding visits to Zagreb, Belgrade and Pristina to his itinerary.

In Belgrade, Dole and the delegation met with U.S. Ambassador Warren Zimmerman. Zimmerman
accompanied the senators and some staffers to a meeting with Yugoslav federal president Borisav
Jovic, an old-style Communist and then-ally of Milosevic, and Vice Prime Minister Zivko Pregl.

Dole asked the Serbian officials if they could visit Kosovo, where the delegation had planned on
meeting with Albanian activists. Jovic and Pregl denied them permission. It wasn't safe, they said.
When Dole threatened to end the meeting unless his delegation was allowed to tour Kosovo, "Warren Zimmerman's jaw just dropped," Baratta says.

Finally, Zimmerman convinced the Serb leaders that they didn't want the senators to hold a press
conference where they would tell the world that they were being denied access to Kosovo.

The next morning, while the senators were preparing to fly to Pristina, the Serbian military and police were attacking a crowd of more than 10,000 ethnic Albanians who had gathered to welcome the delegation.

Chanting "U.S.A., U.S.A." and "freedom, freedom" and making peace signs with their fingers, the
Albanians were dispersed by Serb soldiers and cops who beat them, chased them with clubs and fired water cannons at them.

Three hours after the demonstrators were dispersed, Dole and the delegation arrived with a heavy police escort. The motorcade drove at what Dole called "breakneck speed" so the senators would not see what Serb forces were doing to the Albanians, who were still being arrested and beaten. The fog of tear gas billowed throughout the town.

Serbian leaders later denied the occurrence of what the senators had seen with their own eyes. Former New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, who was a member of the delegation, described the trip as "a view of
an old Stalinist regime." Still, Congress continued to spin its wheels, stalling Dole's resolution.

Seeing the Balkan situation firsthand intensified Dole's resolve. "The United States cannot sit this out on the sidelines," he said on Sept. 20, 1990. "We have a moral obligation to take a strong stand in defense of the individual rights of Albanians and all of the people of Yugoslavia."

"It was really a seminal trip from the senator's perspective," former Dole aide Baratta says. Dole
started monitoring events in the Balkans on an almost daily basis. He also continued his seemingly futile crusade on Capitol Hill, introducing an amendment on the eve of the Persian Gulf War that would have provided U.S. foreign aid directly to the democratic republics of Yugoslavia, bypassing its central government. On Jan. 24, 1991, he told the Senate that, according to communiquis he had received from the Croatian and Slovene prime ministers, the Serb military was "preparing to carry out [a] threat of military action" and was, in fact, on "standby" to strike.

Frustrated by his colleagues' indifference, Dole began regular updates on the Senate floor regarding the situation in the Balkans, almost as if he were an anchorman.
He offered still more resolutions. On April 18, 1991, a Dole bill, which soon passed unanimously,
expressed "opposition to the use of force against democratic republic governments in Yugoslavia."
A couple weeks later, alarmed by the news that violence was escalating in Croatia, Dole tried to put the rhetoric of the April 18 resolution to use: He sent a telegram to Ambassador Zimmerman,
providing a copy of the resolution, and asking Zimmerman to bring the bill to the attention of the Yugoslav army's commanders, as Milosevics forces were gathering the borders of Croatia and Slovenia.

Dole, who was then arguably the most powerful member of Congress, saw his efforts to lobby
President Bush go unheeded. On July 3, 1991, Dole sent Bush a letter, urging him to "undertake
urgent efforts to pressure, and if necessary compel, the Yugoslav army to halt its aggression, and the Yugoslav and Serbian governments to halt their violent crackdown on democracy and human

He proposed a plan that included a personal appeal to then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to help resolve the crisis as well as the creation of a NATO peacekeeping force. "As always," Dole concluded his letter, "I stand ready to do everything I can to insure that any actions you do take have strong support in the Congress."

But Bush and his advisors "really believed that they ought to keep Yugoslavia together," Dole said in his interview. "I thought, 'How can they do that when Milosevic's out there?'"

Bush still wasnt listening.

It wasn't until April 1992, after the breakup of Yugoslavia had snarled the country in a violent,
three-way civil war, that the Senate finally took action against Milosevic, passing a measure that
withheld diplomatic recognition of Serbia until Milosevic withdrew his army's forces from Bosnia
and ceased the oppression of the Albanian people.

Though he supported Bush's re-election effort later that year, Dole was encouraged to hear that
newly elected President Clinton had promised to support stronger efforts against tyranny in
Yugoslavia. But those promises turned to more disappointment. Clinton backed away from a
campaign pledge to supply arms to the Bosnian government after discovering that American allies
in Europe feared it would lead to an escalation, and possible spread, of the country's civil war.

Dole became a harsh critic, arguing in favor of lifting the arms embargo against the Croatians and
the Bosnians so they could fight back. "If we hadn't had the arms embargo then, we would not be in Kosovo today," he says.

Clinton did finally agree to lifting the arms embargo against Bosnia, but only after Dole and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., shepherded a bill kicking the administration to act through the Senate with a veto-proof majority. "We brought about change in Clinton's policy," Dole

Soon Clinton and his statesmen were trying to make peace. Dole views the 1995 Dayton Peace
Agreement as "just a little step to get through the '96 election," Dole says. "Kosovo was never even mentioned. Milosevic signed the accord only because the Croats were about to clean his clock."

In August 1995, Dole wrote to the president, pleading with him not to give up too much in
negotiations with the Serbs. Don't "reward his pariah regime without requiring real results on the ground in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina," Dole wrote.

Dole says both Clinton and Bush lacked a fundamental understanding of Milosevic's capacity for brutality and the resolve necessary to put an end to it. "You can't keep setting deadlines and if they don't meet deadline we extend it," Dole says. He makes a point of supporting the Administration's current actions in the Balkans. "At least we finally initiated what we thought was necessary."

But he still finds a lot to be desired in our policy. "We shouldn't take anything off the table, like ground troops," he says. "Even if we aren't going to introduce ground troops, we shouldn't tell the enemy that we've ruled them out ... Why would anybody say that we wouldn't fully utilize all our resources? It's a big mistake to say we won't do this or this or this. It narrows our options and it emboldens our enemy."

Dole sees Clinton's reluctance to consider ground troops as coming from a place in Clinton's psyche that craves popularity more than righteousness. "There's no question it's poll-driven," he says of
Clinton's no-ground-troops pledge. "But if we're at war, we're at war. It's a
good time to tell the pollster, 'Take two weeks off, go to Florida, get a tan. We need to make some tough decisions here.' And your popularity may be in the toilet for a little while there, but if you're successful that'll take care of itself."

Dole said Democrats and Republicans should adopt a united front against Milosevic. "My view of foreign policy is that it should be bipartisan," he says. He was disappointed that no Democratic leader voted to support Bush's actions against Saddam Hussein, and he hopes "there will be more Republican support for Clinton's
[Kosovo policy] than the last round of votes" would indicate.

Dole returned to Kosovo last September. Asked by President Clinton and Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright, in his capacity as chairman of the International Committee on Missing
Persons in the former Yugoslavia, Dole saw the horror he'd been warning the world was coming.

It was an eerie trip. Dole and Baratta were joined by John Shattuck, then the assistant secretary of
state for democracy, human rights and labor, as the small group traveled throughout the muddy ghost towns of Central Kosovo.

Many of the villages had been completely emptied, the only sounds coming from howling dogs.
The few children they saw didn't have shoes, and their mouths were pocked with sores -- a sign of
vitamin deficiency and malnutrition. Albanians in the villages close to the mountains retreated to the hills to hide at night, for fear of attack.

"I saw them up close and in person: women and children, the elderly, living in fear without adequate food and shelter," Dole reported to the world at a Belgrade press conference. "This is a
humanitarian catastrophe in the making." Still, it took more than six more months before the U.S.
finally took action.

It wasn't difficult to discern a tone of weariness in Dole's voice. "It's very sad," he said in the interview. "I stood in graves where they exhumed the bodies of little children. I met with mothers -- Croat mothers, Bosnian mothers -- they all have the same story. They don't know anything about political or military options, all they know is they've lost their sons. People are taken to barbed-wire encampments where they're tortured, starved, executed and dumped
in mass graves. It may not be genocide, but it's very close."

"It's been a decade," he says. "Almost a decade. We did get a few people to listen. It took a long

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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