A former U.S. diplomat offers an insider account of his time on the National Security Council during the first presidential term of Bill Clinton, when officials were trying to determine what to do about the genocidal war within the former Yugoslavia.
Those officials debated whether the U.S. should do nothing, intervene alone, or build a coalition with European countries. Scheffer (Law/Northwestern Univ.; All the Missing Souls: A Personal History of the War Crimes Tribunals, 2011), who also served as America’s first Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues, sided with Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, who leaned toward immediate, decisive military intervention to halt the deaths of civilians and the genocidal aspects of the fighting involving the unstable, Balkanized nations of Serbia-Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, Scheffer and Albright could not go through with the intervention without the consensus of dozens more individuals representing numerous federal agencies. The book’s cast of characters, listed at the beginning of the book, includes more than 80 individuals, making the chronological three-year narrative difficult to track for casual readers for whom most of the names will be unfamiliar. The other main character in the narrative is the Situation Room of the White House, a space described by Scheffer in great detail. “I always felt I was entering the most important room in Washington, indeed sometimes the world, when I walked through the Sit Room door,” writes the author, who portrays most of the government officials as deeply concerned about loss of life and regional instability. But he notes that morality did not always take a front seat due to concerns about the budget, the re-election of Clinton, and the opinions of overseas allies and antagonists. Scheffer felt compelled to recount the give-and-take of his time in the Sit Room as a result of the brutal genocide in Syria. In the epilogue, the author worries that Donald Trump’s foreign policy will lead to awful consequences for the U.S. and the world.
A difficult but important read.