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Opinion: Bob Dole's efforts to prevent the genocide of Bosnians, remembered

Then U.S. Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (right) speaks to reporters about the Senate vote to lift the arms embargo over Bosnia on July 26, 1995, as then Sen. Joseph Biden looks on.
Luke Frazza
AFP via Getty Images
Then U.S. Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (right) speaks to reporters about the Senate vote to lift the arms embargo over Bosnia on July 26, 1995, as then Sen. Joseph Biden looks on.

Bob Dole, who died last Sunday at age 98, is memorialized this morning in his hometown of Russell, Kan. But his death was also felt this week in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and by those of us who covered the conflict there. As Bosnian politician Bakir Izetbegovic wrote, "He will remain in the lasting memory of all those [that] carry our homeland in their hearts."

As Yugoslavia broke apart along ethnic lines in 1991, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker looked at the destruction and declared, "We don't have a dog in that fight."

Americans looked at Bosnia and saw ghosts of their war in Vietnam. Western Europe saw the shadow of World War I, which sparked in Sarajevo. Both were wary of getting involved in someone else's conflict.

But Bob Dole saw the "ethnic cleansing," as Serbian leaders called it, of Muslim and mixed-ethnic people of Bosnia, and was reminded of Nazi Germany's genocide of Jews, and the oppression of millions more.

We can forget today how many Europeans and Americans of the 1930s felt they could turn away from the crimes of Nazism, as none of their concern. Bob Dole of Russell, Kan., enlisted, risked his life, took gunfire that nearly killed him, and left him with injuries he carried for life.

Decades later, Republican Sen. Bob Dole brought together a bipartisan Senate coalition, including Democrat Joe Biden of Delaware, that called to lift the United Nations arms embargo against Bosnia.

The embargo was intended to keep more guns from coming into a conflict zone. In reality, it allowed Serbian forces to turn the guns, rockets and tanks they already had from the old Yugoslav army against Bosnian Muslims, Croats and mixed-ethnic people.

"The genocide of the people of Bosnia is continuing," Dole wrote President George H.W. Bush in 1991. "We believe that the U.N. arms embargo against Bosnia must now be lifted."

A bill to withdraw the U.S. from the embargo finally passed in August 1995. But only after the Serb army had massacred more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, after Dutch peacekeepers under U.N. command took fire and withdrew.

President Bill Clinton vetoed the bill to lift the embargo. Weeks later, Serbian forces shelled the Sarajevo marketplace at midday and NATO air forces struck at the Serbs. Western democracies had come to see the genocide committed in Bosnia with the moral clarity of Bob Dole, someone from a small town who had a large view of the world.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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