The most complex foreign policy crisis of the Clinton years arose from the disintegration of Yugoslavia, a multi-ethnic state in southeastern Europe that had been carved from the old Austro-Hungarian empire after World War I. As in the rest of eastern Europe, the communist government that had ruled Yugoslavia since the 1940s collapsed in 1989. Within a few years, the country’s six provinces dissolved into five new states. Ethnic conflict plagued several of these new nations. In 1992, Serbs in Bosnia, which straddled the historic boundary between Christianity and Islam in southeastern Europe, launched a war aimed at driving out Muslims and Croats. They conducted the war with unprecedented ferocity, using mass murder and rape as military strategies. “Ethnic cleansing”—a terrible new term meaning the forcible expulsion from an area of a particular ethnic group— now entered the international vocabulary. By the end of 1993, more than 100,000 Bosnians, nearly all of them civilians, had perished.
A 1992 photograph of refugees in war-torn Bosnia illustrates the humanitarian crisis in the Balkans during the 1990s.
With the Cold War over, protection of human rights in the Balkans gave NATO a new purpose. After considerable indecision, NATO launched air strikes against Bosnian Serb forces, with American planes contributing. UN troops, including 20,000 Americans, arrived as peacekeepers. In 1998, ethnic cleansing again surfaced, this time by Yugoslavian troops and local Serbs against the Albanian population of Kosovo, a province of Serbia. More than 800,000 Albanians fled the region. To halt the bloodshed, NATO launched a two-month war in 1999 against Yugoslavia that led to the deployment of American and UN forces in Kosovo.