UTRECHT, NETHERLANDS — Five years ago I stood on a hillside near Srebrenica and witnessed forensic experts from the Hague War Crimes Tribunal examine the decomposed bodies of scores of Bosnian Muslim men and boys who had been massacred in the valley below. Their corpses had been driven up that steep hill and thrown off the road.
It had taken five years, until that week in August 2000, to discover their bones scattered among the trees and bushes. No Bosnian Serb living in that area had reported their existence since July 1995, when an estimated 7,800 males perished at sites across eastern Bosnia.
Questions haunt me about the Srebrenica massacres, which the Hague Tribunal has determined constitute genocide. Maybe Srebrenica's Muslim men and boys would be with us today and their families tearless had the United States and other key governments acted wisely during the late spring and summer of 1995.
What if all the threads of information about Bosnian Serb intent for the United Nations "safe areas" of Srebrenica, Zepa, and Goradze had been properly analyzed in a timely manner and brought to the attention of senior policymakers before such intent was acted on? What if we had understood that the blockage of all humanitarian convoys to the eastern enclaves in June 1995 was likely a military tactic to isolate the towns further prior to ethnic cleansing rather than a logistical challenge to overcome?
What if we had not let the rising death toll in Sarajevo seem more urgent than the plight of the safe areas? What if the Bosnian Serb pause outside Srebrenica on July 10 had been seen as a military tactic prior to the final assault rather than the halt that we surmised?
For months we had been hopelessly bogged down in Washington and with Security Council members over two military plans for the future of Bosnia. One was to withdraw the much-maligned but vital UNPROFOR - the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia - under cover of a temporary NATO military deployment. The other plan was to deploy a NATO or UN-led Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) to put real muscle behind UNPROFOR's continued presence to fulfill its humanitarian mandate.
Endless talks continued over the surreal evacuation plan: Would NATO commit to replace UNPROFOR with a robust force and, if not, what happens to civilians while the safe areas and perhaps Sarajevo are overrun? And how to fund the RRF was debated: From UN assessments or unknown sources of voluntary funding?
What if the funding and policy morass over the RRF had been resolved much earlier and the multinational force deployed by early July?
When the Srebrenica assault began that month, we looked in vain for a credible military option to confront the aggressors - and none existed.
Helicopters and NATO soldiers simply weren't positioned, as planned for the RRF, to get to Srebrenica in time.
Even one well-intentioned proposal to airlift soldiers into Srebrenica was pointless without the helicopters to do it. Any standing plan to extract the Dutch peacekeepers, never mind civilians, required weeks to activate. The Srebrenica genocide took a few days to accomplish.
When atrocities erupt, timing is everything.
What if, when it became known on July 12 that thousands of men and boys had been isolated for "war crimes screening" and then just vanished, we had leaped to the educated guess that they might be destined for extermination?
Instead, we waited for another day's reports to indicate whether they were still missing, and then we mused about their possibly heading to Zepa.
Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic and President Radovan Karadzic could have been immediately warned not to torture or kill the men and boys or ultimately face devastating NATO air power.
There was no concrete plan to prevent atrocity crimes at Srebrenica. In fact, there was no realistic plan to save any of the "safe areas" from assault or atrocities.
Amid this horror, all was not lost. At Albright's insistence, the US moved quickly to condemn the killings as the truth emerged (including her dramatic presentation of evidence to the UN Security Council) and to strengthen information-sharing with the Hague Tribunal. Srebrenica led to the Dayton Accords and the end of fighting in Bosnia.
By 1999, when Serb attacks in Kosovo compelled NATO's response, we were ready. And today, though still seeking the arrest of Mladic and Karadzic, the Hague Tribunal continues its prosecution of many defendants for the Srebrenica atrocities.
The sacrifices made by the Muslim families of Srebrenica were not in vain, but I agonize to this day whether they were preventable.
• David Scheffer was US ambassador at large for war crimes issues (1997-2001) and senior counsel to Madeleine Albright in 1995 when she was US ambassador to the UN. A visiting law professor at Northwestern University, he is currently lecturing at the University of Utrecht.