The Guy Behind the Guy: Samuel Nelson Drew and Peace-Building in the Balkans


In July 1995, President Bill Clinton was upset. The war in Bosnia, which by then had killed hundreds of thousands of people and created over a million refugees, was a humanitarian, diplomatic, and political nightmare for the president and his administration. An aggravated Clinton vented to aides and looked everywhere — and to everyone — for ideas.

At one point, the president turned to a young sailor who was in the Oval Office to set up a telephone line and asked, “What do you think we should do on Bosnia?” The Navy technician replied, “I don’t know, Mr. President.” And at that moment he was not alone: Few in Washington or around the world had any good ideas for how to stop the violence in the Balkans or solve the long-term ethnic and nationalist tensions there.

But a couple of people did. One of them was Samuel Nelson Drew, a 47-year-old Air Force colonel. Yet, despite his role in bringing peace to Bosnia, you probably do not know who Drew is. After all, his three plain names make him a hard man to Google. Even when you do find the right page, much of the history Drew made that summer is still hidden in archives, immersed in footnotes, and cloaked in the shadows of bigger names.

That’s where I found Drew. Conducting research for a new book on the history of the National Security Council staff, I dug through nine archives, reviewed 10,000 original documents, and performed almost 100 interviews to uncover the stories of the men and women who work for the president and national security advisor. Regardless of gender, each of them was, in the words of Trent from the movie Swingers, “the guy behind the guy, behind the guy” (a quote I include at the start of the book).

By any measure, Drew fit the bill. Nearly 25 years ago, he and other guys and gals on the White House’s National Security Council staff helped Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, then assistant secretary of state, bring peace to the Balkans. Today, Drew’s story is a reminder of how much history is made by forgotten men and women. And at a time when too many in the United States assume the worst about their public servants, Drew’s story is worth remembering.

Recognized Theater Expert

Samuel Nelson Drew was born to an army officer in Wurzburg, Germany, in February 1948, three years after World War II ended and a few years before Germany would be divided. After growing up stateside, Drew went on to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he joined Air Force ROTC. His plan was to pay for college with a few years of service after graduation. But because his eyesight was not good enough to be a pilot, Drew instead became an intelligence officer and intrigued by a military career.

Another twist of fate landed Drew at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where he joined a cell of intelligence analysts, many of whom were focused on the ongoing 1979 revolution in Iran. Because Drew did not speak Farsi, he was tasked with investigating what was happening in the Balkans, where long-time Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito was barely containing ethnic tensions . The by-then Air Force captain ran with the challenge, and Drew became, according to one fitness report, the “recognized theater expert on Yugoslavia.”

After Drew left Germany, the service took him around the United States for his doctorate at the University of Virginia and a professorship at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. Each step along the way — though it was not a hot-button or high-profile subject for those with high ambitions — Drew kept studying Yugoslavia, its history, and the delicate, dangerous balance between its ethnic groups.

That work paid off when he was sent back to Europe just as the Cold War was ending. Drew became a plans officer in a small Department of Defense office at NATO headquarters in Brussels. It was a time, in the hallways of NATO and elsewhere, of much hope, but also many questions. Drew later wrote of one poem often repeated at the time at NATO. Greek poet Constantine Cavafy had asked, “Why this sudden bewilderment? . . . Because night has fallen, and the Barbarians have not come! . . . What’s going to happen to us without the Barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution.”

With the Soviet solution and threat quickly fading into history, many at NATO headquarters like Drew were wondering what the future would hold. It was unclear if the Cold War would be replaced by a prolonged peace, or whether United States would stay engaged long enough in Europe to find out. Still, even if the barbarians of the past were gone, Drew and others at NATO headquarters did not have to look far for brutality.

After Tito’s death in 1980 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991, Yugoslavia — really a collection of six nations: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Montenegro — began to break apart violently. Even more than nations declaring and fighting for independence, long-simmering ethnic tensions, stoked by leaders like Slobodan Milosevic, erupted among the Serb, Croat, Bosniak, Slovenian, Albanian, and Macedonian populations.

The violence in Bosnia quickly became, as Drew later wrote, a “test case from hell.” It was a test for humanity 50 years after the Holocaust, for post–Cold War European and NATO leaders, and for the United States as a superpower without peer. It was a test everyone — most critically the main guys making policy, or principals in Washington speak, like Clinton and National Security Advisor Tony Lake, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, and Secretary of Defense William Perry — was failing in the winter of 1995.

“I’ve given your name…”

Several months before, Drew left Brussels to teach for a few years at the National War College in Southwest Washington. Even as he was still settling on campus on Ft. McNair, Drew became aware that his knowledge of the Balkans was too vital to be wasted in a classroom. He was quickly reassigned to the policy staff of the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon, and to the interagency task force struggling behind the scenes and the big names to find a U.S. response to the crisis.

Shortly after Drew joined the Pentagon, Alexander “Sandy” Vershbow noticed him at one interagency meeting. Vershbow was a career Foreign Service officer then assigned to the National Security Council staff as senior director for European Affairs. During the meeting, Vershbow took a coaster from under his water glass, and wrote a note on the back to Drew: “I’ve given your name . . . as someone I’d like considered in devising a list of candidates to replace” a military staffer who was leaving the National Security Council that spring. In Drew, Vershbow saw someone who knew the Balkans, knew NATO, and knew the military.

On receiving the coaster, Drew was “in seventh heaven,” according to his wife Sandra. He was a student of government and knew time on the staff — as one of the guys behind the national security advisor and president — was an unbelievable opportunity. He also believed that, with the right ideas, the United States could meet the test in Bosnia.

As Drew soon discovered, the real problem was the Clinton White House wasn’t working. Clinton’s natural inquisitiveness and indecision resulted in lengthy admirations of the problem and few policies to meet it. On Bosnia and more, the principals were, according to an interview with Lake, not “getting it done through the formal channels.” As a result, the national security advisor made the deliberate choice to empower the guys and gals at the deputy and staff level — people like Vershbow and Drew — to find a solution.

On June 24, 1995, Lake called Vershbow, Drew, Deputy National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, and another aide to his office and told them, according to two recollections, “We can’t let this drift” any longer. The national security advisor said, “Let’s think from the end backward. I don’t want to hear about what’s next.” Vershbow realized this was an opportunity to “really break loose from the shackles” of the present policy and the failing process, according to an interview, and he relied on Drew, whom he called a “real alter ego,” to make the most of the opportunity.

The urgency of the planning increased as the violence in Bosnia did. Starting July 6, amid late and ineffectual NATO airstrikes, the Serbs assaulted Srebrenica (a United Nations-designated safe area), took additional peacekeepers hostage, and killed more than 8,000 Muslims. The siege on the city was, in Vershbow’s words, a “galvanizing moment,” but his and Drew’s drafting was not keeping pace with the emotions and outrage the Srebrenica attacks inspired in Washington.

“Roll every die”

On July 14, Clinton, furious at how much events were drifting out of control, took a break to practice his golf swing on the Eisenhower putting green near the Oval Office. Amid the chips and putts, Berger and Nancy Soderberg, another member of the NSC staff, arrived with additional details of the horror in Srebrenica. In response, the president screamed: “This can’t continue. We have to seize control of this.” He wanted to know where the new ideas were. Soderberg explained, “We’re working on it,” in reference to the endgame planning, but Clinton responded, “That’s not fast enough.”

When Lake heard about outburst, he made sure Vershbow and Drew knew about Clinton’s ire. A few days later, they finished their draft which proposed an “all-out effort in the coming weeks” to push for a diplomatic solution and “restore” American and NATO leverage with more aggressive airstrikes. These ideas were not novel. Indeed, each had been considered at some point in one way or another, but the two staffers and their NSC and interagency colleagues tried to orchestrate all of them, based on a complex “schematic” of incentives and punishments, into a cohesive roadmap that would dictate the U.S and NATO response to different events on the ground in the Balkans.

Eventually, Clinton became convinced he needed to “roll every die” to find a solution, and decided Vershbow and Drew’s plan was the best idea on the table. Responsibility for the diplomatic mission was given to Holbrooke, who is back in the news today thanks to a blockbuster new biography. But back then, Assistant Secretary of State Holbrooke was making news of another kind. He had all but given up on finding a solution to the Balkans and told The New York Times that Washington’s policy process was a “a gigantic stalemate machine” — a quote that ran a few days after Clinton’s decision.

For that reason and more, the White House wanted one of its own people on Holbrooke’s plane to keep an eye on the forceful diplomat. Although disappointed to miss what promised to be a high-profile diplomatic effort, Vershbow knew he needed to be the guy behind the scenes in Washington managing the government- and NATO-wide effort. Drew got the assignment and joined Holbrooke on the first shuttle with others on the American team, which included Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs Robert Frasure and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO Affairs Joseph Kruzel.

The team set off knowing they had the chance to make history. Before they really got started, however, tragedy struck. On Aug. 19, Drew, Frasure, and Kruzel were traveling from a meeting when their armored personnel carrier skidded off Mount Igman near Sarajevo. The three died on the side of the mountain.

Vershbow, out of the office that Saturday, was called with word of Drew’s death. As he rushed back to the White House, CNN had begun to broadcast that some of the American team had been in an accident. After hearing the scattered media reports, Drew’s wife, Sandra, at home in Virginia with their two teenage children, frantically and frustratingly called around the Executive Office Building looking for word on her husband. Soon, Vershbow and Lake arrived at her home to deliver the sad news in person.

Meanwhile, Holbrooke, who was one vehicle ahead, survived. He went on to push the parties to accept a cease-fire and begin talks at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, which would lead to peace in the November 1995 Dayton Accords. With the public profile earned (and tended) along the way, Holbrooke was written about endlessly, rewarded with new posts, including U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and rumored as a possible recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Deep state”

Drew, of course, did not live to enjoy the end to the conflict he had foreseen as an intelligence officer in the late 1970s. Instead, the colonel was buried in Section 6 of Arlington National Cemetery, one of the few graves related to the wars in the Balkans. He is the only National Security Council staffer to ever die in the line of duty. At a memorial service at a chapel on Ft. Myer near Arlington Cemetery, Clinton said of Drew, “The White House and the nation are better for his service.”

Like many other guys and gals behind the scenes on a big policy decision, the only real reward is just that — the thanks of a grateful president or other principal. It’s a funny way to make a living and to make history, with credit for successes and blame for failures going to the guy or gal up front. Some, like Drew and Vershbow, have used the opportunity to make the world, or at least places like the Balkans, a bit better off, while others have made mistakes and advocated for policies that took the United States down the wrong path.

Regardless of wins and losses, Drew’s story is worth remembering especially at a time when many Americans have lost faith in their public servants. After all, the unlikely, fitful, and ultimately fruitful partnership between Drew, Vershbow, Holbrooke, Lake, and Clinton proves just how far-fetched it is that a “deep state” is secretly controlling policy in Washington. The U.S. government struggled with Bosnia — just as it succeeded in finding a deal — not because of bureaucratic conspiracy but because of the muddle and the occasional magic that occur when such different people come together for a common cause.

Even more, as Holbrooke’s bold-faced name makes news again, it is unfortunate that when you Google “Samuel Nelson Drew,” he — and his role in history — is so hard to find. Most of America’s public servants are much more like Drew, someone who dedicated a quiet life to serving the country no matter the credit, frustrations, setbacks, and risks. Given the serious challenges the nation faces at home and abroad, we can only hope the U.S. government has an easier time finding public servants like him in the years ahead.


John Gans, the Director of Communications and Research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, writes about Drew and others NSC staffers in his new book White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War. This article is adapted from that book.

Images: Tech. Sgt. Richard Longoria (header) and Sandra Snyder Drew (coaster)