Bosnia’s Founding Stepfather

To End A War, by Richard Holbrooke

New York, Random House, June 1998, 432 pages (hardcover)

Few things have been as grossly misunderstood as the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina, commonly known by its birthplace as "Dayton." Agreed at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, Ohio and initialed in Paris, France on 21 November 1995, the Dayton Agreement finally established Bosnia-Herzegovina as a state, after a three-year interethnic war following its 1992 international recognition. It also completely failed to resolve any of issues that caused the war.

Instead, it was a feat of social engineering unprecedented at the time, attempting through force and bluster to forge a nation out of bitter enmities. That should not have surprised anyone, given that force and bluster were the main character traits of Dayton’s chief creator, rogue American diplomat Richard Holbrooke.

Proud ‘Peacemaker’

Holbrooke had a long and distinguished career in foreign affairs, starting from his Foreign Service job in Vietnam in 1962. He also edited the Foreign Policy journal (1972-76), served as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs (1977-1981), US Ambassador to Germany (1993-94), and Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs (1994-96). It was in this last capacity that he came to preside over the "peace process" in Bosnia.

To End A War is an extraordinary book documenting not just his endeavors in Bosnia, but the underlying logic, emotions and politics behind them. For all his failings – arrogance, ignorance and vanity easily spring to mind – Holbrooke is also earnest. Though his memoir is as self-serving as, say, Lord David Owen’s Balkan Odyssey, unlike Owen, Holbrooke is not trying to make excuses: he is actually proud of his actions, thoughts and opinions. There is not one hint of modesty – false or otherwise – in Holbrooke, and for that one must be grateful. For in chronicling his efforts to badger, bully and beat the Bosnians into ending their war – on American terms, of course – he offers surprisingly clear insights into the U.S. Balkans policy at the time, and his own role therein.

Reading Holbrooke’s memoir, one needs to keep in mind that this man is the chief creator of the current Bosnian state, a paradox protectorate continuing to exist in spite of itself.

‘I Am The Empire’

Anyone who even slightly doubts the Official Truth about the Balkans wars will be struck by Holbrooke’s cavalier dismissal of any pretense of civility when dealing with the locals – especially the Serbs, for whom he had only disdain dangerously bordering on hatred. To him, prejudices, deceptions and fabrications represent fully justified means to the goal. Cautioned by his British colleague to treat Serbs with some consideration, Holbrooke replied:

"The Serb view of history was their problem… ours was to end a war." (110)

One is tempted to wonder if that was a royal "we." Holbrooke not only represented the United States, he literally made American policy concerning Bosnia, often on the spot. He was no mere emissary, but an avatar of the entire American government in the eyes of the warring factions. When Secretary of State Warren Christopher told him, "I’m not always sure what you are doing, or why… but you always seem to have a reason, and it seems to work," (239) it was abundantly clear that Holbrooke had a carte blanche from his superiors.

Bombs for Peace

One thing Holbrooke used this power for was to orchestrate Imperial intervention and support certain combatants in actions that would normally be condemned as despicable and even atrocious. For example, the greatest ethnic cleansing of the entire war, the August 1995 Croat offensive against the Serbian Krajina, is put into perspective in Chapter 6. During one meeting with Croatian officials, Robert Frasure, a senior US diplomat who soon thereafter died on the road to Sarajevo, handed Holbrooke a note:

Dick: We "hired" these guys to be our junkyard dogs because we were desperate. We need to try to "control" them. But it is no time to get squeamish about things. (73)

Holbrooke’s sympathies for the official Bosnian Muslim cause (as opposed to the real cause) are revealed as early as Chapter 3. In a 1992 policy proposal to the Clinton administration, he advocated "direct use of force against the Serbs," (52) something he finally had a chance to do in 1995. After an explosion in Sarajevo killed a dozen people in the marketplace, NATO began bombing Bosnian Serb targets determined months in advance (102).

The bombing helped establish NATO – and the Americans – as the strongest party in the conflict. Peace took a back seat to power: "It is now essential to establish that we are negotiating from a position of strength… if the air strikes resume and hurt the negotiations, so be it." (119)

There was also no doubt as to whose side the US supported: "It helped that Izetbegovic saw I was fighting hard for something he desperately wanted – the resumption of the bombing." (131)

Holbrooke’s determination resulted in a plea to Washington: "Give us bombs for peace." (132) And a strategy was born.

Holbrooke and Milosevic

By the time the bombing, cajoling, badgering, and "shuttle diplomacy" gathered the representatives of three warring parties at the airbase near Dayton – deliberately chosen as a display of American air power (233) – Holbrooke was almost completely in control of orchestrating the end the Bosnian War. His greatest coup was managing to maneuver Serbian president Milosevic into representing the Bosnian Serbs, thus making it appear Belgrade was always behind their actions – just what the Muslim and western propaganda had alleged all along.

Those especially interested in better understanding Milosevic can find much useful information in Holbrooke’s memoir. Even though he worked relentlessly against the "Serb aggression," (42) and tried to trick, bully and double-cross the Serbian leader, Holbrooke cannot help but describe Milosevic with a mixture of grudging admiration and respect:

"Watching Milosevic turn on his charm, Warren Cristopher observed that had fate dealt him a different birthplace and education, he would have been a successful politician in a democratic country." (235)

No wonder that Milosevic wants to call Holbrooke as a defense witness before the Hague Inquisition.

Liar, Cheat and Bully

Holbrooke’s own accounts of Dayton indicate that his team was literally negotiating on behalf of the Muslims, whose role was limited to petulantly rejecting all solutions in the hope that better (i.e. more favorable) ones would be produced next. At one point, the Americans succeeded in securing 55% of the territory for the Muslim-Croat Federation – until Milosevic accidentally saw the charts aimed to persuade the Muslims and angrily accused Holbrooke of cheating him (295).

Realizing the Americans were not honest brokers, Milosevic then tried to strike a deal with the Muslims directly, and signed away territory after territory to make that possible:

"It was clear: Milosevic wanted an agreement then and there. But he insisted, at all times, to 51-49." (299)

But even as Milosevic and Izetbegovic’s foreign minister Silajdzic agreed on a map (though with much protestations from the Croats), Izetbegovic himself refused to accept it! Here is Holbrooke’s reaction:

"At 11:00 a.m., [EU envoy Carl] Bildt came to my room to ask how we were doing. ‘We are deeply concerned,’ I said, that even if Milosevic makes more concessions, the Bosnians will simply raise the ante.’

‘Do you think Izetbegovic even wants a deal?’ Carl asked. It was a question that Warren Christopher had also been asking. ‘I’m never quite sure,’ I replied. ‘Sometimes he seems to want revenge more than peace – but he can’t have both.’ Chris Hill, normally highly supportive of the Bosnians, exploded in momentary anger and frustration. ‘These people are impossible to help,’ he said. It was a telling statement from a man who had devoted years of his life to the search for ways to help create a Bosnian state." (302)

Note that "Bosnian" here is used interchangeably with "Muslim." Policy was made based on such ignorant assumptions. But were they ignorant, or deliberately malicious? For Holbrooke himself uses the term "Muslims" often enough. For example, when discussing the status of Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, which both he and Izetbegovic insisted on reuniting under Muslim rule:

"[Milosevic] still sought political equality among ethnic groups in Sarajevo, a proposal we rejected because it would disadvantage the Muslims, who would be vulnerable to a Serb-Croat coalition or Serb obstructionism." (259)

As a result, Sarajevo is over 90% Muslim today.

A Call to Empire

As a direct result of Dayton, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia are again increasingly vulnerable to political domination by the Muslims – the very issue which sparked the war in 1992. But Holbrooke could care less – when the Dayton agreement was signed, it accomplished a much greater purpose than ending the Bosnian War: "Suddenly, the war was over – and America’s role in post-Cold War Europe redefined." (358)

Indeed, it was Holbrooke who most clearly articulated the Imperial argument that intervention in the Balkans helped shape the post-Cold War course of U.S. foreign policy:

"Criticism of President Clinton as a weak leader ended abruptly, especially in Europe and among the Muslim nations. […] [E]ven those who chafed at the reassertion of American power conceded, at least implicitly, its necessity. […] After Dayton, American foreign policy seemed more assertive, more muscular. This may have been as much perception as reality, but the perception mattered." (359)

It began with Bosnia, continued in Kosovo, and went on to Afghanistan and Iraq, each intervention more brazen than the one before, each accepted because of the precedent of the one before. That Bush escalated the policy initiated under Clinton only shows that Empire transcends party lines.

Holbrooke concluded To End A War with a call to Empire:

"There will be other Bosnias in our lives – areas where early outside involvement can be decisive, and American leadership will be required. The world’s richest nation, one that presumes to great moral authority, cannot simply make worthy appeals to conscience and call on others to carry the burden. The world will look to Washington for more than rhetoric the next time we face a challenge to peace." (369)

Even though he is no longer a major player, his call has been heeded. So much for the "day everything changed."

From Star to Footnote

Crafting the Dayton Accords may have been the pinnacle of Holbrooke’s career. After a two-year stint as an investment banker, he re-entered diplomatic waters with mixed results. In late 1998, he tried to repeat his work in Bosnia by persuading Yugoslav president Milosevic to surrender Kosovo. But the same trick could not work on Milosevic twice. Holbrooke returned home in defeat.

The following year, he was nominated as the US Ambassador to the UN, but the appointment stalled when he was accused of violating federal ethics guidelines. He admitted no wrongdoing but paid the fine. After the UN stint, he was tapped to become Secretary of State in Gore’s administration. The scandal-ridden election of 2000 extinguished that hope. Richard Holbrooke thus passed from the diplomatic stage, and it is unclear whether he will ever step into the limelight again. But even as he becomes a footnote in American politics, the effects of his 1995 campaign in Bosnia remain, lingering on as a reminder of what one arrogant, unscrupulous man can do with Imperial power.

And if that is not the best argument against the existence of Imperial power, what is?

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.