Sixteen Candles

It has been sixteen years since the Dayton Accords ended the Bosnian War before it could enter its fourth winter. The negotiations themselves were a mix of tragedy, drama and farce, perhaps best described in the memoirs of the brash U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke. The three-ring circus at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio was Holbrooke’s show, stolen at moments only by Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. Dayton turned out to be the pinnacle of Holbrooke’s career; it is ironic he spent his remaining years attempting to undo it.

Miraculously, however, Dayton has endured. Though Bosnia’s feuding communities are nowhere near peace, they have not relapsed into open warfare in the intervening years. For a treaty put together with mixed motivations and in bad faith, that is truly an amazing accomplishment.

Hidden Agendas

Conventional wisdom has it that the U.S. stood idly by while the slaughter in Bosnia went on; that the NATO military intervention in August 1995 was too little, too late; and that Dayton was a horrible peace treaty that "rewarded aggression and genocide." As usual, the convention wisdom is wrong.

It was U.S. support that encouraged the Bosnian Muslim leader to renege on a power-sharing agreement brokered by the Europeans, thus setting off the civil war. It was Washington that sabotaged two peace proposals by the UN and European negotiators, channeled weapons to Croatia and the Bosnian Muslims, and pushed for gradual NATO involvement in the region, to the point of eventual open intervention. Holbrooke’s 1998 memoir reveals that Dayton was to be a reassertion of U.S. hegemony in Europe. In Bosnia, the nascent American Empire saw the opportunity to play a white knight, and if that meant arranging some distress for the damsel, so be it.

And though claims that the U.S. was playing up Bosnia in order to garner support in the Muslim world may sound like a conspiracy theory, numerous U.S. officials have admitted to it, repeatedly.

But if recognizing the Bosnian Serb Republic and establishing Bosnia as a compound state (akin to the torpedoed 1992 agreement, but after 100,000 dead) was such a mistake, why did the Empire do it? The answer remains elusive. Could it be that policymakers in Washington were wary of Serbia’s military, and dared not push Belgrade too far? The first big drive to "reform" Dayton happened only as NATO opened up a war on Serbia in 1999. It is also possible that Bill Clinton needed a peace treaty in Bosnia as a feather in his cap for the 1996 election. There is no firm evidence either way, however.

Peace or Truce?

The local belligerents had their own motives going into the talks as well. Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman was surprisingly willing to part from the territory his army had seized in Bosnia, in exchange for getting to keep every square inch of land within Croatia’s Communist boundaries, ethnically cleansed of its inconvenient Serb inhabitants. The Croats in Bosnia, however, hoped for closer ties to Croatia proper — an ambition that has since been thwarted, and is currently causing all sorts of problems.

Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic was practically coerced into representing the Bosnian Serbs — Holbrooke himself described how the U.S. went about ensuring precisely that — but ended up saving the peace conference in the end. Again, this comes through from Holbrooke’s memoirs, though the American diplomat didn’t hide his animosity towards the Serbs in general.

The Muslims went to Dayton convinced that the tide of war had turned, and that they would be able to continue the drive to "final victory" after the talks broke down. Their leader, Alija Izetbegovic, caused much frustration to his American sponsors, and came close to scuttling the talks on November 20th. He relented the following day, whether realizing that the Americans would not support his intransigence again, or out of hope that he could continue the war after a year, with weapons and training promised by Washington.

Clinton originally promised to keep U.S. troops in Bosnia for only one year. It was a promise he did not keep. American troops did not leave Bosnia until 2004, when peacekeeping duties were assumed by a European mission. Despite dire predictions of possible relapse (e.g. Yossef Bodansky‘s book Some Call It Peace), the truce held. NATO-sponsored military reform in the early 2000s saw Bosnia functionally demilitarized, further reducing the threat of conventional conflict.

In Mala Fide

Yet the deep mistrust of each other that drove Bosnia’s ethnic communities into conflict was never resolved. Once the international supervisor was given absolute power, a succession of increasingly arrogant and tyrannical viceroys attempted to "reform" the country, trampling the provisions of Dayton as they went along. Soon it became obvious that the war in Bosnia was still being fought, only by political means.

In this, the Empire has had a profoundly dishonest and detrimental role. Though the viceroys themselves have traditionally been European, it was Washington pushing the hardest for "reforms." Absolute power of the OHR provided a major disincentive for reconciliation or rapprochement. Instead of talking to each other and coming up with a modus vivendi, Bosnian politicians began relying on the "High Representative" to simply impose decisions to their liking.

Having violated the basic principle of leadership — never to give an order that cannot be obeyed — the Empire and its EU allies have steadily lost traction in Bosnia. Though the Austrian viceroy is still blaming the Bosnian Serbs for everything that’s wrong with the country, the crisis of government has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with the increasingly bitter relations between Muslims and Croats.

A Brussels Bosnia

One year after the general elections, Bosnia still has a caretaker central government, as the major Serb, Croat, and Muslim parties cannot agree on the division of cabinet posts. That is especially ironic given that the "reformers" have endeavored for years to dismantle the "Dayton Bosnia" and replace it with a "Brussels Bosnia" — a modern European managerial state. Yet Belgium itself has been unable to form a government since June 2010, chiefly due to the strife between its Flemish and Walloon communities, mirroring the strife in Bosnia (at least politically).

It is a lesson the Empire refuses to heed: Bosnia (and Belgium) is what happens when identity politics are taken to their logical extreme. The war destroyed more than homes and lives, it destroyed whatever tenuous trust the five decades of enforced tolerance (under Communism) had created between the communities. The Dayton Accords at least offered a framework to rebuild that trust, but the Empire did nothing to encourage such an outcome. Instead, as observer Gordon Bardos noted, it spent 15 years exacerbating Bosnia’s problem, for the sake of its own fetishes and fantasies.

The peace treaty inked on that November day in Ohio did more than many hoped it would, despite being undermined by its guardians and enforcers. The guns of Bosnia have remained silent. That, sixteen years on, Bosnia’s communities are still fighting a war of words, isn’t the fault of Dayton — but rather their own.

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.