Review Essay

After the Vultures: Holbrooke's Bosnia Peace Came Too Late

In This Review

To End a War: From Sarajevo to Dayton -- and Beyond

To End a War: From Sarajevo to Dayton -- and Beyond
By Richard Holbrooke
Random House, 1998, 432 pp. $25.00 Purchase

In May 1995, after more than three years of bloodshed in Bosnia, Richard Holbrooke finally lost it. An ineffectual flurry of NATO bombing against Bosnian Serb positions had led to the Serb seizure of more than 300 U.N. peacekeepers and predictable diplomatic paralysis. Holbrooke's recommendation to the White House was blunt: bombard Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic's self-styled capital in Pale if his men did not release their hostages within 48 hours. The suggestion -- made from Budapest, where Holbrooke was about to wed the writer Kati Marton -- was met with incredulity in Washington. But as Holbrooke, the Clinton administration's Bosnia envoy, relates in To End a War, he was not joking. "I'm serious," Holbrooke told the State Department, "but now I have to get married."

The incident -- at once grotesque, tragic, and faintly comical -- says much about the former assistant secretary of state for Europe, whose rage for peace helped bring an end to the war, and about the cautious administration he served. It also touches on this memoir's fundamental but generally understated tension: between Holbrooke's espousal of forceful solutions and the hesitations of an American military establishment haunted by "mission creep."

Holbrooke has Bosnia in his blood. Early visits in 1992 to Banja Luka and Sarajevo ensured that the genocidal Serb rampage against the Muslims that year -- the central event of the war -- was no abstraction to him. Unlike the mealy-mouthed majority, he had a memory. So armed, he understood that negotiation was useless without the credible threat of force. The West, he warned, "could not expect the Serbs to be conciliatory at the negotiating table as long as they had experienced nothing but success on the battlefield." Moreover, Holbrooke was comfortable with the sort of improvised theatrics that sometimes makes To End a War a study in Balkan diplomacy as the art of the burlesque. In many respects, Holbrooke's achievement was peace-by-tantrum, and in every respect, he was an unusual figure in Bill Clinton's Washington.


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