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

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

By now, Holbrooke is a familiar personality. His bulldozing bluntness, voracious appetites, demanding ego, infectious warmth, impatience with mediocrity, patriotic belief in American power, and oddly guileless sensitivity have been much pored over. The attraction is mutual; Holbrooke's obsession with the press is overwhelming. (Full disclosure: I am described as "one of the most knowledgeable journalists to cover the war.") A lot of compliments are handed out -- the late Pamela Harriman is "remarkable," the former ambassador to London, Admiral William Crowe, is "powerful," and, most bizarrely, Dayton, Ohio, is "charming."

But it is a deeply serious Holbrooke who stands at the heart of To End a War. This is the story of the struggle of a dedicated public servant driven by an almost frenzied passion to wrest from the wreckage of Bosnia a peace worthy of America's name and values, and thereby shore up the deeply divided NATO on which America's future in Europe depended. His appointment as peace emissary came only after a Western failure so protracted, so shot through with hypocrisy, that Bosnia's mottled, multiethnic fabric, NATO's unity, and the optimism of the Cold War's end had already been shredded. To the last, Holbrooke had to deal with officials for whom "quagmires," "body bags," and other specters of Vietnam and Somalia were far more real and relevant than what, by 1995, was the ritual agony of Bosnia.

From these inauspicious elements, the Dayton peace agreement of November 1995 emerged. Concluded after 21 days of pizza-littered talks at an unlovely Air Force base in Ohio, the accord was imperfect, as Holbrooke himself concedes here. At once an ambitious blueprint for a single Bosnian state and a desperate compromise containing the lineaments of a potential partition, Dayton stopped the fighting but has thus far failed to lay a lasting foundation for peace that would allow American troops to come home. Thus the agreement's place in history, and by extension Holbrooke's, hangs in the balance. This book has the impassioned, sometimes indignant tone of a man still fighting a battle.

Despite its title, To End a War is no how-to manual. Holbrooke throws in several reflections on the peacemaker's craft -- "negotiating requires flexibility on tactics but a constant vision of the ultimate goal" -- and is at his hard-nosed best designing negotiating tables small enough to ensure that the unwanted (especially lowly Bosnian Serb functionaries and pouty Europeans) have no place at them. He also offers some telling thoughts on Balkan diplomacy as a particular art form: "The best way to confuse someone in the Balkans, we often said, was to accept his initial proposal without change, at which point he would change his own position!" This observation was particularly true of Alija Izetbegovic, Bosnia's president, who drove Holbrooke to distraction at Dayton. But Holbrooke -- a man of action and instinct, a man once appalled by Robert S. McNamara's suppression of the emotional -- is little inclined to offer pat conflict-resolution formulas. As he writes, "We're inventing peace as we go." The going is rambunctious and fascinating. Holbrooke provides a roller-coaster ride, from the driver's seat, through the decisive months when the United States was reluctantly compelled to reassert its leadership in a wounded Europe.

FOOLS HANG BACK

The Bush administration had been inclined to leave the Yugoslav mess to the Europeans. Once in office, Bill Clinton made a mockery of his bold words on the stump in 1992 ("the high cost of remaining silent and paralyzed in the face of genocide") and stumbled through three years of blabber about intractable thousand-year-old Balkan rivalries. When the United States at last took the lead in Bosnia, the reason was not some abruptly discovered moral or strategic imperative. It was failure, repeated and devastating failure -- combined with the bleak prospect of fulfilling Clinton's promise to send American troops to extract the U.N. peacekeeping force -- that finally put the administration's back against the wall.

In the grim summer of 1995, the renewed Bosnian Serb bombardment of Sarajevo, the Serb capture of the Srebrenica "safe area," the Serb massacre of several thousand Srebrenica Muslims, and the lightning Croat victory over the Serbs in the Krajina revealed the utter vacuity of the West's Bosnian commitments and changed the strategic equation. Even for the cynical "this-is-the-Balkans-you-know" school of Western officials, Srebrenica was one humiliation too many. For a jittery Pentagon, the unexpected Croat triumph in the Krajina was a decisive indication that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his army were not about to defend the Bosnian and Croatian Serbs they had armed, financed, and incited just four years earlier. A narrow diplomatic breach was thus opened through ethnic cleansing, cold-blooded killing, and ignominy.

Enter Holbrooke, quietly fuming. He has been sidelined as his erstwhile friend, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, has drafted a seven-point plan for peace that, to Holbrooke's dismay, called on the Bosnian government to give up its one remaining eastern enclave, Gorazde. After Srebrenica, Gorazde cannot be abandoned, Holbrooke insists. Lake is won over. But the simmering rivalry between the two men -- and between the State Department and the National Security Council -- persists; indeed it amounts to an underlying theme in the book. Holbrooke, now a banker, clearly remains a public-servant-in-waiting, and he is not inclined to fire broadsides at administration officials, past or present. At times the book is irksomely arch in its restraint; Holbrooke seems to be hedging his bets. But his irritation with Lake is clear enough. When Holbrooke's peace shuttle -- cut unusual slack by the State Department -- gets moving, Lake wants to create an NSC committee to oversee it. When a Muslim-Croat offensive gathers momentum in September 1995, helped by NATO bombing, Lake presses for a cease-fire while Holbrooke would rather win on the battlefield land that will be "hard to gain at the peace talks." When discussion turns to what American forces will do in Bosnia if peace is made, Lake argues "against a 'nation-building' role for the military" and worries "about the 'slippery slope' in Bosnia."

In the light of advice like this, President Clinton's craven retreat from his campaign-trail promises becomes more readily understandable; so does the circumscribed approach to NATO's mission that has characterized most of its actions in Bosnia since Dayton. This policy, to Holbrooke's evident exasperation, has left free Karadzic and his longtime military commander, Ratko Mladic, despite their indictments by the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Yet as the chief architect of the peace writes here, "Karadzic and Mladic will have to be captured. This is not simply a question of justice but also of peace. If they are not captured, no peace agreement we create in Dayton can succeed."

Of course, Lake's caution is also the Pentagon's. Some of the most fascinating passages in To End a War center on the confrontation between Holbrooke's "maximalist" view of what American forces can achieve and the "minimalist" approach of their commanders. Holbrooke was in Vietnam as a young Foreign Service officer but has deep reservations about that war's legacy in the Pentagon: an obsession with mission security and the avoidance of casualties that led some top military brass to suggest 500,000 soldiers would be needed in Bosnia; a fixation on an "exit strategy" that led to the first, unrealistic 12-month deadline for the Bosnia deployment; and an all-consuming concern with avoiding a fuzzy mission that has led American forces to eschew not only the arrest of war criminals, but also a more active role in establishing the freedom of movement and security necessary for more than two million refugees to return to their homes. The result is that no Americans have been killed in hostilities in Bosnia, but the idea of a united country still lies largely moribund.

With Admiral Leighton Smith, the first commander of NATO forces in Bosnia, Holbrooke's anger spills over. He is outraged that Smith stood by in March 1996 and allowed Karadzic's thugs to orchestrate the burning and abandonment of Serb sectors of Sarajevo that were about to be handed back to the government. A substantial share of the vestigial hopes for a multiethnic Bosnia went up in that smoke. Smith, Holbrooke comments scathingly, "considered the civilian aspects of the task beneath him."

But the Pentagon's caution was ultimately self-defeating. "Paradoxically," Holbrooke writes, "the same officials who opposed capturing Karadzic usually supported a tight deadline for American troop withdrawal. The two goals were obviously incompatible; if you wanted to reduce troop levels quickly, capturing Karadzic was essential."

YUGOSLAVIA'S JUNKYARD DOGS

When Holbrooke met Mladic and Karadzic's during negotiations near Belgrade, he refused to shake their hands. "It is not an exaggeration to say that I simply hated the two men for what they had done," he writes. Holbrooke's feelings are particularly impassioned because three members of his initial team -- Robert C. Frasure of the State Department, S. Nelson Drew of the National Security Council, and Joseph Kruzel of the Defense Department -- were killed in an accident on a dangerous road that Mladic indirectly obliged them to take. But this rage does not extend to Milosevic. One of the most frustrating aspects of To End a War is that Holbrooke never attempts an in-depth portrait of his main interlocutor, the man who, more than any other, propelled Yugoslavia to its death. What, one wonders, was it like for Holbrooke to shake hands with him?

This silence is troubling since Milosevic is central to the prospects for Balkan peace, and his record is scarcely encouraging. His family background -- both parents committed suicide -- offers a macabre reflection of an image dear to many Serbs: that of Serbs as a people with a tendency toward, even a predilection for, self-destruction. Certainly destruction, of his own people and others, has been the overriding characteristic of Milosevic's oeuvre. With chilling predictability, the work continues in Kosovo.

Karadzic and even Mladic were nothing without Milosevic, who spent the late 1980s whipping the Serbs into the fever of nationalist indignation that led to the killing fields and concentration camps of Bosnia. Even in 1995, when Holbrooke wanted to know which Serb general would organize a promised Serb pullback from Sarajevo, it was the commander of Yugoslav forces in Belgrade who gave him the answer. Ultimate control, whatever the myriad obfuscations, always rested in the Serbian capital and its master.

By the time Holbrooke tangles with him, however, Milosevic wants out of the war and the international trade sanctions that go with it. Herein lies his pivotal importance. The Serbian leader is a bully, but an engaging one. He calls the Bosnian Serbs "shit" (pronounced "sheet"); he smokes fat cigars; he sings along with Andrews Sisters songs at Dayton; he even gives away Serb claims to the city of Sarajevo at a crucial moment in the negotiations and says he will accept "rocks, swamps, hills, anything" as long as peace is made. Still, Holbrooke goes too far when he writes: "Watching Milosevic turn on the charm, someone observed that had fate dealt him a different birthplace and education, he would have been a successful politician in a democratic system." Surely the very heart of a democratic system is a sense of human dignity and the value of human life. It was not communism that made Milosevic so unfeeling, so manipulative, and so exceedingly cruel; it was something deeper. The hundreds of thousands of lives that he has extinguished or ruined have apparently never made the slightest dent on him. When over 150,000 desperate Serb refugees poured into Serbia from the Krajina, he did not address a word to them; and as for the camps through which several hundred thousand Muslims were processed in Bosnia, they never existed. Intriguingly, one of Milosevic's favorite pastimes at Dayton was "visiting Bosnia" through the technology of PowerScene computers that recreated Bosnia's topography on a screen. Bosnia as plaything: a true Milosevic image. In reality, of course, Slobo visited Bosnia only once and then slunk back across the Drina, leaving the ruins, the pain, and the spreading graves behind him.

Just before his death, Frasure got it exactly right. There was nervousness in Washington over the Croat offensive in the Krajina, but Frasure insisted that it had to continue in order to create a balance of power. He slipped a note to Holbrooke that read, "We hired these guys to be our junkyard dogs because we were desperate. . . This is no time to get squeamish." Because the West accepted the Serb barbarity of 1992 and never determined that the Serbs had to be defeated, it was left with the junkyard dogs -- including Milosevic, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, and Iranian operatives smuggling arms to the Bosnian government -- as its surrogate agents. The singular achievement of Holbrooke and his brave, dedicated team was to leash these dogs and forge a peace. But a junkyard pact so late in the day could scarcely be uplifting.

THE ABANDONMENT

Holbrooke writes that he now sees several flaws in Dayton. The agreement left two opposing armies -- that of the Muslim-Croat federation, which controls 51 percent of Bosnia's territory, and that of the Bosnian Serbs, who hold the remaining 49 percent -- in a single country. It allowed Karadzic's Serbs to keep the name "Republika Srpska" for their portion, a name synonymous with countless atrocities. It initially set an unrealistic timetable for NATO withdrawal, leaving "the impression among the parties, and especially the Serbs, that they might be able to outwait the enforcing powers." It created a police force far too weak, a NATO mission too circumscribed by the caution of its first commander, and an authority too diffused among powers including NATO, the United Nations, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the Office of the High Representative, and others. On top of all this, as Holbrooke acknowledges with painful honesty, "I realized too late that I had left too early." By leaving office within three months of Dayton, Holbrooke removed the single force, the one respected authority, most capable of rectifying the problems he outlines.

Nonetheless, the achievements of Dayton are enormous, and hope is not entirely extinguished. If Bosnia has a chance, it has Holbrooke to thank among American officials because he has cared from the outset. President Clinton has at last dropped the deadlines for the NATO force's presence in Bosnia; Lieutenant General Wesley Clark, Holbrooke's man on the shuttle, has become the supreme commander of a reinvigorated and now cohesive NATO that has taken a stronger stance in Bosnia; some war criminals, mostly minor figures, have been arrested; Karadzic is increasingly marginalized; a new spirit of cooperation with Dayton's provisions has taken hold in wide swathes of Serb-held Bosnia with the election in January of Milorad Dodik as prime minister of Republika Srpska; and an economic revival has begun in some parts of the country. Holbrooke, as he makes clear, has never stopped pushing for these developments, and he still believes that partition will be avoided and Bosnia made whole.

Holbrooke has become an open opponent of realpolitik, which he equates with Henry A. Kissinger's view that Bosnian partition is inevitable. One hopes Holbrooke is right, for Bosnia did indeed exist before the vultures from Belgrade and Zagreb descended. Its rich, variegated soul still lingers in those shadowy valleys. But there has been too much destruction over too long a period to hold out much hope that the country can now heal. The wounds are too deep and the hour too late. As Haris Silajdzi,, the volatile Bosnian prime minister, observed at Dayton, "What you want would have been easier in 1992 or even 1993, but now it is too late. Where was the world then? Where was the United States?"

  • Roger Cohen covered the Bosnian war for The New York Times and is now one of its Paris correspondents. His latest book, Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo, will be published by Random House in the fall.
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