|Remembering Albert Wohlstetter|
by Marshall Freeman Harris and Stephen Walker
During the past four years, we had the honour and pleasure of working closely with Albert Wohlstetter and his wife and collaborator Roberta. It is difficult to characterize the loss we feel, both professionally and personally, on Albert's death. Albert was an extraordinary American who enjoyed the powerful gift of being able to combine a lifelong quest for truth and answers to our country's most critical and urgent security challenges with a clear moral vision. He was a mentor and guide, who reinforced our better instincts, shared his experiences, and chided us when we veered off course. Every telephone call from Albert - often daily or even more frequent - offered new insights and a laugh or two.
In the years that we knew him, Albert Wohlstetter devoted much of his formidable energies to the pursuit of a just and sustainable solution to the crisis in Bosnia. With Western governments refusing to stop Serbian aggression or even to arm the Bosnians to do it, he faced a daunting task. The struggle was made even more difficult by specious US and European claims about ancient ethnic hatreds, a civil war between equivalent 'parties', a terrain too inhospitable for our soldiers to intervene, and the might of the Serbs. Characteristically, Albert cut through the fog and, in article after article and meeting after meeting, carefully explained that the Milosevic regime in Belgrade was executing a clear plan to create a 'Greater Serbia' carved from Bosnian and Croatian territory and purged of non-Serbs. He also demonstrated that terminating the invalid UN embargo that deprived the Bosnians of their right to self-defence and launching limited air strikes against strategic Serbian military targets could end the aggression, halt the spread of ultra-nationalism, and provide a sound basis for democracy and civil order throughout the Balkans.
The illogical pronouncements and 'can't do' attitudes of otherwise serious American military officials and experts infuriated Albert more than the rhetoric of their political leaders. 'I know they didn't know anything about Bosnia before, but you would think they could at least look at a map', he would say. Al- bert did look and quickly revealed both the fruits of the Serbian campaign - several conquered regions joined into a single, contiguous entity and served by major road, rail and sea links - and its weaknesses. In 'Creating a New Serbia', his influential 1994 article in the New Republic, he illustrated the Serbs' vulnerability to attack in Brcko, 'the crucial bottleneck in the Posavina corridor', through which they were supplying at least half of their conquered territories in Bosnia and Croatia.
Equally importantly, he argued vigorously for arming the Bosnians. In a series of articles in the Wall Street Journal, he demonstrated, first, that the UN's invalid and illegal arms embargo deprived the UN member state of Bosnia of its inherent right to self-defence under the UN Charter; secondly, that while Bosnia was unable to defend itself, the embargo was not being enforced to prevent Serbia's constant supply of its proxies in Bosnia and Croatia.
If asked why the United States should intervene in Bosnia when civilians were being slaughtered in many other parts of the world, Albert would respond by invoking the embargo: 'We should start by ending the genocides in which we are complicitous.' Alternatively, he would scowl, then smile and remind his audience: 'This is genocide, not another ''lifestyle choice''. '
When, in 1995, he saw how Washington and its allies had chosen to end the war, he was horrified not only that aggression had triumphed, but also that Bosnian and Croatian victories in recent counter-offensives were actually being reversed - for Bosnia, perhaps fatally - in the peace settlement. In the Wall Street Journal he wrote: 'I know of no example of a state that has survived in the position Dayton would place the small remnant of a multi-ethnic Bosnia. The elaborate and misleading set of published maps and hypothetical arms ratios among the three signatories to the agreement at Dayton would not establish a stable equilibrium and peace among the parties. It invites the continuing murder of innocents; a further loss of credibility in the US as well as Europe; and a wider disorder.
In his efforts to change the Administration's Bosnia policies, Albert adopted the same approach that he employed in every other battle. He was an 'outside insider' who not only completely mastered the facts, but also understood each salient and mitigating factor that could influence a policy-maker in a particular decision. Nevertheless, he refused to serve his country in Washington. His late brother Charles, distinguished in his own right as a visionary in the telecommunications industry, said that this was because Albert could not tell a lie. We saw how correct Charles was most recently at an April 1996 Balkan Institute conference here in Washington, where Albert joined twenty other American and European experts to review the Bosnian peace plan. All of the participants agreed that the Dayton Accords had successfully ended the fighting, but at the price of a just settlement and the survival - let alone reintegration - of the Bosnian republic. When we called for recommendations on how to improve Bosnia's security, Albert stated what was, to him, the obvious: 'We should bomb strategic targets in Serbia.'
This remark characteristically and simultaneously revealed his superior understanding of the settlement and his impatience with those who, as he would put it, 'had spent too long inside the Beltway'. He did not bother to provide a point-by-point analysis, no doubt because he thought that anyone who did not understand after watching the war in Bosnia for four years was probably beyond educating. He was, nevertheless, absolutely correct: Dayton dealt with Bosnia's security by allowing the aggressors to achieve most of their war aims. The settlement constitutes a politically expedient act of appeasement, and, as Albert said many times, both US President Clinton and Bosnian President Izetbegovic have been profoundly disingenuous in their characterization of the accords as a vehicle for Bosnia's salvation.
During the war in Bosnia, Albert's views found an increasingly receptive audience in the Congress, but he failed to secure the Clinton Administration's participation in a more sensible approach to the crisis. This was not, however, because he did not fight valiently or because age had in any way diminished him. Instead, his opponents based their solutions on domestic politics that, in their view, demanded a quick halt to the fighting more than a fair and lasting peace. In the process, however, Albert's ideas and writings formed the core of the advocacy efforts of the Action Council for Peace in the Balkans and other influential individuals and groups that opposed appeasement. Equally importantly, his insistence on policies based on genuine US strategic interests, international law, and reason - three causes that he consistently championed - won him new allies on Capitol Hill and introduced a new generation to his intellect and insight.
Of course, Albert will not be remembered simply for his intelligence and insightful analysis. Cleverness abounds, even inside the Beltway. Likewise, remembering him as a 'renaissance man' does not quite do him justice, even though he was a textbook example of that rare breed.
Perhaps it is best to remember the rich dualities that so distinguished his life and work. He was a mathematician who had an even keener understanding of human nature. He was a highly individualistic collaborator - one who worked most closely with the historian Roberta Wohlstetter, with whom he shared the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an inspirational personal and professional partnership and, as he put it, a 'trial marriage of more than fifty years'. He was an epicurean logician, who insisted that visitors to London go to the Connaught Hotel for its breakfast souffl‚ (containing a perfectly poached egg, the concoction was a 'marvel of the culinary arts and chemistry'). He was a workoholic who nevertheless managed to pause for all nine muses and whose last two personal assistants, Julie Randall and Hannes Giger, were first-rate classical musicians.
Perhaps most significantly, Albert was an octogenerian visionary. He warned repeatedly that Serbia's successful expansionist policies would be imitated elsewhere and would contribute to a 'wider disorder'. Beyond the Balkans, one of the strongest themes in his recent writing - such as 'The Cold War is Over and Over and . . . ' (Wall Street Journal) was that the collapse of the Soviet empire did not eradicate as many threats to US security and strategic interests as Presidents Bush and Clinton would have us believe.
Even more recently, he was excited by the prospects of using the Internet to promote democratization and affect policy by countering the rationalizations used to discount these threats. 'Paradoxically in the age of information', he wrote, 'publics seem less informed than ever on matters that affect them vitally.'
Albert's death leaves an unfillable void. More important, however, is his vast and enduring legacy. He played an important role in making our country more secure. He was 'professor' to several generations of 'students', including some of today's leading strategic thinkers in the defence field, and he set high standards to which all who follow in his footsteps should aspire. We are richer for having known him.
Albert's favourite poem, 'Do not go gentle into that good night', was read at his funeral. The poem, by Dylan Thomas, is a villanelle, a nineteenth-century French form that repeats two rhyming lines in an alternating pattern in five tercets and a quatrain. No one who knew Albert would be surprised to learn that, for him, the greatest beauty, clarity, and meaning had been wrought from one of poetry's most demanding forms.
Marshall Harris and Stephen Walker are Directors of the Balkan Institute in Washington DC.