Peace in His Time: David Owen's Balkan Odyssey
by Roger Cohen
Towards the end of David Owen's rambling account of international attempts to end the wars of Yugoslavia's destruction, he makes a suggestion. It concerns Radovan Karadzic, the psychiatrist from Sarajevo and leader of Bosnian Serbs, who predicted the 'annihilation' of Bosnia's Muslims in 1991 before seeking, with sustained savagery, to make good on his word. 'Leaving to one side the findings of the war crimes tribunal', Owen writes, 'the medical profession in Zagreb should never again let Dr Karadzic practise medicine in their country.' Well, well. No more appointments in some leafy Belgrade suburb with Dr Karadzic, the psychiatrist with the hairstyle and herringbone jackets, you know; the one who was on TV a lot during the Bosnian war and took great glee in mortaring the Sarajevo hospital where he once worked.
Even in a book filled with bizarre theories, this recommendation of Owen's is conspicuously outlandish. Owen, who got to know Karadzic and his methods well during thirty-two months as the European Union's chief mediator in the Balkans, is not prepared to say whether the Bosnian Serb leader is a war criminal. Such a determination, he believes, is for the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague to make. But after the Serbian concentration camps at Omarska, Trnopolje, Susica and elsewhere, after the execution and 'disappearance' of tens of thousands of Muslims in the first six months of the Bosnian war, after the relentless bombardment of Sarajevo, after the ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÐall-too-predictable denouement on the killing fields of Srebrenica, Owen does feel qualified to venture that Karadzic may have violated the Hippocratic oath.
The former British foreign secretary should know: he is a doctor himself. He is also, as his book repeatedly demonstrates, a bitter man. The Balkan wars undid him, as they have undone many. It is one thing to establish a new political party and see it fail, as Owen did with the Social Democrats in England; it is quite another to talk and talk and talk as almost a quarter-of-a-million people are killed and 3 million people are driven from their homes. The former is a professional disappointment; the latter tends to sap soul and sanity. Balkan Odyssey is the chronicle of a lacerating failure - that of its author to settle, or to grasp, the worst war in Europe since Hitler's war.
The failure, of course, is by no means entirely personal. With his increasingly wan smile, his pepper-and-salt hairdo, his rumpled suits and his good intentions, Owen became one of the more eloquent symbols of the international debacle that allowed the Bosnian war and the Serbian siege to continue for forty months. In the figure of Owen, the weakness of a frayed Western alliance and a Europe united only in name was perfectly captured. In this sense, he was no more than an emblem of a far wider problem: the disarray in the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and NATO before barbarism on a scale not seen in Europe since the 1940s. Balkan Odyssey is a portrait, a singularly heavy-handed one, of a new world that is anything but brave.
But Owen himself also lost his way. Anyone who begins an account of Yugoslavia's destruction with a 'Chronology of Events' that consists entirely of a list of his own appointments with various dignitaries clearly has an ego problem. For too long, hubris prevented Owen from seeing that, like most of his solemnly enumerated meetings, he was simply irrelevant. In the end it was difficult not to feel queasy watching him enjoy a lavish breakfast with his cronies at the Hyatt in Belgrade or meander through the lobby of Geneva's Inter-Continental. Grainy images of the 1930s came to the mind. By the early months of 1995, it was not clear what he was doing beyond collecting a substantial salary. He no longer commanded respect outside Belgrade, where his relationship with Slobodan Milosevic was uniformly good. He was given to grumbling. He had run out of ideas.
It was in August 1992, shortly after Serbian concentration camps were discovered by Roy Gutman of Newsday and Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian, that Owen arrived on the Balkan scene. His mission, as the European Union's envoy, was to flank Cyrus Vance, representing the United Nations, in a standing conference established to restore peace to the former Yugoslavia. Owen had been outraged by the camps, even sending a letter to John Major to suggest the use of force against the Serbs. But his initial indignation gave way, within months, to the dismal view that all parties to the war were 'masters of disinformation, propaganda and deceit.'
Into the labyrinth
There followed, in early 1993, the Vance-Owen plan. After Vance-Owen, which was effectively dead by May 1993 because the Clinton administration thought that it gave too much to the Serbs and the Serbs that it gave too little, it was all downhill. Owen worked for many months on a plan for a Muslim mini-state on about a third of the territory of Bosnia. He tried hard to secure an accord on self-government for the Krajina Serbs in Croatia. He took a tangential interest in the first 'Contact Group' map dividing Bosnia between the Serbs and the American-brokered Muslim-Croat federation established in 1994. All for nought.
His mind had turned progressively into a labyrinth as treacherous and murky as Bosnia itself on a bad winter's day, as impenetrable as his often turgid prose. On the Contact Group plan, for example, Owen writes: 'If time was the enemy of the Bosnian Serb army, by giving the Muslims more time the ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÐContact Group might have hoped to wait for the day when there was a better balance of forces on the ground, which of itself would make for a better- balanced peace settlement on the basis of the Contact Group plan.' Yes, well, perhaps.
His thoughts became increasingly tangled up. He notes that General Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serbs, operates on two levels: 'on one [he] is an intellectual, on the other a barbarian.' And having given this almost textbook definition of schizoid behaviour (one that might equally be applied to Karadzic, Koljevic, Plavsic and the rest of the scholarly Pale crew), he solemnly insists that 'Mladic is not a madman', the slit throats of pigs notwithstanding. Strange schemes for border changes devour Owen's brain and mingle with proposals for inland waterways and ports, convoluted equations for territorial division (what price 0.25 percent of Bosnia?) and a mounting rancour over the unworthiness of his Balkan interlocutors and the hostility of Washington. At one point, when he at last secures a Serbian embargo on the Bosnian Serbs in exchange for some mild international sanctions relief for Belgrade, Owen promptly undermines this action by allowing trans-shipment through Bosnian Serb territory of oil for the Krajina Serbs. His motive? He believes the oil (doubtless siphoned off in large quantities by Mladic's army) gives him diplomatic leverage over the Croatian Serbs because he can threaten to cut it off. In this bog of contradictions, coherence and principle simply sink without trace.
The tricks played on Owen's mind by Bosnia are caught in an intriguing passage covering the first deadly mortar attack on the Sarajevo market on 5 February 1994. The attack, in which sixty-nine people were killed, is an outrage, Owen concurs. But he goes on to express sympathy with inconclusive, largely speculative reports from United Nations' investigators suggesting that the mortar may have been fired by the Bosnian government forces intent on luring NATO into the war on their side. Indeed, so taken is he with this argument that, in a cable to European capitals, he chooses to quote a report from the Tanjug news agency -which is Belgrade-based - blaming the bombings on the Muslims. The more than 600,000 Serbian shells already fired on the city, including one the previous day that killed ten children in the Sarajevo suburb of Dobrinja, are not, apparently, mentioned in this communication.
When, in an abrupt prise de conscience at a meeting of the European Union, Alain Juppé, then France's foreign minister, rejects such muddying of the waters and calls for a NATO ultimatum to the Serbs obliging them to remove their heavy guns, Owen is plainly discomfited. Juppé's thunderbolt - his reference to 'the need to preserve the values of civilization' - is entirely lost on Owen. 'I replied', he writes, 'that in talking of "lifting the siege" Juppé was technically incorrect and had simplified the situation.' Technically incorrect! It would have been interesting to see Owen - widely known in the Bosnian capital and beyond by the tender sobriquet 'Dr Death' - try to explain that kernel of gobbledygook to the citizens of Sarajevo.
Falsifying the issue
What Owen fails to see is that it was precisely such a 'simplification' that Bosnia long demanded. Courage is also the ability not to be conveniently distracted. For the basic issue in the Bosnian war was not that complicated. The war was not 'a problem from hell', as Warren Christopher observed in one of his less felicitous musings on the conflict. It was, at its outset and in its nature, a barbaric onslaught, instigated in Serbia, against the Muslims of a state recognized by the United Nations, with the aim of expanding Serbia at the expense of Bosnia, thereby establishing a contiguous stretch of ethnically pure territory reaching from Belgrade to Serb-held parts of Croatia.
By early 1994, this Serbian campaign had been in progress for close to two years. A tough stand by NATO, as Juppé laudably, if belatedly, perceived,ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÐ was imperative. But Owen was by this time already too obsessed with preserving the neutrality of the United Nations mission to Bosnia to ask what purpose that 'neutrality' served or to perceive that its inexorable effect was the appeasement of the Serbs. In this intellectual cul-de-sac Owen was joined by many serious officials, including the former commander of the United Nations forces in Bosnia, Lieutenant General Sir Michael Rose, whose mantra about not crossing 'the Mogadishu line' separating neutral peacekeeping from involvement in a war will be remembered as one of the more fatuous refrains of the Balkan tragedy. Conceived to palliate the war rather than to resolve it, the United Nations mission to Bosnia was flawed from its outset in 1992. It was an exercise in easing consciences rather than an exercise in foreign policy. For Owen, at least until the summer of 1994, it seems to have become an end in itself. 'Living with the arms embargo', he writes, 'for all its inconsistencies and evasions, was never an immoral position for it ensured the continuation of UNPROFOR's humanitarian mandate for the first few years, when it saved hundreds of thousands of lives.' In other words: to deny a people the right to defend themselves is morally defensible if it enables you to have the satisfaction of feeding them free macaroni.
Moreover, when that beleaguered people - having been evicted from their homes, bombarded and herded into camps - seeks to secure the military support of NATO or the United Nations, it is charged with manoeuvring and deceit. The main mission of officials such as Owen and Rose then seems to be transformed into the exposure of perceived Muslim trickery. The 'prevailing view' of UN commanders, Owen writes, was 'that UNPROFOR's worst problems were with the Muslims'. That is the thing about Bosnia's Muslims. They are a problem. They obstinately decline to disappear.
Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman had plotted the disappearance of the Bosnian Muslims, and of Bosnia, as early as 1991. Owen failed singularly to understand that, owing to the nature of the war, which was an attempt to eradicate a people and a society, the Bosnian Serbs had to be convincingly confronted if a settlement was to be found. The Bosnian Serbs were not a formidable army; they were a bunch of thugs, most effective against defenceless civilians and led, with bestiality and occasional bravado, by Mladic. NATO demonstrated the emptiness of that bravado only with its bombing campaign of August and September 1995. After that, at last, the end game could begin. But by then Owen was gone (he resigned in May 1995). So, too, in large measure, was Bosnia's multiethnic society, shattered and shredded by terror.
Since there are no achievements to celebrate, Owen flails. Against the world's press, which was taken in (with the exception of the 'outstanding' work of Misha Glenny) by the 'propaganda' of the Muslim-led government. Against the mendacity that is mysteriously endemic in the Balkans. Against the outrageous notion that he could not think straight because he became a Serbophile. And, most obsessively, against the United States, which wrecked his peace plan. In his rant against America, Owen makes some valid points. Clinton came into office in early 1993 having proclaimed that 'genocide' in Bosnia could not be tolerated. He then took fright. Weakened by the 'gays in the military' furore and by his record on (and lack of record in) Vietnam, the president was in no position to take on a deeply conservative military establishment led by Colin Powell. The obsession of this establishment was 'mission creep' and visions of 'Bosnian quagmire' - what Richard Hoolbrooke has nicely described as 'the Vietnam syndrome'. Disoriented and weak, the administration started to scramble, getting itself in a Bosnian muddle that lasted until the summer of 1995. Bosnia paid a heavy price for this pusillanimity and indecision.
Less acute is Owen's charge that the 'perpetual dilemma', the one that the Pentagon anÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÐd the White House refused to face, was this: 'If widespread air strikes were to be used, it was essential that UNPROFOR be removed first, at the very least from vulnerable areas where they could be shot or captured.' This dilemma was not confronted anywhere in Europe, either. In fact, this problem was blindingly obvious to anyone who spent more than a day in Bosnia. How can your main deterrent function, when your own allies in the United Nations uniforms were threatened by its bombs? It was so obvious, indeed, that one has to ask why it was not resolved before July 1995? The answer, of course, is that the failure to resolve it suited both Europe and America. They both preferred bickering with each other and agonizing about the future of Atlanticism to the idea of going to war for Bosnia. Owen, with his sophism about deluding ourselves 'if we think of good guys and bad guys in Bosnia', was an essential cog in this machinery of denial and hypocrisy.
Owen is convinced that, with strong American support, the Vance-Owen plan could have been imposed by force. He is equally convinced that the real reason the United States did not get behind his plan was not that it granted some 'ethnically cleansed' areas to Karadzic - overall, the Serbs would have had to give up only 40 percent of the territory they held - but that it would have required the deployment of American troops to back the reversal of ethnic cleansing that was the central pillar of the proposal. Perhaps. But as Owen dwells on the collapse of his plan, and argues repeatedly that it would have secured a better Bosnia than the divided land enshrined two bloody years later in the Dayton accords, one has the impression of a man fixated on an illusion. Vance-Owen, because it never happened, became all things to Owen. He is in love with a set of principles never applied on the ground. Indeed, there is no real evidence that the Serbs would ever have complied. He showed a striking naivete by speaking of a 'bright day' for the Balkans just because Karadzic had signed the plan. Shortly afterwards, following a harangue from Mladic, the Bosnian Serb assembly in Pale rejected it, which was perfectly predictable. And that was pretty much that.
The evidence is strong, in any event, that Owen only got Milosevic, and briefly Karadzic, behind the plan by convincing them that Serb territorial concessions would be drawn out over a very long period and that the central government in Bosnia would be a monument to paralysis. Owen also glosses over the contribution of his plan to the Muslim-Croat war that erupted in 1993. The Croats took the generous allocation to them of territory around Travnik as an invitation to hostilities. It is not quite fair to say that Vance-Owen is a peace plan that started a war; but it did help push a frayed Muslim-Croat alliance over the edge into outright combat.
Owen is prickly. He knows in his heart that he should have quit after the Vance-Owen plan failed. He does not want to be seen to have condoned a genocidal attack on Bosnia's Muslims. He makes all the right noises about 'ethnic cleansing'. He litters the book with perfunctory statements that the horrors perpetrated by the Serbs in Bosnia differed in scale from those of other ethnic groups. He takes care to note the occasions on which Karadzic criticised him for being 'anti-Serb'. He writes, stretching credulity, that history will demonstrate that he and his co-chairman at the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia 'were the most consistent protectors of the Bosnian Muslim citizens.'
A sub-text from Belgrade
The trouble with all this is that he protests too much. Woven into the texture of the book is a different vision, one that is hard to distinguish from that of Milosevic or apologists for the horrors perpetrated by the Serbs. Since Owen found that he could do business with Milosevic, he often seems to see the war through the Serbian leader's eyes. Certainly, Milosevic's role in the destabilization, and then the destruction, of Yugoslavia seems to escapeÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÐ Owen entirely.
The central thesis of this book, insofar as it is anything more than a self-serving memoir, is that it was a folly to attempt to preserve the internal borders of the Yugoslav republics in the break-up of the former Yugoslav state. 'The unwarranted insistence on ruling out changes to what had been internal administrative borders within a sovereign state was a fatal flaw', he writes. For Owen, these borders were 'arbitrary', dreamed up by Tito and his commanders at the end of World War II. If Croatia and Bosnia were allowed to secede, Owen argues, then their borders had to be redrawn. The right to self-determination could not be granted simply to Croatia and Bosnia; it had to be extended also to the Serb minorities living in those countries.
But this, of course, is essentially an argument for Greater Serbia: all Serbs should be allowed to live in one state. Although it is not explicitly stated, this appears to be Owen's intimate conviction. And the line espoused by Owen was the very one used by Milosevic as Yugoslavia hurtled towards disintegration in 1990. According to Milosevic, nations (read: 'Croats' or 'Muslims') could secede, but republics (read: 'Croatia' or 'Bosnia') could not secede, because the Serbs there did not wish to leave Yugoslavia. The internal borders had to be redrawn, therefore, to put all Serbs in a single land.
The thrust of this contention, moreover, is to place the Serbs in the role of passive defenders of the status quo - that is, former Yugoslavia - who are confronted by active secessionists: that is, Croats and Muslims bent on going their own ways. Far from aggressors, Serbs are transformed into victims. This is quite a manoeuvre. The general view of the wars of 1991 to 1995 is turned on its head; and the press becomes a malevolent force mysteriously engaged in 'demonization' of the Serbs.
Covering the Bosnian war for The New York Times, I wrestled repeatedly with these arguments. The hundredth time an indignant Serb asks you, over an excellent plum brandy, why it is that you have 'demonized' his people, you begin to wonder. But the longer I covered the war, and the more I pondered its origins, the stronger became my conviction of Serb culpability, in the extent of the Serbs' savagery during the conflict and in the coherence of the destructive design behind it. It was Milosevic's push for Serbian hegemony over much of the southern Slav lands that shattered the delicate mosaic of Yugoslavia. Greater Serbia was an objective actively pursued; it was not the reluctant haven of a scattered Serbian people marooned by the designs of Croat and Muslim secessionists.
Owen's account overlooks many things, of which the most basic is this historical fact: the borders of the Yugoslav republics were not conceived 'during a march' by Milovan Djilas, the Partisan commander, or anyone else. These borders are, generally, much older. Only at the height of the medieval empire did Serbia embrace any of the land west of the Drina river. The border between Croatia and Bosnia corresponds broadly with the extent of Ottoman penetration into Europe. The redrawing of frontiers that Owen repeatedly proposes would thus have involved trampling across centuries of tradition; it would not have been a mere administrative adjustment. To understand the problem it is enough to look at what happened in such border towns as Visegrad and Zvornik. The majority Muslim population there were slaughtered or evicted to make way for the attempted Serb adjustment. Likewise, the Croats in Vukovar.
Moreover, the right to determine their own fate that Milosevic demanded for the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia is precisely the right that he violently denied to the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo when he set Yugoslavia on a course of disintegration in 1987. By crushing the autonomous status of Kosovo (where Albanians account for 90 percent of the population) and then Vojvodina, and by installing his own men in Montenegro, Milosevic effectively declared the transformation of Yugoslavia into Serboslavia. WheÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÐn Milosevic realized, in early 1991, that his actions had dealt a lethal blow to Yugoslavia, he made a strategic choice: rather than try at all costs to preserve the state, as the Yugoslav army wished to do, he would seek to carve a Greater Serbia out of it. The rest followed logically: Vukovar, Dubrovnik, Zvornik, Sarajevo. But all this is lost on Owen. His analysis of Milosevic is curiously flat and guarded. He notes, without comment, that Milosevic 'self-mockingly referred to his performance in 1992 as being an unfortunate period when he made many mistakes.' Very funny. I am sure that the Muslims of Zvornik, Foca, Visegrad, Brcko, Prijedor, Vlasenica and Bijeljina, I mean the ones who are still alive, would love Slobo's levity.
Owen never looks seriously at the Serbian leader's role in the disintegration of Yugoslavia. He never examines the links between Belgrade and the marauding militias of Arkan and other killers operating first in Croatia and then in Bosnia. The worst massacres in Bosnia between April and September 1992 are attributed by Owen to 'uncontrollable Serbian elements blatantly doing what they wanted'. Why then, from Sanski Most in the northwest to Trebinje in the southeast, were their actions so coherently directed toward the eviction of 750,000 Muslims from their homes and the decimation of Islamic culture throughout 70 percent of Bosnia?
A meeting with Mira Markovic, Milosevic's influential wife, on 27 March 1994 is related by Owen in detail. He quotes her as saying: 'I gather from my husband that he has failed to convince you that he is not a nationalist. I will tell you that he is not. I would never have married or stayed married to him if he was nationalist.' This seems to do the trick. 'Personally I do not believe he is a nationalist', Owen writes, 'or even was one in the late 1980s, but rather that he played the nationalist card to gain and hold power.'
This view has become fashionable in the light of Milosevic's eventual exasperation with Karadzic and his helpful hand in the Dayton accords. But the truth, I believe, lies elsewhere. Milosevic is a nationalist, but he is also, and above all, a coward. He stirred his people to frenzy, took them on a wild killing spree, and then abandoned them in mid-massacre because he did not have the courage of his convictions. He remains, in his atrophied heart, a shrewd Communist apparatchik. He was forced into a limelight, but he did not particularly like it, preferring instead the exercise of a shadowy power. He is terrified of ending his days like Ceauscescu. His furtive eyes and jutting chin capture the two sides of the man: a craven, clever bully.
Learning to love Milosevic
The suffering that this deeply flawed man inflicted upon his own people, and on other people, is immeasurable. But Owen is seduced by Milosevic - his humour, his hospitality, his good English, his apparent reasonableness from 1993 onwards - and the effects of this seduction are evident through the book. Serb history has been misunderstood or overlooked. Death counts in Bosnia have been exaggerated. The Muslims repeatedly bombed themselves. The world has applied double standards to Croats and Serbs. Everyone did horrible things to everybody in Bosnia. And so on. I was not at all surprised, then, when Lt.Colonel Milovan Milutinovic, the spokesman for the Bosnian Serb army, gave Owen's book a rave review in a conversation with me last week in Banja Luka.
The siege of Sarajevo, in Owen's analysis, was not a siege. It was, he insists, two sieges: 'one by the Bosnian Serb army, with shells, sniper fire and blockades, and the other by the Bosnian government army, with internal blockades and red tape bureaucracy which kept people from leaving.' This claim, of course, is not without some justification. The Bosnian government did try prevent the complete depopulation of its beleaguered capital. But is that really the equivalent of what the Serbs were doing to Sarajevo? Does Owen really not see that the only issue, morally and politically, was the SerbiÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÐan siege? The rest was literally secondary, since it owned its existence to the overriding fact of the Serbian encirclement.
And Owen continues. Just as a siege is not really a siege, genocide is not really genocide - when it comes to the Bosnian Muslims. Owen quotes the UN Convention, which defines genocide as certain 'acts committed with intent to destroy in whole or part a national, ethnic or religious group, as such.' A better description of the Serbian rampage against the Muslims in the first six months of the war - and of the gory reprise in Srebrenica - would be hard to find; but Owen is not convinced. Genocide, he correctly notes, was committed by the Croatian Ustashe against the Serbs during World War II. And quoting George Kenney, the former State Department official whose ideas on the war have steadily shifted, he suggests, preposterously, that as few as 25,000 people may have been killed in Bosnia. Then he throws in the towel: the International Tribunal in The Hague will have to decide whether it was genocide, just as it 'will investigate whether after the fall of Srebrenica an appalling massacre of male Muslims took place.'
Emotion does briefly seize him. This occurs as Owen listens to a UNHCR official describe his first-hand observation of a group of Muslims - 'young and old ' - who have been herded out of Prijedor by the Serbs and are being pushed across front lines in the summer of 1992. 'As they walked', he writes in his account of the official's experience, 'weighed down by bags containing the few possessions that they had been able to gather up, the Serbs started to fire small arms over their heads and a few fell wounded or dying. Then, as they moved out of range, shell fire started and he watched as they struggled on, stumbling and running as shells landed around them. Some were hit. He felt unable to do anything but stand transfixed by the horror of it all, suddenly realizing that tears were streaming down his face. As he spoke, there was not a dry eye in the room; military men and politicians alike were at a loss for words. We shuffled onto other business, but I doubt that anyone who heard him will ever forget him.'
By the end of the book, however, it is pretty clear that Owen has forgotten. His 'shuffle' has become permanent, a state of mind, grey, debilitating, finally pathetic. He dismisses the notion of 'victims' and 'aggressors'. He reminds the readers that he 'often stressed that the UN must not be seen as being at war with the Serbs.' He quotes at some length the retired former Deputy Commander of the US forces in Europe, General Charles G. Boyd, an officer with famously pro-Serb views on the Muslims' odd proclivity for shelling themselves. In short, he has lost touch with the essence of a war in which, behind all the beguiling arguments about the Serbs' service to the Allied side in two world wars and their desire merely to 'remain in Yugoslavia', terror was systematically being applied in pursuit of a racist project that started to unfold in Kosovo in 1987 and went on to destroy Yugoslavia.
This article first appeared in The New Republic on 11 March 1996.