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 thÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌàe 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
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 appeÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌàasement, 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 WalÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌàker are Directors of the Balkan Institute in