bosnia report
New Series No. 6/7 September - December 1998
 
Richard Holbrooke, To End a War
by a book review Paul Wolfowitz

This article is a slightly shortened version of one that appeared in the Fall 1998 issues of The National Interest, Washington DC. The author, former under-secretary of defense in the Bush adminstration, is dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.

Review of Richard Holbrooke, To End a War
Random House, New York 1998, 408 pp., $27.95

The Dayton Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia - or, more precisely, that produced a cease-fire which has so far lasted almost three years - is a flawed agreement, and its flaws are the product of a flawed policy. Those policy failures are the responsibility of two American administrations and, even more, of the European countries who claimed that they were ready to lead, but who in fact allowed tens of thousands of innocent people to perish in the 'ethnic cleansing' and war crimes that marked the conflict in Bosnia.

Nasa Borba

With all its flaws, however, the Dayton Agreement provided much-needed relief from the horrible war that preceded it, and Richard Holbrooke has now given us in To End a War his memoir of this crucially important negotiation. The book makes compelling reading, even as it raises questions that have yet to be answered satisfactorily.

Of the many failures of Western policy in the former Yugoslavia, none was more important or more contemptible than the failure to provide the government of Bosnia with the means to defend itself from the campaign of 'ethnic cleansing' launched by Milosevic, the ruler of Serbia, and his Bosnian Serb henchmen led by Karadzic and Mladic. Merely providing the Bosnians with the means to defend themselves would not have required risking European or American combat forces. The Western powers in fact did very much the opposite, imposing a UN arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia. Despite its impartial-sounding label, an embargo of this kind necessarily favours the side that has less need for arms from outside. In this case, since Belgrade amply supplied the Bosnian Serbs with weapons of all kinds, the embargo was totally and disastrously one-sided in its effect. Moreover, it made the generally moderate (and initially multi-ethnic) Bosnian government dependent on radical Muslim countries, including Iran, for the trickle of arms with which it barely managed to survive.

In the late spring of 1992, while serving as under-secretary of defense in the Bush aÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ dministration, I discussed the issue of the arms embargo with General Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I argued that the arms embargo would lead eventually to the involvement of US ground forces in Yugoslavia, something that both General Powell and Defense Secretary Richard Cheney were determined to avoid. By denying the Bosnians the means to defend themselves, the 'international community' was assuming the responsibility to protect them itself. And since the West European powers lacked the will or the capability to do so, sooner or later the United States would be forced to send its own troops to defend those whom we had deprived of the means to defend themselves.

This argument seemed to make a strong impression on General Powell, and he called in several senior generals on his staff to listen to our discussion. When he asked, however, what the State Department thought of this argument, I had to admit that they supported the arms embargo on the grounds that lifting it would prolong the war (in retrospect it seems quite clear that it would have had the opposite effect). State Department policy focused instead on providing humanitarian relief to Bosnia. As long as that was the case, General Powell pointed out, US troops delivering food and medicine to Bosnia were exposed, and he did not want to endanger them further by taking sides in an arms-supply mission.

General Powell had a point. For a long and tragic time, Western policy is Bosnia has been hostage to the safety of Western peacekeepers. This was demonstrated most dramatically at the end of May 1995, when the Bosnian Serbs responded to the threat of NATO bombing by kidnapping more than 350 UN peacekeepers and handcuffing them to potential targets. As Lord Owen acknowledged, General Mladic 'knew that UN troops were his ultimate safeguard against NATO air power tilting the balance against him.' Moreover, the UN troops proved disastrously incapable of protecting the people they had promised to defend. In July 1995 Mladic's troops overran the UN-protected 'safe havens' of Srebrenica and Zepa. The result, as Holbrooke recounts, was the massacre of more than seven thousand mostly unarmed Muslims, a horror that 'nothing in the war had matched, or ever would match'. Srebrenica, he writes, 'would become part of the language of the horrors of modern war, alongside Lidice, Oradour, Babi Yar, and the Katyn Forest.' And that disaster indeed led directly to the commitment of US ground forces to Bosnia for what is now an open-ended duration.

Long before he became assistant secretary of state for European affairs, Holbrooke developed a deep concern about Bosnia during a trip as a private citizen in August of 1992. Outside his hotel room in Banja Luka he saw Muslims forced to sign papers given up their property and herded onto buses heading for the border. A few miles outside the city he saw row after row of ruined houses, with an occasional Serb house completely undamaged, evidence of 'a systematic pogrom in which Serbs fingered their Muslim neighbours'. Powerfully moved by what he saw, and despite warnings from friends that the new Clinton team did not want to hear about Bosnia, Holbrooke sent a memo to Warren Christopher and Anthony Lake one week before Clinton's inauguration, strongly urging both the lifting of the arms embargo and the direct use of American air power against the Bosnian Serbs.

Several years later, in early 1995, Holbrooke candidly described Bosnia in an article in Foreign Affairs as 'the greatest collective security failure of the West since the 1930s'. This was bold language for a serving assistant secretary of state, even though Holbrooke claims in this book that he was referring only to the era of the Bush administration, not to events during Clinton's tenure. In point of fact, the only thing that distinguished the inaction of Clinton's first two and a half years from his predecessor's was its hypocrisy, since Clinton had come into office attacking Bush and promising to ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ 'make the United States the catalyst for a collective stance against aggression'. The worst in Bosnia was still to come later that same year, with the massacre in Srebrenica and the complete disgrace of the UN peacekeeping forces. Only in August 1995, when US and Western policy had reached a low point for all the world to see, was Holbrooke finally launched on the shuttle diplomacy that would culminate in the Dayton Peace Conference.

Clinton and Bosnia

Although Holbrooke is rarely accused of excessive modesty, his achievement is actually understated in this book, simply because he is careful not to draw attention to how little active support he got from his own President. In fact, up until the convening of the Dayton Conference, President Clinton seems hardly to have been paying attention to Bosnia; his main intervention was to question the continuation of NATO's bombing campaign in mid September, at a time when Holbrooke and his team believed that the bombing was essential for the success of their diplomatic efforts.

In one of the book's most revealing passages, Holbrooke recounts how he informed Clinton that his publicly announced promise to provide US troops if needed to help extract UN peacekeepers had produced a NATO contingency plan that called for the use of twenty thousand American troops to assist in the extraction. Although President Clinton had never approved or even been briefed on the plan, it had already been approved by the NATO council. 'While you have the power to stop it', Holbrooke told the President, 'it has a high degree of automaticity built into it, especially since we have committed ourselves publicly to assisting NATO troops if the UN decides to withdraw.' Confronted with the prospect, as Holbrooke puts it, of sending US troops to Bosnia 'to implement a failure', the President began to press his advisors for better options. Apparently, Holbrooke implies, Clinton finally acted in Bosnia only when told that he had lost the option of inaction. (This logic did not, unfortunately, lead Clinton to do anything when French President Chirac proposed, a month later, that American helicopters should carry French troops into Srebrenica to relieve the town.)

President Clinton's absence is most striking when it comes to military matters, including some of the most central importance. Having served as under-secretary of defense in the Bush administration, with the responsibility under law to advise the secretary of defense in the review of military plans, I cannot imagine President Bush permitting a situation like the one Holbrooke describes, in which Admiral Leighton Smith, the four-star admiral who commanded NATO forces in the region, 'pointed out [that] he did not even work for the United States; as a NATO commander he took orders from Brussels.' In fact, as an admiral in the US Navy he also would have had to take orders from his commander-in-chief, probably through the chain of command from the secretary of defense to SACEUR (also an American).

The President did attend part of the crucial Principals' Committee meeting of 11 September. That was where he questioned whether NATO's bombing had 'reached the point of diminishing returns', reflecting what Holbrooke calls 'the heavy pressure the President was under to end the bombing'. (It is not at all clear where this pressure would have been coming from.) Assured by Christopher that the bombing should continue in order to support the negotiating team, Clinton said, 'Okay, but I am frustrated that the air campaign is not better coordinated with the diplomatic effort.'

Holbrooke calls this 'an astute observation', but he fails to note that the problem is one that only the President himself could fix. At this same meeting (Holbrooke doesn't indicate whether Clinton was still present) the military asserted that they would run out of authorized targets within two or three days. This forced Holbrooke and his team to negotiate the terms of the bombing suspension under a deadline, and anÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ absurdly short one at that. It also meant that the bombing would be suspended while the Croatian-Bosnian offensive continued. Although NATO's bombing probably had less military effect than generally believed - since, as Holbrooke says, there was no military coordination between the bombing and the Croat and Bosnian forces on the ground - nevertheless, the 'air strikes had undeniably aided the Federation'. The fact that the bombing was suspended three weeks before the cease-fire that finally ended the offensive must have favoured the Serbs and weakened not only Holbrooke's negotiating hand but also that of the Bosnians. It is simply astonishing that the entire diplomatic effort and probably the military situation on the ground were driven by the assertion that our military would run out of targets within two or three days. Holbrooke writes that 'there was no way to question the military within its own area of responsibility - the military controlled the information and independent verification was virtually impossible.' That is not quite true. The State Department does not control the military, but the president does, and I do not believe that President Bush would have allowed a situation like the one Holbrooke describes.

It is hard to know from Holbrooke's account what weight was given to presidential face-saving in the decisions leading up to Dayton. Certainly the public-relations-sensitive Clinton administration must have become concerned that the disasters in Srebrenica and Zepa had exposed the hollowness of its Bosnia policy, but Holbrooke tells us little about this aspect of administration decision making.

Most surprisingly, Holbrooke says nothing at all about the 69-29 vote in the Senate on 26 July 1995, followed by a 298-128 vote in the House on 2 August, to end the embargo on arms for the Bosnians. These votes demonstrated that large bipartisan majorities had the numbers to overturn Clinton's subsequent veto. It is extremely rare for Congress to override a presidential veto on a foreign-policy matter; it has happened only a few times in this century. Clinton thus faced the prospect of a crushing defeat on a crucial foreign-policy issue; one might have expected some mention of this consideration in an account of the decisions leading up to Dayton.

This omission is all the more significant since, by Holbrooke's own account, the success of the Croatian-Bosnian offensive during the following weeks was the major factor leading to Dayton, a success that would have been impossible without the extensive rearming that Croatia had managed to achieve despite the arms embargo. One of the rarely mentioned facts about the Dayton Agreement - and it is only implicit in Holbrooke's account - is that the war ended not primarily because of brilliant American diplomacy, but because the tide of battle had finally turned and the Serbs were losing.

Helping Milosevic

It was Milosevic's chestnuts that were pulled out of the fire at Dayton, and it is not surprising that Holbrooke describes him at several junctures during the endgame as desperately anxious to achieve an agreement. On 20 November, with the Bosnians and Croats unable to agree on adjustments to the map that would return to the 51-49 percentages of the 1994 Contact Group Plan, Holbrooke had Secretary Christopher deliver an ultimatum that the talks would be closed down the next morning if agreement had not been reached. 'Milosevic reacted strongly', Holbrooke reports. ' ''You can't do that'', he said, his voice showing the strain. He became emotional. ''We've got this agreement almost done, you can't let this happen . . . You can't let the Bosnians push you around this way. Just tell them what to do,'' Milosevic pleaded. ''Try some more, don't give up''.'

Franjo Tudjman, in contrast, who already had most of what he wanted, was 'fast becoming the King of Dayton', as Holbrooke described him to Christopher. It was therefore the Bosnians on whom most of the American pressure was exerted, with the AÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ mericans threatening to blame them publicly for the failure to reach agreement. Indeed, as far as Milosevic and Tudjman were concerned, what Holbrooke describes as Christopher's 'famous politeness and patience' seemed never to run out, even though both were responsible for war crimes. Christopher even observes of Milosevic that 'had fate dealt him a different birthplace and education, he would have been a successful politician in a democratic system.' In striking contrast, Holbrooke describes an astonishing incident in which Christopher complained 'in unusually vivid terms' to Holbrooke over the Bosnians daring to bring up the issues of Brcko, Srebrenica and Zepa during the final tense hours of the negotiations; and another incident in which Christopher pointedly refused to shake hands with Bosnian foreign minister Muhamed Sacirbey.

Holbrooke and his team understood that successful diplomacy required force to make it credible, and that the Serb defeats had thus in fact opened the door to a peace settlement. Most of the officials in Washington apparently did not, feeling that: 'the duty of our diplomacy was to put a stop to the fighting, regardless of what was happening on the ground. For me, however, the success of the Croatian (and later . . . the Bosnia-Croat Federation) offensive was a classic illustration of the fact . . . that we could not expect the Serbs to be con- ciliatory at the negotiating table as long as they had experienced nothing but success on the battlefield.'

Since Holbrooke understood the relation between force and diplomacy, it is all the more surprising that he pressed to stop the fighting when he did, and in particular that he pressed the Croats and Muslims not to take Banja Luka. He claims here that it was out of concern that this would generate another two hundred thousand refugees, but this answer seems incomplete. What about the return of the Muslim refugees, some of whom he had personally witnessed being deported just three years earlier? What about the possibility of going around Banja Luka and continuing the offensive into less populated areas?

Holbrooke implies that eagerness in Washington to end the fighting tied his hands. But one suspects that in any case he wanted to stop as close as possible to the 51-49 percentage split of territory that had been the result of European Contact Group negotiations in 1994, because that would facilitate an agreement. While criticisms of Dayton are usually greeted with the rebuttal that any agreement was better than the continuation of the war, it is legitimate to ask whether some continuation of the fighting might have produced a different kind of agreement that would have been more stable in the long run.

Flaws of Dayton

The Dayton Agreement had significant flaws, quite apart from the ones that Holbrooke acknowledges in his book. The flaws that he identifies have mainly to do with provisions that might have made the implementation more effective, such as giving more authority to the civilian High Representative or avoiding the arbitrary time limit placed on NATO peacekeepers (a time limit that Clinton finally abandoned in December 1997). But there are more fundamental problems with Dayton, problems that may someday resurface in a dangerous way.

First, while Holbrooke argues at length against the idea of partition, the Dayton Agreement comes very close to a partition, though accompanied by the fiction of a unified government - which was introduced in part to make a de facto partition more palatable to the Bosnians. If the reality of partition had been ad- dressed more openly, attention would have had to be paid to making the Bosnian portion viable, not only through territorial adjustments but through arrangements governing such vital matters as secure air and land access routes to the outside world.

Instead, the Dayton arrangement makes the survival of the Bosnians dependent on the continued presence of NATO peacekeepers. And while that seems less problematic now that ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ the Clinton administration has abandoned its arbitrary time limits, it is still not clear that the American public will support the indefinite stay of peacekeeping forces that Dayton seems to require. Moreover, as Hol- brooke acknowledges, the presence of American peacekeepers is premised on a virtual absence of American casualties. While he was right to predict that US peacekeepers would not suffer the massive casualties that some critics feared, the agreement remains highly vulnerable to an explosion of some sort that could lead to a precipitate withdrawal of the peacekeepers.

Second, this vulnerability is made worse by the failure to treat properly the question of arming the Muslims so that they could defend themselves if the need were to arise. Considering how clear-sighted Holbrooke was in his earlier views about the arms embargo, it is disappointing that he did not take more seriously at Dayton the need for an American commitment to make sure that the Muslim forces were strongly equipped and trained. When the Bosnians begged to get such a commitment in writing, Holbrooke treated it as an insult, complaining (although this is not reported in his book) that they were questioning his word and the word of the United States.

In reality, Holbrooke did not want to give the commitment in writing because our military and our allies objected to the whole idea, and the administration lacked the will to overrule them. As a result, the implementation of the promis- es regarding training and equipment - made to the congressional leadership as well as to the Bosnians - has been simply inadequate.

Despite its long-professed desire to lift the arms embargo, the administration undertook a systematic survey of Bosnian military needs only after Dayton had begun, arriving at estimates in the range of $700-$900 million (as compared to the $4 billion estimate of an earlier Joint Chiefs of Staff study). Unwilling to ask Congress for any funding (although Senators Helms and Dole had provided, unsolicited, for $100 million of surplus US equipment), the administration went on a begging mission that produced a mere $2 million for training from a high-level 'pledging' meeting in Ankara, a meeting that the Saudis refused even to attend. Finally, 'Mack' McLarty was sent on a fund-raising mission to the Middle East that produced a total of only $152 million for the entire 'equip and train' programme. With more than half of the total going for training, this leaves the Bosnians far short of what they need, particularly since much of the equipment will be shared with the Croat elements of the Federation forces, on the premise that the Bosnians and Croats are cooperating compatriots rather than potential enemies.

Indeed, the whole concept of a 5: 2: 2 armaments ratio for Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia - which Holbrooke describes as 'designed to protect the Federation from ever again being overwhelmed by Serb military power' - looks very different if one breaks it down into Serb, Croat and Bosnian forces. Since Bosnia's 2/9 share is divided among the three different communities, the overall ratio becomes 17: 8: 2 - a far cry from military stability.

Thirdly and finally, while Milosevic needed Dayton at the time in order to avoid a more crushing defeat and to escape from the sanctions, at this point the whole arrangement depends dangerously on his good will. (MiloÐeviÒ is a dangerous man to trust. His whole position at Dayton rested on selling out his Bosnian Serb allies, whom he described to Holbrooke as 'shit', pronouncing the word with 'an East European accent, so it sounded like ''sheet''.') Dayton's dependence on Milosevic is probably why, though he eloquently denounces Karadzic and Mladic as war criminals, Holbrooke never mentions the problematic aspect of dealing with Milosevic, who was responsible for similar crimes himself, and whose forces are now once again conducting ethnic cleansing and massacres in Kosovo. With Bosnia now stabilized, Milosevic has his hands free forÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ Kosovo, and one of Dayton's lost opportunities was the failure to get any commitment from him on autonomy for the Kosovars.

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