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Bosnia: Holbrooke Describes The Difficult Path To Peace

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 14 July 1998(RFE/RL) -- The name Richard Holbrooke is certainly familiar to many readers. Holbrooke, a long-time U.S. diplomat, has been a prominent figure on the continent since mid-1995. As the assistant secretary of state for European affairs, he made peace in Bosnia his highest priority -- and achieved it, after 21 days of intensive negotiations later in the year, in the midwestern U.S. city of Dayton.

Holbrooke is now again in the news as a prominent member of the U.S. team seeking a peaceful resolution to the escalating conflict in Serbia's Kosova province. And last month, he was nominated by President Bill Clinton to be ambassador to the United Nations -- where he will likely continue to be preoccupied by events in the former Yugoslavia.

Holbrooke has recently published, simultaneously in the U.S., Britain, and Germany, a book recounting the efforts to bring peace to Bosnia. "To End a War" has received largely favorable notices in all three countries.

The book is a revealing memoir of years of failure to cope with a disintegrating Yugoslavia by the U.S. and its Western European allies, of substantial -- if only partial -- success at Dayton and, not least revealing, of Holbrooke himself. Permeating the work are Holbrooke's undiplomatic bluntness, demanding ego, strong belief in U.S. power and devotion to preserving a wrecked Bosnia as an independent nation.

Holbrooke's narrative begins with the collective failure of the West to intervene forcefully in 1991 when Yugoslav started to fall apart and the killing that would later add up to a quarter-of-a-million people began.

Like others before him, he recalls the inability of the European Community (later the European Union) to end the fighting. Despite endless alarming references to war in "our own backyard" and the boast of its president, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos, that "Europe's hour (had) dawned," the EU revealed itself as impotent to end the hostilities.

Holbrooke is at least as critical of his own government, whose standoffishness was incarnated in an infamous 1991 remark by Republican Secretary of State James Baker: "We have no dog in this fight."

Nor is Holbrooke kinder to the early perceptions of Democrat Bill Clinton's Administration, although the criticism is more muted. We learn that Clinton, whose 1992 campaign warned against the cost of remaining "paralyzed in the face of genocide," was one of many high U.S. officials who a year later accepted the notion that little could be done to stop the blood-letting in the Balkans. Holbrooke criticizes that notion in two lines: "Yugoslavia's tragedy was not foreordained," he writes. "It was the product of bad, even criminal, political leaders who encouraged ethnic confrontation for personal, political and financial gain."

The heart of Holbrooke's book is his team's negotiations with the leaders of the three countries involved in the Bosnian war, then Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic. The talks began with many shuttle trips to Belgrade, Zagreb, and Sarajevo and ended in three weeks of high-pressured bargaining at a closed U.S. air force base outside of Dayton in November 1995.

Holbrooke acknowledges that the Dayton Peace Accords were imperfect, but argues they were the best the U.S. -- with European officials in Dayton as observers -- could do after four years of war had changed the map of Bosnia. He also admits that after the accords were signed he didn't play as big enough role in their implementation as he should have, which caused serious problems.

Holbrooke supplies vivid portraits of all three leaders, reserving most of his criticism for Izetbegovic and his chief aides who, Holbrooke says, were constantly at odds with one another and simply, in the American phrase, "couldn't get their act together." He is less critical of Tudjman, and least critical of Milosevic, the key man in the talks. Milosevic is presented graphically, smoking fat cigars, swearing and dismissing the Bosnian Serbs as of little account.

Holbrooke has been taken to task by critics for his oddly neutral description of Milosevic, probably the man most responsible for beginning the entire Yugoslav civil war. Writer David Rieff, himself the author of a book on Bosnia, reviews the Holbrooke book in a recent edition of the U.S. weekly "The New Republic" (July 6).

Rieff writes that "dancing with Milosevic may have been unavoidable" and that to his credit Holbrooke recognizes as evil the Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic. But Rieff criticizes Holbrooke for being "curiously unopinionated" about Milosevic, whom Rieff calls a mass murderer and the architect of the break-up of Yugoslavia, the repression of the Kosovar Albanians, the destruction of eastern Croatia, and the genocide in Bosnia.

To such criticism Holbrooke would probably reply: If you want to save lives, you sometimes have to dine with the devil himself. But he doesn't say so in the book, where Milosevic comes across more vividly than any other principal character.

That is a major flaw in an otherwise fascinating first-hand account of how peace came to Bosnia by the man probably most responsible for it.

For anyone seriously interested in Bosnia's difficult if imperfect pacification, Holbrooke's work is indispensable reading.

His literary agent says the book will appear in translation in both Serbia and Croatia within nine months. Translations into other European languages are also currently being negotiated.