Pauline Neville-Jones clashed with Richard Holbrooke at Dayton but finds his book a gripping, albeit anti-European, account of the Bosnian débacleby Pauline Neville-Jones / November 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Published in November 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
To End a War is a good book, well-written and very readable. Personalities are graphically drawn and Dick Holbrooke conveys the atmosphere of anxiety and tension around the culmination of the Bosnian conflict and the ensuing negotiations at Dayton, Ohio in late 1995. It is invaluable to have such a substantial contribution to the public record written by a principal player so soon after the events. It is also quite a bold book for him to have written at this stage in his career.
Holbrooke picks up the story at the moment of his own central involvement, which was precipitated by the death in August 1995 of his much respected colleague, US Ambassador Bob Frasure. He takes the story through to the end of the Dayton negotiations and their immediate aftermath; at the end of the book there are reflections on the lessons of Bosnia for US foreign policy generally and for US-European relations in particular.
In the US, reviewers have focused on what the book reveals about decision-making within the administration, notably between the State Department, the White House and the Pentagon, as well as the interplay of personalities. Tensions abounded. Holbrooke positions himself in the narrative as the pole around which all else revolved. This was certainly accurate by the time of the run-up to Dayton. The fact that Tony Lake, then national security adviser, was a rival for this role created stresses that went beyond policy differences. There were also sharp differences with the Pentagon. Holbrooke in effect accuses the Pentagon of having its own agenda which it kept from him. Certainly, the US military had their own views about the proper definition of their mission in Bosnia which was more restrictive than Holbrooke’s. His lack of trust in the military also carried over into somewhat abrasive dealings with soldiers of other nationalities.
The story of the three weeks at Dayton is especially well told. The reader gets a good picture of the uneven pace of events: the slippery behaviour of the Balkan leaders that required someone as forceful as Holbrooke to get them in line; the on-the-hoof negotiating outcomes, and how near it all came to failure. In the very last stages, Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian Muslim leader for whom continuing the war became preferable to making any further compromises, rejected the territorial settlement around the key town of Brcko in the expectation that the Serbs would make no more concessions. He counted without Slobodan Milose-vic’s determination to get an agreement. Sanctions do sometimes work.
This side of the Atlantic, Holbrooke’s portrayal of the European role at Dayton is bound to cause aggravation. Holbrooke evidently found some of us rather troublesome, myself included. Writing about Dayton the following year (Survival, Winter 1996), I described the role allocated to the Europeans as follows: “They were informed but not consulted, and their primary role was to assist so far as needed, witness and ratify the outcome. But they were not to interfere.” Holbrooke’s account bears out this assessment. But he also exaggerates. He omits those parts of the Dayton negotiations in which he was not centrally involved. And his omissions-in particular the disputed issue of the links between civilian and military implementation and the differences over the powers of the central institutions of Bosnia (where, in some respects, the Europeans were more forward than the US)-make the European performance look feebler and more marginal than it was. The scant credit given at the time by the US team to the German-led negotiations at Dayton to strengthen the federation (which caused dismay in the German camp) is reflected in Holbrooke’s account.
There are also surprises. We learn that in mid-September 1995, US officials decided, albeit reluctantly, that for budgetary reasons the head of civilian implementation would have to be European. “We informed the Europeans, who began to look for the right person to head the civilian effort.” Such a decision never reached European capitals and at Dayton the Europeans were made to fight for this job. For a good part of the three weeks spent at Dayton, the US team insisted that the job should go to a US national. It was only when it became clear that the Europeans would not yield, that (watered down) powers were agreed. If indeed it is the case that the US had previously decided that the job should go to a European, their tactics were incomprehensible.
Holbrooke’s description of the role of Carl Bildt, head of civilian implementation of Dayton and High Representative of the international community, is also misleading. He says that Bildt was kept closely informed of US negotiations and implies that he had a substantive role. It did not look like that on the spot. Time and effort was spent within the European team, particularly by me, persuading Bildt not to be put off taking the High Representative job by the dismissive treatment he received from the US team.
Holbrooke also complains that as EU mediator, Bildt came to Dayton without full powers and that he was then hamstrung by his European colleagues. The first charge is disingenuous: Holbrooke knew that military matters did not fall within EU-and therefore Bildt’s-competence. Indeed, it is US policy that these should stay firmly within Nato. The second charge puzzles me: the Europeans at Dayton worked well together and those I have asked with knowledge of the negotiations and subsequent implementation, do not know what Holbrooke is talking about.
The digs at the Europeans are not a substitute for a serious discussion of the reasons why officials who would normally have worked closely together found it difficult to do so on this occasion. Holbrooke has not set out to write a complete history of the Bosnia conflict and these aspects will have to come from another author. At the time the interests of the various governments were not aligned-the Contact group having been created precisely to counteract this. But looking back, we can see that many of the seeds of disagreement lay in the change of US policy that came with the Clinton administration. By then, UN troops, mainly European, had been committed to the ground in Bosnia on a humanitarian relief mission. Had “lift and strike”-the plan to lift sanctions and begin air strikes-been an issue in 1992, I doubt whether Britain or France (or any other European government) would have gone in on the ground without the US. As it was, and given the way the war developed, the troop presence itself became a serious bone of transatlantic contention, limiting the pursuit of more aggressive policy options. By the time Holbrooke took centre stage, Europeans were in over their heads and needed US power behind them badly. He is right about this, but it is wrong not to acknowledge some of the underlying causes of US-European tension.
In a recent review of the book, Bildt commented that some of Holbrooke’s criticisms of European institutions for cooperation in foreign and security affairs were “grossly unfair and surprisingly ill informed.” He also said, and I agree, that it was hard, nevertheless, not to agree with the essence of the argument that “Europe” is not yet up to a proper foreign policy job and ought to be. “A Europe unable to act together on key security issues in its own continent will never be treated with full respect and total confidence, even by its ally across the Atlantic.” True. The Bosnia experience taught us that the EU has to give a proper reply to Kissinger’s famous question: “What is Europe’s telephone number?”
In my view, the institutional innovations need not be complicated, but do need to be bold. We cannot forever go on messing about. A political figure of stature, able to deal on equal terms with foreign ministers and heads of government within and outside the EU needs to be appointed urgently to the post created by the Amsterdam treaty. A small high quality staff drawn from capitals should support him/her in liaising with member governments, with the other institutions of the EU and with Nato. Finally, an effective link between the EU and Nato should be created, either by abolishing the WEU or, better, absorbing it into EU structures. This arrangement would not cure overnight all the problems of Europe’s voice in the world, but it could give Europeans a better chance than they have at present of acting effectively together.
The use of military power is a central theme of the book-both during the conflict, during Dayton and in implementation. Argument surrounds three issues: whether it was primarily the Nato bombing which brought the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table; and whether the military enforcement mandate should have been much wider and should have included from the outset the tasks of arresting war criminals and fully disarming the parties; and whether there should have been some joint machinery between the civilian head of implementation and the military commander to resolve overlapping problems.
Holbrooke says yes to the first two and would not, I think, object to the third. Since these issues will be turned into “lessons of Bosnia,” they are worth considering. Holbrooke’s view that bombing was the thing which brought the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table is an article of faith in the US. The thesis does not gain such ready acceptance in Europe. Bildt is more inclined to think that the political tide had already turned in the Bosnian Serb camp by the time of the bombing. My own view is that the bombing was very important, but so was its timing and context. It signalled to the Bosnian Serbs that they had taken on the might of Nato at a time when they were increasingly vulnerable on the ground and when the US had signalled its willingness to accept “Republika Srpska” and the possibility of revised territorial lines. It was the combination of military disincentives and political incentives which brought the Serbs to the table. Holbrooke says that he regrets the concession of “Republika Srpska.” I doubt, however, if without it the necessary negotiating momentum would have been generated before UN forces, which were at the end of their tether, would have been obliged to withdraw with Nato assistance.
Holbrooke is deeply critical of Admiral Leighton Smith, the head of Ifor (the Nato forces which replaced UN peace-keeping troops and had the task of implementing the agreement). Holbrooke accuses him of sticking to a restrictive interpretation of the military mandate and an unwillingness to do much to prevent the ejection of the Serbs from their traditional suburbs in Sarajevo and the sacking of their own houses before they left. This was a bad episode at an early stage which, along with the kidnapping in Sarajevo of a Serb general, played into the hands of the Serb hardliners. At the time I believed that the combination of the narrow military definition of the mission and the absence of any machinery dedicated to ensuring cooperation between the civil (Bildt) and military (Leighton Smith) authorities reduced what small chance there might have been of preventing this disaster. But I wonder whether the outcome would in the end have been any different. The leaderships of the two entities-Muslim-Croat and Serb-wanted this separation. As for the failure of Dayton to tackle the issue of the continuing existence of separate armies in the two entities-I agree that this is a potentially fatal flaw of Dayton which we may yet rue. But I never saw any disposition at Dayton to tackle it. Both the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian Muslims would have resisted it.
Holbrooke says that it is too early to draw up a definitive balance sheet on Bosnia. He is right. The transition from absence of war to the construction of enduring peace has not yet been decisively made by the leaderships of the two entities. The chances of this happening partly depend on events in the rest of the Balkans. Holbrooke says in his last paragraph that “there will be other Bosnias in our lives.”
When he wrote that sentence, Kosovo will have been quite visible. As I write, air strikes against Serbia are being threatened unless Milosevic complies with the terms of recent UN resolutions on Kosovo. Milosevic’s record means one cannot be optimistic that a political route forward exists. If, sadly, this proves to be the case, the issue would seem not to be between a military and non-military option, but only about the timing of a military option. The situation in Kosovo is now inherently unstable: without a political settlement there will be more fighting, accompanied by a humanitarian catastrophe. Left to itself, the conflict will steadily and inexorably affect the stability and integrity of Albania and Macedonia. Not intervening now is only likely to mean having to do so later in much more dangerous circumstances and with even greater force. Some people will object that such military intervention in the affairs of a sovereign country needs Chapter 7 Security Council authorisation (given only when international peace and security are threatened), which the Russians will probably veto. The international legal issues involved are not trivial, nor are the consequences of an estrangement from the Russians; but formalism and timidity will turn western expressions of humanitarian concern into hollow words-quite apart from the regional strategic issues at stake. What is sovereignty? Modern political thought would suggest that it is not possessed by governments to do with as they please but is held in trust by them for their people. In the Serbian case the threat to stability in the region is unambiguous.
The British government seems to recognise, rightly, that an air campaign will not be an answer by itself and that the subsequent presence of ground troops to enforce a political solution will be unavoidable. This could be a big commitment. But how to get the political solution? This is the conundrum in any scenario, the central issue being the absence of democracy in Serbia as a whole. Serbia is more likely to fragment if fighting is prolonged-which nevertheless seems to be Milosevic’s preference. The nationalist tiger he is riding may be out of his control. Few would weep at the demise of federal Yugoslavia. But the human price of the intervening carnage, the risk of neighbouring states also fragmenting and the danger of sanctifying ethnic purity as the principle of statehood, make allowing the conflict to continue unimpeded an unattractive option. Until recently, I would not have considered the anomalous Bosnia model of autonomous entities with many of the attributes of full sovereignty within an exceptionally light and loose federal framework particularly apt for replication. But I now think it may be just what is needed for Serbia itself. Are we heading for another Dayton?
To end a war
Random House 1998, $27.95 (US only)