La NATO bombarda la Jugoslavia
by Diana Johnstone *
Richard Holbrooke, TO END A WAR (New York: Random House, 1998); 408 pages, $27.95.
Throughout three years of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the United States showed less interest in ending the war than in denouncing any possible European-brokered compromise settlement1 as appeasing aggression or betraying multicultural Sarajevo. Then in mid-1995, the Clinton administration was faced with having to keep a promise to help its NATO allies withdraw their troops from the United Nations Protection Force stationed in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This would have meant engaging U.S. forces there, a move strongly opposed in both Congress and the Pentagon. In danger of being caught between a hostile Congress and disgruntled European allies, with the risk of discrediting the U.S. commitment to NATO, the Clinton administration dispatched Richard Holbrooke to make the very sort of compromise deal that the U.S. had previously scorned.
Ostensibly, Holbrookes assignment in 1995 was to end a war. It was
also, and especially, to use a war to further U.S. policy aims in Europe. Before ending it
(for how long?), the United States used the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina to reassert its
supremacy in Europe and further the conversion of NATO into a global instrument of power
Understandably, Holbrooke has not written a book to explain the real nature and aims of U.S. policy, but to justify his own role in an enterprise that may become more controversial as events direct public attention to what was wrong with the peace agreement that Holbrooke imposed on the rival Yugoslav leaders in Dayton, Ohio, on November 21, 1995. Sharing responsibility for what he knows was a perilously flawed diplomatic result, and incidentally countering frequent charges of being an uncooperative egotist, Holbrooke stresses the excellent teamwork he achieved as head of the U.S. mission. Otherwise, he makes a special point of his vigorous role in getting NATO to bomb and re-bomb the Bosnian Serbs prior to negotiations.
Zeal for bombing would be a novel boast in a peacemaker. Holbrooke, however, does not belong to the category of peacemakers, but of war-enders, the big birds of prey who come in to sort out and pick the bones on the battlefield.
Lets Win This One for the Gipper
Although he scarcely puts it this way, Holbrookes double mission was to strengthen U.S. leadership of NATO and at the same time appease the Bosnia3 lobby in the U.S., which included not only Senators such as Bob Dole and Joe Biden, but also important members of the Clinton administration such as Al Gore and Madeleine Albright. This required a great show of getting tough with the Serbs.
Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic had long been anxious to settle the war in
Bosnia-Herzegovina at almost any price, in order to get international sanctions lifted.4
For months, the Clinton administration had been rejecting a peace settlement that was
within reach of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Robert Frasure, who had been holding
talks with Milosevic. Now, however, Holbrooke was sent in to end the war on the basis of
the talks already held between Frasure and Milosevic.
This shocking accident, rather than the fate of Bosnia, provides Holbrooke with his opening chapter and the tragic leitmotif that runs through his book. The loss of these American colleagues emerges as the overriding Bosnian tragedy. As sacrificed martyr, Frasure no doubt considerably helped Holbrooke sell his deal to the divided Clinton administration. It was necessary to win this one for the Gipper.
Bombing the Serbs to the Negotiating Table
Frasure had recommended negotiating the fate of Bosnia-Herzegovina not with the Bosnian Serbs themselves, who were directly involved, but with Milosevic. Frasure knew that Milosevic was fed up with the Bosnian Serb leaders and was ready to do almost anything to overcome Serbias international isolation. The way to sideline Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was provided by the International Criminal Tribunal (ICT) set up by the U.N. Security Council in The Hague to judge war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. The ICT made a great point of placing Karadzic at the top of its wanted list, although the case against him was no stronger than cases that could bebut never aremade against Croatian President Franjo Tudjman or President Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia-Herzegovina himself. Holbrooke declared that he would not negotiate with indicted war criminals, thus making sure that the Bosnian Serbs had to delegate authority to the President of Serbia.
With the help of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Milosevic gave Holbrooke his trump card: an agreement by the Bosnian Serb leaders to allow the Serbian President to negotiate on their behalf.
Still, before undertaking peace talks with the three Presidents, Milosevic, Izetbegovic, and Tudjman (who had no trouble representing the Bosnian Croats, since it was his own Croatian army that had been fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina on their behalf5), Holbrooke was eager for NATO to bomb.
NATO was all prepared. However, it took an outrageous Bosnian Serb action to trigger Operation Deliberate Force, recalls Holbrooke.
This happened right on time. On August 28, Holbrooke arrived in Paris to work out a negotiating position with Izetbegovic and his foreign minister, Muhamed Sacirbey. That day, CNN reported a particularly gruesome bomb massacre in downtown Sarajevo, with scores of civilian victims. The timing was perfect. Later that day, at his second meeting with Holbrooke, Izetbegovic had changed into a sort of paramilitary outfit, complete with loose khakis, a scarf, and a beret bearing a Bosnian insignia. Thus dressed like an aging Left Bank revolutionary, Izetbegovic demanded that NATO launch strikes against the Bosnian Serbs immediately. Sacirbey went further, saying his President would not see us again until NATO began bombing... (p. 96). Izetbegovic was exclusively focused on the necessity for immediate NATO bombing, and wary of negotiations....
From Pale the Bosnian Serbs accused the Bosnian Muslims of staging the incident to draw NATO into the war, Holbrooke recalls. Within NATO, experts disagreed, and U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali called for an investigation. None of this mattered much, according to Holbrooke. What counted was whether the United States would act decisively and persuade its NATO allies to join in the sort of massive air campaign that we had so often talked about but never even come close to undertaking. (pp. 91-92) The opportunity was too good to miss. American experts instantly attributed the massacre to the Serbs.
Holbrooke fails to mention that British ammunition experts serving with the U.N. in
Sarajevo said they found no evidence that Bosnian Serbs had fired the lethal mortar round
and suspected the Bosnian government army might have been responsible.6 Whoever was
responsible, everything was ready for bombing the Serbs.
The Operation Deliberate Force air strikes on Bosnian Serb targets gave rise to a useful and oft-repeated falsehood: that NATO air strikes were necessary to bomb the Serbs to the negotiating table.
In reality, the Serbs were eager to negotiate and to make peace. Izetbegovic, on the contrary, wanted to continue the war. Even when the Serbs lifted the siege of Sarajevo, Izetbegovic was not satisfied. He would prefer to let the people of Sarajevo live under Serb guns for a while longer if it also meant that the NATO bombing would continue, Holbrooke observed. Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic showed even greater fury in demanding more bombing.
In short, it was never a matter of bombing the Serbs to the negotiating table. Rather, NATO had to bomb the Serbs in order to get the Muslims to the negotiating table.
Bombs For Peace
The air raids ended on September 1, and Holbrooke began to look for a new pretext to
get them started again. In the absence of a massacre, some Serbian hyperbole had to do. In
an angry letter to the French U.N. forces commander in Bosnia, Bosnian Serb commander
General Ratko Mladic called NATO bombing more brutal than Nazi bombing of
Belgrade, because NATO had targeted churches and cemeteries during funerals of victims.
When we saw Mladics letter, we assumed it resolved any question about resuming
the bombing, writes Holbrooke. What answer other than a resumption of the
bombing was appropriate under the circumstances?7
This bombing campaign was stopped only when Pentagon officers informed the State Department that NATO was running out of authorized targets. Meanwhile, the bombing had knocked out Serb communications and enabled forces of the U.S.-contrived Bosnian-Croatian Federationan extremely uneasy alliance between Tudjmans Croatian Army and Izetbegovics forcesto conquer large swathes of territory in Western Bosnia inhabited almost exclusively by Serbs. According to Holbrooke, this generated at least one hundred thousand Serb refugees (p. 154), in addition to about double that many who only a few weeks earlier had been driven out of their homes in the Croatian Krajina region by Tudjmans army, with German arms and U.S. approval. All this time, Holbrooke was urging Tudjman to take more Serb towns in Western Bosnia, but to stop short of capturing Banja Luka.
Holbrooke explains this restraint by the fact that capturing Banja Luka would generate
over two hundred thousand additional refugees, and he did not think the United
States should encourage an action that would create so many more refugees. (p.160)
Holbrooke was aware that we could be accused of applying a double standard.
Good Guys and Bad Guys
The basic reason for the NATO bombing goes to the heart of U.S. foreign policy.
As Holbrooke tells it, the roots of Bosnia policy go back to Clintons first election campaign in 1992, when his advisers were aware that his weak point in relation to Bush was foreign policy. They concluded that Bosnia would make an excellent election campaign issue (p. 41), one on which the Democratic candidate could attack Bush and appear more forward-looking. Thus on August 14, 1992, Clinton gave a speech promising to make the United States the catalyst for a collective stand against aggression. This was the traditional world leadership stand of the United States, now shifting into a collective stand of the international community.
In order to take such a stand against aggression, there is need for aggression to fit traditional world leadership rhetoric. Only in the face of aggression, preferably by an evil adversary who refuses to negotiate, can it become clear why it takes the United States to be the catalyst: its overwhelming military power. It is essential to illustrate that diplomacy can succeed only in conjunction with the overwhelming military force represented by U.S. air power.
Otherwise, one might as well turn the whole problem over to a bunch of Scandinavians.
For bombing to be used, however, outrage is necessary (It took an
outrageous Bosnian Serb action to trigger Operation Deliberate Force) against a
single bad guy, the villain, the aggressor. And once there is a single
bad guy, his adversaries are automatically promoted into good
guys...who proceed to exploit their position shamelessly.
Whatever the difficulties in taming Izetbegovic or Tudjman, the United States succeeded in the more important task of putting the European Allies in their place. At the end of his adventure, Holbrooke could find satisfaction in the fact that NATO had for the first time acted out of area, and that even the French had acknowledged that America is back.
When the irritable Bosnian Muslims finally came to Dayton, they constantly obstructed the negotiations and each other. After a fortnight in Dayton, Holbrooke reported to Undersecretary of State Warren Christopher that the most disturbing problem he faced was the immense difficulty of engaging the Bosnian government in a serious negotiation. Bitter personal rivalry divided Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic and Muhamed Sacirbey, while the dour Izetbegovic never showed any interest whatsoever in making peace.
Any form of compromise, even minor gestures of reconciliation to those Serbs who had not wanted war and were ready to re-establish some form of multiethnic community, was not easy for Izetbegovic. His eyes had a cold and distant gaze; after so much suffering, they seemed dead to anyone elses pain.... although he paid lip service to the principles of a multi-ethnic state, he was not the democrat that some supporters in the West saw, recounts Holbrooke (p. 97).
Although Silajdzic, on the other hand, spoke with passion about the need to recreate a multiethnic country, he referred to the Croats with such animosity that I did not see how he could ever cooperate with them (p. 97). Silajdzic and Sacirbey both occasionally flew into rages against Holbrooke and shouted that the Muslims would never give in to U.S. threats or blackmail.
Holbrooke, on the other hand, more than once gave into Muslim blackmail, notably by agreeing to equip and train Muslim forces after the peace accords.
As the Dayton talks were at the eleventh hour, Holbrooke was deeply concerned that even if Milosevic makes more concessions, the Bosnians will simply raise the ante. Western officials were wondering: Does Izetbegovic even want a deal? And Holbrooke wasnt sure: Sometimes he seems to want revenge more than peace.... And Holbrookes colleague Chris Hill complained that: These people are impossible to help.
Clearly, Dayton would never have produced any agreement at all without the unflagging help of the one participant who really seemed anxious for peace: Slobodan Milosevic.
From start to finish, Milosevic is described as cheerful, alert, quick to understand, and above all, ready to make concession after concession. He spoke excellent English and loved the United States, even Dayton and Packys Sports Bar. He looked back nostalgically on his trips to New York when he was a banker in Titos Yugoslavia, he sang along with a trio of American black women sergeants singing Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (while Izetbegovic sat sullenly), he was the life of the party. Watching Milosevic turn on the charm, Warren Christopher observed that had fate dealt him a different birthplace and education, he would have been a successful politician in a democratic system. In fact, Milosevic was a successful politician (although a disastrous statesman) in a transitional system that was at least as democratic as those run by Tudjman or Izetbegovic, and probably more so.
Dayton is a chronicle of concessions made by Milosevic. Indeed, many of the concessions were invented by Milosevic to get the talks out of an impasse. At the very end, it was, typically, Milosevic who saved Dayton from total failure, when once again, Izetbegovic had rejected what everyone else thought was an agreement.
Volunteering to walk the final mile for peace, Milosevic offered to agree to arbitration for Brcko in a year. This was a huge and perhaps fatal concession. When he heard that Izetbegovic had finally, if reluctantly, accepted his offer, Milosevic had tears in his eyes.
Milosevic again and again saved the negotiations by giving up something. He got next to nothing in return. On December 14, 1995, President Clinton joined the three Balkan presidents in Paris for the ceremonial signing of the agreement reached in Dayton.
Finally came the Presidents first discussion with Milosevic. The While House had taken care to ensure that there would be no photographs of the encounter. Still, this was a meeting Milosevic had long wanted; it put him on a plane with other world leaders after years of isolation. I know this agreement would not have been possible without you, President Clinton said, cool and slightly distant. You made Dayton possible. Now you must help make it work.
Milosevic said that the key to peace lay in strict implementation of the Dayton agreements. Then he requested full normalization of U.S.-Yugoslav (i.e., Serbian) relations. We swiftly ended the discussion. (p. 322)
The sanctions were suspended, but not lifted, as Milosevic had hoped. And what the United States calls the outer wall of sanctionsthe exclusion of Serbia/Yugoslavia from international institutions such as the United Nations and its agencies, the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE), the World Bank, etc.remains in place. Thus Belgrades diplomatic isolation, its inability to speak for itself in international forums, has been maintained.8
The Holbrooke-Milosevic encounter created a mutual dependency. Each man has needed the other to produce results, even though the results produced may eventually turn out to be disappointing, even disastrous.
The Dayton Accords do not lay the groundwork of a lasting peace, and contain the seeds of renewed war. To bribe Izetbegovic, the United States agreed to arm and train the Bosnian Muslims. As Holbrooke himself acknowledged in his book, this was the most controversial of all programs. The U.S. military hated the idea, so did the Europeans, and finally, it made no sense to sign a peace agreement for a single Bosnia-Herzegovina, and then arm one faction of it. In an ideal world, admits Holbrooke, all the armies should have been sharply reduced and merged into a single force. But NATO refused to accept the job of implementing a disarmament program. This Equip and Train program, largely farmed out to Turkey, was supported by a powerful group of Senators led by Republican Majority Leader Bob Dole and two senior Democrats, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Joe Biden of Delaware. It was defended in congressional hearings by none other than the Reagan administrations Prince of Darkness, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, a notorious arms buildup enthusiast, who represented the Muslim side in military negotiations at Dayton.
The other major failure at Dayton was the absence of any agreement on the status of the town of Brcko, which connects the two parts of Serbian Bosnia, Republika Srpska. Together, these two factors mean that only prolonged outside military occupation can prevent the rearmed Muslim forces from renewing the war against the Serbs.
Meanwhile, supposedly multicultural Sarajevo has been transformed by Izetbegovics ruling party, the Democratic Action Party (SDA), into an increasingly exclusive Muslim city. The Croats retain tight and exclusive control of their territory. The Serbs have always been more divided among themselves, but ostentatious international community support for the moderates led by Biljana Plavsic, including NATO action (recommended by Holbrooke) to shut down Bosnian Serb nationalist television, led to Plavsics defeat in elections last December. This political defeat was such a blow to the international community officials actually running Bosnia-Herzegovina that it took them several days to pull themselves together and announce the results. Whatever else one can say for them, the September 1998 elections showed that neither television nor money from the international community determined the way Bosnian Serbs vote.
Resentment of international community control, as instituted by the Dayton Accords, is by now the one thing that Muslims, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina can agree on.
But Holbrooke himself and the whole international community chorus of
officials and media keep repeating their standard excuse for any and all failures of
Dayton: It is all because Serbian war criminals have not been arrested. This
pursues the Manichean myth of moralistic power politics: The world would be a fine place,
with everybody going about their business, if it werent disrupted from time to time
by bad guys. The solution to all world political problems is thus a court to
punish the criminals.
Prior to Dayton, Holbrooke obtained what he called something of a diplomatic innovationa document drafted by us but signed only by the Serbs as a unilateral undertaking.9 None of us was aware of diplomatic precedent for this, but it fit our needs perfectly.
This was the same formula used recently by Holbrooke for Kosovo, by which Milosevic unilaterally agreed to remove Yugoslav security forces from a section of their own country, and to let international verifiers wander around the country to make sure they had really left. This in return for nothing. As a result, the armed ethnic Albanian rebels are more convinced than ever that they have the support of the United States and NATO, and are readying their spring offensive.
Milosevic, who set out to bring unity and prosperity to Yugoslavia, is a dramatic failure as a leader. Unlike the media propaganda, he is neither a dictator nor a racist nor a bloodthirsty tyrant. He is a vain, clever, manipulative political leader who drastically misjudged the situation of Yugoslavia in the post-communist transition period, and who keeps masking his failures with unreal optimism. Although recent events have inevitably given them second thoughts, most Serbs want to think of America as their friend. They retain memories of alliance in two World Wars, their educated children emigrate en masse to Canada and the United States. Milosevic has kept hoping to be accepted by America. This feeling was, by all accounts, enforced by conviction that European leaders could not be relied upon as partners, and that only the United States has the power to make a deal stick.
All this has made Milosevic an indispensably weak and accommodating partner for Holbrooke.
In Serbia, very many people are convinced that Milosevic is kept in power solely by the Americans, who need him to give away Yugoslavia bit by bit. There is even a widespread belief that Milosevic wants NATO to force him to give up Kosovo, since he doesnt know what else to do with it, and that military offensives against ethnic Albanian separatists are only part of the scenario of turning the territory over to NATO.
Many Serbs believe that after Kosovo, the international community will step up its encouragement of separatism in Montenegro, the Vojvodina and the Novi Pazar region (called the Sanjak), using Milosevic simultaneously as pretext and broker for ongoing disintegration, until there is nothing left of Serbia but the Sumadija forest region where Black George led his peasant revolt against Ottoman oppression nearly two hundred years ago.10 And when theyve used him to establish a NATO protectorate in the Balkans, it is predicted, the Americans will throw Milosevic away like a squeezed out lemon peel. Instead of retirement in New York, or even Dayton, Milosevic may be sent to The Hague for a show trial.
Ignorance, Images, and Analogy Construction
Washington is well known as a city where social events can have policy consequences, observes Holbrooke. Supporting Bosnia meaning the Muslims, early became both politically correct and socially acceptable in Washington.
Holbrooke describes how he first joined the cause. In the spring of 1992, I saw the Bosnian Ambassador to the United Nations, Muhamed Sacirbey, on television calling on the world to save his nation. Impressed with his passion and eloquence, I phoned him, introducing myself as an admirer of his cause, and offered my support. Sacirbey thus became my first Bosnian friend. The fact that this first Bosnian friend was an American no doubt made the matter easier. Sacirbey came from a distinguished family and had played first-string football at Tulane University. Mo Sacirbey was tough, strong, and fit. Good material for the fraternity.
The bey in the name Sacirbey, like the beg in Izetbegovic, is a trace of the Ottoman beys, the aristocracy that monopolized property and power under Turkish rule. Their Democratic Action Party (SDA) represents descendants of the ruling class that was overthrown by egalitarian peasant revolts in the 19th century. To many Bosnian Serbs (who, until only twenty years ago, were the majority in Bosnia-Herzegovina), creation of a Muslim-led Bosnia inevitably looked like an attempt to restore the ancien régime, dominated by those professing the Muslim faith. SDA leaders maintain close ties with Turkey. Through NATO, Turkey is being brought back into Balkan lands it ruled for 500 years.
Such historical background was of no concern to Holbrooke. Like so many others, he excuses his ignorance of history by dismissing it as inconsequential. The perfect rationalization for this ignorance was provided by the writings of Noel Malcolm, whose books on Bosnia and Kosovo have come along just in time to provide rationalization for anti-Serb positions.11 Malcolm undermined the conventional wisdom that the war was the inevitable result of ancient hatreds, notes Holbrooke gratefully. Thus Holbrooke, executive summary style, replaces one reductionism with another: if the war wasnt inevitable on account of ancient hatreds, it must all be the fault of the Serbs.
With history out of the way, the conflict was judged by images and analogies. Holbrookes account confirms the crucial importance in forming U.S. policy of the famous barbed wire photo exposed by German journalist Thomas Deichmann as deceptive.12 In August 1992, Holbrooke went on a fact-finding mission to Sarajevo to find out about the death camps that have gotten so much publicity. Like other Western fact finders of the period, Holbrooke was apparently totally unaware of the equally dreadful prison camps run by Muslims in and around Sarajevo itself.13 Holbrooke noted in his diary that television pictures rouse the world and are the reason we are here. (p. 36) As a U.N. official observed, a few pictures of people being held behind barbed wire and the world goes crazy.
The term death camps is part of the analogy construction which served to identify Serbs with Nazis. As Holbrooke puts it, ...in the summer of 1992, the world began to see shocking film of emaciated prisoners in northern Bosnia, looking at the unblinking camera through barbed-wire fences, scenes straight out of World War IIyet happening now.
The Nazi analogy dispenses the outsider from even attempting to understand the causes of a conflict and the viewpoints of the various parties, and to search for solutions on that basis. The problem is reduced to the existence of evil which needs to be eradicated. Holbrooke readily concludes that the search for explanations failed. One simply had to recognize that there was pure evil in the world.
But where was this pure evil? Not, apparently, on the Muslim side, even after U.N. troops in Bosnia unearthed a stash of terrorist weapons, including anti-personnel explosive devices disguised as toys, in the possession of Islamic Mujahidin under command of Izetbegovics SDA.14
At one point, Holbrookes Hungarian-born wife Kati Marton worried that her husband might be killed by the Hamas wing of the Serbs. This is pure fantasy, all the more surprising coming from a woman who has published books on political matters. There has never been anything like a Hamas wing of the Serbs.
On the other hand, the fact that Izetbegovics Bosnia actually had become a Mecca for Islamist Mujahidin from all over the Middle East, many of them veterans of Afghanistan, linked to terrorist networks in several countries and violently anti-Western, only provided another motive for the United States to support Izetbegovic, supposedly to weaken his dependence on Iran. The presence of Mujahidin among ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo is producing the same reaction.
In Paris for the December 14 ceremonial signing of the accords, President Clinton
complained to Izetbegovic about the Mujahidin who were lingering on in Bosnia, in
violation of their agreement. Holbrooke recalls: Izetbegovic told the President that
the bulk of such personnel had already left, a statement we knew not to be
Things They Said
In an age in which image is reasserting its supremacy over ideas, all the focus has been on the media image of the protagonists. Their ideas are ignored or distorted. Flagrant double standards have been employed in interpreting statements by Serb or Muslim leaders.
I would sacrifice peace for a sovereign Bosnia-Herzegovina, but for that peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina I would not sacrifice sovereignty, Izetbegovic declared on February 27, 1991.15 At that time, there was peace but no sovereign Bosnia Herzegovina. It was only a year later that, over protests of its
1. See the numerous index references to the United States in: David Owen, Balkan
Odyssey (London: Victor Gollancz, 1995).