Richard Holbrooke’s account of his efforts to bring peace to the Balkans--To End A War--is a candid, detailed, and thoughtful study of the practical challenges diplomats (helped by soldiers and backed-up by policymakers) face in the post-Cold War world.
When what we used to know as Yugoslavia broke up in the early 1990s, violent struggles broke out engaging Croatians, Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Croatians, and the major remaining power in the region, Serbia.
These struggles were as bad as what we now see in Syria and Afghanistan. They pitted neighbors against one another along ethnic and religious lines that had been peaceful for decades, even centuries.
The GHW Bush administration saw these Balkans’ clashes as the first chance for “Europe” to step up during the post-Cold War era and take on a problem in its backyard.
But as Henry Kissinger famously said, if someone could give you “Europe’s” phone number, there would be someone to call. To this day there is no such number.
As a consequence Bill Clinton’s first administration cautiously tip-toed into the breach. Horrors called “ethnic cleansing” occurred, largely perpetrated by Bosnian Serbs against Bosnian Muslims.
In mid-1994 Richard Holbrooke left Germany (where I was one of his senior advisors) for Washington to assume responsibility for European affairs at the State Department. His number one concern was that murky, tortured, foggy, beautiful, violent, mountainous region called “the Balkans.”
The strength of his book, leading to the famous Dayton Accords that put an end to fighting (more or less) in the Balkans, lies in its detailed account of how difficult and dangerous diplomacy can be in the midst of war.
Holbrooke, who died in 2010, was a superb writer (and the best extemporaneous speaker I’ve ever heard). He successfully conveys the nightmarish ups and downs of his shuttle missions through the Balkans leading to the Dayton negotiations. These missions involved deaths, freezing nights in unheated hotels, visits to presidents whose inner office walls were pockmarked with bullet holes, theatrics, temper tantrums, bureaucratic struggles, and a persistent reluctance on the part of the U.N. and to some degree “Europe” to use force--drop bombs--as a way of getting combatants’ attention.
As someone who served as an American diplomat for twenty-five years, I often wonder if Americans know how difficult it is for “Washington” to deal with problems abroad. When foreigners are at each others’ throats--as in Syria or Libya--they don’t want to listen to reason...they want to gain the last inch of land possible before they stop fighting.
Holbrooke was a theatrical man himself. He put on multiple acts all the time, raising and lowering his voice, laughing at himself, bullying others, issuing threats, mocking threats, and drawing on seemingly endless energy to not give in.
He was a humanitarian; and he believed in the U.N.; yet he didn’t hesitate to call for military backup when needed. Did he always get it?
No, this book shows another difficult facet of diplomacy: the State Department doesn’t order the Pentagon around.
In fact, even a man of Holbrooke’s caliber couldn’t always get a seat in the highest councils when key decisions about the Balkans (for which he was responsible) were being made.
There are endless fascinating portraits of Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian leaders in this book. None is better than the picture Holbrooke paints of Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia’s strongman. Milosevic was almost a Balkan Holbrooke when it came to schmoozing, haggling, and playing out discussions for five, ten, or more hours, looking for just a little something that hitherto had eluded him. He prided himself on his English, his knowledge of the U.S., and his ability to sing old pop songs from the Fifties. And in this book, because of the time period covered, he is not portrayed as what he ultimately was revealed to be: a war criminal. In fact, Milosevic’s trial at The Hague went on five years; he defended himself; he medicated himself; and when he was worn out, he took himself off the playing field with a fatal heart attack.
Holbrooke’s effectiveness in bringing about the Dayton Accords revolved around his own talents, his understanding that he had to surround himself with a small group of talented aides, and exceptional support from Warren Christopher, in particular. Bill Clinton made the ultimate decisions, but Holbrooke had Christopher at his side for long decisive encounters that overwhelmed historic animosities and put Bosnia on a new path. I’ve dealt with many secretaries of state. Until I read this book, I never knew how far Christopher would go--just as far as Holbrooke and with more on the line.
At the top of all great public issues, one tends to find just a few men and women. Bureaucracies don’t negotiate peace; bureaucracies tend to perpetuate negotiations forever like the lawyers in Dickens’ Bleak House.
There are lots of stories about Richard Holbrooke that aren’t flattering. In many respects, he brought this upon himself by being a very rough guy to deal with. I won’t dwell on that, however.
The final point I want to make, which is a double-edged sword, was Holbrooke’s constant reference (in this book and elsewhere) to “history.” He was always finding something historical in everything he did and everything he wanted someone else to do. I thought about that this afternoon as I was finishing his book. Part of his emphasis on history had to do with vanity and ego, no question. People at the top are full of vanity and ego, and it’s not always pleasant to be around. But Holbrooke did have a broad strategic vision of how individual pieces constituted the foundation of U.S. foreign policy, which during the last century was (and remains) our relationship with Europe. He was right about the slaughter in the Balkans. That slaughter was an offense to our collective conscience; it represented a virulent nationalism that can spread; it was a challenge to our diplomatic, military, political, and economic skills as peacemakers. If we couldn’t bring peace to the Balkans, ill winds would keep blowing. Was that the history we wanted to pass on? Definitely not.
This is a very good book about diplomacy under the worst conditions with time not on the good guys’ side.
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