By Mark Danner
October 22, 1998
Books referred to in this article:
CROATIA: A NATION FORGED IN WAR
By Marcus Tanner
338 pages, $30.00 (hardcover), $16.00 (paperback)
published by Yale University Press (paper; to be published in November)
TO END A WAR
By Richard Holbrooke
408 pages, $27.95 (hardcover)
published by Random House
LOGAVINA STREET: LIFE AND DEATH IN A SARAJEVO NEIGHBORHOOD
By Barbara Demick and photographs by John Costello
182 pages, $19.95 (hardcover)
published by Andrews and McMeel
YUGOSLAVIA: DEATH OF A NATION
By Laura Silber and Allan Little
403 pages, $12.95 (paperback)
published by Penguin
Standing motionless among their hulking war machines like statues in the
dark, 200,000 Croat soldiers dropped their cigarettes, then clambered into
tanks and trucks and armored personnel carriers and, in a sudden earsplitting
eruption of grating gears, pushed forward into Serb-held Krajina. Thus began,
before dawn on August 4, 1995, "Operation Storm." Within hours
Croat commanders knew their code name had been well chosen; for everywhere
Serb soldiers—40,000 of them, with 400 tanks—retreated, melting
away in the rising August sun. Within little more than a day the red-and-white
checkerboard flag of Croatia was flying once more over the castle high above
the Krajina's "capital" of Knin.
Clogging highways, meantime, more than 150,000 Serbs clinging to tractors
or cars or horse-drawn carts in caravans twenty or thirty or forty miles
long moved over the border into Bosnia in one great wave. The chaotic exodus
was easily the largest single instance of "ethnic cleansing" of
the Yugoslav war. Meantime a triumphant Franjo Tudjman, President of Croatia—who
had publicly invited the Serbs to stay in their houses, assuring them their
persons and property would be protected (if, that is, they had not been
implicated in "war crimes")—said of the Serbs, many of whose
families had lived on and farmed Krajina land for hundreds of years:
They disappeared ignominiously, as if they had never populated
this land. We urged them to stay, but they did not listen to us. Well
As Tudjman spoke, Serb villages burned. In a cable to the State Department,
a US diplomat described his drive though Knin a week after "Operation
The terrain quickly became a surreal mixture of burned or burning
homes,...burned cars, overturned tractors,...castoff clothing and blankets....
Near Knin, virtually all [houses] had suffered some damage....
Croatian soldiers were ubiquitous.... Many were going house
to house in mop-up operations. Others were resting, lounging, and drinking
beer in the yards of the abandoned homes....
...Throughout Knin's homes, food was on the tables, clothing
was hanging on the lines, toys remained outside, and all of the ostensible
signs of life remained, except for the presence of human beings.
The flames the US diplomat observed came not from combat, of which there
had been very little, but from the main political tactic at the heart of
"Operation Storm." A week after the American diplomat drove through
Knin, investigators on a Helsinki Federation Fact-Finding Mission reported
they had found
evidence of systematic destruction and looting of Serbian homes
and community buildings by the Croatian Army (HV), Croatian Civil Police,
civilians and "arson teams"...; conflicting claims from Croatian
authorities concerning civilian casualties, missing persons, and summary
executions; allegations of... suspected mass gravesites....
Even as the Helsinki Federation investigators were
visiting the Krajina, Croatian special operations troops were still hard
...One arson team dressed in military camouflage was operating
an antitank gun and firing tracer and incendiary rounds into homes in
the Bulajusa area...; in the Kistanje area civilian dressed "officials"
with maps were observed pointing at houses, later some buildings were
observed to be burning.... [We also] saw a group of four soldiers moving
in and around buildings along the two main streets.... [Later] smoke began
pouring from behind buildings on the main street....
During the four days of the main assault, one United Nations military observer
told the Helsinki investigator, he had heard "small-arms fire...in
Knin and the surrounding areas around the clock. In his estimation the firing...
occurred in blocks seeming to indicate that [Croat soldiers] were moving
building by building and 'cleaning' out the inhabitants." Croat soldiers,
meantime, were harassing the refugees, in some instances spraying the convoys
with automatic weapons fire.
Barely four years
before, in these very towns and villages, Serbs—native Serbs formed
in militias reinforced by Yugoslav People's Army troops and various paramilitary
forces—had "cleansed" the land of their Croat neighbors by
first shelling them for hours or days to "soften them up," and
then by sending in paramilitary shock troops to loot, torture, rape, and
murder those who remained.
and implacable, lay at the heart of Serb ethnic cleansing, both here in
the Krajina and later in Bosnia.
Though they killed many, the Croats in their counterattack four years later
relied on a more subtle strategy. First, Croat troops shelled villages and
towns, in order (as a Croatian colonel serving as an information officer
helpfully explained) "specifically to create a disorganized, mass panic
and exodus of Serbs." Then waves of assault troops surged into town
and looted stores and houses, followed quickly by militiamen come to pick
the carcass clean.
When Serbs who had refused to join the caravans dared peep out of their
windows, they saw a hellish scene: bodies lying here and there in the streets,
dozens of burning houses, smashed storefronts, and everywhere "soldiers
driving civilian vehicles without license plates loaded with goods from
both houses and stores." Not surprisingly, as these Serbs told the
Helsinki investigators, "when they saw the damage from the burning
and looting..., the majority of [them] decided they want[ed] to leave."
According to many reports, Serbs who still had not reached this decision
were helped along by Croat troops, who surrounded the houses of those who,
because they were old or infirm, had stayed behind, and burned the houses
down, sometimes with the residents locked inside.
And so in a mere four days, the great crescent of land known as the Krajina,
the land where in the summer of 1991 the Yugoslav wars had truly begun—where
the resident Serbs, backed by the Yugoslav People's Army, had seized power
in village after village, murdered or expelled the Croat inhabitants, and
declared independence from Croatia—had not only been reconquered but
cleansed of the Serbs whose families had in many cases lived there since
the sixteenth century, when they had been invited by the Austrians, who
offered them free land to farm in exchange for their creating a military
"borderland" (or Krajina
) intended to protect the Christian
West from the Ottoman Turks.
In four days, this Krajina had vanished; Croatia had become an ethnically
"pure" state. And though Tudjman went on intimating that the Serbs
might someday return, it was clear, as Marcus Tanner writes in his fine
study, Croatia: A Nation Forged in War
the departure of the Serbs from the Krajina
was as final as the flight of the Greeks from Asia Minor in 1921, the
Germans from Bohemia and Poland after the Second World War or the pieds
noirs from Algeria in 1961. After demanding all, they had lost all.
After four years of ruling what
he considered two thirds of a state, Tudjman had at last solved his so-called
nationalities problem, "purifying" his land. Bedraggled Serbs,
moving in a panicked flood over the border into Bosnia, would go where
Slobo-dan Milosevic's Yugoslav government directed them—to Vojvodina,
to the Sanzjak, to Kosovo, all regions in need of Serb "repopulating."
Tens of thousands of Serbs were still on the road, pushing forward slowly
on their brutal exodus—and providing a horrifying spectacle of suffering
for the world's television screens—when Madeleine Albright, US representative
to the United Nations, came before the Security Council and presented
photographs, attributed to "aerial intelligence"—spy satellites
or U2 planes—showing scenes from the massacre at Srebrenica three
weeks before. According to Albright, the photographs—which showed,
among other scenes, six hundred men under guard in a field one day, and
then, several days later, in the same field, large plots of disturbed
earth which appeared to be mass graves—were not discovered by American
intelligence officers until the week before. Now the UN ambassadors were
"startled," "shocked," and "appalled" by
them—and immediately found themselves in a distinctly less sympathetic
mood toward Serbs, wherever they were from and whether they had lost their
homes or not.
On the other side of the world, meantime, high American officials followed
closely the Krajina exodus and expressed their regret. "We certainly
didn't want this to happen, we didn't urge it," declared Secretary
of State Warren Christopher, speaking from Hanoi, where he was overseeing
the normalization of United States relations with Vietnam. On the other
hand, Christopher went on, "the facts may possibly give rise to a
new strategic situation that may turn out to be to our advantage."
More specifically, "maybe these circumstances, tragic as they are,
will provide a new basis for a negotiated settlement. We're going to be
working on it."
Shortly before Croat soldiers and tanks and artillery surged into the
Krajina, Peter Galbraith, US ambassador in Zagreb, visited President Tudjman
in his grandiose office and handed him a formal message from the American
government. "We are concerned," the diplomatic note said in
part, "that you are preparing for an offensive in sector south and
north...." Reading this for reporters later Tudjman would laugh that
"obviously [the Americans'] secret service didn't let them down."
Tudjman was not only ridiculing the diplomatic language. Of course the
Americans were thoroughly aware of his plans; not only had Galbraith known
for days an attack was imminent, but several retired US generals were
actually retraining the Croat army and would have been well aware of the
preparations for such a large operation. Tudjman was also making it clear
that he understood that his American sponsors were not quite as firm,
or as unified, as they tried to make him believe. As Richard Holbrooke
writes in an important passage of his powerful memoir, To End a War
The Croatian offensive proved to be a
wedge issue that divided not only Americans and Europeans, but the top
echelons of the American government itself. Most officials saw these military
thrusts as simply another chapter in the dreary story of fighting and
bloodshed in the region. They felt that the duty of our diplomacy was
to put a stop to the fighting, regardless of what was happening on the
That American diplomats should strive
merely to "put a stop to the fighting," whatever its implications—whoever,
that is, might be winning—would place American strategy firmly
beside that of the United Nations or, more properly, beside those Western
allies whose soldiers were serving in Bosnia under the UN's blue and
white flag. If American leaders had adopted as their goal simply to
stop the fighting as quickly as possible—a policy that could be
translated as "peace at any price," and would naturally favor
the heretofore victorious Serbs—then they would have effectively
abandoned not only any notion of justice, in particular justice for
the Bosnians, who had suffered and lost by far the most in the war.
They would also have lost any chance of creating a vigorous new policy,
which was to be Holbrooke's brief. "For me," writes the former
assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs,
the success of the Croatian...offensive
was a classic illustration of the fact that the shape of the diplomatic
landscape will usually reflect the balance of forces on the ground.
This is a fair summary of the Realpolitik vision
that Holbrooke would carry forward into his negotiations: if a map that
all sides would accept (given the careful application of American pressure)
were to be one of the ultimate and necessary results of any negotiations,
then a good part of that map had to be written on the ground, in blood.
If the solution of Holbrooke and the NATO allies who agreed with him envisioned
a roughly equal division of territory between the Bosnian Serbs, on the
one hand, and the Bosnian Croats and Muslims on the other (49 percent for
the former and 51 percent for the latter was the formula of the then-current
"Contact Group" proposal), and if the Serbs held almost 70 percent
of the territory, as they did before the Croat invasion of the Krajina,
then some means had to be found to reduce their holdings before negotiations
could have any chance to work.
As it happened,
for some time Clinton officials had been doing much to provide Croatia and
Bosnia with those means. In March 1994, American diplomats had brought Bosnian
Croats and Muslims together to sign the "Washington Agreement,"
which envisioned an eventual confederal arrangement with Croatia but which,
in the months to come, made it possible to ensure a greater flow of arms
to the Bosnians. From each shipment of weapons, the Croats, over whose territory
they passed, would skim off their portion, taking for their army a good
part of the artillery and other heavy weapons that the Bosnians were so
desperate to have.
Meanwhile Tudjman poured his hard currency—most came from foreign tourists
lounging on Croatian beaches while the Croatian army fought its way forward
up north—into replenishing his arsenals, buying liberally from Eastern
European states. He also, through his defense minister, Gojko Susak, appealed
to US Defense Department officials to supply him with direct military aid;
and although the then deputy secretary of defense, John Deutsch, explained
that the current arms embargo prevented this, he did suggest that Susak
contact a private American military consultant. By September 1994, with
the blessings of the State Department, the Croats had signed a contract
with Military Professional Resources, Inc., a consulting firm based in Alexandria,
Virginia, and made up of retired high-ranking American military officers,
including former Army Chief of Staff General Carl Vuono and former director
of the Defense Intelligence Agency General Ed Soyster.
Although the American officers were supposedly confining their instruction
of officers at the Petar Zrinski Military Academy near Zagreb to a "Democracy
Transition Program," many observers noted that in its design Tudjman's
"Operation Storm" seemed to bear striking resemblances to current
American military doctrine, in particular the set of tactics known as AirLand
Battle 2000, in whose development General Vuono, an artillery expert, had
a key part. Although General Soyster denied that he or his colleagues had
had any involvement in Croat military planning—"We are there only
to re-orient the officers in accordance with democratic principles,"
he told Stern
. "Our only weapon is the blackboard"—others
were more blunt. "The group acting in Zagreb," a German-based
US Army officer told the Stern
reporter, "is discussing... organization
and engagement of the armed forces."
Moreover, as a writer in the Zagreb-based weekly Globus
evidence was clear for anyone who examined the attack:
The tactics of the Croatian army in the operation resembled
the AirLand 2000 doctrine to a degree, particularly in the coordinated
actions of the army and the [air force] as well as the systematic targeting
of the enemy's command and communication posts. The Croats also preferred
quick and powerful attacks....
However much the Croats might have drawn on American instruction to stage
their attack, Holbrooke makes it clear that active American officers in
the Pentagon opposed it, as did many in the "intelligence community,"
believing that any Croat offensive was sure to draw in the regular Serb
army of Slobodan Milosevic and thus greatly widen the war.
In fact, Milosevic sat on his hands, as Tudjman had argued he would; and
now, after seizing the Krajina, the Croats went on pressing their advantage,
joining with the Bosnians to push the Serbs back in northwestern Bosnia.
Still Milosevic did nothing. Even so, according to Holbrooke, "Washington"
still argued that the Croats should desist. When one member of Holbrooke's
team put this view to Tudjman during a lunch in Zagreb on August 17, Robert
Frasure, the former special envoy, passed Holbrooke a note:
Dick: We "hired" these guys [the Croats] to be our
junkyard dogs because we were desperate.... This is no time to get squeamish
about things. This is the first time the Serb wave has been reversed.
That is essential for us to get stability, so we can get out.
"Stability" meant a more balanced map, which in turn meant Serb
defeats. Holbrooke and Frasure were "desperate" because they were
convinced they could only defeat the Serbs and attain a near balance of
territory by making use of the forces available to them on the ground. But
in an indication of how confused US policy on Bosnia remained in the summer
of 1995, Holbrooke notes that this view, that of the lead negotiator,
was not accepted by most of our Washington colleagues, especially
the military and the CIA, which still feared, and predicted, a military
response from the regular Yugoslav Army.
It speaks well for Holbrooke, whose aspirations to return to a high position
in government are well known,
that he repeatedly, and incisively,
criticizes both the US military and the US intelligence agencies. In addressing
the role of the US military in making policy on Bosnia—a central subject
that has thus far received far less attention than it should have—Holbrooke
points again and again to Vietnam, to the so-called Vietmalia effect, to
the way Vietnam haunts US military officers. He quotes from the memoirs
of Colin Powell, the officer who had done so much to restrain American policy
in Bosnia early in the war, when the options were broader and the risks
of intervention less grave. "Many of my generation," Powell had
the career captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels seasoned
in that war, vowed that when our turn came to call the shots, we would
not quietly acquiesce in half-hearted warfare for half-baked reasons that
the American people could not understand or support.
The general kept his vow: in 1991, when the Bush administration could have
limited the fighting in Croatia and likely headed off the war in Bosnia
entirely by attacking the Serbs with warplanes and gunboats, Powell strongly
opposed it, claiming, both privately and publicly, that any effective involvement
would require hundreds of thousands of troops. In 1995, when his successors
were confronted with the question of whether to encourage the Croats to
retake the Krajina, or, later, whether to support them and the Bosnians
when they were fighting together to retake Serb-conquered land in Bosnia,
or whether, finally, to send NATO warplanes to attack the Serbs, many in
the military and intelligence agencies were against taking action in each
case, arguing stubbornly that it would bring only a wider war. They refused
to acknowledge, as Holbrooke says, that
Bosnia was different, and so were our objectives. While we had
to learn from Vietnam, we could not be imprisoned by it. Bosnia was not
Vietnam, the Bosnian Serbs were not the Vietcong, and Belgrade was not
Hanoi. The Bosnian Serbs, poorly trained bullies and criminals, would
not stand up to...air strikes the way the seasoned and indoctrinated Vietcong
and North Vietnamese had. And, as we had seen in the Krajina, Belgrade
was not going to back the Bosnian Serbs up the way Hanoi had backed the
By the end of the summer of 1995 everyone in the
American government and in the Serbs' mountain capital of Pale would finally
have learned that lesson.
"History," Holbrooke writes, "is often made of seemingly
disparate events whose true relationship to one another becomes apparent
only after the fact." Nowhere can one see this better demonstrated
than in Bosnia during July and August of 1995, when Clinton administration
officials were finally deciding, after three years, that they had no choice
but to act forcefully to end the fighting there.
Bill Clinton had been elected in 1992 declaring
that "ethnic cleansing cannot stand"—a ringing statement
that could only mean one thing: any solution in Bosnia must have at its
heart the return to the victims of what they had lost. The one hundred
thousand or more dead Muslims could not be brought back; but the land—the
land that had been so odiously "cleansed"—the land could
be restored. Challenging the hapless George Bush, who spent the first
critical years of the Yugoslav wars frozen in a position of paralyzed
Realpolitik—"We ain't got no dog in this fight"
had been Secretary of State James Baker's pronouncement on Yugoslavia—Bill
Clinton demanded justice. And as the idealistic and bold foreign policy
slogan of an untried Southern governor fighting an election against the
"foreign policy president," it proved to be brilliant politics.
Unfortunately for the desperate Bosnians, behind Clinton's eloquent words
was...nothing: no policy, no planning—no there there. "The policy
was decided during one conference call" in August 1992, one member
of the campaign told me.
I said, Don't make this commitment that you're never going to
keep. But Tony Lake [soon to be Clinton's national security adviser] was
completely wrapped up in the moral righteousness of this idea, and he
had no idea of what it would take to move the country to do this.
Clinton, on taking office in 1993, was immediately confronted by what it
would take. Cyrus Vance and David Owen were visiting Washington to promote
their peace plan, the last such proposal that could have kept Bosnia together
as an integral, if cantonized, state; but to put the Vance-Owen plan into
effect, the new president would have had to send American troops to Bosnia.
Dick Morris, at the time perhaps Clinton's most trusted political adviser,
put the case squarely to him:
You don't want to be Lyndon Johnson...sacrificing your potential
for doing good on the domestic front by a destructive, never-ending foreign
To a man who had run on the informal slogan of "It's the economy, stupid!"
Morris's argument prevailed easily. When Warren Christopher met with Vance,
his old mentor, the new secretary of state appeared not to be familiar with
the most basic elements of the peace plan. Disdainful Clinton officials
quickly made it clear in leaks to journalists that the new administration
would be having none of the Vance-Owen plan: in helping the Bosnians, it
"did not," they let it be known, "go far enough."
Thus began Bill
Clinton's own policy of paralysis in the Balkans; but where George Bush
had been forthright Clinton was hypocritical, and, for the now hopeful Bosnians,
ruinously so. It was not only that he effectively helped to undermine a
promising diplomatic proposal without putting anything else workable in
its place. It was that Clinton pledged to right a terrible wrong but refused
to make the commitment of men and money necessary to do so. As Bush had
before him, Clinton vowed that he would never send American ground troops
to Bosnia, while insisting doggedly that NATO warplanes should bomb the
Serbs—a proposal European allies, who did have troops on the
ground, vulnerable troops escorting "humanitarian convoys" under
the United Nations flag—could be counted on to block.
Paralysis led finally to humiliation. By July 1995, when General Ratko Mladic
and his Bosnian Serbs swept unopposed into the UN-guaranteed "safe
area" of Srebrenica and, virtually before the eyes of Dutch troops,
massacred more than 7000 Bosnian men, there was, in Holbrooke's words,
no more energy left in the international system. Everywhere
one turned, there was a sense of confusion in the face of Bosnian Serb
Days later, as allied officials met in London, General Mladic was besieging
Zepa, a second "safe area" nearby; the allies drew "a line
in the sand" at Gorazde, a third "safe area," thereby abandoning
Zepa, which Mladic promptly seized. After murdering many of Zepa's men,
including the Bosnian commander (whom he had invited to his headquarters
on the pretext of discussing surrender), Mladic turned his sights on the
Bihac pocket, thus directly threatening Croatia. This led Tudjman—who
had now recognized the true worth of international guarantees—to prepare
his own offensive, first in Bihac then in the Krajina itself.
Even as the Croats were getting ready to launch "Operation Storm,"
sixty-nine US senators voted for Robert Dole's resolution to lift the arms
embargo on Bosnia—and thereby ensured the Republican from Kansas a
veto-proof margin. With a presidential election coming soon, the Senate,
in the person of President Clinton's likely rival, threatened to take Bosnia
policy away from the White House. Elizabeth Drew quotes one of Clinton's
He was about to lose control of foreign policy on a fundamental
issue.... The passage of the Dole bill made the President and others more
aware of the political danger, that Congress could do real damage to American
foreign policy, and of the problems presented by Presidential politics—meaning
Dole. The fall of Srebrenica sent ten to fifteen senators across the line.
Britain and France set up the rapid reaction force. The administration
knew it had to get back on the offensive."
Clinton officials knew as well that many European leaders
treated their newly formed "rapid reaction force," with its
tanks and heavy artillery, less as a means to protect convoys of troops
than as an instrument to cover their soldiers' early retreat from Bosnia.
Even now President Jacques Chirac, whose election had added much forcefulness
to French policy, was calling for aggressive action to retake Srebrenica
and to reinforce Gorazde, the last surviving "safe area"; failing
that, he vowed to bring his men home: "We can't imagine that the
UN force will remain only to observe," he declared, "and to
be, in a way, accomplices in the situation. If that is the case, it is
better to withdraw."
If the Europeans decided to withdraw their troops, however—and it
seemed that Chirac and Major and the others might well reach such a decision
before the end of the summer—President Clinton would find himself
obliged, possibly just before the American election, to send American
troops to Bosnia to help extract the allied forces. The President had
agreed to take on this obligation without fully understanding its implications;
and Clinton security officials, in an astonishing feat of incompetence,
had stood by while planners at NATO headquarters duly drew up and then
approved a plan—OpPlan 40-014—that not only pledged 20,000 American
ground troops but required them to take part in dangerous nighttime heliborne
operations sure to bring with them significant numbers of casualties.
No senior official had seen fit to question this plan, or even to brief
the commander in chief on it—he had learned its full implications
only in mid-June of 1995—and now if President Clinton refused to
honor his promise he risked doing irrevocable damage to America's relations
with its allies.
With an election approaching President Clinton was caught in a vise. Shortly
after the Croats triumphed in the Krajina in August, producing in a few
days 150,000 new victims of "ethnic cleansing," the President
declared that he was "hopeful that Croatia's offensive will turn
out to be something that will give us an avenue to a quick diplomatic
solution." Bill Clinton had traveled a long way from his slogan "ethnic
cleansing cannot stand." But things had at last become clear: there
would be no more talk about what the United States would or would not
do; one way or another America wanted to put an end to the war.
By undertaking his vast bloodletting in Srebrenica, General Mladic had
not only shocked the world and deeply humiliated the leaders of the West.
He had "solved" one of the "problems of the map."
Even before Mladic conquered Srebrenica, said Sandy Vershbow, then in
charge of Bosnia policy on the National Security Council staff, its future
seemed pretty gloomy. We were already then considering that
some kind of swap for at least the smaller of the eastern enclaves for
more territory would be wise.
Ethnic cleansing itself would now help ensure the Americans "a quick
diplomatic solution"—an agreement on territory providing, in the
words of Tony Lake (the arch-idealist at the time the "ethnic cleansing
cannot stand" policy was formed) that rather than draw the lines in
Bosnia in a "higgedly-piggedly way" that might make sense according
to where the current populations actually lived, the Americans must "do
what we could to have a territory that was as simplified as possible."
To "simplify their territory" had been—for different reasons,
of course—the desire of the Serbs as well.
Thus when Lake met his old friend and rival Holbrooke in London on August
12 for a "hand-off meeting"—Lake had just briefed the Europeans
on the Americans' new plan to end the war, and Holbrooke would now take
over the actual negotiating—he had included in the proposal he had
shown the Europeans the suggestion that the Americans abandon Gorazde, the
last of the eastern enclaves whose "safety" leaders in the United
Nations Security Council had guaranteed two years before. The source of
that suggestion was clear. "The Pentagon," Holbrooke writes, "insisted
it would not defend enclaves and slivers of land if it were called upon
later to implement a peace agreement." That the idea that such an abandonment—which,
less than a month after the massacres at Srebrenica and Zepa, would have
created another 40,000 Muslim refugees from Gorazde—could have been
included in an initial American proposal is almost grotesque. Bosnian leaders
would certainly have rejected this proposal out of hand, as Holbrooke rightly
As the world soon learned,
Holbrooke's first negotiating trip to Sarajevo was interrupted by a horrible
accident on the treacherous Mount Igman road, which he and his team had
been forced to travel because General Mladic would not guarantee their safety
if they flew into the capital. An armored personnel carrier tumbled off
the road and down a hillside, and ammunition stored within exploded, killing
three senior officials. This accident, of which Holbrooke gives a horrific
and moving account, may well be considered one of his "seemingly disparate
events," for it had the effect, he says, of "steeling" the
will of senior American officials on Bosnia, leaving them determined to
push for a solution. And given the evident confusion and disagreements that
had paralyzed US policy up to then, this in effect meant placing more power
in Holbrooke's hands.
The last of those "seemingly disparate events," however, Holbrooke
owed to the Serbs, who on August 28, 1995, lofted into Sarajevo's Marshal
Tito Boulevard a number of 120-millimeter mortar shells. Landing within
sight of Markela Marketplace, where sixty-eight people had died in a famous
mortar attack in 1994, the shells dismembered thirty-seven Sarajevans. That
day residents of Logavina Street, the subject of Barbara Demick's beautifully
rendered portrait of Sarajevo during the war, were hit particularly hard.
"Five people in the immediate neighborhood were killed," Demick
Merima Ziga, 42, a legal secretary...was feeling ill and left
work to see a doctor. Heading down Marshal Tito at midday, she walked
directly into the trajectory of an incoming 120-mm mortar shell and was
Adnan Ibrahimagic, 17, was supposed to have left town the Friday before
to join his mother in Vienna. He had balked at the last minute, declaring
to the neighbors, "I can't live without Sarajevo." And so it was
that on Monday, he went downtown with a friend to pick up a take-out lunch
of Sarajevo's cevapcici at a shop across from the market hall. Adnan
ended up featured in the most widely published photograph of the massacre,
a poster boy for genocide.
The gruesome picture showed his skinny teen-age body, dead,
slumped over a railing outside the cevapcici shop. His friend,
16-year-old Dario Glouhi, had both his legs amputated in an attempt by
surgeons to save his life. He died anyway.
Holbrooke, who had just arrived in Paris for talks with Bosnian leaders,
saw the implications of the mortar attack with great clarity: "The
brutal stupidity of the Bosnian Serbs had given us an unexpected last chance
to do what should have been done three years earlier. I told [Strobe Talbott,
at that moment acting secretary of state] to start NATO air strikes against
the Bosnian Serbs—not minor retaliatory 'pinpricks,' but a serious
and, if possible, sustained air campaign."
It had been the key issue of the war, whether or not to initiate such a
"sustained air campaign." Now the entire cacophony of officials
with a voice in Bosnia—American, European, Bosnian, United Nations—could
be heard. Holbrooke's account of the means by which hundreds of NATO warplanes
were at last launched against the Bosnian Serbs, four years after the war's
outset, is fascinating and provocative. "As our negotiations gathered
momentum," he writes,
almost everyone came to believe that the bombing had been part
of a master plan. But in fact in none of the discussions prior to our
mission had we considered bombing as part of a negotiating strategy. Lake
himself never mentioned it during his trip to Europe, and in private he
had shown great ambivalence toward it. The military was more than skeptical;
most were opposed.... It took an outrageous Bosnian Serb action to trigger
Operation Deliberate Force—but once launched it made a huge difference.
This last, of course, is an understatement, for the NATO warplanes not only
"moved" the negotiations forward, they also did much to redraw
the map itself. During two weeks beginning at the end of August, NATO pilots
flew 3400 sorties, destroying Serb antiaircraft batteries, radar sites,
ammunition depots, command bunkers, bridges. Meanwhile the Croats and Bosnians
pressed their combined attacks in northwest Bosnia, conquering town after
town. Indeed, NATO planes had in effect become the Croatian and Bosnian
air force, ensuring that they would succeed, in just over two weeks, in
changing the balance of power in Bosnia. By the end of September—less
than three months after Tudjman launched his "Operation Storm"—the
Serbs had lost enough territory to bring their holdings from 70 percent
to not more than half, about what was envisaged in the Contact Group plan.
In view of the central role of the bombing, and Holbrooke's dogged personal
advocacy of it since he joined the administration, his comment—that
"in none of the discussions prior to our mission had we considered
bombing as part of a negotiating strategy"—seems a bit peculiar,
and his assertion that "Lake himself never mentioned it during his
trip to Europe" is simply not credible. For three years the issue of
NATO air strikes had been central in American disagreements with Europeans
over Bosnia. How could Lake, the President's envoy bringing a new and "comprehensive"
peace plan, "never mention it"?
More interesting is Holbrooke's treatment of the other "players"
in arriving at the decision to bomb. From the beginning, Strobe Talbott
considered a strong military response "essential." The President,
meantime, vacationing in Wyoming, passed word to "hit them hard."
And, in another of Holbrooke's "seemingly disparate ele-ments,"
UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who could be expected to oppose
all air strikes, happened to be in flight on a commercial aircraft and unreachable,
and thus his then deputy, Kofi Annan, found himself in charge, and, earning
the administration's considerable gratitude, "instructed the UN's civilian
officials and military commanders to relinquish for a limited period of
time their authority to veto air strikes in Bosnia." (Holbrooke says
that Annan "won the job [of secretary general] on that day.")
In any event, the one UN military commander who could be counted on to block
the bombing, General Bernard Janvier, happened to be absent from his command
as well, and in this case "the key" passed to Lieutenant General
Rupert Smith of Great Britain, not only a determined believer in bombing
but an officer who had actually sent NATO planes to attack the Serbs three
months before. General Smith took action that was critical to making bombing
possible. He moved quickly to clear remaining UN troops from exposed positions
where Serbs might take them hostage—in particular, he succeeded in
withdrawing the last of the British soldiers from Gorazde, without alerting
Serb commanders. He also prepared an artillery attack to coincide with the
air strikes in order to suppress Serb cannon and mortar fire.
Holbrooke, though he acknowledges earlier that General Smith "had tried
to put a more muscular policy into effect," gives the British general
no credit for making way for the air strikes—the "last British
troops had been removed from the Gorazde enclave just before the bombing
began," he writes, as if it happened by coincidence. In doing so he
mischaracterizes an important part of the history leading up to the bombing.
Instead, he describes himself furiously working the telephones during a
dinner party at Pamela Harriman's US Embassy in Paris—a wonderful scene,
true, and obviously irresistible to the memoirist, but one that gives an
emphasis that is not entirely true to the facts.
Washington officials were pressing once more, privately and publicly, for
the Croats and Bosnians to halt their offensives. Ambassador Galbraith was
ordered to deliver an official message to the Croatian defense minister
urging the Croats to stop their military advances. But the US government
was divided, and Holbrooke and his team, with their eyes always on the map,
pressed the Croats and Bosnians to keep going. According to Holbrooke, intelligence
"experts" in Washington (the quotation marks are his) had once
again miscalculated the situation on the ground, assuming that with each
Croat and Bosnian victory on the battlefield Milosevic was coming closer
to sending his regular Yugoslav Army to intervene—and thus the message
from Washington, as an unnamed official told The New York
Times, was "quit while you're ahead."
While administration officials went on making blunt public statements that
they wanted the fighting halted, Holbrooke never had, he says, "a clear
instruction" to that effect. And meanwhile the negotations continued
while the bombs fell and the Croats and Bosnians pushed back the Serbs.
On September 17, Holbrooke sat down with President Tudjman and told him
frankly that "the offensive had great value to the negotiations."
It would be much easier to retain at the table what had been
won on the battlefield than to get the Serbs to give up territory they
had controlled for several years. I urged Tudjman to take Sanski Most,
Prijedor, and Bosanski Novi—all important towns that had become worldwide
symbols of ethnic cleansing. If they were captured before we opened negotiations
on territory, they would remain under Federation control—otherwise
it would be difficult to regain them in a negotiation.
But a critical decision lay ahead. Even as the two men spoke, the road to
Banja Luka lay open before the Croat armies: Banja Luka, the largest city
in Bosnian Serbia—the heart of "Republika Srpska"—and
the city where the Serbs had not only raped and tortured and murdered thousands
of Muslims, as elsewhere, but had forced them to wear white armbands, like
the yellow stars of the Jews. By his own account, Holbrooke told Tudjman
bluntly, "Mr. President, I urge you to go as far as you can, but not
to take Banja Luka." The reasons? Capturing the city "would generate
over two hundred thousand additional [Bosnian Serb] refugees," and,
more tellingly, "the city was unquestionably within the Serb portion
of Bosnia [and] the Federation would have to return it to the Serbs in any
If one had to pick a moment where Bill Clinton and his officials—where
America, under their leadership—chose between supporting peace or supporting
justice in the Balkans, it would be here, during this conversation between
a senior American diplomat and President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia. For
at this moment, very briefly, two roads lay open: one of those roads, the
road around Banja Luka, which Richard Holbrooke dutifully urged on
Tudjman, would leave in place Republika Srpska—Bosnian Serbia—and
in doing so would make necessary a final map in which, as Holbrooke says,
there would be a "Serb portion of Bosnia." This solution—the
"51-49 percent solution"—was already "on the table,"
a product of negotiations conducted among the "Contact Group"—the
United States, the Europeans, and the Russians. It could well bring peace
to Bosnia but doubtless little justice.
Another solution presented itself to Tudjman and Holbrooke as they sat in
the Croat's Presidential Palace, in the Louis Quinze chairs. This was the
conquest of Banja Luka and with it the destruction of Republika Srpska—the
destruction of General Mladic, Radovan Karadzic, and the other sinister
ideologists of ethnic cleansing—and the reconstruction of some sort
of integral Bosnia. Shattered as it was by NATO bombs, ignored by its godfather,
Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, the Serb Republic of Bosnia could not
survive the loss of its largest city.
For the United States, the risks of such a course (not just the refugees,
or the possibility that Milosevic might finally feel forced to move his
troops, but the greater involvement it would demand of America in building
a new state) would have been great, and the responsibility heavy. In the
event, Holbrooke, as talented a diplomat as the US has, pushed for what
his president had demanded, and what his instincts required: the "quick
diplomatic solution." And for Holbrooke, of course, as his fine and
provocative book shows us, the solution would not be quick but arduous and
demanding and his skills at Dayton and after would be rightly praised.
As part of his
Dayton agreement, Holbrooke managed to include some of the benefits a conquest
of Banja Luka might have brought. Mladic and Karadzic, or so it was agreed,
would be sent to an international tribunal and tried and punished as war
criminals. So would many other of the less well known villains of the war.
And, above all, the refugees would be allowed to return home, no matter
what part of Bosnia they came from. Even if the agreement might seem to
rest upon a quasi partition, Muslims would still be able to return to their
houses in the Serb entity, just as Serbs would be free to resettle in Federation
Though Holbrooke inserted within the broad lineaments of the Dayton agreement—an
agreement that in outline looks very much like ethnic partition—this
liberal vision of peace and justice, that vision has remained until now
mostly inert. Mladic and Karadzic live freely as do many other war criminals;
very few refugees have returned. Though Western—and among them, American—troops
occupy the land, they have been unwilling to do much in the service of this
part of Holbrooke's vision.
When Holbrooke writes that one of the critics of his diplomacy has "confused
the Dayton agreement with the way it has been implemented"—as
if these were two separate entities, with two separate realities—one
wonders whether he ever thinks back to that moment when Banja Luka lay open
to the armies that could have seized it and might have brought to Bosnia
a very different future. Only by examining how Americans finally "brought
peace to Bosnia" can we hope to suggest an answer.
This is the ninth in a series of articles.
Quoted in Marcus Tanner, Croatia: A Nation Forged in War, p. 299.
 See "THE AFTERMATH OF THE KRAJINA CONFLICT: A VISIT TO KNIN,"
declassified reporting cable from the US Embassy, Zagreb, August 14, 1995.
See Report to the OSCE: The International Helsinki Federation for Human
Rights Fact-Finding Mission to the Krajina, August 17-19, 1995, p.
For an account of the Serb assault on the Krajina and the break from Croatia,
see my article, "America and the Bosnia Genocide," The New
York Review, December 4, 1997, the second article of this series.
Quoted in Laura Silber and Allan Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation,
 See Ed Vulliamy,
The Guardian, February 1, 1996.
See Stern, August 17, 1995.
See Igor Alborghetti, Globus, October 20, 1995.
As I write, his nomination to become US representative to the United Nations
has been announced by President Clinton but has not yet been formally
submitted to the Senate.
See Colin Powell, with Joseph E. Persico, My American Journey (Random
House, 1995), p. 149. For a consideration of Powell's influence on American
policy in Bosnia, see my article "America and the Bosnia Genocide."
See Behind the Oval Office: Winning the Presidency in the Nineties
(Random House, 1997), p. 253.
See Showdown (Simon andSchuster, 1996), p. 252.
See Silber and Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, p. 352.
Silber and Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, p. 352.