|Operation Storm||View other pieces in "The New York Review of Books"|
|By Mark Danner||October 22, 1998|
|Tags: Balkans, Croatia||
Books referred to in this article:
CROATIA: A NATION FORGED IN WAR
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 then,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 Storm” began:
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….
...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. Terror, frank 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, that
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 ground.
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 argued, the 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 written,
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 Vietcong.
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.
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.
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 involvement.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 brutality.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 advisers:
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 did.
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 writes.
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 killed instantly….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.
By mid-September, 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 peace negotiation.”
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 lands.
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. 1.
 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, p. 356.
 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.