Book Review: R. Holbrooke — To End A War

Leiden, Non. Oct. MMDCCLXVIII A.U.C.,

“The road emerged from the woods and reached a steep incline above the Sarajevo valley, where, hugging the mountain wall, it suddenly narrowed. On our left was a nearly vertical wall, to our right a sharp drop-off. […] As we approached the last French tank, we saw a soldier yelling and gesturing, […]. I jumped out of the Humvee to help, but couldn’t quite grasp what the French soldier was saying, something about a vehicle behind us going over the edge of the road. I thought that I had misunderstood him. Behind us was — nothing. I signaled Clark to join me. The Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) must be far behind us. Then it hit me. Clark and I ran back about thirty yards. About six inches of red clay seemed to have broken off the edge of the roadbed. We could hear voices in the woods below, but we saw nothing except a few flattened trees. Somewhere below us lay the APC with our colleagues.”

It was in this way that Richard Holbrooke lost three colleagues, while trying to reach Sarajevo to meet the Bosniak leadership. It is also the main event in the first chapter of Holbrooke’s memoirs on his time as Assistant Secretary of State, leading up to the Dayton Agreement, which settled the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. What makes this book truly remarkable is that it seemingly effortlessly blends insightful analysis of Bosnia’s problems and explanation of the USA’s strategy with personal anecdotes and emotions. The book moves beyond pure analysis or a dry and boring time line, it makes the events come to life in an impressive way.

While the Dayton Agreement faced a lot of criticism, it did put an end to the Bosnian civil war in November 1995. This can really be seen as a major achievement of the negotiating team. As Holbrooke tells, first of all, the USA had to content with its own NATO allies, who were unwilling to intervene, yet typically afraid to lose face if the USA showed its capability to solve a crisis in Europe’s own backyard. Second of all, there were the domestic difficulties, it was not always easy to muster domestic support for the strategy Holbrooke had in mind. It was a mortar attack on Sarajevo by the Bosnian Serbs, which killed 38 civilians, that gave him the opportunity to get the US Air Force to initiate a sustained air strike campaign that would cripple the Bosnian Serb military. It allowed the Croats to gain quite some territory, which put the Bosnian Serb leadership under even more stress. Together with the sanctions against Serbia, the air strikes forced Milosevic to negotiate on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs with the Americans.

Third of all, it turned out to be extremely difficult to get the Bosniaks to negotiate with the Serbs. While they clearly wanted a multi-ethnic Bosnia, on the details they were less clear. Unsurprisingly the Bosnian president argued for a strong presidency, while the prime-minister favoured a powerful prime-minister, so it was unclear what the Bosniaks themselves wanted. Lastly, there were of course the quite legitimate issues which the parties had to agree upon before Bosnia and Herzegovina could become as a unified country at peace. Which part of the country should fall under which constituent part of the Republic? Should a central bank be founded and a single currency be issued? What are the responsibilities of the Republic, and which of the constituent parts? These questions are touch ones to answer even in peaceful democracies (as I discussed some weeks ago), leave alone after a bloody 3.5 year war.

All in all the book gives a great overview of the complexity of the Bosnian war, and the multidimensionality of such a conflict and providing a sustainable solution to it. It shows how the US negotiating team tried to achieve the best possible agreement outcome, knowing fully well the final document had major flaws. It shows how actors use information to further their own goals, both information about the specifics of the Bosnian war, but also information about non-related events, such as the Vietnam war, which could teach them about conflict settlement. As Holbrooke said: “There will be other Bosnias in our lives, different in every detail, but similar in an overriding manner: they will originate in distant and ill-understood places, explode with little warning, and present the rest of the world with difficult choices — choices between risky involvement and potentially costly neglect.” I guess we know which places these are, Libya, Syria and Yemen, to name but a few.


Bottom Line: If you want to know more about diplomacy, and the mess that we call international politics, this book is well worth the read. Doubly so because it portrays all the actors as human beings, with both emotions and strategizing capabilities. This book does not describe the events as any less emotional than they were for the author himself, and for other actors involved.

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