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The Missed Chance in Bosnia

Balkan Odyssey

by David Owen
Harcourt Brace, 389 pp., $25.00

The Dayton Peace Agreement on Bosnia Hercegovina

US Department of State, Office of the Spokesman, November 30, 1995

With No Peace to Keep: United Nations Peacekeeping and the War in the Former Yugoslavia 4DL. Include £4.50 for postage.)

edited by Ben Cohen, edited by George Stamkoski
London: Grainpress, 184 pp., £10.00 (Available from Media East West, 4 Panton Street, London SW1Y (paper)

Americans don’t have much use for David Owen. As European peace negotiator during the Bosnian war, he came to symbolize for American policy-makers and many liberals everything that was temporizing and casuistical in the European response to the catastrophe. Worse, he had the effrontery to tell Americans that they had got Bosnia wrong. It was true, he said, that the Serbs were mainly responsible for oppression and brutality, but the conflict was not a morality play about blameless Muslim victims and evil Serb aggressors; it was a war in which all sides could be criticized. The story of his failed peace mission in the Balkans is crucial to understanding how the Dayton agreement became possible, but it is not a story likely to command great attention at a time when US and other IFOR troops are being deployed and a kind of peace is beginning to spread across the Bosnian winter landscape.

Yet Owen deserves a hearing in America. There has rarely been a more detailed indictment of the drift and delusion in recent American foreign policy than in his book. Of course, Balkan Odyssey is self-serving. It is far from a pleasure to read, less a book than an open cast mine. But it contains a great many revelations drawn from secret memoranda and confidential reports that detail every twist and turn of Owen’s failed journey. That the British and European governments should have chosen to allow Owen to release the documents he cites suggests that they are tired of being portrayed as appeasers and want their story told in the United States. The book is candid, sometimes scathingly so, but it is not rancorous and it is not anti-American. Owen is angry that the Americans let him down, but he is also honest enough to admit that he failed to do enough to get them on his side.

Balkan Odyssey makes it clear that events in Bosnia set in motion the worst crisis in European-American relations since the Suez debacle of 1956. NATO, the UN Security Council, and the European Union were at loggerheads at every point. As the Guardian journalist Ed Vulliamy argues in With No Peace to Keep, a collection of essays on UN peacekeeping, the Americans basically believed in using air power to drive the Serbs to the negotiating table. But both the Bush and Clinton administrations drastically compromised their standing with their European allies by refusing to commit US troops under UN authority. The Europeans feared that air strikes would make their forces vulnerable to being taken hostage, and in any case wouldn’t dislodge the Serbs from the territory they had gained.

In reality, these were excuses: neither American nor European policy-makers wanted to intervene at all. National interests seemed to require only that the Yugoslav problem be quarantined, not that it be solved. Had it not been for the sustained moral disquiet of a relatively small minority of the voters on both sides of the Atlantic, it is doubtful that presidents and prime ministers would have felt obliged to have much of a Bosnia policy at all. Even when put under moral pressure, Western politicians hoped that saying the right thing rather than doing it might suffice. It is difficult to think of a recent conflict in which there was such moral unanimity in face of evil and so little determination to do anything about it. Outrage became a substitute for action; and when inaction led to tragedy, there was recrimination. The Americans came to believe the Europeans were gutless; the Europeans thought the Americans were hypocritical. While Washington, London, Paris, and Bonn argued among themselves, 250,000 people lost their lives or were seriously wounded in the former Yugoslavia.

Owen’s least credible claim is that NATO, the UN, and the EU came through the Bosnian crisis intact. In reality, the UN’s moral credibility was all but destroyed. Who will ever trust a UN offer of a “safe haven” again? And who will ever have faith in the UN’s capacity to intervene when states disintegrate? After Bosnia, who will take seriously Europe’s vision of itself as a counter weight to American power? Fifty years after World War II, Europe remains as dependent on American diplomacy and military might as it was in the heyday of the Churchill-Roosevelt alliance. Only NATO survived with its capacity for action intact, and without NATO there would be no military force available to carry out the Dayton accords.

It has become conventional to see the Dayton agreement as an American triumph in the wake of European failure. Certainly the negotiations leading to the Dayton agreement contemptuously sidelined America’s supposed partners, and deservedly so. Yet American contempt for Europe hides the fact that America itself bears a heavy responsibility for failing to back the Europeans when such backing might have secured peace.

Owen maintains that a better peace than the one made in Dayton was available three years ago had the Clinton Administration signed up for the Vance-Owen peace plan in January 1993. At the time, the plan was attacked by the press and the Clinton Administration as a charter for ethnic cleansing, giving the Serbs far too much territory and seeming to reward aggression. In fact, under the Vance-Owen plan the Serbs would have had to surrender 40 percent of their territorial gains, and thus would have ended up with 43 percent of Bosnian territory. Under the Dayton plan, they get to keep 49 percent. The Vance-Owen plan also would have preserved Bosnia as a unified territorial state.

It is not clear that the Dayton agreement will do so. The deal engineered by Richard Holbrooke vests the key policing, military, and economic powers not in the Bosnian central government but in the Bosnian-Croat Federation and Karadzic’s Republica Srbska. The former is a pasted-together alliance which can be expected to come unstuck soon after the American troops pull out. The latter “entity” is a creation of war criminals. Both are granted international recognition and legitimacy under the Dayton accords. These “entities” have the right to raise taxes, police themselves, raise and maintain armies, and issue passports. By contrast, the powers left to the central Bosnian government are vestigial: international relations, foreign trade, and air-traffic control. Even if the Americans manage, as currently planned, to have a private military contractor build up the Bosnian army, the Dayton agreement may amount to no more than partition, disguised by lawyerly fictions. In allowing both the Bosnian-Croat Federation and Republica Srbska to enter into “special parallel relationships,” Dayton is prepared to countenance Anschluss in fact, if not in name, both between Republica Srbska and Serbia proper and between the Croat parts of the Federation and Croatia. The Vance-Owen plan made no such concessions to the ambitions of Greater Croatia and Greater Serbia.

Perhaps it would have been both more realistic and more honest if Holbrooke had divided up the map into three distinct ethnic republics and abolished the fiction of an integral Bosnia altogether. For this seems the likely result in any event. Unless quite unexpected developments occur, Dayton has only delayed the reckoning between Muslims and Croats, and when this reckoning comes—as very probably will happen given the lethal bitterness between the two peoples in towns like Mostar—Bosnia will get partition, and a bloody one at that.

The Vance-Owen plan was not flawless, but it was not a cold-blooded attempt to make peace at any price. Had the Americans backed it, it might well have saved Bosnia nearly three years of war. When the Clinton administration took office in January 1993, the major European countries supported the plan, the Russians had agreed to it, and all that stood in the way of the parties’ signatures was an American commitment. For a few weeks at the end of 1992, Vance and Owen basked in the illusion that they could count on the new administration. According to Owen, Anthony Lake, Clinton’s incoming National Security Adviser, had given Owen an “explicit commitment” to that effect. Warren Christopher gave similar assurances to Vance shortly before the inauguration. Christopher had been Vance’s deputy at the State Department during Carter’s presidency, and both Owen and Vance assumed that this old relationship would help to deliver the new administration’s backing.

They could not have been more mistaken. When Vance and Owen met Christopher on February 1, they discovered that the Secretary of State had only the sketchiest grasp of their plan. Owen bitterly records that Christopher “had clearly not even paid Vance [his old boss] the courtesy of having done his homework.” While he suavely assured Vance and Owen in private that their plan was “not perfect, but the best available,” Christopher made public comments that were so equivocal that no one could doubt the plan was dead, at least as far as Washington was concerned. Christopher damned the plan with faint praise, not, Owen suspects, because it appeared to ratify Serbian gains, but because the plan had the wrong passport: it was a European and United Nations plan and he was not going to take the political risk of giving American support to an international venture that had no clear constituency in the US. For his part, Clinton, who had, during the summer of 1992, criticized the Bush Administration for being timid in its policy toward the Balkan war, seemed to foreclose effective American participation by ruling out both the use of ground troops and air power by early February 1993.

As the Dayton agreement suggests, the only plan American leadership is prepared to endorse is one made in the US. Richard Caplan, a research fellow at King’s College, London, argues in With No Peace to Keep that the US has been doubtful that it had vital interests in the Balkans, and yet is unwilling to “cede to the Europeans its pre-eminent role as a guarantor of regional and global security.” Ironically, Owen and the Europeans had more cooperation from Vitaly Churkin and Boris Yeltsin than they received from Warren Christopher and Bill Clinton. The Americans’ attitude toward the European Union and the UN leads one to suspect that their conception of global leadership leaves little room for partnership.

As soon as the Clinton Administration’s refusal to support the plan became publicly known in the winter of 1993, Izetbegovic and the Bosnian negotiators toughened their position and refused to approve the maps drawn up by Vance and Owen. Karadzic, who had been on the verge of signing, also pulled out, and the whole fragile construction fell apart.

When the fighting resumed in the spring and summer of 1993, some pro-Bosnian Americans began to come around to the virtues of the plan they had done so much to destroy, as one can see from The Black Book of Bosnia, a collection of articles from The New Republic. Having torn into the administration for its apparent interest in the Vance-Owen plan in February, The New Republic, in an editorial in May, chastised Christopher and Clinton for “halfheartedly supporting the Vance-Owen plan” and thus allowing “the Serbs diplomatic space in which to pursue their military aims.” In any event, by May 1993, when the Bosnian Serbs in Pale definitively rejected the plan, the distance between Owen and the Americans who wanted to intervene in Bosnia had grown smaller than the Americans realized. By then Owen was urging the European leaders to withdraw the ineffectual UNPROFOR and bomb the Bosnian Serbs to the bargaining table. Owen remains convinced that Milosevic himself expected air strikes at this point. But none came, and when Owen next journeyed to Pale, Ratko Mladic and Karadzic thumbed their noses at him. Why Owen did not resign at that point is hard to fathom.1 By midsummer 1993, his plan was dead and the best chance for peace had been thrown away. Two long years of war were to follow before the opportunity came again and was seized by Richard Holbrooke.

  1. 1

    Vance had been replaced by Thorvald Stoltenberg in April, when it briefly seemed possible that the US would be willing to give military support to the plan.

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