David Owen
David Owen; drawing by David Levine

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.

The process that led to Dayton was set in motion in March 1994 when the Americans, acting as broker for the Washington accords, forced the Muslims and Croats into a federation. Tudjman was allowed to re-arm the Croatian army and the Muslims were allowed to purchase light weapons of their own. At the same time, on the other side, sanctions were slowly squeezing the Serbian economy. Between March 1994 and August 1995, the Americans tilted the military balance away from the Serbian side.

Meanwhile David Owen and the Europeans weakened Milosevic’s support for the Bosnian Serbs by promising that sanctions against the Belgrade government would be lifted and Serbia reintegrated into the international community. Owen’s most important contribution, and the justification, if there was one, for his continuing to negotiate after his plan was killed, was to keep Milosevic talking while he exploited domestic political battles among the Serbs. Between mid-1993 and mid-1995, Milosevic and Karadzic were locked in a struggle to dominate Serbian politics. Owen saw that Milosevic might be persuaded to pose as a man of peace in order to pin the blame on Karadzic for the UN embargo and Serbia’s other war losses. American officials continued in their public statements to demonize Milosevic; privately they, too, understood, from May 1993 onward, that when he did not interfere with Croat efforts to re-arm, he was indicating that he would accept a settlement. As Owen says, the Americans kept up the pressure on him to isolate the Pale Serbs.

But the strategy that culminated at Dayton came at a price, including a moral one: Tudjman was given the green light to cleanse Croatia of most of its Serbs. While publicly condemning Tudjman’s actions, Ambassador Peter Galbraith in Zagreb let him know that the Administration would not prevent a Croatian ethnic offensive in the Krajina. In Bosnia itself, the offensives of August 1995 by Croatian and Muslim forces reconquered lands that had been taken by the Serbs in 1992. They achieved by war what the Vance-Owen plan would have given them by peace. So that Mladic, and Karadzic, could be in no doubt that the Americans were now firmly behind a settlement, NATO warplanes and cruise missiles systematically destroyed their command and control sites in Bosnia. UN forces, having failed to take serious action against the Bosnian Serbs, and having abandoned or been forced out of the eastern enclaves of Srebrenica, Zepa, and Gorazde, were no longer vulnerable to hostage taking or reprisal attacks. This time, therefore, the Europeans raised no objection to air strikes.

This intricate mixture of raw force and stealthy diplomacy required coordination and impetus from the White House. Luckily, by the summer of 1995, domestic political considerations began concentrating the President’s mind on Bosnia. Clinton’s likeliest challenger, Bob Dole, was criticizing Clinton’s failure to provide international leadership. Congress passed a resolution in favor of lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia. Clinton began to realize that if the United States did not have clear strategic interests in Bosnia, a weak Democratic incumbent certainly did. The mass killing at Srebrenica raised the possibility of a disastrous, US-assisted evacuation of UN forces, recalling the debacle in Saigon. Dole’s lead on foreign policy issues had to be neutralized quickly.

This was the combination of factors, domestic and international, which gave us the Dayton agreement. Some of its critics, like Roy Gutman, the Newsday reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Bosnia, wonder, in effect, why the agreement was necessary at all. The Holbrooke peace effort, in his view, prevented the Bosnian Croats from taking Banja Luka and forcing the Bosnian Serbs into an even more humiliating armistice. But this is to miss the point—quite apart from the lives that have been spared since the agreement was signed. Washington’s strategists had no interest in humiliating the Serbs. They kept Tudjman on a tight rein lest his offensive provoke an all-out Serbian response. Nor did the Americans want to give the Muslims too much on the battlefield: this would embolden Izetbegovic and make him less tractable at the negotiating table. So the Muslim-Croat offensive was a closely managed affair. Washington and Belgrade cooperated to force Mladic and Karadzic to accept the Dayton plan but it was understood by everyone concerned that the Republica Srbska would be preserved and its future capital, Banja Luka, would remain intact. Owen, by then out of a job, watched this Machiavellian design unfolding with sardonic appreciation of its subtlety and some bitterness that it could not all have been done three years earlier.

Certainly Vance and Owen themselves made large mistakes, as Owen acknowledges. It is astonishing, for example, that they made so few overtures to the incoming Democratic administration in the critical months between November 1992 and January 1993, when their plan was taking shape in Geneva. One reads with incredulity, for example, that although David Owen met every major European head of state, and established excellent contacts with the Russians through Vitaly Churkin, he had no contact with the American president until 1994. Had Vance and Owen devoted more time to convincing the American administration of the advantages of their plan, they might conceivably have secured peace in Bosnia in 1993, together with the Nobel Prize and other accolades that eluded them.

Owen remains fiercely loyal to Vance, but if one reads between the lines it seems obvious that he looked to Vance to fix matters with the members of the incoming administration, only to discover that Vance had no leverage with them at all. Christopher distanced himself from his old boss; and Owen got the impression that some of Clinton’s foreign policy strategists were not close to Vance and wanted to dissociate their foreign policy from any connection with the Carter presidency. This may all be true; but it is depressing to conclude from Owen’s account that the fate of the Bosnian Muslims depended in some part on the intrigues of Washington insiders who, while mouthing appropriate platitudes about standing up against genocide, were jockeying for the approval of a president who wanted above all to avoid risk.

Owen’s account of the administration’s dismal performance in 1993 will almost certainly confirm the disillusion with Clinton on the part of advocates of intervention in Bosnia, whether liberal or conservative. On the other hand, Owen’s analysis of the Bosnian Muslims is likely to enrage people sympathetic to their cause. Owen and the Europeans became convinced that the Clinton Administration was being duped by the Bosnian side. Ejup Ganic, Muhamed Sacirbey, and Haris Silajdzic—the key figures in the Bosnian government—all had extensive American contacts and experience. More than once Owen found himself outflanked by their skill in appealing to American opinion. In 1992 and 1993 at least, they knew their chief asset was the suffering of Sarajevo. Sarajevo’s ordeal guaranteed the Bosnian cause humanitarian relief and vital diplomatic support.

As the siege continued, it provided the Bosnian government with a propaganda weapon in its campaign to have the US adopt a “lift and strike” policy: lifting the arms embargo and authorizing NATO air strikes on Serbian siege weapons and command and control sites. Thus, in December 1992, Owen discovered that the strongest opposition to his plan was coming not from the Serbs, but from Ejup Ganic, the vice-president of Bosnia. This is hardly surprising: Owen’s plan asked the Bosnian Muslims to accept that they had lost the war. Ganic and the Bosnians not only refused to accept defeat but they also opposed Owen’s attempts to ease the condition of Sarajevo’s civilians. Owen paraphrases Ganic’s view as follows:

Demilitarization in Sarajevo would remove the most powerful weapon in his propaganda armoury for involving the US. A quiet Sarajevo was, he almost admitted, not in his interests, and he preferred a continuation of the siege.

At first Owen did not want to believe that Muslim forces in the city might be firing inward, during his visit, in order, as Sarajevo cynics said, to concentrate Owen’s mind on a settlement favorable to the Bosnians. But in late January 1993, UN military observers verified that in order to draw Serbian retaliatory fire, a Bosnian mortar crew was firing from the grounds of Sarajevo’s Kosovo hospital. When the Serbs fired back, a Bosnian TV crew was there to record the outrage. The Bosnians grew steadily more adept in exploiting their status as victims. Their negotiators consistently rejected any measure, such as a UN-sponsored evacuation of women and children from Sarajevo, which would not only diminish the pathos of the city’s plight but make it more vulnerable to attack. Owen cites an American source, Charles Boyd, then deputy commander of the US European Command, on the various ways the Muslims manipulated the siege to their own advantage:

No seasoned observer in Sarajevo doubts for a moment that Muslim forces have found it in their interest to shell friendly targets. In this case, the shelling usually closes the airport for a time, driving up the price of black-market goods that enter the city via routes controlled by Bosnian army commanders and government officials.

Owen believes that the UN command should have been more forthright, from the beginning of their mandate, in publicly denouncing these violations on the Muslim side. If they had done so, they might have been taken more seriously when, in February 1994, they told reporters that the mortar which produced the notorious Sarajevo market massacre could have been fired from a Bosnian army position. The truth of the matter will probably never be established: the UN trajectory studies Owen cites were suggestive, but not conclusive.

Pro-Bosnian Americans, critical of Owen and the UN’s role anyway, have always dismissed the charge that the Bosnians may have acted as agents provocateurs. When the UN and the American president expressed doubt about who was responsible for the market massacre, The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier replied:

“When they kill me,” the president of Bosnia said the day after the massacre, “they will probably say I committed suicide.” With the authority, no doubt, of “bullet-hole analysis.” This whole controversy is a Goebbels-like fake. Never mind that not a single “crater analysis” in the history of the siege of Sarajevo has established the guilt of anybody except the Serbians….

Of course it would be grotesque to forget that the siege was initiated and maintained by the Serbs; that most of the snipers were Serbs; and that in Bosnia most of the war crimes, including the murder of many thousands of civilians and military prisoners, were committed by Serbs. Owen repeatedly makes those very points. But surely there is nothing very surprising about the possibility that, on occasion, the Bosnians manufactured outrages in order to manipulate Western support. It seems morally odd, in fact, to suppose that a victim must remain blameless in order to continue to deserve assistance. And there is little sign that Owen’s perception of duplicities on the part of Bosnian leaders led him to lose sympathy for their cause.

As he stands back from his own story, which ends with Holbrooke’s initiative in 1995, Owen strives to salvage some optimism. NATO held together; the EU survived; the war did not spread; Greece and Macedonia solved their differences; and peace of a kind has come to Bosnia, no small accomplishment on Holbrooke’s part. With hindsight, however, the missed opportunities stand out all the more painfully. If peace was possible in 1995, it was also possible in 1993, or even earlier. Peace did not have to await exhaustion or the bloody verdict of war. It was there for the taking if Western leaders had backed appropriate moral sentiments with ruthless and decisive action. The lesson of Owen’s dismal tale seems to be: don’t intervene unless you really mean it, and if you do, intervene early and with a force authorized to take “all necessary measures” to restore peace.

This Issue

February 29, 1996