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)

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…

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