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Giving Peace a Chance

Accord in Bosnia? Richard Holbrooke offers a riveting firsthand account of how it got done

By Brian Urquhart

TIME Magazine

(TIME, May 18) -- First-person accounts of great events are usually the most fascinating, and Richard Holbrooke's tale of the cliffhanger that culminated in the 1995 Dayton, Ohio, peace accords is no exception. To End a War (Random House; 432 pages; $27.95) is a riveting book.

In August 1995, when the U.S. at last stepped in and took the lead, the war in the former Yugoslavia had been raging almost four years. The U.N. "peacekeeping" force--a totally unsuitable arrangement for intervention in a full-scale war--was floundering. Through NATO, the U.S. found itself committed, apparently (and astonishingly) without President Clinton's knowledge, to dispatching 20,000 troops if called on--not an attractive option on the eve of a presidential campaign. Holbrooke's mission was to come up with a more acceptable course. His aim--nothing less than "a comprehensive peace agreement, not another weak, meaningless set of general principles that would be forgotten or ignored as soon as the conference adjourned"--was certainly ambitious. He writes, "I had wanted to test myself against the most difficult negotiations in the world." He got his wish.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Holbrooke, a longtime member of the Democratic foreign policy establishment, had urged a stronger Bosnian policy. Clinton appointed him ambassador to Germany and then, when the Bosnian crisis deepened, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs. Holbrooke already enjoyed a reputation for being overbearing and peremptory--qualities that were to prove indispensable at Dayton--and he is forthright about being no shrinking violet, engagingly quoting unflattering references to himself. "If I were to operate in a routine manner," he writes, "I might make fewer enemies... " His narrative provides a compelling account of a life-and-death negotiation--the personal dynamics, the theatrical gestures, the unexpected snags and exasperating misunderstandings, the leaks, the need to empathize with the very real concerns of the protagonists, and the grinding labor of keeping the talks on track.

The book begins with a tragedy--the death of three of Holbrooke's colleagues when their vehicle fell into a ravine on Mount Igman on the team's first visit to Sarajevo. This traumatic event permeates the narrative--a grim reminder that great enterprises may demand great sacrifices. Holbrooke's frantic pre-Dayton shuttle often took him to three countries in a single day. Once all the parties had been safely corralled in Ohio, he unleashed a classic 21-day exercise in lock-up, great-power diplomacy. The outcome of this exhausting and often acrimonious marathon was in doubt until literally the very last hour.

There were many ironies. The Bosnian Muslims, generally regarded as the victims, were the most self-destructive and uncooperative members of the group, threatening up to the very last minute to torpedo the peace agreement. Slobodan Milosevic, the President of Serbia, widely perceived to be the original begetter of the tragedy, turned out to be the most constructive--and ostensibly amiable--of the protagonists. And the reluctance of the American military to become involved accounted for some major weaknesses in the final arrangement.

Holbrooke is generous in praising his colleagues. In particular, his appreciation of Secretary of State Warren Christopher's contribution should go a long way toward countering the scathing criticisms of Christopher's stewardship that were fashionable at the time. Christopher gave Holbrooke an "unprecedented degree of flexibility" and was always prepared to wade in himself if needed. He emerges as one of the heroes of this strange epic.

Of the major figures, only U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali bears the full brunt of Holbrooke's contempt, especially for his early opposition to NATO bombing. Nearer home, he has little patience with the commander of NATO's Southern Forces, Admiral Leighton Smith, who opposed the bombing that Holbrooke believed to be indispensable to the start of a serious negotiating process. Later, NATO troops under Smith's command, reflecting his narrow view of IFOR responsibilities, simply looked on as the thugs of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic forcibly evicted the Serbs who wished to remain in Sarajevo and then burned their houses--a major setback to the creation of a multiethnic state in Bosnia.

It is still too early to judge the long-term effectiveness of Dayton. The U.S., committed at last to resolving the conflict, radically changed the course of events for the better, and the process continues relatively peacefully. In one of the more deadly parts of an imperfect world, that is no mean achievement.

Brian Urquhart is a former Under Secretary-General of the United Nations
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: May 18, 1998

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