The Magazine


From Yugoslavia to Dayton, Ohio

Jun 29, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 41 • By TOD LINDBERG
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The turning point for Bosnia came in August 1995 with a NATO bombing campaign. The air strikes succeeded in doing what no diplomatic effort had: persuading Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic to join in ending the four-year-old war over the pieces of the former Yugoslavia. Before the bombing, the aggressors in Bosnia treated international efforts with contempt, even taking hostages from the ineffectual U.N. peacekeeping force. But barely three months after the strikes began, a comprehensive peace agreement was reached at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

The decision to bomb for peace was controversial, to put it mildly. Most European governments found it unattractive and risky, as did NATO, the American military, and the major international organizations. Yet they were all equally mindful of the failure of diplomacy in Bosnia -- and its horrible consequences in lost lives, ethnic cleansing and refugees. What to do?

The answer turns out to have been to take a vacation.

It was August, after all. The president of the United States, the vice president, the national security adviser, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the director of central intelligence, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were on holiday, every last one of them. And so it was that the deputies in charge of Bosnian policy were able to do what the principals didn't have the stomach to do -- but didn't have the will to stop from their August vacation spots, either. Richard Holbrooke, the assistant secretary of state who had taken charge of the peacemaking efforts and was the leading proponent of air strikes in the administration, describes the extraordinary scene in his new book, To End a War:

As the hours and the days blurred into one continuous crisis session, the deputies were in charge -- so much so that they began teasing each other about it. "We joked," Strobe Talbott, who was acting Secretary of State, recalled later, "that it was 'deputy dogs' day," and how we felt like the kid in Home Alone. . . . Led by Sandy Berger, who was acting National Security Advisor, the team included John White (acting Secretary of Defense), Admiral Bill Owens (acting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), George Tenet (acting director of the CIA), Undersecretary of Defense Walter Slocombe, and Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff. The only Cabinet-level official not on vacation was Madeleine Albright, who shuttled feverishly between Washington and New York trying to overcome the reluctance of U.N. officials to take action.

The U.N. was an especially difficult obstacle, for Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali staunchly opposed bombing and retained, in effect, a veto over military action. Fortunately, at a critical moment, Boutros-Ghali "was unreachable on a commercial aircraft," so Albright "dealt instead with his best deputy, Kofi Annan, who was in charge of peacekeeping operations. At 11:45 A.M., New York time, came a big break: Annan informed Talbott and Albright that he had instructed the U.N.'s civilian officials and military commanders to relinquish for a limited time their authority to veto air strikes in Bosnia."

It only remained, as it were, to cut obstructionist NATO higher-ups out of the loop. That task fell to NATO Secretary-General Willy Claes. "Instead of calling for another formal meeting to make a decision, Claes simply informed the other members of NATO" that he had authorized his military commanders to take action. Voila: The inertia ends, the policy changes, negotiations begin, and -- hardly automatically, but as a product of much the same determination and ingenuity that led to the air strikes -- the war is over, well in time for the principals to return from their vacations to organize conferences and signing ceremonies at which to congratulate themselves for their diplomatic achievement.

Holbrooke's first legacy to American foreign policy is, of course, the Dayton peace accords, the agreement that ended the fighting between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia -- a peace that Holbrooke seemed personally to will into being against all odds. But a second legacy is To End a War, his gripping memoir of the Dayton negotiations, their prelude and aftermath. This book is a masterpiece not only for its unforgettable account of the diplomacy of Dayton -- an experience the author convincingly describes as "something like a combination of chess and mountain climbing" -- but also for the clarity of Holbrooke's vision of post-Cold War Europe and the United States. We will see what remains of that clarity when, as Clinton announced last week, he becomes U.S. ambassador to the U.N.