THE MILOSEVIC EXPERT
Apr 26, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 30 • By TUCKER CARLSON
WHILE WRITING HIS ACCOUNT of the 1995 Dayton peace accords, Richard Holbrooke had a dispute with his publisher. Holbrooke, still flushed from his starring role in the agreement that halted the fighting in Bosnia, wanted to call his book, To End a War. Random House, fearful of being overtaken by events in the Balkans, pushed for a safer title, Precarious Peace. During an interview with C-SPAN, Holbrooke explained how he had prevailed in his negotiations with book editors: "They said, 'But, you know, if this book comes out and the wars resume, we're gonna look like fools.' I said, 'It's not gonna happen.'"
Two years later, both Holbrooke and Random House have been proved wrong. War has erupted again in the Balkans. Slobodan Milosevic, portrayed in Holbrooke's book as Machiavellian but responsive to reason, has turned out to be bloodthirsty and unpredictable. Meanwhile, despite the publisher's fears, To End a War has been a great success. Praised enthusiastically by critics, the book is about to be reissued in paperback. These days, virtually nobody is calling Richard Holbrooke foolish.
Which is odd, since as the Clinton administration's longtime Milosevic expert, Holbrooke, the former special envoy for Bosnia and Kosovo, could be held as responsible as anybody for NATO's profound misreading of the Serb leader. But he hasn't been, at least not in the press. Instead, the blame has fallen squarely on the hapless secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. Less than two weeks after the NATO air campaign began, the Washington Post ran a front page story explaining that military leaders at the Pentagon had known from the beginning that Albright's strategy in Kosovo was flawed, even ludicrous. Unnamed four-star officers were quoted as saying they had never believed that bombing alone would force Milosevic to comply with American demands, but had agreed to carry out Albright's plan anyway because, as one put it, "we have civilian control over the military."
Two days later, the Post printed another, even more pointed attack on the secretary of state, headlined, "Albright Misjudged Milosevic On Kosovo." Again, unnamed Pentagon officials put distance between themselves and what the Post referred to as "Albright's war." This time, even the head of the CIA, George Tenet, went out of his way to disassociate himself from Albright, letting it be known that he had long expected Milosevic to step up the slaughter of Albanians if NATO bombed Kosovo.
None of this went over well at the State Department. Albright is famously thin-skinned -- she once told a biographer that if 99 percent of the press coverage she receives is positive, her goal is to "eliminate the one percent" -- and, by all accounts, she was distraught over the Washington Post stories. Albright's staff tried to figure out the identities of the anonymous sniping generals (Marine Corps commandant Charles Krulak is a major suspect), while friends and advisers tried to calm her, apparently without success. "Madeleine's upset about everything," says someone who knows her well. "She should have just brushed it off. She's secretary of state. We're in the middle of one of the most controversial policy processes ever, and all of us have to be prepared to take a share of the hit, fairly or unfairly. That's what life is like."
So far, that's not what life has been like for Richard Holbrooke. Holbrooke knows Milosevic better than perhaps anyone involved in the administration's Balkans policy. At Dayton, the two spent countless hours walking the grounds of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base; after dinner, they chatted over drinks at nearby Packy's All-Sports Bar. In To End a War, Holbrooke describes "midnight steak and shrimp dinners" the two shared and sing-alongs they attended at the Officers' Club. (At one point, Milosevic, and American pop culture buff, joins in a rendition of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.") Holbrooke and Milosevic never became friends. On the other hand, it's clear Holbrooke never considered him an irrational madman. Yet, so far the Washington Post has run no reassessments of Holbrooke's diplomacy.
To his credit, Holbrooke seems to be reassessing his own understanding of Milosevic. One of the more heated debates now taking place at the White House is over how to deal with Milosevic when the current bombing campaign ends. If, for instance, Milosevic were to send a message to the Contact Group indicating his willingness to cut a deal of some sort, should the United States negotiate with him? Clinton, ever flexible, has not yet decided. For his part, Holbrooke, though technically no longer a part of the administration, has taken a much harder line in White House meetings, arguing that Milosevic is a criminal and that further negotiations of any kind would serve only to legitimize his rule.
Holbrooke is also in the process of rewriting his prior perceptions of Milosevic. Literally. If his book's characterization of Milosevic seems at times close to affectionate, Holbrooke has said, it is only because he knew when he wrote it that he might have to negotiate with Milosevic again. Eager to correct what in retrospect looks like credulity, Holbrooke reportedly is writing and epilogue for the paperback edition of To End a War that will depict Milosevic as a monster.
Holbrooke's explanation for his apparent change of heart over Milosevic is convincing, but it may not be enough to help him in Congress. Holbrooke's nomination to be ambassador to the United Nations has been stalled on the Hill for months. Officially, Holbrooke is the victim of a dispute between the White House and the Foreign Relations Committee over a U.N. arrears bill sponsored by senators Jesse Helms and Joe Biden. Privately, some staffers admit that many Senate Republicans simply don't like or trust him.
They're not alone. Holbrooke has a remarkable number of enemies in Washington. Even friends concede he can be an abrasive self-promoter. Press accounts, while invariably noting his intelligence and diplomatic skills, are almost uniformly critical of his personality. (In one now-famous Vanity Fair profile, Holbrooke's second wife, Blythe Babyak, described him as "the ultimate Washington nightmare husband," a person whose "idea of heaven was watching himself being interviewed on TV.")
Holbrooke knows he has a bad reputation, and has worked to make friends on the Hill. Last month, he traveled to Belgrade for a last-ditch talk with Milosevic. After seven hours of futile negotiations, Holbrooke went to the roof of his hotel to do an interview with CNN. Before saying almost anything else, Holbrooke let viewers know he was "very grateful" to Sen. Helms, who "said this trip was all right." Back in Washington, members of Helms's staff watched Holbrooke on television and laughed. "He's a terrible kissass when he wants something," says a Helms aide.
Holbrooke might want to start sucking up to Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Shortly after Clinton nominated Holbrooke to the U.N. post, Inhofe called Helms and informed him that "under no circumstances" should he let Holbrooke's nomination out of the Foreign Relations Committee. The War in Kosovo has only hardened Inhofe's position. "We're going to oppose the nomination," says Gary Hoitsma, Inhofe's press secretary. "If they're going to push him, we're going to have a huge debate. We just don't think it is appropriate for the man who was the architect of the Balkan debacle to be representing the United States at the U.N."
Architect of the Balkan debacle? Holbrooke hasn't been in an official policy-making position for years. In title at least, he is merely an investment banker in New York. Sen. Inhofe doesn't buy it. Look at the incompetents running the war, says Gary Hoitsma. Holbrooke, he says, is the only one capable of screwing things up this badly: "He's the only one with intellect enough to be the intellectual author of the mess we're in."
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.