How wars end part V: Bosnia

The World
View of Grbavica, a neighborhood of Sarajevo, Bosnia.

View of Grbavica, a neighborhood of Sarajevo, Bosnia.

Wikimedia Commons

Bosnia, a republic of the former Yugoslavia, was torn apart by ethnic violence in the early 1990s. A diplomatic breakthrough helped end that war in 1995.

The Bosnian war ended with a peace agreement at Dayton, Ohio. The negotiations there presented an extraordinary image: US diplomats, including Secretary of State Warren Christopher, welcoming Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević as a statesman - even though they considered him a war criminal. When the deal was struck it was President Bill Clinton who announced it.

"About an hour ago, I spoke with Secretary Christopher in Dayton, Ohio," Clinton said. "He informed me that the presidents of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia have reached a peace agreement to end the war in Bosnia."

It was a huge turnaround. Just a few months before, the Clinton Administration had been mired in indecision over Bosnia. Clinton had campaigned for president on promises of stronger action, but when he came into office he did nothing. But the pressure was building steadily. The evidence of atrocities was irrefutable. European policy was a failure, UN initiatives were ineffective and key State Department officials had resigned in protest at American inaction. Ivo Daalder writes about this period in his book "Getting to Dayton: The Making of America's Bosnia Policy."

"At one point, the National Security Advisor, Tony Lake, went in to see President Clinton, and said there's a cancer on the presidency," says Daalder. "Saying Bosnia was this cancer, that if we didn't find a way to resolve Bosnia, this would be an issue in the 1996 election."

That argument worked on President Clinton. His aides began devising a new strategy. The game plan was to split Bosnia into two entities, but keep it as a single country. The Muslims and Croats would get one half, and the Serbs would get the other. NATO would supervise a peace agreement. And if necessary, the United States would use force to change the dynamic.

"The thought was that if the Serbs said no that we would arm and train and indeed strike from the air for a period of a year, to change the internal balance of power within Bosnia and to change the balance of power on the ground," Daalder says.

As the policy was shaping up, the worst massacre of the war unfolded.

The Bosnian Serbs overran the UN safe area of Srebrenica. The so-called safe areas turned out to be anything but. Small contingents of lightly-armed peacekeepers were no match for Bosnian Serb forces intent on ethnic cleansing. In Srebrenica, thousands of people took refuge in a UN compound only to be handed over to the Serbs. The outside world pieced together what had happened from terrified survivors.

"They took all the wounded to one side, and then a Serb soldier said, I know you, and he took me away to a house and held a gun to my head, while another soldier raped me," said one survivor.

The men and boys of Srebrenica were slaughtered. Aerial photographs taken in the days afterwards showed what looked like freshly dug mass graves.

Madeleine Albright was US Ambassador to the United Nations at the time. She took those photographs to the Security Council.

"There is a compelling case that there were wide-scale atrocities committed in the area," she said. "Against defenceless civilians, away from the battlefield area."

Some 7,000 Bosnian-Muslims were killed at Srebrenica.

There was no turning back now. Among themselves, administration officials began using the word genocide. The United States began to implement its endgame strategy. It was orchestrated by the hard-charging diplomat Richard Holbrooke.

"The United States finally led a NATO coalition into bombing the Bosnian Serbs, and that really got their attention, and simultaneously the President launched a negotiating team into the field which he asked me to lead," Holbrooke says.

Holbrooke spent the next few weeks criss-crossing the Balkans, talking to all the leaders. His negotiating was helped by an unexpected development.

"A remarkable thing happened, which was more coincidence than concept, but it really affected the negotiations. The Croatians launched an offensive in western Bosnia, which was quite successful in pushing the Bosnian Serbs back. So facts on the ground were changing the equation and strengthening the hand for the negotiation," he says.

There was one more helpful development that strengthened the US hand. Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was coming to the conclusion that he needed to sue for peace. That he needed the sanctions against his country lifted for his own survival. With Milosevic on board, Holbrooke secured a ceasefire and persuaded Balkan leaders to fly to Dayton for talks.

"The world's eyes will be on Dayton and on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base," Holbrooke said at the time. "We have a very tough job ahead of us. We are not here to promise you success but only our best efforts."

Then Holbrooke got to work. He and his aides shuttled among the three sides. He spent days huddled in a high-tech map room trying to sort out the border between Bosnia's new entities.

"We had to draw that line and the line was unbelievably difficult to draw," he says. "We had to write a constitution; we had to get agreements among the allies and NATO about what our responsibilities would be; we had to create a governmental structure. Every bit of it was difficult."

But Holbrooke and his team kept at it, over meals, on windy walks, in late night corridors. Just before Thanksgiving, Holbrooke got his deal.

"The agreements and territorial arrangements initialled today are a huge step forward," Holbrooke announced. "The biggest by far since the war began. But ahead lies an equally daunting task, implementation."

He was right.

Implementing the agreement with its cumbersome directives would be a tough challenge. Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic made it clear when he signed the document that he didn't think it was a just peace. Not only did it grant the Serbs territory that they had won through ethnic cleansing, it locked down ethnic divisions by creating a constitution based explicitly on ethnic identity. Over the years it's caused great bitterness and governmental gridlock.

"We have five presidents, four vice-presidents, we have 14 governments and 14 parliaments, we have more than 140 ministers, and we have approximately 700 members of parliament on various levels. So you can easily imagine what it means to run this country smoothly and administratively," says Miroslav Lajcak, the international community's top official in Bosnia.

But Lajcak says you have to understand the logic that created all those layers. It was done to try to dilute the power of any one ethnic group, in order to prevent conflict. But defining the country's population in ethnic terms has had unintended consequences.

Take Jacob Finci. he's the Bosnian Ambassador to Switzerland, but under the Dayton constitution he can't run for president, because he's not a Muslim or a Croat or a Serb; he's Jewish. Finci says the peace outsiders imposed on Bosnia remains tenuous.

"For the time being, we have peace, and there is no chance in this moment that we will have a new war or new conflict here," Finci says. "But unfortunately, this is a peace on the surface which is going on, and what can happen after two or three incidents in a row, I'm afraid it can explode again."

That feeling of insecurity is pervasive in Bosnia, and that doesn't surprise people who study the ends of wars.

Stephen Biddle, from the Council on Foreign Relations, says agreements like the Dayton Accords are inherently unstable.

"In this kind of situation, where everybody's making a grudging, partial, negotiated settlement in which they gave up a lot, it's very easy to imagine situations in which spoiler violence, or miscalculation or a mistake re-ignites the violence, and you end upright back where you were before," he says.

Which is why, Biddle says, the presence of outside peacekeepers has been the key to the success of the settlement in Bosnia. As for whether Bosnia was a just peace, Biddle points out that stability is not the same as justice.

"Part of the reason that you get war, and part of the reason that the just war tradition in Christian theology is accepting of the idea of war, is that there's a value conflict between justice and peace," Biddle says.

You could argue that justice in Bosnia would have meant punishing the Serbs for their ethnic cleansing. Instead they were rewarded for it with half the territory in the country.

But the Americans' immediate goal was not justice, it was stopping the bloodshed; it was stability.

"Stability is a privileging of peace over justice. War in many cases is a privileging of justice over peace. This is all about trade offs and accepting less than perfect outcomes as a function of how much cost and pain and suffering one is willing to bear or inflict," Biddle says.

Still the question of justice hangs heavy over the settlement in Bosnia.

Peter Galbraith was the US ambassador to Croatia at the time. He agreed with the US decision to condone a joint Croat-Muslim offensive against the Serbs in western Bosnia in the last weeks of the war. But he also agreed with the decision to stop it, before it defeated the Serbs.

Now he wonders if it wouldn't have been better to let the offensive roll on.

"Even to this day, I don't know if we did the right thing or not. At the time, it seemed to make sense," Galbraith says.

US officials wanted the Serbs to lose more territory, but they didn't want a bloodbath. Nor did they want any more large refugee flows just as the war was winding down.

"But the other side of the coin is that the Bosnian Serbs were fascists, genocidal fascists. And it might have been a better end to the war for them to be decisively defeated rather than continuing in power and continuing with this insane nationalism of theirs," he says.

Ultimately though, even as he wrestles with his doubts, Galbraith hangs on to Bosnia as a success story.

"The United States focused on an achievable mission, which was ending the war. We did not try to remake Bosnia. We would love to have remade Bosnia, but that wasn't achievable, or at least not in the short term. What was achievable was to end the war. And the second point I would make is we were prepared to negotiate with evil men," he says.

That's still a sore point with many in the region. Many remember the image of Holbrooke dining with Milosevic during the Bosnian war and again in the lead-up to the war in Kosovo.

"The whole international community, including Mr. Holbrooke, accepted Milosevic as the negotiator, as somebody who is the peacemaker, which was really absolutely cynical," says Svetlana Broz, an author and physician in Sarajevo. "And I cannot understand this approach, as a citizen who was, I would say, as millions of citizens of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo were, victims of his politics."

And Broz says it left a confused ending, with nobody really laying out who was right and who was wrong.

Daalder agrees Bosnia is still mired in a messy peace, but back then there was little choice. The war had to be ended somehow.

"This was the most bloody conflict in Europe since 1945. We had concentration camps in Europe. We had massacres on a mass scale. Something we hadn't seen since 1945. This was paralyzing Europe; it was paralyzing NATO; it was paralyzing American foreign policy to a large extent. And we ended that conflict. We stopped the killing. That's an extraordinary achievement, even if we haven't succeeded in making Bosnia the new Nirvana on earth," Daalder says.

Daalder takes a lesson from Bosnia: It's a lot easier to end violence than it is to build a peace. And maybe you shouldn't always try to do both. He says he'd like to see less hubris about changing societies and more ambition about stopping violence.

"Our moral obligation, as well as our strategic obligation, should first and foremost be to stop these kinds of conflicts, and then worry later about how do you make sure that the peace to follow is as good as the end of the conflict. In many instances these are issues that parties and people on the ground will have to decide. It's really difficult for us to do so. We see it in Afghanistan. We see it in Iraq. Our ability to build peaceful, stable societies is, I think, less than our ability to stop a war," he says.

But even our ability to stop a war is limited. Much has changed since the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s. After 9/11, and Afghanistan, and Iraq, and our inaction in Darfur, we still have much to learn about how wars end and peace takes root.

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