The Lessons's of Bosnia's War: A New Book Reminds America That a Crisis Anywhere Can Affect Its National Interest Simply If Nobody Else Can Handle It
Elliot, Michael, Newsweek
A new book reminds America that a crisis anywhere can affect its national interest simply if nobody else can handle it.
The wars of the Yugoslav succession were nasty, brutish and unnecessarily long, Between 1991 and 1995, more than 300,000 people were killed and countless more "ethnically cleansed" from land and homes they had lived in for generations. The war in Bosnia--the third, longest and most vicious of the conflicts in Yugoslavia--was marked by the worst atrocities seen in Europe since 1945. It was ended only when the United States exerted a combination of military and diplomatic power in the second half of 1995. The architect of American policy in the endgame was Richard Holbrooke, then assistant secretary of State for European affairs, whose memoir of that time will shortly be published. Of all the many excellent books that have been written on Bosnia, "To End a War" may turn out to be the most important.
Holbrooke has written a superb book, one that is clear and honest. While the author grants himself the starring role (quite rightly), he is generous in his praise for many others--well known and not well known--who helped end the war. Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister who was the European Union representative to the peace process during 1995, comes across as a steady and acute observer of events; David Lipton, now under secretary of the Treasury, showed the Bosnians how their economy could be reformed if peace came. Perhaps most surprisingly, those who had dismissed Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Holbrooke's boss, will have to revise their view. By Holbrooke's account, Christopher's interventions in 1995 were thoughtful, determined and frequently decisive.
Bosnia needed a Holbrooke; perhaps more importantly, so did Washington, if it was to redeem its besmirched honor. American policy on Yugoslavia from 1991 to 1995 was many things--indecisive, muddled and ignorant. But above all--and especially in the first two years of the Clinton administration--it was cruel. To those suffering appalling hardship in Sarajevo, the Americans were the cavalry who never came charging over the hill. They said that what was happening in Bosnia was unspeakably awful, and of vital interest to the United States. But they did precious little about it, and on more than one occasion made a bad situation worse.
The roots of this cruelty lay in Bill Clinton's utterly irresponsible campaign pledges on Bosnia in 1992. As a candidate, Clinton promised that he would "make the United States the catalyst for a collective stand against aggression" in Bosnia. (The Bush administration had concluded, in the words of Secretary of State James Baker, that it "didn't have a dog in that fight.") At the time, Holbrooke wondered whether President Clinton would carry out what candidate Clinton proposed. Though too polite to say so, he would know soon enough.
Cruel though American policy was, there is plenty of blame to go around for Bosnia. …