Was Richard Holbrooke Doomed To Fail In Bosnia?
Richard Holbrooke brought peace to Bosnia, but did he still fail in Dayton?
On this day in 1995, the Bosnian war officially ended in Paris, weeks after a peace deal was hammered out in Dayton, Ohio.
Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the peace deal, just died yesterday. His obits are filled with references to Dayton. It is the highlight of a distinguished career.
But is it a highlight if you are Bosnian?
In November 1995 I was half an hour away from the Bosnian border in equally devastated eastern Croatia living in a house with no windows in a grassroots peace project. I was new and shell shocked, and I remember listening to the radio and a local volunteer translated that there was a possible peace deal in Bosnia. And since this was a Serb radio station, she translated that the Serbs had vowed to fight to the last man, to the death.
After the news ended, the volunteer laughed bitterly and said the Serbs would never make peace.
I don’t mean to pick on the Serbs here, though they deserved plenty of picking on in those days, but that was what was on the Bosnian Serb radio and what a Croat peace volunteer thought. They were wrong, of course. The Serbs did make a deal, if they did not exactly make peace with that deal.
And I will only whisper this now, but back then, I did think that perhaps the war should not end. The Bosnian Muslims and the Croats had the Serbs on the run. The map would be a lot simpler if they kept rolling into Banja Luka and eliminated the crazy quilt of the Bosnian map, the one that makes the country impossible to govern or divide even today.
I take this back already, for I know that anything that prevents one extra death, one extra dose of violence echoing through generations, that is a good thing. Peace has to be a good thing.
By December I was frozen and lonely and already had the pain of the war survivors burned into my soul, those empty looks, the stories of horror, the lost shuffle through the bombed out cottage.
I spent three more years in eastern Croatia, and to me, Bosnia always seemed more glamorous, more the center of all things. I was in the backwater, the stagnant rural half of a nationalist-dominated country. Bosnia had the international community, all that money – billions spent to rebuild infrastructure alone – all those fancy EU projects, all that potential.
The spirit of Sarajevo, all that.
Now what? Eastern Croatia is likely still stagnant, and its war and pain very much forgotten. But it is on track to be in the EU (which I cannot fathom). The Croatian and Serbian leaders have made up. The devastation is fading, in its own way. There is a future, at least.
Not so in Bosnia. There is no future in Bosnia, just more ethnic posturing and corruption and bureaucracy and gaming of the weak EU-dominated system. This is the fault of the Bosnians mostly, at this point. It is very much the fault of NATO, the US and, at the top, the EU, which just does not know what to do if the promise of EU membership does not whip a country into shape.
But I also can’t help but whisper that Dayton was flawed, that Richard Holbrooke’s signature effort was doomed to failure. He recognized that his peace deal did not leave stable political structures. It was not supposed to, its defenders say. And, of course, any number of people could have reshaped the region.
But they didn’t. So we are left with the realities of Dayton exposed. And what we see is a deal that is the essence of Holbrooke’s ethos that you negotiate with bad people in order to save good ones. He negotiated with bad people – the Serbian leadership, the Croatian leadership and almost all the Bosnians – in order to bring a tense, bitter peace.
I have no arguments about what he should have done better. Maybe there was nothing. Maybe the Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks were doomed to play out their horrible nationalist farce.
But I cannot consider Dayton a success, even in the glow of remembering a powerfully skilled diplomat.
The obituaries themselves are an insult to Bosnia, putting the glory of an American diplomat over the very dark reality of this hole in the western Balkans.
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