The Art of the Deal

<i> Noel Malcolm is the author of "Kosovo: A Short History," published by New York University Press earlier this year</i>

Lunching with a senior American diplomat just after the end of the Bosnian war, I found myself trying to describe the character of the one-time European negotiator on the Balkans, Lord [David] Owen. “You have to picture someone completely eaten up with egomania,” I said, “a bully who imagines--mistakenly--that he’s a charmer, a man whose only overriding interest in any political event is to work out how it will enhance his own status and reputation.”

The diplomat gave me a wan smile. “It seems to me,” he murmured, choosing his words with exaggerated care, “that you have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Richard Holbrooke.”

That was certainly the image that then-Assistant Secretary of State Holbrooke had acquired, in some quarters, during his four months of whirlwind negotiations over Bosnia in the late summer and fall of 1995. He came across as a noisy diplomatic one-man band, aggressive, bullying and limelight hogging, determined to get a deal--almost any deal--to gain credit for the Clinton administration and plaudits for himself.

Some of this bully-boy image, of course, could be discounted as part of the job. If you are dealing regularly with political godfathers such as Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic--to say nothing of devious Western European politicians and stiff-necked NATO generals--a certain reputation for intransigence does not go amiss (in the French president’s office, Holbrooke was known as “le bulldozer”). Much harder to judge at the time, however, was the question of whether Holbrooke had any deeper commitment to the justice of what he was doing. Was he simply an amoral fixer who had been given the task of shunting the Bosnian issue, any old how, out of the path of an oncoming U.S. presidential election, or did he actually care about getting the sort of peace that would bring justice to the victims and the perpetrators of evil in Bosnia?


Holbrooke’s diplomatic memoir, “To End a War,” goes a long way toward revealing a much more human and thoughtful figure behind the brash, pushy image. Though Holbrooke was presented in the media as a sort of diplomatic Lone Ranger, one of the constant themes of this book is the teamwork on which he always depended. The point is made in a dramatic and tragic way in his opening chapter, in which he describes how three of his closest colleagues lost their lives when their armored vehicle rolled off a mountain track on the outskirts of Sarajevo. Thereafter, throughout the book, the loss of these three men is never far from Holbrooke’s thoughts; during the final weeks of negotiation at Dayton he even arranged a meeting between their widows and children and the assembled Balkan presidents (of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia). He did this not to put pressure on those three politicians but to give the bereaved relatives a sense of the historic importance of what their husbands and fathers had died for. This is one of several genuinely moving moments in “To End a War.”

Teamwork mattered to Holbrooke for political reasons as well as for human ones. Although he may have appeared to the world as Clinton’s trouble-shooter plenipotentiary, that was certainly not how it worked in practice. He had never been part of Clinton’s inner circle and depended on the support of some of the real insiders (such as National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, whose close friendship with Holbrooke goes back more than 30 years). Ranged against him were various unnamed individuals in the State Department, whom he describes here as the “many officials who made deviousness, even with close colleagues, a way of life,” and almost everyone in the Pentagon, where the Colin Powell doctrine--no intervention anywhere, unless it is so massively disproportionate as to become virtually risk-free--ruled supreme.

Political “friendly fire” rained down on Holbrooke not only from Washington but also from many of the capitals of Europe. Much of the interest of this book, for historians and students of international relations, will lie in what it reveals about the systematic incompetence, pettiness and self-obsession of the Western European powers and their consequent resentment toward any measures taken by the United States. Nor is this revelation a case of Holbrooke getting his own back in print; his criticisms are delicately phrased, and anyone who was observing the European politicians’ antics at the time will know that he is rendering visible only the tip of a massive and hugely frigid iceberg.

More obstructive, in some ways, than the prancing European politicians were the foot-dragging U.N. officials and military men. Holbrooke does not conceal his contempt for then-Secretary-Gen. Boutros Boutros-Ghali or for Yasushi Akashi, the pusillanimous U.N. envoy. He leaves significantly open the question of whether the French Gen. Bernard Janvier (overall commander of U.N. forces in the former Yugoslavia) was actually conniving with the Bosnian Serb butcher-in-chief, Gen. Ratko Mladic. And he notes, in passing, the whispered complaint of the British U.N. commander in Bosnia, who said he could not control the French officer who was responsible for the Sarajevo sector: “He gets his guidance directly from Janvier, and you know what that means.”

But it wasn’t only European military men with whom Holbrooke had to deal. The NATO commander responsible for carrying out the bombing campaign that finally brought the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table was an American, Leighton Smith; Holbrooke describes how Smith resisted the bombing policy from the start and clutched at worthless promises from Mladic in an attempt to ensure that a brief halt in the campaign would turn into a permanent one. On this account, Smith emerges embodying the worst of both worlds: the dogmatic anti-interventionism of the Pentagon and the blurred wishful thinking of the United Nations and the Europeans.

Smith turns up later in “To End a War” as the first commander of IFOR, the NATO-led “Implementation Force” that was sent to help keep the peace in Bosnia after Dayton. Immediately, Smith went out of his way to narrow the mandate of the troops under his command when he publicly (and untruthfully) stated that they did not have the authority to arrest anyone--thus giving enormous reassurance to large numbers of wanted war criminals.

Holbrooke puts proper emphasis on the importance of arresting Mladic, Radovan Karadzic and the rest; the point is not only moral (justice must be done) but also psychological (justice must be seen to be done for the wounds of war to heal)--and practical, too. The wanted war criminals still control networks of police chiefs, gangsters and rent-a-crowd agitators, particularly in the “Serb Republic” and the Croat-ruled territory known as Herceg-Bosna. These are the networks that ensure that refugees from the “wrong” ethnic group cannot return to their homes there; and unless there is a widespread return of refugees and reintegration of populations in all parts of Bosnia, the country will remain a seething mass of local irredentism, generating instability and potential war for decades to come.

The failure of Dayton to set up some suitable international mechanism--something less than an army but more than a normal police force--to protect the return of refugees is one of the big mistakes to which Holbrooke draws attention. Another is the failure to give adequate powers to the chief international representative there on the civilian side (formerly Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, now Spanish diplomat Carlos Westendorp). Linked to that last point, perhaps, is a more personal error that Holbrooke also confesses: the excessive speed with which, having delivered the baby of peace for Bosnia, he dumped it on somebody else’s doorstep, resigning from government service a few weeks later and going off to work on Wall Street. (His explanation of this move is, at best, perfunctory. Perhaps he already had his eyes on the U.N. job; but, if so, he keeps quiet about it here.)


Other errors, which Holbrooke glosses over a little too lightly, can be found in the almost unworkable and probably illegal constitutional structure that the Dayton Agreement imposed on that nascent Bosnian state. (Probably illegal, because it excluded some people from political office by reason of their ethnic identity, which is in conflict with international law as embodied in the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.) Too little power was reserved for the central government and almost no mechanisms were set up for a program of step-by-step reintegration; Bosnia is a country, for example, that is designed to contain two separate and mutually hostile armies in perpetuity. Holbrooke regrets this; he makes no secret of the fact that his sympathies lay, from the start, with the beleaguered Sarajevo government of President Alija Izetbegovic, which had struggled throughout the war to preserve the original idea of a single multiethnic Bosnia.

This only adds to the human drama of Holbrooke’s account of the final, intensive negotiations at the Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Dayton: While he struggled to keep some sort of Bosnia together, the Bosnian delegation was visibly falling apart, riven by intense personal and political rivalries. (It should not be forgotten that Izetbegovic’s seven-man team included three Croats and one Serb, as well as two Muslim Bosnians, Haris Silajdzic and Muhamed Sacirbey, whose mutual disdain had long been public knowledge.) Holbrooke describes the nail-biting tension that ensued; but he also has a fine eye for personal detail.

In one rather delicious anecdote, he describes Sacirbey’s determination to drag the elderly Izetbegovic to a football game between the University of Louisville and Sacirbey’s own alma mater, Tulane:

“I asked Sacirbey several times not to do this, concerned that a football game was not in keeping with the seriousness of the peace conference. In addition, I worried about the added strain on the frail Izetbegovic of a three-hour car ride and the bitter cold and rain of an outdoor stadium. But Sacirbey insisted. With his usual dour expression, Izetbegovic merely shrugged when I suggested it was a bad idea. When he returned, I asked him who had won. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I think it was the people in the red clothes.’ ”


Those of us who have been trying to follow Bosnian history since Dayton will know the feeling. I am still not sure who is winning there--though, of course, in Bosnia’s case the game is still not over.