The Weapons of Diplomacy, and the Human Factor

In Part I on Tuesday, Ms. Marton described how her late husband, the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, gathered the warring parties from the Balkans with American and European mediators at a U.S. Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio.

Let me assure you that success was not in the air for most of those three cold weeks at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Nobody trusted anybody. The Bosnians, Croats and Serbs were still at war, deeply focused on their respective grievances. The Europeans didn’t really trust the Americans and resented being the junior partners. Everybody was bugging everybody else’s barracks.

The French delegate, Jacques Blot, walked out on the opening dinner, offended by the dogs searching for explosives. “I will not be sniffed,” he said. Eventually he came, but his mood was dark for the evening’s duration.

Since Richard believed in using all available tools in diplomacy, he seated Milosevic at that dinner, held in an enormous hangar, directly under a giant B-2 bomber, a symbol of American power. Surely the message was not lost on the “Arsonist of the Balkans.” He seated me between Milosevic and Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and instructed me to make the two deadly foes to talk to each other.

For much of the evening, Milosevic and Izetbegovic avoided direct conversation, speaking directly only to me. But when, in despair, I asked them how the two of them first met, Milosevic finally turned to Izetbegovic and said, “Alija, I remember calling on you in your office in Sarajevo. You were seated on a green sofa — Muslim green.” Izetbegovic nodded and said he remembered the meeting. “You were very brave, Alija.”

I asked them how the war started: “Did you know your initial disagreement would lead to this terrible conflict?” “I did not think the fighting would be so serious,” Izetbegovic answered. Milosevic nodded in agreement. “I never thought it would go on so long,” he said. It was amazing to hear these two antagonists sound genuinely surprised at the war they had unleashed.

Throughout the talks I was stunned by how little their people and their nations’ future meant to these leaders. They seemed entirely focused on past injustices. This was particularly so of the Bosnian president, Haris Silajdzic. Richard would sometimes ask me to walk around the parking lot with Silajdzic, as I had done with Milosevic, to make each of them talk about their children, their grandchildren and their country’s future.

Once, when the Bosnian leader turned particularly uncompromising, Richard and I invited him to dinner at Dayton’s finest French restaurant, L’Auberge. Over caviar and coq au vin, Richard and I spoke enthusiastically of a future multiethnic Bosnia. We spoke of Nelson Mandela, who emerged from 27 years in prison with no hate in his heart. But the Bosnian saw no relevance between himself and Mandela, and became more and more withdrawn. “You don’t understand what we have been through,” he said. Richard argued passionately that more deaths would not honor the dead.

Until the very last morning of the peace talks, failure was a very real prospect. On the final night of the talks, with everybody exhausted after three weeks of relentless effort in such tight quarters, discouragement hung heavy in the smoke-filled barracks. Through the thin walls I could hear Milosevic and Silajdzic yelling at each other, making demands, back and forth.

Suddenly, at four in the morning, the two leaders shook hands. Secretary of State Warren Christopher produced a good bottle of California chardonnay and everyone toasted to peace. But at that moment, the Croatian foreign minister burst in on the celebration. Seeing the well-marked map that the Bosnians and Serbs had been working on, the Croatian exploded at Silajdzic. “Impossible! You have given away Croatian land!” The peace had held for a half hour. I have never seen Richard so deflated. “Lets all get some sleep,” he said.

Then, one hour later, in desperation, the negotiators asked President Clinton to make a personal call to the Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, urging him not to let a peace that was already in sight slip away. The president’s call helped to restart the negotiations.

Now, with only a tiny sliver of land standing in the way of an agreement, it was the Bosnians, who had 95 percent of what they wanted, who would not budge. Richard gathered his exhausted staff in his messy room and instructed his team to pack their bags. Bags quickly appeared outside the American negotiators’ doors. In diplomacy, you use all tools available.

Richard picks up the narrative in his memoir, “To End a War”: “Suddenly Kati burst into the room. ‘Milosevic is standing out in the snow in the parking lot waiting to talk to you,’ she said. ...She ran back out and pulled him into my room where Christopher and I met him.”

Milosevic did not want to lose the peace and offered to give up extra land to salvage it. Richard and the secretary of state rushed to Izetbegovic’s room. The old warrior still hesitated. Waging peace was not in his DNA. But he was cornered. He signed. “Lets get out of here fast before he changes his mind,” Richard whispered to Christopher. The deal was done.

The peace has held. No shot has been fired in anger in Bosnia since November 1995.

Richard always said that how the Dayton Accords were implemented would determine its success. And here the record is mixed. The American general in charge of the international forces chose not to use the power to arrest Mladic and Karadzic; their continued freedom gave heart to the haters.

Though Milosevich spent his last days in The Hague and Karadzic now finally sits there, Mladic lives the life of a fugitive. It is an imperfect peace and Richard had his regrets — such as allowing the name Republika Srpska to stand.

Still, the Dayton Accords did more than end a bloody war. They gave birth to a new country. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have returned to their homes and have rebuilt their lives. It will likely take another generation, born and raised without fear of neighbors, fully integrated into Europe, to achieve a deeper healing.

For anybody who witnessed the devastation of Bosnia — the wanton destruction that each ethnic group had inflicted on the other, a medieval landscape of destroyed houses, burnt out buildings, cratered roads littered with animals — today’s Bosnia is a miracle.

As to lessons we can draw from Dayton for today’s multiples crises, here are a few from my own observations:

• You need a small negotiating team, which airs its differences freely and openly, but keeps them inside the team. Bringing the cumbersome Washington bureaucracy and the media into the process would paralyze negotiation.

• Never let process get in the way of outcome. Richard used to complain that the Europeans on the team spent more time arguing about where the treaty should be signed than about what it contained.

• Geographic isolation is paramount.

But, as I have already noted, it is the human factor that determines outcome in peace making. Success depends on a negotiator who understands the human psyche, its motives high and low; a negotiator who knows history and has a sense of moral dimension. In ending wars, you have to deal with those who start them.

Two years ago I finally traveled to Sarajevo with Richard. What an unforgettable day that was, walking the peaceful streets of the beautiful city ringed by the snowcapped mountains where Serb gunners once took aim at their fellow citizens, having Sarajevans recognize Richard and timidly walk up to him to say, simply, “Thank you.”

For both of us, that was a gift of a lifetime.

By Kati Marton, the author, most recently, of Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America.

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