The Triage of Dayton

Warren Bass. Foreign Affairs. Volume 77, Issue 5, September/October 1998.

Not a Triumph

On November 16, 1995, Lieutenant General Wesley Clark sat in Dayton, Ohio, in a PowerScene virtual reality imaging system, using a joystick to fly back and forth through simulated three-dimensional scenes of the hills of Bosnia east of Sarajevo. At around 11 p.m., Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic joined him, as well as some other U.S. officials. Lubricated by Scotch, Milosevic and the Americans zoomed back and forth on the computer simulation to try to carve out a path from the besieged Bosnian capital to Gorazde, a U.N. “safe area” surrounded by Bosnian Serbs. In the wee hours of the morning, Clark used crayons to draw a corridor from Sarajevo to Gorazde that was not hopelessly indefensible. Milosevic shook hands with Clark, who is now the supreme allied commander in Europe, and Richard C. Holbrooke, the main American peace negotiator, and what is variously known as the Clark Corridor or the Scotch Road was born.

Somehow, the United States had shifted from a determination not to be dragged into the Balkans to using U.S. officials and computers to draw Bosnia’s new frontiers. Winston Churchill used to brag about having drawn Jordan’s borders on a map one afternoon; the American general could say much the same thing about Bosnia. But America’s entry lacked swagger. Rather, U.S. policymakers came to sketch the Scotch Road with a profound sense of ambivalence. Documents relating to this diplomacy-including Holbrooke’s memoir To End a War and the State Department’s 1996 official study of the process leading to the Dayton Accords of November 1995 — show that American officials were painfully aware of the shortcomings of U.S. Bosnia policy and the distance it had shifted from the goals that Bill Clinton had espoused in 1992. If the devil is in the new details, they both afford a richer understanding of the evolution of U.S. policy and reinforce the enormity of the shortfall of American statecraft in the Bosnian crucible.

To be sure, Dayton was a vast improvement over the muddle and bloodshed that preceded it. But it has been oversold. Dayton represented not the vindication of the liberal ideals with which Bill Clinton excoriated George Bush on the 1992 campaign trail-firm action to halt genocide, bringing war criminals to justice, tolerance, multiethnic nation-states, liberal nationalism, and the use of international and European institutions-but rather a version of the chilly realpolitik that kept the Bush administration out of Bosnia. The deal the administration helped cut edged ominously close to partition, writing an epitaph for Bosnia as a multiethnic state and ceding much of its territory to the Bosnian Serbs. Many of Dayton’s better provisions, especially the prosecution of war criminals and the return of refugees, remain largely unimplemented. Worse, Dayton required dealing with and ultimately strengthening Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, two ethnic nationalists whose ideology and ruthlessness are antithetical to liberal values.

Dayton’s lessons are grimly appropriate when considering the current violence in Kosovo, where Milosevic’s demagoguery helped set off Yugoslavia’s demise and which is the latest target of his ethnic cleansing. The bloodshed in Kosovo is a symptom of the approach that strengthened Milosevic and Tudjman. By doing so, Dayton plunged Serbia deeper into ethnic chauvinism, whereby the “sacred Serb soil” of Kosovo matters vastly more to Belgrade than do the Albanians living on top of it. As such, today’s crisis comes as scant surprise. While the theater has shifted, and while Kosovo is part of Serbia proper, the underlying questions are much the same. As in 1993, the Clinton administration finds itself faced with a fundamental choice. Will the United States push Milosevic to respect autonomy, the rights of minorities, and the rule of law, or will it retreat, as it did for two years in Bosnia, by saying that getting involved is not worth American blood and treasure? If it does back down, the retreat must include the realization that the Clinton administration’s earlier policy of realpolitik eased the way to future episodes thereof.

Winning any accord in Bosnia was not easy. Dayton took considerable diplomatic skill and tenacity. Congress’ isolationists proved unhelpful and irresponsible, and the administration ran huge political risks by deciding to intervene. But it ran those risks for a reluctant realism. It is hard not to wonder what might have been if it had run them on behalf of the liberal ideals that it promised. In the end, the very policies that the administration balked at in May 1993-using military force and firm leadership of the Europeans-were the ones that stopped the war in the autumn of 1995. According to Warren Zimmermann, the last U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, the cost of delay was more than 100,000 lives. The fuller our picture of Dayton becomes, the clearer it is that the Dayton process-its accomplishments notwithstanding-is less a how-to manual for peacemakers than a cautionary tale.

The Bush Legacy

The Clinton administration inherited a mess. Its Republican predecessors were consummate realists. After meeting Milosevic in Belgrade in June 1991 to warn him against “exploitation of ethnic resentments [and] failure to respect human rights in Kosovo” complaints that could be lifted from today’s headlines-Secretary of State James A. Baker III felt he “was talking to a wall with a crew cut.” The Bush administration greeted Yugoslav intransigence with a shrug. Its basic-and correct-diplomatic calculus was that only military force would deter the ambitions of Milosevic and Tudjman. Its basic-and incorrect-political calculus was that such an intervention could never be sold to the American people. That assessment was shaded by President Bush’s determination not to try. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft said that the president would frequently ask him, “Tell me again what this is all about.” He saw no U.S. interests engaged in Bosnia, and his European allies reinforced his skepticism. “Once in, where does it end?” asked British Prime Minister John Major. Instead, the Bush administration treated Bosnia as, in Baker’s words, “a humanitarian nightmare in the heart of Europe,” as if Bosnia’s woes were the result of a famine or an earthquake rather than an act of aggression. The bottom line, as Baker put it, was that the costs in casualties “would have been staggering … the necessary support by the American people for the degree of force that would have been required in Bosnia could never have been built or maintained.”

Clinton, on the other hand, promised a very different policy on the campaign trail. “I know that ethnic divisions are one of the strongest impulses in all of society all over the world,” he said, “but we’ve got to take a stand against it.” The Bush administration, he charged, was immoral “for turning its back on violations of basic human rights,” and needed to show “real leadership.” When the Clinton administration dithered, unlike the Bush administration, it did so in defiance of its promises.

The war could well have been ended in May 1993 had the president fulfilled his campaign pledge to lift the arms embargo on the Bosnians and launch air strikes on the Serbs. At that time, Clinton sent Secretary of State Warren Christopher to sound out the Europeans about lift and strike. But Christopher was instructed to consult, not to lead, and what he heard was across-the-board opposition, concern for European soldiers in the U.N. Protection Force (UNPROFOR), distaste for supposed American arrogance, and warnings that NATO might sunder. At a pivotal briefing in the Roosevelt Room the morning of his return, Christopher told Clinton that lift and strike was still viable, but that it would require, as he put it, a “raw power approach”: telling the Europeans “that we have firmly decided to go ahead with our preferred option and that we expect them to support us.” Of all the choices, Christopher explained, the least attractive-and most hypocritical-would be to continue the Bush policy of “doing nothing.” But Clinton blanched.

Blundering into Boldness

Why, then, after two years of fecklessness, did President Clinton act decisively, backing heretofore toothless diplomacy with force and American leadership? Alas, the answer to this puzzle lies in a startling decision-or, better, a nondecision-that no administration should repeat. By the time of the August 1995 decision to push for Holbrooke’s shuttle, without being fully aware of it, Washington had already committed itself to a military presence in Bosnia. The decision was made in so aimless a manner that almost all senior officials were caught off guard when the implications of what they had done finally sank in.

The State Department’s Bosnia study confirms that most senior foreign policy officials, most notably the president himself, were surprised to learn in June 1995 that U.S. troops might soon be on their way to Bosnia whether the administration liked it or not. The confusion stemmed from an earlier presidential decision that, should the situation on the ground become chaotic enough to prevent UNPROFOR-the hapless U.N. peacekeeping mission already in Bosnia-from functioning, NATO would intervene to help the blue helmets flee. The Clinton administration confirmed this commitment in late 1994, and NATO military planners duly began work on Op-plan 40104, which called for using 20,000 U.S. troops as part of a 60,000-person evacuation force. When NATO approved this mission in the spring of 1995 with the consent of American NATO Ambassador Robert E. Hunter and U.S. military planners in Brussels, the Clinton administration boxed itself in. While an intervention to limit U.N. failure would be dangerous and humiliating, the White House figured that reneging on its promise to NATO would destroy the remains of its credibility and devastate an already frayed alliance. With the U.N. peacekeeping force daily revealed to be impotent, the only way Washington could forestall the withdrawal mission to which it had committed itself was to push the parties to peace-a better option, but one that would still require sending American troops to Bosnia. What one Clinton adviser called “the single most difficult decision of [Clinton’s] presidency-to send troops to Bosnia” had been made without anyone realizing it.

As the war worsened, the specter of Op-plan 40104 loomed larger. The Serb massacres of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in July 1995 in the U.N.-designated “safe areas” of Srebrenica and Zepa-the worst war crimes in Europe since those of the Nazis-made UNPROFOR’S ignominy complete. European countries participating in UNPROFOR began warning that they would soon pull their troops out, triggering what American policymakers referred to as the 40104 “doomsday machine”—intervention triggered by humiliation. Several senior officials, including U.N. Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, began arguing that since American troops were headed for Bosnia anyway, the administration should try to implement a success rather than ratify a failure. As one official memorably put it, the question on Bosnia was not whether to stay in or out; it was “choosing which waterfall we will go over.” Driven mainly by Lake and the National Security Council staff, senior officials spent the rest of the summer scurrying to come up with a plan. In August, Holbrooke’s mission began.

The Clinton administration’s decision to reevaluate its Bosnia diplomacy came not from a realization of the failure of its earlier rudderlessness or a renewal of Wilsonian principle. Rather, it came from a decision few could even remember making. When apprised of the details of Op-plan 40104, everyone-from Holbrooke to Christopher to President Clinton himself-was shocked. The choice to commit U.S. troops to help withdraw UNPROFOR was not the fruit of any formal deliberative process in which the president approved the mission through such standard means as a decision memorandum. Rather, it was made by inertia. If there were lessons to be learned from the earlier decisions not to intervene, they were not learned by the Clinton administration. Instead, it became bold almost by accident.

Clean Hands

The accord that emerged from the haphazard process triggered by Op-plan 40104, as Holbrooke himself concedes, is hardly perfect. To be sure, it stopped the fighting, at least for the time being, which should not be underappreciated. But many of the problems of implementing Dayton stem from the way the pact was negotiated.

Holbrooke made a basic decision to ignore the Bosnian Serbs and deal only with the Yugoslav president, Milosevic. Past negotiators, including the European Union envoy Carl Bildt and former President Jimmy Carter, had negotiated directly with the gangsters in Pale, the self-styled Bosnian Serb capital, without success. By spring 1995, American negotiators began to coalesce around what the lead negotiator, the late Robert Frasure, called the Milosevic strategy. Washington would bypass the Bosnian Serbs and pressure Milosevic to deliver an agreement. Frasure had noted the way that Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb leaders, had capitalized on their own disagreements to scuttle earlier initiatives, like a 1994 Contact Group plan. Belgrade and Pale, he concluded, had to be forced together.

The key would be the type of linkage that was a hallmark of Henry Kissinger-tying relief from the economic sanctions that Milosevic so hated to cooperation from his Bosnian Serb friends. Although Milosevic stridently deployed what Zimmermann described as a “clean hands” gambit-denying any knowledge of or influence over Bosnian Serb misdeeds-the Americans decided to expose his pretensions and tie any agreement to Milosevic. When first introduced to the Serbian president in August 1995, Holbrooke made it clear that the Bosnian Serbs would be cut out. “You must speak for Pale,” he told Milosevic. “We won’t deal with them ever again.”

Milosevic delivered, forcing the Bosnian Serbs to surrender virtually all their negotiating rights. The Milosevic strategy held throughout the Dayton process. U.S. negotiators met only twice with Karadzic and Mladic, both times in Belgrade with Milosevic as the principal interlocutor. At Dayton itself, where almost loo negotiators spent 21 days locked in an area no larger than 3 square blocks, the Bosnian Serb members of Milosevic’s delegation were completely ignored. For the Americans, they were invisible; for Milosevic, they were to know only what he chose to tell them about what he had negotiated on their behalf Indeed, only minutes before the signing ceremony, Milosevic told the Bosnian Serbs that he had given up the Serb demand for Sarajevo. Expansion into Bosnia’s capital was the sine qua non for the Bosnian Serbs, and Vice President Nikola Koljevic apparently fainted at the sight of the Dayton map. They stormed out of Dayton in an impotent fury without signing anything, but within a week an unruffled Milosevic had them on board.

But within the success of the Milosevic strategy lies a fundamental problem: the Bosnian Serbs are still not reconciled to Dayton. There probably would not have been a deal without Milosevic. The dilemma is that, for Pale, Dayton is an imposed settlement. It combines appeasement-the Bosnian Serb land grab was rewarded with the ratification of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb fiefdom, declared shortly after Bosnia seceded from Yugoslavia in March 1992 and one of the two major constituent parts of postDayton Bosnia-with exclusion. As such, the Bosnian Serbs have, unsurprisingly, balked on almost every major implementation issue. Although a more cooperative and moderate leadership (by Bosnian Serb standards) has emerged in the form of President Biljana Plavsic and Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, most Bosnian Serbs have no interest in sharing power with Muslims and Croats. The extremism in Bosnian Serb political culture has not abated. Whenever Pale has cooperated over the past two years, it has mostly been due to external pressures, whether from Washington, the civilian implementation coordinator, or Belgrade.

Dayton’s handling of the Bosnian Serbs was an awkward dance, poised between contempt for and ratification of Pale’s thuggery. One clear remedy would be vigorous prosecution of war criminals, including above all Karadzic and Mladic, indicted in July 1995 for genocide and crimes against humanity by the U.N. war crimes tribunal, as a way of remolding Bosnian Serb politics on lines other than ethnic paranoia. But Washington has moved only slowly toward greater activism on war criminals.

The Shotgun Marriage

The Mislosevic strategy was one key to America’s Balkan diplomacy. Another was the creation of the Muslim-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, established in March 1994 as the other main constituent part of Bosnia alongside Republika Srpska. Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats fought fiercely in 1993, but Washington sought to turn their glorified cease-fire into real cooperation. No other configuration could balance the Bosnian Serbs. Rather than trying to broker a three-way settlement (or, by including the Bosnian Serbs, a four-way pact), the United States tried to deal with only two parties: the Federation and Milosevic.

The Federation proved essential in the negotiations. Military cooperation yielded results when Serb forces in western Bosnia were routed during August and September 1995, helping set up the Dayton chessboard. But creating even a semblance of trust proved excruciating. The two parties are partners on paper only. By the time Holbrooke’s shuttle diplomacy began in earnest, there was scant evidence that the Federation could ever become viable. Late Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Kruzel, in his last report to Washington in August 1995, described the Federation as a “marriage of convenience” and warned that its weakness might prove the initiative’s “fundamental conceptual flaw.” Using the Federation to balance the Serbs was “not possible, because the Croats won’t fight the Serbs over the Muslims, [nor] will they let the Muslims acquire enough weapons to be in any sort of position to challenge Zagreb.” Holbrooke’s team knew full well that even an “equip and train” program to boost a joint Muslim-Croat armed force would not erase serious doubts about the Federation’s long- or medium-term viability.

Like the decision to cut out the Bosnian Serbs, the forced entente of Muslims and Croats points to a troubling paradox: the tactics essential to winning an agreement fundamentally undermined the ability to implement it. Notwithstanding American initiatives to build trust, the Muslims and Croats will cooperate only as long as it suits both sides’ interests. Otherwise, they eagerly exploit each other. Republika Srpska is usually cited as the most likely cause of Dayton’s shattering. But the most disturbing incidents of interethnic violence since Dayton have occurred not between Muslims and Serbs but between Croats and Muslims-ostensibly the allies keeping Pale at bay. The sleeping giant that could bring down Dayton is not Republika Srpska but the U.S.-backed and, to some degree, U.S.-created Federation. American diplomacy kept Bosnia whole by stitching it together like Frankenstein’s monster.

Declaring Victory

The Clinton administration, especially after it had found its sea legs, could show considerable diplomatic skill. It used Bosnia, for instance, to help advance NATO expansion by bringing Russia into the Implementation Force (IFOR). Defense Secretary William Perry and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott deftly negotiated placing Russian troops under direct U.S. command, even while the top U.S. general was also the NATO commander. This gave the administration the spectacle of Russian soldiers under NATO orders to point to as evidence that NATO expansion need not be anti-Russian.

Such skill, however, only reinforces the disappointment over what could have been, had the administration stuck to its Wilsonian guns. In a sense, the Clinton administration most closely resembles not the Bush White House but an earlier administration of Republican realists, that of Richard M. Nixon. Nixon won office in 68 claiming to have a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. Clinton, too, promised an end to the fighting in Bosnia, condemning the Bush-Baker policy-in Baker’s memorable phrase, Washington did not have a dog in the Yugoslav fight-as pusillanimous. But he then abandoned lift and strike, intimidated by the potential costs, and let the war drag on.

Despite its own repeated warnings about the limitations of force, the reluctance of Europe, and the lack of an American stake in the former Yugoslavia, the administration did eventually intervene, driven in significant measure by its confusion over Op-plan 40104. The two lost years testify to the administration’s belated realization that power is like a muscle: use makes it stronger. Had it led in 1993, the Clinton administration would have had more leverage with its European allies, not less. And the dereliction of leadership did not keep America out of the Balkans. It decided not to push in 1993 and then wound up stumbling into intervention in 1995.

Moreover, the form that intervention took was a far cry from the rhetoric of candidate Clinton. Having blundered into boldness, Washington lacked the raw materials to stay true to its avowed ideals of multiethnic tolerance, liberal democracy, and reversing aggression. By 1995, the administration had cost itself much of its room for maneuver.

This point is not widely appreciated. Indeed, many bristle at the notion that Dayton is an act of realism rather than idealism. In good realist fashion, it sees Bosnia as an anarchic environment and seeks to balance the Serb would-be hegemons with the MuslimCroat Federation. The key decision to use the threat of sanctions to force Belgrade to deliver the Bosnian Serbs is a classic Kissingerian linkage. Moreover, Dayton dispenses with moral handwringing over tainted interlocutors and instead treats all sides-invader and invaded, democrat and demagogue-equally with pragmatism and raison d’etat.

The claims of liberalism were sidelined during the process. True, there have been elections, and there have been some attempts by the implementers of the accord to temper Serb broadcasters. But reliance on international institutions proved a disaster in Bosnia. The European Union, for one, proved a reliable voice of timidity. But the worst failure came from the United Nations. Not only did UNPROFOR prove utterly useless during the massacre at Srebrenica, but the presence of U.N. peacekeepers actually prolonged the war by delaying Western intervention. The blue helmets were even taken hostage by the Bosnian Serbs. They also proved symbolic hostages when European powers with troops in UNPROFOR used concerns for their safety to blunt demands for air strikes.

The other major international institution involved in the former Yugoslavia-the U.N. war crimes tribunal, now led by Chief Prosecutor Louise Arbour, a Canadian judge-gets a more mixed review. The tribunal could only be as strong as the major powers were willing to let it be, despite strong leadership from its first prosecutor, the South African judge Richard Goldstone. Throughout the Dayton process, the United States underfunded the floundering tribunal, and since Dayton it has only haltingly pushed for prosecutions. Despite NATO’s massive presence on the ground and the ability it demonstrated in its 1995 bombing campaign to cow the Bosnian Serbs, Karadzic and Mladic remain at large. Only at the urging of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has the tribunal been able to make major arrests.

Finally, the multiethnic democracy of Bosnia no longer exists. What is left are the tatters of a tolerant, cosmopolitan society. Ultimately, the West lacked the will to reverse Serb and Croat aggression, and the Bosnian Serb obsession with self-rule was ratified, rather than rebuffed, in the form of the creation of Republika Srpska. Even the nominal unity of Bosnia as a state is a fig leaf. It hides the shaky realist balancing act between Republika Srpska and the Federation. In picking its Balkan partners, the Clinton administration did what it had to do, treating Tudjman-a Holocaust denier, authoritarian, and bigot-as an ally. Holbrooke’s personal revulsion kept him from shaking Karadzic’s hand, but the demands of realpolitik led him to swallow his distaste for Yugoslavia’s main destroyer, Milosevic, whom he sometimes portrays as an engaging rogue. At Dayton, much of the heaviest pressure was brought to bear on the aggrieved party, the Bosnian Muslims.

Churchill warned that “the principle of self determination … comes ill out of the mouths of those in totalitarian states who deny even the smallest element of toleration to every section and creed within their bounds.” He could well have been speaking of Milosevic and Tudjman. These men were not vanquished by Dayton but emboldened. Many of the agreement’s imperfections relate directly to the failure to confront the scourge of ultranationalism. Letting the Bosnian Serb entity be called Republika Srpska, in whose name ethnic cleansing was perpetrated, is ghastly. Dayton’s core logic rests on a military balance of power and adheres to an ethnic territorial division-51 percent for the Muslims and Croats, 49 percent for the Serbs-that codifies Serbian aggression. At Dayton, the United States was resigned to the 51-49 formula; at one point during the talks, the U.S. team unwittingly negotiated a 55-45 division but beat a hasty retreat once Milosevic found out.

The liberal elements of Dayton-a binding central government for Bosnia, war crimes trials, refugees returning home, and a reaffirmation of the values of civic nationalism-will remain meaningless absent any determination to enforce them. Indeed, the ambiguity of enforcement is another key flaw. Wary of “mission creep,” American military leaders prevented diplomats from committing to anything that might mean risking U.S. casualties. The military refused to take on the responsibility to enforce Dayton’s terms, accepting only the authority to do so-an odd view of accepting civilian commands. Having finally made its way to an agreement, the United States squandered its best opportunity to implement Dayton’s liberal elements by not moving boldly in the immediate wake of is entry at the end of 1995. In an election year, Clinton had no stomach for pushing the Pentagon hard to punish violations of Dayton. Thus, initially, Dayton’s future was left in the hands of the very people who did all they could to prevent U.S. intervention: military leaders like Admiral Leighton Smith, the commander of NATO forces in Bosnia, who interpreted is responsibilities as narrowly as imaginable. In his first major local media appearance, after IFOR’s deployment in December 1995, Smith assured Pale Television that he did not “have the authority to arrest anybody.” Karadzic has passed through NATO checkpoints. Perhaps the most egregious incident occurred in March 1996, when Bosnian Serb thugs forced fellow Serbs out of their homes in Sarajevo’s suburbs and set their houses on fire to prevent them from choosing to live under Muslim control. Ignoring both the spirit and the authority of Dayton, Smith ordered IFOR fire trucks to remain in their stations.

To be sure, things have improved over the past year, with more arrests of war criminals and the elevation of General Clark-the American military official with perhaps the greatest personal stake in Dayton’s success-to NATO commander. Even so, the enforcement record is disappointing. Repatriation of those refugees brave enough to return home would restore some of the old heterogeneity of Yugoslavia. War crimes trials, especially for those atop the command chain, are also essential. An administration willing to risk the costs of intervention in the name of realism could run those same risks for a more lasting liberalism. Muscular enforcement of the Wilsonian elements of Dayton would be a payback, however belated and partial, by the Clinton administration for its May 1993 dereliction of principle.

In his memoirs, Holbrooke can explain the ethnic cleansers of Bosnia only by recognizing “that there was true evil in the world.” As someone who was not even in government in May 1993, Holbrooke comes closest to admitting the full consequences of Western appeasement and silence in the face of genocide. His colleagues mostly remain silent. While few can be absolved of responsibility, the Clinton administration deserves its due. The political risks it ran were serious. Once it blundered into Bosnia, its tactics were skilled. Christopher and Holbrooke were tenacious at Dayton. But the decision to stay out for so long, the belated and muffed decision to intervene, and the acceptance of ethnic cleansing must also be placed at the administration’s doorstep. Its Wilsonian pretensions remain as insupportable as its depiction of Bosnia as a foreign policy success.