From Yugoslavia to Dayton, Ohio.

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The turning point for Bosnia came in August 1995 with a NATO bombing campaign. The air strikes succeeded in doing what no diplomatic effort had: persuading Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic to join in ending the four-year-old war over the pieces of the former Yugoslavia. Before the bombing, the aggressors in Bosnia treated international efforts with contempt, even taking hostages from the ineffectual U.N. peacekeeping force. But barely three months after the strikes began, a comprehensive peace agreement was reached at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

The decision to bomb for peace was controversial, to put it mildly. Most European governments found it unattractive and risky, as did NATO, the American military, and the major international organizations. Yet they were all equally mindful of the failure of diplomacy in Bosnia — and its horrible consequences in lost lives, ethnic cleansing and refugees. What to do?

The answer turns out to have been to take a vacation.

It was August, after all. The president of the United States, the vice president, the national security adviser, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the director of central intelligence, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were on holiday, every last one of them. And so it was that the deputies in charge of Bosnian policy were able to do what the principals didn’t have the stomach to do — but didn’t have the will to stop from their August vacation spots, either. Richard Holbrooke, the assistant secretary of state who had taken charge of the peacemaking efforts and was the leading proponent of air strikes in the administration, describes the extraordinary scene in his new book, To End a War:

As the hours and the days blurred into one continuous crisis session, the deputies were in charge — so much so that they began teasing each other about it. “We joked,” Strobe Talbott, who was acting Secretary of State, recalled later, “that it was ‘deputy dogs’ day,” and how we felt like the kid in Home Alone. . . . Led by Sandy Berger, who was acting National Security Advisor, the team included John White (acting Secretary of Defense), Admiral Bill Owens (acting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), George Tenet (acting director of the CIA), Undersecretary of Defense Walter Slocombe, and Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff. The only Cabinet-level official not on vacation was Madeleine Albright, who shuttled feverishly between Washington and New York trying to overcome the reluctance of U.N. officials to take action.

The U.N. was an especially difficult obstacle, for Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali staunchly opposed bombing and retained, in effect, a veto over military action. Fortunately, at a critical moment, Boutros-Ghali “was unreachable on a commercial aircraft,” so Albright “dealt instead with his best deputy, Kofi Annan, who was in charge of peacekeeping operations. At 11:45 A.M., New York time, came a big break: Annan informed Talbott and Albright that he had instructed the U.N.’s civilian officials and military commanders to relinquish for a limited time their authority to veto air strikes in Bosnia.”

It only remained, as it were, to cut obstructionist NATO higher-ups out of the loop. That task fell to NATO Secretary-General Willy Claes. “Instead of calling for another formal meeting to make a decision, Claes simply informed the other members of NATO” that he had authorized his military commanders to take action. Voila: The inertia ends, the policy changes, negotiations begin, and — hardly automatically, but as a product of much the same determination and ingenuity that led to the air strikes — the war is over, well in time for the principals to return from their vacations to organize conferences and signing ceremonies at which to congratulate themselves for their diplomatic achievement.

Holbrooke’s first legacy to American foreign policy is, of course, the Dayton peace accords, the agreement that ended the fighting between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia — a peace that Holbrooke seemed personally to will into being against all odds. But a second legacy is To End a War, his gripping memoir of the Dayton negotiations, their prelude and aftermath. This book is a masterpiece not only for its unforgettable account of the diplomacy of Dayton — an experience the author convincingly describes as “something like a combination of chess and mountain climbing” — but also for the clarity of Holbrooke’s vision of post-Cold War Europe and the United States. We will see what remains of that clarity when, as Clinton announced last week, he becomes U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

Partly at the urging of Holbrooke himself, who was serving as an informal adviser, candidate Bill Clinton in 1992 was harshly critical of the Bush administration’s handling of the crisis in the former Yugoslavia. When President Clinton took office, however, he initially offered nothing different, even as the war escalated and televised scenes of massacre on the periphery of civilized Europe became common.

Holbrooke discerns two main reasons for American indifference. The first was the thought that a European conflict ought to be up to the Europeans to solve, with the encouragement of the United States perhaps, but not with the United States in the lead role. As President Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, put it: “It was time to make the Europeans step up to the plate and show that they could act as a unified power.”

The second was the view that ethnic hatred in the Balkans was so deeply rooted it could never be overcome, and that it would be foolish of outsiders to try. Holbrooke notes the esteem with which President Clinton and key administration officials held Robert Kaplan’s acclaimed 1993 best-seller, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History, a book filled with tales of ancient animosity.

Early in 1995, Holbrooke published an article in the journal Foreign Affairs in which he called the former Yugoslavia “the greatest collective security failure of the West since the 1930s.” What Holbrooke understood was that without American leadership, there was no hope for peace in Bosnia. The Europeans, as they themselves were beginning to understand, were incapable of organizing to meet the challenge. In this sense, Bosnia was not merely a European problem. What good was a structure of European security that periodically allowed such episodes in Europe? And what would a policy of indifference to Bosnia say about the willingness of the United States to remain engaged in Europe? The answer was clear: Without an active American role in the former Yugoslavia, American-European relations would enter a crisis from which they might never recover.

Holbrooke finally got the chance to pursue his vision in 1995. He and his team began shuttling back and forth between Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia, winning an agreement in which the Bosnian Serb irregular forces — the target of the American air strikes — would lift the siege of Sarajevo. Meanwhile, Croatian and Muslim forces were enjoying some success on the battlefield, recapturing some territory and thus facilitating later discussions over the map of Bosnia. As the Croat-Muslim offensive was running out of stearn, Holbrooke brokered a cease-fire that led to the twenty-one-day negotiation in Dayton. The three presidents, Bosnia’s Alija Izetbegovic, Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman, and Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, finally agreed to a wide-ranging settlement on geographical, political, and military issues that kept Bosnia a single country — with a little help from a sixty-thousand man, American-led NATO implementation force.

To End a War rarely mentions the centuries of ethnic tension and violence in the Balkans, a point for which Holbrooke has been criticized. In fact, though, the book is a convincing refutation of the view that the barbarous past must triumph, and the Dayton accords are a vindication of Holbrooke’s claim that nationalism wasn’t something with which Balkan leaders were inflamed, but something they inflamed to further their own ambitions. In the end, the old animosities and ancient hatreds proved responsive to judicious application of pressure and diplomacy.

The Dayton accords remain controversial in a number of ways — first among which is the fact that Serbia’s aggression was rewarded. Holbrooke describes the poignant moment at which Bosnia’s president gave his final assent: “Time had run out, and we needed an answer immediately. There was a long, agonizing pause. We watched Izetbegovic carefully. No one spoke. Finally, speaking slowly, Izetbegovic said, ‘It is not a just peace.’ He paused for what seemed like a minute, but was probably only three seconds. ‘But my people need peace.'”

Holbrooke himself devotes a section at the conclusion of the book to the ways in which the agreement might have been improved. And, of course, the implementation of the provisions of the agreement has been anything but smooth.

But who can say, two and a half years later, that Bosnia, Europe, and relations between Europe and the United States would be better off if Dayton had failed or had never been attempted? The fact is that improved and rejuvenated European security arrangements stand as the Clinton administration’s signal foreign policy achievement. Holbrooke brought clarity to questions of American power and leadership in an administration not widely peopled with clear thinkers on the subject.

Holbrooke often notes that his small team enjoyed extraordinary latitude to conduct the negotiations and had excellent support from Washington. That seems true — as far as it goes. But To End a War is not a fulldress history of Bosnian policy. Holbrooke keeps his book tightly focused on himself and those closest to him, his negotiating team and his interlocutors. He is quick with praise for timely interventions by his principals: a firm word from the president, a tough comment from the secretary of state. But he does not delve into their motives or goals.

Perhaps they were every bit as committed to the process as Richard Holbrooke. Or perhaps they were mainly on vacation.