Commentary Magazine

To End a War by Richard Holbrooke

To End a War
by Richard Holbrooke
Random Home. 408 pp. $21.95

“You have a friend in Pennsylvania,” license plates in the former Quaker colony used to proclaim. “I want to have many friends in Washington” could be the motto of Richard Holbrooke’s To End a War, a detailed account of his efforts to bring Bosnia’s Muslims, Serbs, and Croats to sign the 1995 Dayton peace accords.

If one is to believe the former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, now America’s ambassador-designate to the United Nations, virtually everyone in the Clinton White House, State Department, Pentagon, and every other relevant government agency is either a “friend” or an “old friend.” In his acknowledgments, Holbrooke proudly claims indebtedness to over 100 politicians, journalists, diplomats, admirals, scholars, generals, and others. His gratitude extends above all to those with whom he disagreed or encountered difficulties of one sort or another. Although nothing could be more evident in this book than Bill Clinton’s lack of interest and initiative throughout the Bosnian conflict, Holbrooke sets the President upon the highest pedestal.

Samuel Johnson declared ambition to be a “noble passion.” Ambitious Holbrooke famously is, and, as his liberal use of flattery suggests, he can politick with the best of them. But noble? In To End a War he projects himself as unfailingly flexible and unfailingly resourceful, not to speak of strong-willed and persistent. Other adjectives spring to mind with equal plausibility in the course of reading this book: imperious and peremptory are just two. But the truth is hard to get at, because Holbrooke as painted by Holbrooke is essentially a two-dimensional figure. When things go well, he is happy; when things fail to go well, he is unhappy but resolute. When meetings run long and time in bed is short, he feels tired. And when three American colleagues (to whom his book is dedicated) perish on a mountain road outside Sarajevo, he feels sad—although not interested enough in the French driver and three French soldiers who were also in the vehicle to mention their fate.

The real question, in any event, has to do not with Holbrooke’s self-presentation but with his moral and diplomatic convictions. In Bosnia, so far as one can tell, these were either nonexistent or completely dependent on the situation of the moment. He tells us, for example, that he “simply hated” the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and the Serbian military commander Ratko Mladic, both of whom had been indicted for war crimes, and he refused to shake hands or to sit down with either one of them. On the other hand, he enjoyed a rapport with Serbia’s president, Slobodan Milosevic, got along well with Croatia’s president, Franjo Tudjman, and seems to have been intimate enough with Bosnia’s Muslim president, Alija Izetbegovic, to refer to him as “Izzy.”

Why the discrepancy? After all, as he acknowledges, Milosevic bore the heaviest responsibility for the war; Tudjman wanted to make Croatia ethnically pure; and Izetbegovic, a devout Muslim, paid only lip service to the principles of a multiethnic state and was no democrat. But the reasons behind Holbrooke’s moral calculus are not far to seek: all three of these men were willing to accommodate him in his diplomatic maneuverings.

No less clear is what they got in return. When, in 1992, the then-Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger, demanded the creation of an international tribunal to prosecute war criminals, Milosevic’s name was first on the list of those to be tried. Carl Bildt, the former prime minister of Sweden who served as the European Union’s peace envoy in Bosnia, later accused Tudjman, too, of war crimes in connection with the mass killings of Serbian civilians. Holbrooke himself, in a January 1993 memorandum to Warren Christopher and Anthony Lake, then about to assume the offices, respectively, of Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, recommended that the U.S. “brand certain individuals war criminals.” Yet neither Milosevic nor Tudjman has ever been indicted.

By 1995, Tudjman’s army was busy expelling Serbs from Croatia and western Bosnia as the Bosnian Serb army came under NATO bombardment. Although Holbrooke (and other American negotiators) told Tudjman that “there was no excuse for the brutal treatment of Serbs,” he pointedly abstained from putting any pressure on the Croats to desist. To the contrary, when John Shattuck, the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, described the misery of the endless streams of Serbian refugees fleeing eastward, Holbrooke agreed with a colleague that “this is no time to get squeamish.” For the sake of his immediate objectives, the same kind of ethnic cleansing he had found criminally abhorrent in 1993 could be accepted, if not encouraged, in 1995.

And what were those objectives? For Holbrooke, “the shape of the diplomatic landscape will usually reflect the balance of forces on the ground.” Since the United States was not going to send its own troops to intervene, Croatian conquests seemed as good a way as any to coerce the Bosnian Serbs into accepting the peace terms Holbrooke was proposing. Fortunately for him, his lack of squeamishness concerning the plight of Serbian civilians was shared not only by Tudjman but also by Serbia’s president Milosevic.

To End a War is full of praise for Milosevic’s “tactical flexibility and superb negotiating skills”; his superior mind, which quickly “assimilate[s] every nuance of documents written in English”; and his stamina during negotiations. But Holbrooke’s book, extracts of which have been published in the Belgrade press, is likely to damage Milosevic’s standing among his fellow Serbs. In it they can see how the man they once worshipped as a great patriot—in the West he was seen, more accurately, as a bellicose chauvinist—accepted the expulsion of Serbs from Croatia and western Bosnia with what Holbrooke extols as equanimity but which was really utter callousness, a means toward lifting the international economic sanctions imposed against Yugoslavia in 1992. No wonder he excites the admiration of the American negotiator.



What Holbrooke was after in Bosnia was not justice, in short, but collaboration. If only Karadzic and Mladic—the two Serbs he “simply hated”—had been more cooperative, it is quite possible they, too, would have escaped indictment for what they did to Bosnian Muslims.

Nor do the consequences of his shoot-from-the-hip diplomacy seem to concern Holbrooke overmuch. He is proud of the American accomplishment in forcing the Serbs to lift the siege of Sarajevo and in reuniting the city, but he severely underplays the fact that the Muslims launched an offensive from Sarajevo immediately thereafter, and that hardly any non-Muslims now live there. As for the reunification of Bosnia itself—the larger raison d’être of Holbrooke’s plan—the simple truth is that virtually no refugees are returning, which makes the common Muslim-Serbian-Croatian government a meaningless construct; not reunification but partition remains the rule in the former Yugoslavia.

Does he care? Though he makes dutiful references to the beauties of the multiethnic culture of Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia, Holbrooke evinces virtually no interest in the place. Among his many pretentious quotations from literature and poetry, Yugoslav authors are conspicuous by their absence. By contrast, he can be found here uttering or agreeing with statements deprecating this “self-destructive” and “savage” land, with its “Balkan mentality.” Of course, this, like his assertion that Serbs are not “rational people with whom one could argue, negotiate, compromise, and agree,” may not be intentionally defamatory but merely another excuse for self-dramatization.

“The world will look to Washington for more than rhetoric the next time we face a challenge to peace,” Holbrooke concludes. In Kosovo today, that challenge is already quite manifest; the war about which Holbrooke writes in To End a War is far from ended. One can only hope that, just as the world looks to Washington for more than rhetoric, Washington will some day reciprocate with a more principled brand of diplomacy than the adventurist and morally pernicious variety described and recommended here.


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