In yesterday’s Washington Post, Richard Holbrooke published his reflections not only on his recent visit to the Srebrenica commemoration, but also on the way in which the war in Bosnia came to its end a decade ago.
There is naturally much in his piece that I can agree with, most particularly his description of the very real progress that we have seen in Bosnia during the last decade. We have seen more of refugee return that I think most would have believed should be the case.
But his description of how the war was brought to an end continues a tradition of mythology that bears only a limited relationship to the real story.
He implies that it was all a question of some sort of military intervention, notably the use of air power.
There are small but significant factual errors in his article. Just one example. In a key passage, he writes the following:
”It is by now universally understood that a great crime was committed in Srebrenica. As assistant secretary of state for European affairs at the time, I argued, unsuccessfully, that we needed NATO airstrikes to stop the Bosnian Serbs — bullies who preferred long-range artillery and short-range murder to anything resembling a real military operation. But Britain, France and the Netherlands had troops deployed, as part of the United Nations’ peacekeeping force, in three extremely exposed enclaves in eastern Bosnia, including Srebrenica. Facing the brutal threats of Mladic, they refused to consider airstrikes until the Dutch troops were ignominiously escorted out of Srebrenica. By then it was too late.”
This all sounds nice, but I don’t think anyone is aware of any intervention by him in favour of more use of air power in the case of Srebrenica. I talked to him during the critical weekend, as well as others, and this was not mentioned either by him or by others.
In fact, air power was used against the advancing Bosnian Serbs in Srebrenica, but proved massively ineffective. The fighters had great difficulty finding any targets, are were also afraid of being hit by fire from the ground. One could argue that there should have been even more of this, but I know of no one with factual knowledge that believes that this would have made any difference.
He claims that Britain, France and the Netherlands were against air strikes since they had troops in the eastern enclaves. Well, France did not, and it is entirely wrong to say that no air strikes were made until the Dutch had left Srebrenica.
In fact, the British commander of the UN force had ordered air strikes on a number of occasions previously, although he certainly did not see such as the sole solution. And there were air strikes at Srebrenica.
Later, more massive air strikes were made. But a recently published CIA assessment is very much in line with my long-held view that they had far less impact on the ground that on the TV screens. The capabilities of the Bosnian Serb forces were only very marginally affected by them.
What then lead to the end of the war? Wasn’t the role of Richard Holbrooke and Washington of critical importance?
It certainly was – but in a very different ways.
Up until then Washington had been blocking practically every serious attempt to achieve a political settlement. As late as during that spring, they had overturned a deal negotiated by one of their own very best diplomats. There were deep and profoundly disruptive divisions in Washington over what to do with Bosnia.
Shocked also by Srebrenica, minds were finally focused in Washington, and a realistic political strategy started to emerge. The key part of this was the agreement that Bosnia should be a state of two entities, one of which should be the Republika Srpska.
It was when Washington agreed to the setting up of Republika Srpska, and pressed Sarajevo into doing the same, that the war come to its end. The peace was based on a political deal – not a military campaign or a couple of bombs.
This is a reality that doesn’t fit to well with the myth that most things in the world can be achieved by a little bombing. It can’t – and it was a very limited importance in Bosnia as well.
Does it make any difference?
Yes, I believe it does, since erroneous myths about the past can easily lead to erroneous policies in the future. Ending wars is a difficult process itself – it does not get easier if there are profoundly distorted lessons from the past.
So, the US role was critical, and no one was more important that Richard Holbrooke in getting Washington to wake up to the realities. He deserves massive credit for that.
But the historical truth about what that role really was is very different from the myths that continue to make the rounds in the media – including in this article by Richard Holbrooke.