Part VIIA: Diplomatic Deception by Holbrooke re former Yugoslavia A Review of George Packer (2019) Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

The Dayton Accords ending the war in former Yugoslavia are widely seen as the major accomplishment of Richard Holbrooke’s diplomatic role as well as a first-rate achievement of post-WWII American diplomacy. I eagerly read the biography to check whether my critical view of Holbrooke’s diplomacy in former Yugoslavia held up or whether I ought to alter my assessment of him. I was particularly concerned with the issue of diplomatic deception. By diplomatic deception, I do not just refer to misleading the militant parties who are deceived by a mediator in trying to help reach an agreement, but also the mis-directions aimed at one’s own political diplomatic superiors and colleagues.

If Holbrooke can be justly criticized for the Dayton Accords rather than complimented, can that be explained by the subtle corruption of American diplomatic work in Vietnam, as Packer implies? (p. 156) Packer considered the introduction of viciousness and deception that had already wormed itself into the heart of American diplomacy during the Vietnam War, to be further firmly pounded into place by the work of Zbigniew Brzezinski (Zbig), President Jimmy Carter’s Security Policy Advisor. In negotiations with the Chinese and Vietnamese governments and with the U.S.S.R. on the Salt II Agreement, Zbig finished the job of destroying a traditional lofty and honourable approach in favour of the misleading and bullying tactic, (primarily with one’s own team). Cyrus Vance dubbed Zbig “evil, a liar, dangerous.” And Zbig was. Further, he admired the use of muscle as a key element in diplomacy.

Perhaps I raise this question because I am a Canadian, because Canada has relatively little muscle to bring to the table and because of what I learned in my work with Canadian diplomats. I was taught that the central skill in international diplomacy was creative equivocation, the ability to forge language that allowed each side to take different interpretations of text, each favourable to one’s own side. As a variation on a standard Jewish joke, one party asks, “Does what you propose mean this?” The mediator replies, “Yes.” The other party takes the mediator aside and asks, “Am I correct in believing the proposal means this?” (That is, the opposite of the other side’s interpretation). And the diplomat again answers, “Yes.” Then an academic along as an adviser, who is trained in philosophy and a belief in “clear and distinct ideas,” takes the diplomat aside and says, “Those two interpretations cannot both be true.” The diplomat replies, “You are correct as well.” Diplomacy is interpreted as the art of making a deal by allowing each party to believe that the new arrangement serves each party’s interests, even if this has to be accomplished, in the worst case, by using equivocation.

However, equivocation is not bullying, that is, putting pressure on the parties by the threat of military force. Equivocation is more akin to a gestalt experiment in which different parties are given room to make their own minds up about meaning reflective of their own beliefs. The conviction is that, once the benefits of peace, and even the belief in it, have taken root, the differences may remain on the table, but they are no longer differences that the respective parties will be determined to settle by violent conflict.

Further, when is the use of military threat an act of humanitarian intervention rather than bullying? Former (and failed) Democratic presidential candidate. George McGovern, who had been a peace ideologue on Vietnam, became a militant proponent (as was Holbrooke) of what later came to be called “The Responsibility to Protect” in terms of a Canadian international commission and proposal to which I had contributed. R2P is defined as the duty to insert military force into a country to prevent the use of massive violence against a regime’s own people, as in the genocide of the middle class in Cambodia. Vietnam, actually carried out the job of intervention in Cambodia in 1979 to stop the genocide, or, as perhaps, should have happened in Srebrenica in former Yugoslavia.

In our own time, R2P was applied in one bombing run by the Trump administration in Syria in retaliation against the use of chemical weapons against its own people by the Syrian government, but then stopped. Holbrooke’s period as Undersecretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs was marked in good part by an effort to advance that doctrine. With one important caveat. “The thing called the national interest always came first. Holbrooke’s overriding goal was to re-establish the United States as a Pacific power.” (p. 196) But Zbig was several notches further towards the hawkish side than Holbrooke. He facilitated the Thai government supplying the Khmer Rouge and refused to allow what was taking place in Cambodia to be called “genocide,” both policy measures opposed by Holbrooke.

In the midst of Packer’s depiction of the tensions among the use of military muscle, realpolitik and R2P, Packer made a major error. He wrote: “After the fall of Saigon, President Ford had let 130,000 South Vietnamese into the United States. Then the gates closed.” (p. 201) As my colleague, Astri Suhrke, wrote in a 1981 article, “As of 31 October 1980, the distribution of Indochinese resettled in other countries were: The United States – 429,302 (including 130,000 evacuated to the United States in 1975).” The 130,000 is the number of Indochinese evacuated before the U.S. embassy in Saigon shut its doors. But, as I have written in an earlier blog, America continued to take Indochinese refugees, both under Ford and Carter. I do not want to repeat my explication of the error with any greater depth. Instead, I want to use it to highlight the difference between Holbrooke and Zbig on refugees. Holbrooke favoured continuing and increasing the intake. Zbig was at best indifferent.

Holbrooke left government with the defeat of Jimmy Carter by Ronald Reagan and went into the private sector to make money. But during this period, he became the ghostwriter for Clark Clifford’s memoirs, Counsel to the President. The result: “At its heart a book like that had to be a fraud. I don’t mean that it contained fabrications, or even that it was self-serving – all autobiographies are. I mean that, pushed down beneath the self-sacrificing public servant and sober statesman whose favorite descriptors were ‘gracious,’ ‘charming,’ and ‘delightful,’ there was, there had to be, a monomaniac whose ambition was so insatiable that he took on the running of a bank in his eighth decade.” (pp. 225-6) Packer described Clifford as a ruthless fixer consumed with power and money, but who had been transformed in the autobiography into a bore. Holbrooke, as a sycophantic hero-worshipper of Clifford, managed to convert him into a saintly sludge.  

In 1994, Holbrooke rejoined the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton (following the advice of Strobe Talbott, the deputy secretary of state) as assistant secretary for Europe – a step sideways from his previous position rather than up. In his own words, Holbrooke wrote: “I thought the administration had never done a correct action on Bosnia. Having inherited a mess, they’d made it worse, and I suggested we shouldn’t make tactical decisions on a day-to-day basis until we had a strategic objective, tried to figure out what it might cost, and whether it would be worth pursuing, and whether we could get public support for it.” (p. 292) That strategic objective became forging a peace, even an unfair peace, as long as the war was ended, and using the big stick as pressure to help force the parties to make a deal.

The second point to note from Holbrooke’s own writing is that he now placed the importance of character as equal to that of intelligence. He never lacked the latter. What was that character? “(A) set of guiding principles, a value system, and rock-hard integrity…Without character, one can lose one’s way.” (p. 293) Particularly relevant to the present, Holbrooke noted: “My private conversation with Biden was difficult. His ego and the difficulty he has in listening to other people made it uncomfortable.” (p. 296) What did the Dayton Accords reflect about Holbrooke’s character, especially in a time when the public no longer respected public service or the national interest? Voters had become cynics and believed that one went into public service simply to advance one’s personal interests.

However, the answers to the issue of character and how to balance diplomacy with the threat of force must await the next blog. It is first necessary to summarize the state of play of the military and political forces on the ground.

With respect to the war in former Yugoslavia, America could have lifted the arms embargo on the Bosniacs or Bosnian Muslims so they could not only defend themselves, but recover the territory seized by the Republika Srpska. Holbrooke believed the failure to lift the embargo was immoral. But he had great difficulty in planning and executing a plan to bring that about. As an interim measure, Holbrooke favoured a UN resolution combined with the use of airpower in the region to enforce a cease fire by NATO on the Serbs who were using international airspace to attack the Bihać pocket.

But the Europeans would not use military force to help the Muslims. And the U.S. would not insert troops on the ground. On this basis, there was no realistic way to intervene militarily to help the Muslims and punish Serb aggression, especially since the attack on the Bihać pocket had been instigated as a counter-offensive to a Muslim military initiative.

However, events on the ground were changing. The ceasefire was unravelling totally. The Croatian army was now stronger than the Serbian one. The Bosniacs were now being supplied with military equipment by Iran and Turkey. Under this pressure, the Serbs counterattacked, tried to strangle Sarajevo further and capture the enclaves of Goražde, Žepa and Srebrenica. The latter was accomplished by totally embarrassing and emasculating the Dutch peacekeepers and by the massive slaughter of 7,000 Bosnian men and older boys in Srebrenica. UN-guaranteed protection had been a complete failure.

On the other hand, time was no longer on the Serb side. The Croatians were now stronger and the Bosniacs were beginning to develop some ability to defend themselves more effectively. Further, Milošević wanted to redeem himself in the eyes of the international community and seemed no longer willing to backstop the Serb leadership of Republika Srpska, particularly General Mladić, a genocidal killer.  At the same time, both the UN and NATO had proven to be paper tigers. Clinton’s closest advisers were urging the U.S. simply to adopt a strategy of preventing the war from spreading.

Tony Lake, however, now dissented. He insisted that the U.S. either allow Bosnia to defend itself and regain territory or develop a new strategy to end the war. But if the Americans bombed, UN peacekeepers who, no matter how ineffective in deterring any massive Serbian attack, would have to be withdrawn. Boutros Boutros-Ghali procrastinated, dithered and deflected criticisms. NATO was an impotent enormous military machine. In the meanwhile, Žepa too fell to the Serbs. A red line was drawn. If Mladić attacked Goražde, NATO would bomb his forces and this would not be stopped by a UN veto.

Just at that time, the Croats launched an offensive, Operation Storm, in western Slavonia and ethnically cleansed the Krajina region of Serbs who had lived there for hundreds of years. Milošević sent the refugees to Kosovo, disrupting the population ratio there and accelerating Kosovo’s eventual path to militancy and independence.

Suddenly, Serbs who had controlled 70% of former Bosnia-Herzegovina were now reduced to 50%. Finally, Clinton authorized a strategy marrying the threat of force with diplomacy. Holbrooke was assigned the task of heading the diplomatic initiative. However, he was not given a free hand and this was the major lesson that I was forced to take into account in assessing Holbrooke’s performance in the peace negotiations. The end game plan provided to Holbrooke by Tony Lake included:

  • A comprehensive peace
  • A cease fire with three-way recognition
  • Two autonomous entities, a Muslim-Croat one on 50% of the land and a Serb one on the other 50%, within a single Bosnian state
  • Negotiation of borders based on ground-level reality and land swaps
  • The lifting of sanctions on Serbia
  • The return to Croatia of the last piece of Serb-held land in eastern Slavonia.

What was clear from this framework is that the political result – marrying three estranged nationalistic political entities within a single state – would be a foreseeable nightmare. Further, the Bosniacs would not only have suffered the most but would be left as the bottom-line losers.

To be continued – Holbrooke’s execution of the peace plan.

With tthe help of Alex Zisman


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