In defense of Richard Holbrooke

Critics of Richard Holbrooke and the Dayton Peace Agreement are completely wrong – it was not Dayton that ethnically divided Bosnian politics and society, but rather that Bosnia’s divided society and politics resulted in Dayton.

By Gordon N. Bardos

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In one of history’s instructive little coincidences, the day after Richard Holbrooke died, a Council of Europe report accused one of his Kosovo protégés of being the head of a criminal group involved in drug smuggling, sex trafficking, the assassination of political opponents, and human organ harvesting.

It is inevitable that a man whose career spanned crises across continents and decades would be controversial, and diplomatic historians will certainly review and debate many of Holbrooke’s views and decisions for years to come. This debate has already begun amongst Balkan specialists. Specifically, it has now become fashionable to blame Holbrooke for many of Bosnia & Herzegovina’s current problems, allegedly because the agreement he crafted to end the Bosnian civil war, the Dayton Peace Accords, has led to the “ethnification” of Bosnian politics.

On this score, however, Holbrooke’s critics are absolutely wrong.

The reality of Bosnian history is that it was always an “ethnified” society and polity. In Ottoman-era Bosnia, depending on one’s ethno-confessional background there were proscriptions and prohibitions on where and whether a group could build a house of worship, whether one’s testimony was considered valid in court or not, what color clothes one could wear, whether you could own a gun or ride a horse in town, etc., etc. In 19th century Bosnia, singing societies, theater groups, student organizations, rural villages, military formations, urban neighborhoods and even commercial banks were all divided along ethno-confessional lines. Elections in Bosnia, from those held under the Habsburgs in 1911 to those held under the communists in 1990 to those held under NATO today have always essentially been ethnic censuses. Political appointments and positions in Bosnia’s various governments under all these regimes have always strictly followed the ethnic key. Historically, the economic stratification of Bosnian society along ethnic lines was equally dramatic: in 1910, some five decades after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and Tsar Alexander freed the serfs, 90 percent of the landowners with tenant farmers in Bosnia were Muslim (now officially known as Bosniacs), while 90 percent of the tenant farmers were either Croat or Serb Christians.

To most people, such a system of rule sounds more like apartheid South Africa, the pre-Civil War American South, or Germany circa 1934-35 than the harmonious multicultural society popular portrayals of Bosnia’s history suggest. Moreover, it is probably only in our study of the Balkans that people like to claim that history doesn’t matter. Any scholar who would argue that the legacy of slavery or Jim Crow is irrelevant to understanding racial problems in the US today or that the Holocaust is irrelevant to understanding Israeli attitudes would be laughed out of the seminar room, yet in our debates about the Balkans, the region’s problems are commonly reduced to the malevolent influence of a few “ethnic entrepreneurs” in the 1980s and 90s.

That the “ethnification” of Bosnian society happened long before Richard Holbrooke came along is most apparent in the record regarding the most intimate of human relationships — marriage. Despite the myth of high levels of interethnic marriage in Bosnia and Herzegovina frequently expounded in the media, Bosnian social reality has throughout history been quite the opposite. In nineteenth century Bosnia, mixed marriages were completely unheard of. As late as 1988, ninety-three percent of Bosniacs married endogenously, and Croats and Serbs were not much more inclined to marry outside their ethnic groups either. In 2001 in the Herzegovinian town of Mostar, out of 176 recorded marriages, not a single one was between a Croat and a Bosniac.

Clearly, then, Holbrooke’s and Dayton’s critics have the story completely wrong. It was not Dayton that ethnically divided Bosnian politics and society; in reality, it was Bosnia’s divided society and politics that resulted in Dayton. To his credit, what Holbrooke managed to achieve at Dayton was a grand compromise providing each of Bosnia & Herzegovina’s peoples their main strategic requirements: the Bosniacs received their historic goal of having an independent and unified Bosnia, while Croats and Serbs received high levels of ethnic self-government, and loose associations with their neighboring kin-states. Moreover, the ethnic powersharing formulas incorporated into Dayton were neither invented nor imposed by Holbrooke; they completely conformed to centuries of Balkan political culture and tradition, and are perfectly compatible with similar forms of multiethnic democracy practiced in other parts of the world.

Indeed, most of the problems Bosnia currently faces are not due to Dayton, but to the ongoing efforts to create a unitary, centralized state, and to enlist international actors to abrogate the constitutional protections and institutional rights Bosnia’s ethnic communities currently enjoy. Bosnia’s Croats, for instance, are rightfully outraged by the fact that the nominally Croat member of the state presidency was elected without the votes of ninety percent of the Croat electorate in Bosnia, and the leader of the Bosniac Social Democratic Party is now preventing a Croat from becoming the country’s prime minister, despite the fact that according to a principle of rotation in office it is a Croat’s turn to hold the job. It is worth remembering that when Slobodan Milosevic pulled the same stunt in May 1991, it was one of the final nails in Yugoslavia’s coffin. As Holbrooke himself noted one time, “Bosnia is a federal state. It has to be structured as a federal state. You cannot have a unitary government, because then the country would go back into fighting. And that’s the reason that the Dayton agreement has been probably the most successful peace agreement in the world in the last generation, because it recognized the reality.”

In his defense, Holbrooke was probably right to boast about Dayton being the most successful peace agreement of the last generation. It ended 43 months of war and paved the way for what is arguably the most successful refugee return program in history — all at the cost of zero American lives lost to hostile fire. Would that the diplomats who oversaw the Iraq war had managed something like that.

However historians ultimately view Holbrooke’s role in the many events and crises he was involved in, one thing should be clear — the effort he put into negotiating the Dayton Peace Accords in the fall and winter of 1995 were the finest moments of his career. Only a man with the determination and energy of Richard Holbrooke could have performed the incredibly difficult diplomatic feat of keeping the competing interests of Washington, Brussels, Moscow, Zagreb, Belgrade, and Bosnia’s Croats, Muslims and Serbs in check to finally put an end to Europe’s most tragic conflict in the last fifty years. For this, we should give the man his due.

Gordon N. Bardos is the assistant director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.

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