I wrote this piece some months ago for a Swedish publication, Axess. They have just published it, in Swedish:
“Dayton.” The word has come to signify the end of the seemingly intractable violence in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995. The narrative surrounding it is powerful: after everyone else had tried and failed, an American diplomat took the warring parties off to an isolated air force base in Ohio, where he bent them to his will and ended the war. Richard Holbrooke left no doubt in his book To End a War that the critical moment was when he convinced Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to accept peace with the Federation (Bosniak and Croat) forces arrayed against him and the army of Republika Srpska. The story of how the Americans packed their bags and made Milosevic believe that they were getting ready to leave Dayton is classic. This was the triumph of American will, and guile.
The “Dayton” narrative is powerful but inaccurate and misleading. It has never accorded with what I actually experienced at Dayton during the first ten days of the talks, when I negotiated with German diplomat Michael Steiner the first agreement reached there. Now forgotten, it strengthened the predominantly Bosniak/Croat Federation, which at the time was winning the war in Bosnia. During my stay in Dayton, Holbrooke spent most of his time cajoling the Serbs into freeing an American journalist (David Rohde) who had gotten himself caught in Pale. He talked far more to Slobodan Milosevic than to anyone else and was clearly charmed. Captivated might be more accurate.
I’ve only thereafter come to realize how the “Dayton” narrative is leading diplomats down the wrong paths. This started within a few years. Holbrooke’s team interpreted what had happened as Milosevic’s reaction to the NATO bombing of the Serb forces in Bosnia. But Milosevic did not care much about the Serb forces in Bosnia, which were mainly loyal not to him but to the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who at the time was regarded as a potential rival to Milosevic in Belgrade (if Republika Srpska were to become part of Serbia). But the misinterpretation—Milosevic will respond only to the threat to use of force—was then applied with vigor at Rambouillet to try to solve the Kosovo problem. It failed. Only several months of actual bombing forced Milosevic to give in when his lieutenants started to worry about the destruction of Serbian infrastructure and the difficulty of rebuilding after the bombing.
The reality of Dayton was different from Holbrooke’s narrative. In my view, Milosevic came to Dayton suing for peace. He was responding not to the bombing per se, but rather to a threat to his own hold on power. Something like 180-200,000 Serbs had walked out of Croatia into Serbia only a few months earlier, when Zagreb launched its Operation Storm to regain control of three “UN protected areas.” By late September 1995, the Federation forces (Bosnian Army and Croat Defense Force) were routing the Bosnian Serb army (VRS). Milosevic told the Americans he was concerned about another flood of refugees. What really concerned him was the prospect of another 500,000 (or more) Serbs walking out of Bosnia into Serbia, where they would have joined the Croatian Serbs in calling for his downfall.
So when Milosevic came to Dayton, he could not afford a continuation of the Federation offensive. He needed an agreement. He did not think he could survive much longer in power if he did not get it. But the man was cagey and pretended to resist until the last moment, a standard Balkans practice, getting in the process a very good deal for Republika Srpska (one that undermined his rival Karadzic, who was not present).
His gains included 49% of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, forcing the Federation forces to roll back from the 66% or so that they controlled when the ceasefire finally went into effect. He also got international acceptance of Republika Srpska, an “entity” defined by its majority Serb population, even though its territory was not majority Serb before the war. This “entity” owed little allegiance to the central government in Sarajevo, which had few functions defined in the Dayton constitution and over which Republika Srpska wielded several different vetoes. Republika Srpska was autonomous and entitled to special relations with Serbia. It kept its army, police and other security forces, which were saved from almost certain defeat. These arrangements were codified in a difficult-to-amend, permanent constitution that the Americans insisted upon. All armies on the verge of defeat should have the good fortune to be hauled off to “Dayton.”
The Croats also got a very good deal at Dayton. Tudjman was pretty much in the driver’s seat, as the successful Federation offensive was due in part to his forces backing up the Bosnian Croats. He controlled the only routes into the Bosniak-controlled areas of central Bosnia and skimmed off a significant percentage of the arms shipped in contravention of the UN embargo to the Bosnian Army. So the Croats got what they asked for: half the Federation and one-third of the “state” government in Sarajevo, even though they had been only 17% of the population before the war and were certainly far less than that at the time of Dayton.
It wasn’t Milosevic’s (or Tudjman’s) arm that Holbrooke twisted at Dayton. It was Izetbegovic’s. The Bosniak president of the war-time Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina said it clearly at the initialing of the Dayton agreements: this is a peace, but not a just peace. Izetbegovic was forced to accept Republika Srpska on nearly half the country’s territory in exchange for a promise that all refugees and displaced people would be able to return to their homes. He certainly knew how difficult that promise would be to fulfill in an entity that defined itself as “Serb” and would not have a majority of Serbs if everyone were to return.
Snatching defeat, or at least a mixed result, from the jaws of victory is the phrase that comes to mind. Why did Izetbegovic do it? America was his ally and chief, though not only, diplomatic backer in the war. He really had no choice. Izetbegovic must have assumed that Washington could turn off the flow of Saudi money that flowed into his accounts. The story Holbrooke told Izetbegovic—that American intelligence sources had concluded that Serb resistance was stiffening and would throw back the Federation offensive—would have sounded plausible to Izetbegovic, as the Bosnian Army over-extended itself several times during the war and suffered ignominious defeats as a result. But this time the story was made up out of whole cloth. And the Americans had offered him as a booby prize something he found hard to turn down: an “equip and train” program for the Federation armed forces that would at least guarantee something like the stalemated 1992-95 war, during most of which the Federation controlled less than 30% of the territory, would not happen again. Once the Americans had convinced Milosevic and Tudjman to sign on, Izetbegovic could not be the odd one out.
So Dayton, rather than being a triumph of American diplomacy, is more like an object lesson in why you should not be America’s best friend. If you are, we’ll find it easier to twist your arm than that of your enemy.
But now it is approaching 20 years later. Even if the peace was not just, it was peace and it has held. What can we learn from the experience of those 20 years?
First and foremost is that implementation is as important as the peace agreement. There had been no peace process to speak of in the lead-up to Dayton. What we normally think of as the peace process—the warring parties getting to know each other, learning each others’ language and tricks, finding out what is feasible and what isn’t, learning what they can trust and not—happened in Bosnia mostly after the signing, not before. Solidly supported by both the United States and the European Union, it was a good process for the better part of 10 years and led in important directions. The central government (Bosnians call it the “state” government) was strengthened, the armed forces were unified, the central bank and currency were established, significant numbers of displaced people and refugees returned home, property rights were clarified… Bosnia even had an avowedly anti-nationalist prime minister for a while.
By 2005, I was sitting with Don Hays, who led the effort, in a room at the United States Institute of Peace with Bosnians of all three ethnicities representing all the major political parties discussing amendments to the Dayton constitution, which by then had been recognized as dysfunctional. The proposal they produced—later known as the “April package”—was less than I might have hoped but a reasonable start at fixing a constitution that had clearly gone too far in enshrining ethnic identity as the be-all and end-all of Bosnian politics. When the parliament turned the package down by just two votes (short of a 2/3 majority), I was disappointed but thought things would get fixed in the next session.
I was dead wrong. The problem wasn’t the two votes, which belonged to Croats who broke party discipline to vote against the package. It was more serious. Haris Silajdzic, whose Bosniak-based party had participated in the preparation of the constitutional amendments, had staked his presidential campaign on turning down the April package, which he thought too little and misconceived. When he won, he not only could not reverse himself but quickly took up the cudgels against Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik, polarizing Bosnian politics along ethnic lines more than had been the case since 1996. Ten years of fitful but gradual progress went down the drain. The April package amendments have never returned for a vote in parliament. Even after the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the Bosnian constitution’s ethnic criteria for presidential candidates, the political leadership has been unable to find a way of fixing the (easily solved) problem.
So what we have now in Bosnia resembles a caricature of war-time Bosnia. Most of the Bosniak and Serb leaders make political hay by railing against each other. The nationalist Croats shift allegiance from side to side, depending on who is making the better offer (which is what they did in Mostar during the war).
They also seek, from time to time, a “third entity,” which would amount to revival of Herzeg-Bosna, the Croat parastate whose Croat Defense Force fought a war with the Bosnian Army in 1992 and 1993 (even while fighting with the Bosnian Army in the north). The third entity was a bad idea at Dayton, when the Croats controlled arms flow into the Federation and contributed substantially to the Federation effort. Nor is it a good idea 20 years later. Creation of a Croat entity would necessarily result in formation of a land-locked, isolated and likely radicalized Muslim entity in central Bosnia. Neither Croatia nor Serbia would like that.
The internationals would not either, but they too are a caricature of their former selves. The Americans lean towards the Bosniaks and strengthening the Sarajevo government. The Russians support the Serbs and maximum autonomy for Republika Srpska. The Europeans hem and haw, belittling whatever effort the Americans undertake while they are dragged along with it, all the time reciting prayers that the EU accession process will fix everything. Turkey tries, with occasional success, to play the honest broker. Little is solved because the country has a constitution the Americans forced on it at Dayton that makes it very difficult to solve anything without all three ethnic groups agreeing. Politicians who appeal across ethnic lines have so far had little success. The country falls farther and farther behind in the regatta to join NATO and the European Union. It’s a sad picture, but for the most part not a deadly one.
There are lots of people who think the Bosnian experience bears on other situations, but of course they pick and choose the implications they prefer. “Dayton” haunts Syria. Those who favor intervention point to the “safe areas” in Bosnia and want something analogous in Syria: a no-fly zone or safe area protected from the air, as those in Bosnia eventually were. They forget that the bombing only occurred because of the failure of the Serbs to respect the safe areas. NATO had to invent the “Gorazde rules,” which triggered an air campaign against the Serbs when Sarajevo was shelled. Those who want a political settlement point to the power-sharing arrangement forced on the Bosnians at Dayton by a concert of outside powers. They forget that implementation was exceedingly difficult and is now thoroughly stalled.
Let’s be clear: the merits and demerits of these ideas have nothing to do with their supposed success at Dayton. Syria is not Bosnia, even though it shares with Bosnia a history in the Ottoman Empire. That’s not irrelevant: the Ottomans successfully ruled a multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic empire without homogenizing its population, the way most European states tried to do (with greater and lesser degrees of success). Syria’s diverse population is a legacy of that Ottoman heritage, just as Bosnia’s is. But that does not mean any of the approaches taken in 1995 to ending the Bosnian war will necessarily work in Syria. I certainly would not want a dysfunctional Dayton-style power-sharing arrangement as the outcome in Syria.
What really counts today from the Bosnia experience is not Dayton but rather Srebrenica. Benghazi was saved in 2011 because thousands of Bosniaks were murdered at Srebrenica in 1995. “Responsibility to protect” (R2P) can’t help the Syrians, because of the split in the UN Security Council (and American reluctance to get involved). But it helped not only in Libya, but also in Ivory Coast and elsewhere: states today are clearly obligated to protect their populations. If they fail to do so, other states have a way of getting licensed to intervene that did not exist in Bosnia in 1995. That, more than “Dayton,” is a legacy we should respect.