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The 'big-bang' approach to diplomacy
'To End a War'
by Richard Holbrooke
Web posted on:
Monday, February 08, 1999 5:19:06 PM
(CNN) -- Over the weekend, in a former royal hunting castle in France, the eyes of the
world turned to what is being billed as Dayton II. How are the peace
negotiations on Kosovo like those that mesmerized America for 21 days in
November 1995 -- when history was made at the Wright Patterson Air Force
base in Dayton, Ohio? Here is an excerpt of what the veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke,
chief architect of the Dayton accord, has to say about Dayton in a book Time Magazine described as a "classic account of lock-up, great power diplomacy ..."
"'Dayton' has entered the language as a shorthand for a certain type of
diplomacy -- the Big Bang approach to negotiations: lock everyone up until
they reach an agreement. Those considering other Daytons should proceed
with caution. It is a high-wire act without a safety net. Much work must
precede the plunge into such an all-or-nothing environment. The site must
be just right. The goals must be clearly defined. A single host nation must
be in firm control, but it is high risk for the host, whose prestige is on
the line. The consequences of failure are great. But when the conditions
are right, a Dayton can produce dramatic results.
The translators' booths in the two large conference rooms came to symbolize
for me the stupidity of the war. Our system had six language channels on
the headsets. The first three were for English, French, and Russian,
Channel 4 was for translation into Bosnian, 5 into Croatian, and 6 into
Serbian. This puzzled outsiders, since the same language, with minor
differences, was spoken throughout the region. The answer came when one
looked at the translation booths a few feet from our table. Each
participant from the Balkans could choose his or her channel of preference
-- but one interpreter translated for channels 4,5, and 6. When I noted
this absurdity to Bosnian Foreign Minister Muhamed Sacirbey, he said that "Serbo-Croatian" no longer existed
-- or, perhaps, had never existed. Nationalistic leaders were aggressively
developing distinctive vocabularies for each ethnic group. Language, which
had once helped unify Yugoslavia, was now another vehicle through which
people were being driven apart.
Our goals were ambitious: first, to turn the sixty-day cease-fire into a
permanent peace and, second, to gain agreement for a multiethnic state.
Many observers believed these were impossible goals. Whatever we did,
critics said, Bosnia would join their neighboring "motherlands." We could
not ignore the possibility that this might eventually happen. But not at
Dayton -- and not under American leadership. We would not legitimize Serb
aggression or encourage Croat annexation. Furthermore, such an outcome
might unleash a new round of ethnic and border conflicts in Central and
To reach our goal required agreements on many issues: eastern Slavonia, the
Federation, a constitutional framework, elections, a three-person
presidency, a national assembly, freedom of movement and the right of
refugees to return to their homes, compliance with the International War
Crimes Tribunal, and an international police force. Finally, we would face
our most contentious task: determining the internal boundaries of Bosnia,
those between the Serb portion of Bosnia and the Croat-Muslim Federation.
Our governing principle for this daunting agenda was simple: what we didn't
get at Dayton we would never get later, so we would try to put everything
on paper rather than settling for the sort of short and vague (and
ultimately ignored) agreements that had been the products of all previous
peace efforts. Better a high benchmark than a weak compromise. Despite the
difficulties that implementation was to encounter, this approach proved to
be correct. Any lesser goal at Dayton would have resulted in larger
problems later. While some people criticized us for trying to do too much
at Dayton, my main regret is that we did not attempt more.
The Compound: The size and diversity of Wright-Patterson impressed the
participants. We wanted them to see this physical symbol of American power.
But the small inner compound where we lived and negotiated was a different
story. We placed the American, Bosnian, Croat, and combined Serbian-Bosnian
Serb delegation in the four nondescript visiting officers' quarters that
faced each other around a drab rectangular parking lot. the Europeans
occupied a fifth building off the quad, but only thirty feet away... The
ground-floor windows of my rooms looked straight into those of Milosevic.
across the parking lot, about sixty yards away, thus allowing us to see if
he was in his suite. The buildings were adequate, but hardly elegant. Our
rooms were small, sound carried through the thin walls, and the corridor
was only about six feet wide. During a preview tour of the facilities for
journalists before the talks began, someone compared them to college
dormitories. Sacirbey thought they looked like a Motel 6.
These were true "proximity" talks; we could walk from President to
President in about a minute. On some days we would visit each President in
his quarters a half-dozen times. Our days (and nights) became a blur of
Our team arrived in Dayton on October 31, in time to greet the Balkan
delegations. The wind whipped across the airstrip at Wright-Patterson and
there was a cold, light drizzle -- weather we would soon become used to.
Shortly after 6:00 pm, Milosevic arrived, proclaiming his confidence that a
peace agreement would emerge from Dayton. Then, on an American military
plane, came Izetbegovic, withdrawn and apprehensive, who spoke briefly,
calling for "peace with justice." Finally Tudjman landed, proud and
haughty. Although obviously pleased at the honor guard, he made no
statement. From the outset, he wanted to show he had finally become more
important than his longtime rivals.
I accompanied each President to his quarters, then returned to the airstrip
to wait for the next arrival. Tudjman and Izetbegovic went directly to bed,
but Milosevic, ever the night owl, was restless as usual, and asked to tour
the grounds. I took him, naturally, to Packy's All-Sports Bar.
Packy's was Wright-Patterson's answer to the United Nations Delegates
Lounge, and a lot more fun. Pictures of Bob Hope -- for whom the Hope
Conference Center was named -- entertaining American troops in four wars
covered the walls. Four giant television screens, tuned to CNN and various
all-sports channels, dominated the main room. Each table had its own small
speaker, which could tune to any of the four channels, so the room usually
resounded with overlapping broadcasts. On nights when the Chicago Bulls
played, the Croats gathered to cheer their hero, Toni Kukoc; the Serbs
waited the cheer Vlade Divac, then with the Los Angeles Lakers.
When Milosevic and I arrived on that first evening, Haris Silajdzic was
sitting with Chris Hill. I went over to their table, but Milosevic
pointedly held back, shaking Silajdzic's hand brusquely and then turning
away to chat with people at the other tables. Watching Milosevic turn on
the charm, Warren Christopher observed that had fate dealt him a different
birthplace and education, he would have been a successful politician in a
The waitress serving Milosevic was a pleasant woman who had no idea that
she was serving one of the most reviled people in the world. "What's your
name?" he asked her. "Where are you from?" Charmed by the attention, she
told us she was Vicky. In Milosevic's excellent but accented English, she
became "Waitress Wicky." Whenever he came to Packy's, he would ask her to
serve him. A local legend was born, and a year later, during the
first-anniversary celebration at Wright-Patterson, I was served by Waitress
Wicky herself, now a proud part of the Dayton story.
Milosevic was seething about the press, especially a profile of him by
Roger Cohen in The New York Times that morning. "It is unbelievable," the
Serb leader said, "that such shit can be printed." He singled out the
reference to his parents -- his father, "an Orthodox priest who had
committed suicide several years later."
"Why do they print such stupid things?" he asked, neither confirming or
denying their accuracy. "How can you permit it?" Milosevic complained that
some of the information in Cohen's article came from within our delegation.
This was true, although unintentional, and I made no effort to deny it.
Copyright © 1999 by Richard Holbrooke
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