1995: The year the future began
Elegance was absent and awkwardness prevailed as the U.S.-brokered peace talks on Bosnia opened 20 years ago today at an improbable venue halfway round the world from the theater of the vicious Balkans war.
That venue was just outside Dayton, Ohio, at the Wright-Patterson Air Force base, a compound that sprawled over 8,200 acres and fairly bristled with none-so-subtle reminders of American military might.
Those reminders were unspoken but inescapable as the leaders of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia came together on November 1, 1995, at the B-29 Super Fortress conference room inside the Hope Hotel and Conference Center on the air base. Just a few weeks before, U.S.-led air strikes had forced Bosnia Serbs to pull back artillery trained on Sarajevo, Bosnia’s beleaguered capital.
The air strikes were ordered in retaliation for the Serbs’ having fired mortar rounds into a Sarajevo market place in late August 1998, an attack that killed more than three dozen people. The attack was the beginning of the end of the war in Bosnia.
The air strikes had helped force the warring parties to agree to meet at Dayton. The opening ceremony At the B-29 Super Fortress conference room was brief, tightly choreographed by the host Americans, and altogether uneasy.
The Balkans leaders knew and disliked each other, and their disdain showed. One by one, they entered the conference room, escorted to a circular table by a senior U.S. diplomat serving in the leader’s country.
The three leaders — Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia, Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia — made little eye contact with each another. Only when prodded by the U.S. secretary of state, Warren Christopher, did rise and they shake hands.
“It was a historic gathering,” wrote Roger Cohen, a New York Times correspondent who had covered years of bloodletting in the Balkans. “The walls were off-pink. The plants looked miserable. The furniture was modest. The gray carpet did not quite conceal a stain or two. Versailles it was not.”
Of course it wasn’t. The B-29 Super Fortress conference room reflected a stern reality that much hard work lie ahead.
Getting to Dayton hadn’t been at all easy.
The war in Bosnia began in April 1992, following the post-Cold War disintegration of Yugoslavia. Not until the Serb massacre of Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995 — the worst atrocity of a vicious war that returned “ethnic cleansing” and “concentration camps” to the vernacular — did United States launch a diplomatic demarche aimed at ending the conflict. (Several European-led peace initiatives had failed.)
Weeks of shuttle diplomacy in the summer 1995 — an undertaking led by the voluble and often-abrasive chief U.S. negotiator, Richard Holbrooke — produced broad agreement on a number of issues. But finalizing those agreements and resolving many other differences would take three weeks of exhausting negotiations.
Not until the last moment possible — just as the Americans were about to close down the talks and declare them a failure — were last details of an accord agreed upon at Dayton. The agreement was imperfect, but it ensured Bosnia’s territorial integrity and it ended a war that took 100,000 lives.
Dayton was an odd, unlikely venue for such a negotiation. It was an old factory town where, it seemed, where nothing much of note ever happened.
But as I point out in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, Dayton had cultivated a reputation as “something of a crucible for invention and innovation. Orville and Wilbur Wright designed their aircraft on city’s West Side. The cash register was invented in Dayton; so was microfiche, the pop-top beverage can, the wooden folding stepladder, and the soft-rubber ice cube tray.”
Dayton’s selection as a venue for the talks had nothing to do with its culture of innovation, though. The place may have been light years from the grisly ethnic violence in Bosnia, but it was just an hour’s flight from Washington, D.C., which allowed Christopher and other senior U.S. officials reasonably quick access to the talks.
Besides, the Wright-Patterson base offered seclusion and near-impregnable security. The news media could be kept at distance, well beyond the high fence that surrounded the base. A news blackout was easy to maintain. It was an ideal venue for what Holbrooke, in his book about the talks, termed “the Big Bang approach” to negotiating — “lock everyone up until they reach agreement.”
The talks were enveloped in radio silence from the moments after the ceremony in the B-29 conference room.
Radio silence extended not just to the public, but “to the rest of the American government,” Derek Chollet noted in The Road to the Dayton Accords, his fine monograph about the negotiations. Officials in Washington, he wrote, “were not always aware of the precise substance of the discussions, especially given the complexity and speed with which things happened inside the compound” at Dayton.
Inside the compound, the talks alternately careened from near failure to promises of success and back again, in what I described in 1995 as “a fascinating collision of ego, power, veiled threats, arcane cartography, arm-twisting, and nights with little sleep.”
In the end, the Dayton talks produced an agreement that covered 165 pages and included 12 annexes and 102 maps. It affirmed Bosnia’s international borders, within which were created two statelets — a Muslim-Croat Federation and a Serb republic. The former controlled 51 percent of Bosnia’s land mass; the latter, 49 percent. Determining those boundaries proved to be the most exacting and exasperating aspect of the talks: They nearly foundered on achieving a 51/49 territorial split.
The agreement, which was enforced by a NATO peacekeeping force that included 20,000 U.S. troops, was in many ways rigid and flawed. It did end the war but notably it did little to promote long-term integration of Bosnia’s ethnicities. The two statelets have done little to develop a thriving, unitary government.
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