1995: The year the future began
Twenty-one years have passed since U.S.-backed negotiations at Dayton, Ohio, produced an agreement ending the brutal war in Bosnia, Europe’s deadliest conflict since the time of the Nazis.
The agreement emerged from dramatic, last-minute concessions that rescued from the brink of failure the high-stakes negotiations that had begun three weeks earlier at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
While the Dayton accords undeniably were a triumph for the administration of President Bill Clinton, the deal reached on November 21, 1995, was decidedly imperfect — notably in establishing a weak central government and two quasi-autonomous, gerrymandered entities within Bosnia: One entity was a federation of Bosnian Muslims and ethnic Croats; the other a statelet run by Bosnian Serbs, who were principal aggressors in the conflict that took 100,000 lives.
As such, the Dayton accords locked in place the ethnic hostilities that fueled the war, which began in 1992 amid the post-Cold War breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Inevitably, perhaps, pressures have deepened from within the Serb statelet, known as Republika Srpska, to break away and establish an independent entity.
The fragility and uncertainty of contemporary Bosnia notwithstanding, the talks that produced the Dayton accords do offer broad and enduring lessons about brokering negotiations and about risk-taking in international relations.
To the former point, the accords revealed much about the limits of persuasion, even when applied by a superpower.
In 1995, the United States stood alone as the dominant power in the post-Cold War world; its military might was unchallenged. And yet, U.S. negotiators who organized and led the talks at Dayton faced obstinacy from all sides, especially the Bosnian leadership, and nearly came away empty-handed.
If not for a final-hour territorial concession, proposed by Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic and reluctantly accepted by Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic, the talks would have failed. The U.S. negotiators, led by a high-profile assistant secretary of state, Richard Holbrooke, encountered persistent difficulties in dealing with deep-seated nationalist grievances and resentments, demonstrating that the world hardly bowed automatically or readily to the unrivaled power, even when that power was at or near its zenith.
The deal at Dayton probably was the best outcome the United States could have achieved. Even then, it effectively rewarded Serb aggression by granting Republika Srpska nearly half of the Bosnian land mass.
What’s more, the Dayton accords allowed the once-warring parties — the Bosnian Muslims, ethnic Croats, and ethnic Serbs — to keep in place their respective armies.
As I pointed out in my 2015 book, 1995: The Year the Future Began,”One country, two entities, three armies: these … were hardly the ingredients of a sturdy peace.”
The success at Dayton in ending the war was followed by an interventionist period in American foreign relations, a time characterized by an inclination to apply military force to policy objectives. As I wrote in 1995, ending the war in Bosnia had a bracing effect on U.S. foreign policy and “fired ambitions abroad.”
In the years after Dayton, the U.S. military carried out bombing missions for four days over Iraq in late 1998 and for 78 days in Kosovo in 1999.
“Post-Dayton interventionism — and a willingness to deploy U.S. military power in pursuit of foreign policy objectives — lived on after the Clinton administration,” I noted in 1995. The United States led the invasion of Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and of Iraq in 2003.
What can be called an American “hubris bubble” burst during the prolonged U.S. military commitment in Iraq to defeat a fierce insurgency. “As if chastened,” I wrote in 1995, “the United States in recent years has been far less inclined to apply force to diplomacy and far more content to lead from behind.”
In any event, another lesson of Dayton is that measured risk-taking in foreign affairs can pay off.
To keep the peace in Bosnia, Clinton agreed to send 20,000 U.S. troops as part of a NATO peacekeeping force of 60,000 troops. Clinton’s decision was deeply controversial and foes invoked the prospect of a quagmire awaiting U.S. forces. Public opinion polling indicated that most Americans opposed deploying U.S. troops to Bosnia, even as peacekeepers.
U.S. forces began arriving in Bosnia in December 1995. Their presence was to be restricted to a year; as it turned out, the last U.S. troops left Bosnia in 2004.
During that time, there were no U.S. military deaths due to hostile action.
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