The 1995 Blog

1995: The year the future began

Fat new Holbrooke biography sheds little fresh insight on 1995 Dayton peace accords

I spent time recently with the fat, new, and acclaimed biography about Richard Holbrooke, principal architect of the 1995 Dayton Peace accords, and was surprised that it offered such scant insight about the remarkable negotiation that ended the grisly war in Bosnia.

Holbrooke in 1995

For Holbrooke, the three weeks of talks in November 1995 at a U.S. air base near Dayton, Ohio, were the singular achievement of a diplomatic career that brought him more disappointment than triumph.

The talks, which as I described in 1995: The Year the Future Began, succeeded at the last possible minute, sealed Holbrooke’s status and rendered tolerable the man’s outbursts, ego, and mostly unfulfilled ambitions.

Much as he wanted to, Holbrooke never became secretary of state, and never won the Nobel Peace Prize. He died of a torn aorta in 2010 while serving as U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It’s fair to say that without success at Dayton, no fat biography.

The fat biography came out this month bearing a rather exaggerated title, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.

It is striking, in reading Our Man‘s treatment of Dayton, to find so little that’s new. That portion of Our Man mostly retraces a well-known narrative.

This is notable because Holbrooke’s widow granted the author, George Packer, exclusive access to Holbrooke’s letters, diaries, and papers. (A note here about Packer: In researching my 1995 book, I asked him by email and by hand-delivered letter to consider allowing me to review the Dayton portion of the Holbrooke archive. I did not expect Packer would consent. But he never replied at all.)

Our Man revisits the prolonged and agonizing discussions at Dayton over division of territory between Bosniaks and Bosnian Serbs. It describes the breakthrough concession by the Serb strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, who agreed that Sarajevo would not be divided, that Bosniaks would control the city. It recounts how Milosevic, just as the talks were about to be shut down, delivered another concession, this one about administrative control of the contested town of Brčko, that sealed the peace agreement, shaky and deformed though it clearly was.

Packer describes Milosevic as the “one person who would not let Dayton fail.”

He also writes that as the talks neared their end, Holbrooke “was going through cycles of collapse and recovery.” But he does not discuss the moment when Holbrooke seemed thoroughly undone.

That moment came when the talks teetered on collapse and was described this way by Derek Chollet in his book, The Road to the Dayton Accords:

“Standing over a computer, a visibly tired and agitated (and some thought crazed) Holbrooke dictated the language to [State Department speech writer Tom] Malinowski while the other Americans looked on in astonishment. His redraft reflected the frustration of the moment. ‘To put it simply,’ his statement concluded, ‘we gave it our best shot. By their failure to agree, the parties have made it very clear that further U.S. efforts to negotiate a settlement would be fruitless. Accordingly, today marks the end of this initiative . . . the special role we have played in recent months is over. The leaders here today must live with the consequences of their failure.'”

Packer seems impatient with Holbrooke’s singular accomplishment, writing that Dayton “solved a nasty problem but it didn’t create something new and big.”

Holbrooke, he adds, “devoted three years of his life to a small war in an obscure place with no consequences in the long run beyond itself.”

In fact, though, the lessons of the Dayton accords rippled across U.S. foreign policy for years afterward, giving rise to a hubris bubble that kept expanding as America sought to resolve conflicts abroad by applying military force to diplomatic quandries. Success at Dayton, I write in 1995, “revived a spirit of ‘American Exceptionalism’ and launched the United States on a trajectory of increasingly forceful interventions abroad” that included waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The hubris bubble finally burst in the bloody insurgency that followed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A larger question emerges in reading Our Man: why such a fat book about a mid-level diplomat whose only real success was a fragile peace deal that really was made possible by the concessions of Milosevic, who died in a prison cell in 2006 at The Hague, while on trial for war crimes in the Balkans?

The New York Times essentially asked that question in its review of Our Man:

“Why such a mammoth book … about a midlevel diplomat whose only major achievement was helping settle a war in a faraway place with unpronounceable names?”

The Times’ answer: “if you could read only one book to comprehend America’s foreign policy and its quixotic forays into quicksands over the past 50 years, this would be it. You have to begin in Vietnam, as Holbrooke did, and understand that American involvement there was a complex mix of sincerity and blindness and idealism and hubris.”

Well, maybe.

Maybe Holbrooke personified American foreign policy from Vietnam to the Balkans, and finally to Afghanistan. But probably not.

And maybe a better answer to “why such a mammoth book” is that Holbrooke played far above his status. He cut such an intriguing and uncommon profile. The spectacle that was Holbrooke made his ambitions and his flaws highly visible, open to scrutiny, speculation, and criticism.

Holbrooke was exceptional not necessarily for diplomacy at Dayton but for the drama he created and the attention he drew to himself.


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