This book is about Bosnia—and beyond. Its lessons reach to Egypt, Iraq, Korea, Congo… any place we, as an “international community,” try to stabilize a chaotic world. It is a story of grand intentions and missed opportunities, heroes and clowns, and a well-meaning foreign policy establishment deaf to the voices of everyday people. The former Yugoslavia is the setting but only the backdrop for this study in contrasts that play out whenever outsiders try to be helpful without including all the stakeholders in the decision making.
There have been oh-so-many words written about Bosnia1-mostly from two radically different perspectives. This volume is constructed from those disparate vantage points. One is from inside the conflict—life experiences chronicled in journalists’ accounts, coffeehouse conversations, and love letters. The other perspective is from outside—the words and actions of government officials, military leaders, and other international actors who were often an ocean away from the conflict.
First, inside: In the heat of the war, people on the ground, particularly humanitarian responders, journalists (Yugoslav and international), and human rights workers, tried to awaken the world’s conscience with vivid portraits: a child’s wide-eyed hope, a soldier’s callous remark, a mother in tears. The accounts were chilling, as their sleuthing revealed rape campaigns, concentration camps, and mass graves, opening the way for an international war crimes tribunal.Then outside: Throughout the war, policymakers acted from their limited perspective. Then, after the conflict ended, as if to document their achievements, they hit the lecture circuit, describing ultimate victory over false starts, apathy, and deceit. They described tremendous difficulty as outsiders attempting to broker peace not only among Balkan parties, but also across multiple organizations of the international community.
For four years, I had the privilege—and frustration—of witnessing the Bosnian conflict from both perspectives. I was a confidante and admirer of many who lived through the war. But I was also a government official, making and observing decisions based on assumptions strikingly incongruent with what was happening on the ground.
Trying to write from either vantage point is fraught with difficulty. Descriptions of violence are hard to hear, yet they bear recounting. The fact that we cringe, that it sickens us, is not the point. History is history. This book only touches on the horror, but for some, even that bit of telling will seem gratuitous.
Also, although I will recount what I saw and heard within Bosnia, the experiences cannot be captured on pages of any book. Each Bosnian encounter was a gift—a lesson about courage in the crucible, love undefeated by hatred, cynicism, and cycles of hope. In my hundreds of hours with Bosnians, their memories came alive with mirth or lamentation. Descriptions of the wartime present or past were rendered with hands wringing in laps; visions of the future were unfurled with arms sweeping through the air. Most of our greetings and partings involved embraces and gifts. My Bosnian “sources” reminisced about life in bucolic Yugoslavia as we drove for hours past dynamited homes and fields untilled because of land mines. They divulged their dreams leaning over small tables in cafés, talking over loud pop music, until burly men in camouflage, toting automatic weapons, burst through the door to bark that curfew was about to start. In short, these were not sterile interviews, but glimpses into lives invisible to most policymakers.
Public policymaking can be impenetrably complex, and that was certainly true during the Bosnian war. Domestic US politics were on President Clinton’s mind as military leaders advised him that Bosnia could be another Vietnam. Russian domestic politics were also in the mix. US State Department officials warned that action against Serb (Orthodox) aggressors could fuel Russian (Orthodox) nationalists, who were challenging moderate President Yeltsin.
Policymakers on both sides of the ocean were weighing broader geopolitical concerns. If NATO, which was created to stop a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, sent troops into what some called a civil war in Yugoslavia, where would the alliance’s mandate end? Intervention might set a dangerous precedent of disregard for state sovereignty.
Foreign policy experts warned that ethnic splintering in Bosnia could spread down the entire Balkan peninsula, intensifying antagonisms between Greece and Turkey until they erupted, dealing a mortal blow to NATO. And given the ignominious 1993 US pullout from Somalia and the UN’s subsequent refusal to stop the genocide in Rwanda, the idea of an external stabilizing force for the world seemed to many a pipe dream.
Reflecting on what I’d seen on the ground and read in official accounts, I realized that these two perspectives derived from rarely overlapping realities. The gulf between those influenced by policies and those making the policies contributed to misguided efforts, wasted resources, and hardship as the war stretched on and then as the peace process slowly, ever so slowly, took hold.
Why was I able to see both sides? I was not in Bosnia continuously, but the arc of my ongoing involvement was much longer than that of most in the international community. Thus, I could discern patterns over time more easily than those who had to rotate in and out, sometimes only for a few months each time.
It also helped that my Bosnian work was always an “add on,” lived in snippets, tucked between diplomatic and other responsibilities. I juxtaposed Balkan experiences with events outside the region. Twenty-four hours after listening to pleas of homeless refugees from Srebrenica, I might be reading stories to my children in a king-size bed with a down comforter. Thus every war-related experience was isolated, and it was only as I gathered them together, like so many pieces of a puzzle, that I realized they did not fit. Later I could arrange my experiences under broad themes. But even within those themes, “inside” and “outside” were related but detached. Unbridged, they could only coexist.
The problem was more than personal—it was systemic. Even in Vienna, the birthplace of diplomacy, the connection was broken between policymakers and people trying to survive in the nearby war zone. Officials had work to do. We were busy trying to save the situation. We couldn’t afford to spend time chatting with citizens. Or so we thought. The conceptual link between national security and engagement with people affected by our policies was not in the tool kit of the US foreign policy establishment. That commonsense case had not been convincingly made.There certainly were some policymakers who bored through cultural and institutional barriers. One couple, in particular, used religion as their bridge to connect with Bosnians. Soon after the Dayton peace agreement was signed, Claude Ganz, a successful California businessman in his mid-sixties, and his wife, Lynn, a media professional, invited me into their temporary home in Sarajevo. At the request of President Clinton, Claude and Lynn were giving eighteen months of their lives to help. They had invited to dinner the three prime ministers from different parties (part of the impossibly ponderous formula established in the agreement). Such a cordial occasion was rare, given that these three men represented political parties that had condoned hundreds of thousands of acts of violence against each other’s community. Since at the peace talks the warring parties had been unable to agree on a straightforward system of democratic elections, the country’s leadership was designed to rotate awkwardly among three members of the presidency. As we sat on the sofa, the Serb and Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) leaders joked that they would take thirty-minute turns to sit on my right, while the Croat remained at my left.
After we came to the dinner table, Claude led a prayer before lifting a loaf of bread and breaking it. He described himself as a survivor of a World War II concentration camp, then spoke of the meaning of tzedakah, usually translated as “charity,” but derived from the Hebrew word meaning “justice” or “righteousness.” Our host understood the connection between seeking justice and finding healing. After probes about obstacles to establishing a central bank, railroad lines, and telephone connections, Claude posed the real question: “Will this country heal in our lifetime?”
There was a reason the central bank’s creation had been stymied, the railroad had not been rebuilt, and telephone connections between former enemy territories were still not reliable. We all knew that the problem was not funding, but political will. And given the injuries of the war, that political will would not be available without some modicum of personal reconciliation.
And so Claude’s invitation to remember tzedakah had political significance. One prime minister broke the silence: “Seven to ten years for the hatred to heal; and fifteen years to rebuild.” Another added: “Five close members of my family were killed in the war. Still [he turned to the others] I don’t hate these two men.”
It was an honor to represent the United States and President Clinton as US ambassador to Austria from 1993 to 1997. But before arriving, I decided that if all I accomplished was to be a very good ambassador, my tenure would be a failure. I saw this appointment as an opportunity and obligation to use my platform to address the greatest needs around us. After sixteen years of working in inner-city Denver, I was accustomed to intractable problems like poverty, failing public schools, and teen pregnancy. Although the US-Austrian relationship was relatively unstressed, just next door to my new post, the Balkans were burning. Tens of thousands were dying each year while the UN, the United States, and Europe argued about how to respond. Geographically and politically, I was in a position to help.
I had plenty of assistance, including Foreign Service experts of remarkable vision. But unlike them, often asked to serve several masters and forced to consider the career implications of every decision, I was one of the 30 percent of ambassadors chosen directly by the president. As a political appointee, I could plot my own course. I felt my greatest responsibility lay in two directions: toward Bill and Hillary Clinton (whom I greatly admired) and toward the people in my reach who needed aid.
Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock was my first mentor in his passionate support for intervention in Bosnia.
Even a Bosnian refugee child can appreciate the simple game of “Here is the church, here is the steeple …”
The proper extent of that reach was debatable from the State Department’s viewpoint. There were repeated protests from midlevel officials that I shouldn’t be concerning myself with affairs outside Austria. At our introductory discussion in the fall of 1993, however, the sage Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock pled for US intervention to stop the bloodshed occurring just south of Austria’s border. (It was two years before we did intervene, under the auspices of NATO.) Ultimately, my work in the Balkans was what Austrian officials and citizens alike most told me they appreciated.
Why were the Austrians so interested in the former Yugoslavia? Much more than the capital of a country, Vienna had the self-consciousness of a regional hub. World War I had left Austria hydrocephalic: the defeat of the Hapsburgs had left the newly created country with an imperial capital, but no empire. Nonetheless, the Viennese remembered with crystal clarity that their territory from 1878 to 1918 had included Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, which later became three of the six republics of Yugoslavia. It was, after all, on the streets of Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian emperor’s heir apparent, was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb nationalist in 1914, sparking what was supposed to be the war to end all wars.
Eight decades later, I wore a bulletproof vest as I briskly walked those same streets. Sarajevo, host of the 1984 winter Olympics and symbol of multicultural integration, was under siege. In more than twenty trips into the Balkan chaos, I encountered distraught presidents and prime ministers, traumatized children, effusively affectionate patients, war criminals, and community leaders. Extraordinarily caring members of my staff2 joined me for experiences that were inspiring and exhausting. I spent time; I spent money; I spent energy. But I did not leave spent.