LONDON, United Kingdom — A memory from 15 years ago: Sarajevo. A small crowd of police, reporters and the curious are hanging around the Sarajevo city hall as U.S. President Bill Clinton's special envoy to the Balkans, Richard Holbrooke, arrives for a meeting.
A screeching of SUVs. Before they come to a stop, doors are flung open and men with sharp chins, wraparound shades and automatic weapons cocked on hips leap out, scan the crowd and rooftops and then hustle Holbrooke — a very big man — into the building. It's a scene out of a Hollywood movie.
A ripple of mordant laughter works its way through the throng. They have been besieged by Serbian shelling and sniper fire for the last three years. Where was this great show of American force when it might have done some good? Besides, the Serb positions can't reach this spot — which is why people congregate there in the first place. As for sweeping the rooftops — what idiot would be up there?
By the end of the day a ceasefire in the three-sided civil war was in place and it was announced that the leaders of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia's Muslims would be flying to the United States for a peace conference, which began 15 years ago today at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
Three weeks later the Dayton Agreement was initialed. The Bosnian civil war — the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II — was over.
In its time, the Dayton Agreement was a great achievement. It was only subsequently that its greatest flaw — the creation of an entity called the Republica Srpska — would turn into a drag anchor on the whole country. In an interview on the fifth anniversary of the agreement, Holbrooke to his enormous credit acknowledged that allowing the Serbs — the aggressors in the conflict — to have this little sliver of Bosnia was a mistake. Bosnian Serbs have had no incentive to re-integrate into the country nor take part in genuine reconciliation efforts.
But other little things were wrong in the Dayton Agreement as well. In the first years after it was signed, Bosnia-Herzegovina was a ward of the international community. All those billions in reconstruction funds, all the international aid agencies and the United Nations and European Union spending money created a cockeyed economy, rife with corruption. The patronage of the local politicians dispersing these funds is still the main source of economic security in the country.
Sead Numanovic, editor of the newspaper Dnevni Avaz, the largest-selling paper in Bosnia, says that 15 years since Dayton, corruption is the biggest problem facing his country. Corruption causes, in his words, "poverty and bad education of especially the younger generation. It helps rotten politicians to preserve their power."
His anniversary judgment of Dayton: "Dayton is Bosnia's reality. Like it or not, it is there and sets some (in many occasions strange) rules of the game." He added, "But, Dayton is not the Quran. Therefore it can, should and must be changed sooner rather than later."
A more subtle flaw came out of the Dayton process: For a generation of Democratic foreign policy makers, the idea of the U.S. as the indispensable nation in making peace took hold.
The volatile disintegration of the former Yugoslavia began almost as soon as the Soviet regime ended. Jacques Delors, then the president of the European Commission, the EU's administrative arm, warned the United States not to get involved. Managing Yugoslavia was a European problem and Europeans should handle it. The first President Bush's secretary of state, James A. Baker III, his hands full dealing with the invasion of Kuwait, was happy to oblige.
As things in Bosnia ignited, the European powers proved unable to agree on when to meet for coffee much less how to impose a policy of restraint in the Balkans.
Upon taking office, the Clinton administration tiptoed into action. It wasn't until 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were rounded up and slaughtered by Bosnians Serbs in the U.N. safe haven of Srebrenica in July 1995 that the United States dropped the carrot and began using the stick: NATO air strikes and arming the Croats and Muslims to help them push the Serbs out of conquered territory.
Then Clinton unleashed the human bulldozer, Holbrooke, on the region.
The lesson learned was that in conflict resolution don't wait for allies to do the job, it's only when the United States cracks heads together that results follow.
I'm not sure that is the right lesson. Traveling around Bosnia in the month before the ceasefire, the testimony I had from U.N. observers, from fighters, from ordinary people, was that exhaustion was bringing the war to an end. If War is Hell, then Civil War is its ninth circle. Savage and self-consuming, it offers no moment of rest to anyone caught up in it and in Bosnia by late summer 1995 all sides were exhausted. The ease with which the Serbs ran away when confronted by the Croatian army and the fact that the Croats did not pursue them until they could declare victory was testimony to how tired all sides were.
The United States may have brought pressure, but the reason it worked is that the Bosnians and their sponsors in other parts of the Balkans were ready to deal.
As I said it is a subtle but critical mistake in understanding Dayton — one that still has consequences today.
Now, a historic irony squared: A few days after peace negotiations began at Wright-Patterson, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. The Oslo Peace accords came undone.
Today the Obama administration is trying to crack heads to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president didn't dragoon Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to the spartan isolation of Wright-Patterson, but last September he demanded and received their presence in Washington and told them to get a deal done.
I understand why the president did it. There are a lot of old, familiar faces from the Clinton administration making his foreign policy who remember it working in Bosnia 15 years ago. But these veterans have forgotten — if they ever knew — that the exhaustion of the combatants is the key to getting a deal, not the scolding presence of the world's only hyperpower.
Is Israeli or Palestinian society exhausted by the conflict? No. Matt Beynon Rees noted here a few weeks ago how in Israel and the West Bank, for people with work times are good. What they are exhausted by is the endless procession of peace talks. The hard heads on both sides still have limitless supplies of energy.
The true lesson of Dayton is this: When it comes to conflict resolution the United States is still the indispensable, international head cracker — but only when people are too tired to feel the pain.