Review: To End a War, Revised Edition

To End a War
To End a War, Revised Edition
Richard Holbrooke
New York: The Modern Library, 1999

Review Copyright © 2003 Garret Wilson — 30 December 2003 1:00pm

The first time I approached To End a War, Richard Holbrooke's play-by-play story of negotiating an end to the war in Bosnia, I stumbled before even arriving at Dayton. The monotonous squabbles and ridiculous quarrels were hardly as "enthralling" as the New York Times had proclaimed on the book's cover. Holbrooke's account of his dealing with the Croatians, Bosnians, and Serbs was no doubt realistic, I though, but I had other reading priorities.

A trip to the region (Croatia) this summer brought the relevance needed to rekindle my curiosity. Starting the book again, I found the endless wranglings to be, if not enthralling, at least somewhat exciting. At times the meetings seemed familiar, bringing memories of work in which I've participated in standards organizations. At other times, the participants' actions become extreme as to be childlike in their refusals to agree or to even get along.

Overall, the book provides a wonderful insight into what actually goes into sealing an international deal—world leaders in a closed room makeing agreements, sometimes arbitrary, that will affect the lives of thousands in some other region of the globe. Holbrooke, who consistently kept a journal of the events, recounts everything in detail. He includes the prejudices and psychological tricks that each side (including the United States) contributed to the quest to create something positive and end bloodshed.

Two themes seem to underlie Mr. Holbrooke's story. The first is his intense pessimism, if not prejudice, towards positive Serb contributions.

I was beginning to get a sense of the Pale Serbs: headstrong, given to empty theatrical statements, but in the end, essential bullies when their bluff was called. The Western mistake over the previous four years had been to treat the Serbs as rational people with whom one could argue, negotiate, compromise, and agree. In fact, they respected only force or an unambiguous and credible threat to use it. (152).

Holbrooke is well aware of his feelings, and perhaps considers this simply a "sizing-up" of one of the players in the negotiations. As if to temper the tone of this anti-Serbian theme, he remarks towards the end of the book, "[T]he majority of Serbs in the former Yugoslavia were ordinary people who did not kill anyone," continuing with, "although, like many 'good Germans' during the Third Reich, a large number remained silent or passive in the face of something they admitted later they knew was wrong." (371).

The second theme is Holbrooke's respect, if not awe, for then President Clinton. Throughout most of the proceedings Clinton plays no direct role—in fact, Holbrooke is hesitant to bring the president to meet the delegates until the proper place in the negotiations. Discussions with the Clintons are described as if Holbrooke had journeyed to a foreign land to consult some wise seer on a mountainside. At other time his praises of President's Clinton's participation would seem appropriate of child discussing a childhood hero. No doubt Holbrooke does have a deep respect for the Clintons. Simultaneously, though, Holbrooke seems to be illustrating his respect for the office of the presidency, as well as its place within the negotiation framework. It may not always be appropriate for the president to work closely with a negotiation; presidential intercession, in this arrangement, can be used most effectively when used sparingly and with great respect.