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A New Constitution for Bosnia

November 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: We begin our Bosnia story with some background narrated by Spencer Michels.

SPOKESMAN: The secretary of state, accompanied by…

SPENCER MICHELS: At a State Department luncheon today, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made the formal announcement that Bosnia would overhaul its constitution. The agreement among the Bosnian leaders came ten years after the U.S. brokered an end to Bosnia’s civil war, with the Dayton Peace Accords.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: To advance the promise of peace and progress, we must now move beyond the framework constructed a decade ago. A weak, divided state was appropriate in 1995. But today in 2005, the country needs a stronger, energetic state, capable of advancing the public good and securing the national interest.

SPENCER MICHELS: A decade ago at an air force base in Dayton, Ohio, the leaders of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and the Serb-ruled Federal Republic of Yugoslavia initialed accords that created a loose confederation among the previously warring ethnic groups.

The three-and-a-half years of intense war had erupted after Bosnia followed Slovenia and Croatia in declaring independence from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher and one of his key deputies, Richard Holbrooke, were the principle U.S. negotiators for the plan at the time.

WARREN CHRISTOPHER: I trust that one day we’ll look back at this time and say, Dayton was the place where fundamental choices were made; this is where the parties — this is the place where the parties chose peace over war, dialogue over destruction, reason over revenge, and this is where each of us has accepted the challenges to make the choices made here meaningful and to put them into effect so that they will endure.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Bosnian conflict was Europe’s worst since World War II. The fighting between Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats killed 260,000 people.

To enforce the Dayton agreement, NATO deployed more than 60,000 troops from 40 countries to Bosnia, one-third of them U.S. soldiers. As ethnic fighting diminished, NATO handed over the peacekeeping mission to 7,000 European soldiers last year. No international soldiers have been killed in action in ten years.

Of the two million people displaced from their homes, about half have returned. The Dayton pact divided the nation of 3.2 million people into two ethnic mini states, one a Bosnian federation governed by Muslims and Croats, and the other an area controlled by Serbs. On the federal level, three presidents share power.

Paddy Ashdown, a former lead of Britain’s Liberal Party, has served as Bosnia’s international administrator for the past three-and-a-half years. Speaking in Washington yesterday, he said Bosnia needs to update its government if it wants to become a member of the European Union.

PADDY ASHDOWN: Dayton has brought us to the gates of Europe, but the ultimate destination of full European membership can only come about if we are prepared to modernize Dayton. So that is the task. That’s the task for the next phase.

SPENCER MICHELS: One major outstanding issue is continued failure of international troops or local police to capture two indicted war criminals, former Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. Both still remain at large.

JIM LEHRER: And to Richard Holbrooke, one of the principal architects of the Dayton Accords. He was an assistant secretary of state at the time. He later served as President Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations. Mr. Ambassador, welcome.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Good to be with you again, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Is the Bosnia of today about what you and your fellow negotiators had in mind ten years ago?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: You know, when I appeared on this program with you the day of Bosnia’s Dayton agreement, I don’t think anyone in the world predicted it would be this good. No one, and you will recall this vividly, no one thought that there would be no casualties as your introductory piece showed — no U.N., excuse me, no U.S. or NATO casualties. After all the U.N. peacekeepers had over 1,000 casualties before Dayton.

Most people thought it was a partition agreement dividing the country into two different countries, and many people said publicly, including many people on your program, that the U.S. and NATO troops would be running a demilitarized zone like Korea or Cyprus between the two halves.

Today you can drive all the way across the country from Banja Luka to Sarajevo, even to Srebrenica, up to Belgrade without ever stopping, and the line between those two entities on the map you just showed is like going from New York to Connecticut.

There’s a single economy and a single currency. The military has belatedly but finally been integrated, fixing one of the mistakes that was made at Dayton, and the police reform is now under way. And today in Washington, Secretary Rice and Undersecretary Burns moved the ball forward.

So the answer to your question in short is, on a scale of minimum and maximum expectations, this did better than anyone predicted, and those of us involved in it are very, very pleased that we can look back now, ten years later, and say, this was a success.

JIM LEHRER: You agree with today’s agreement that there are things that need to be fixed, there needs to be another stage, right?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: On Nov. 21, 1995, at Dayton, and on your program the next day, I said that Dayton was far from perfect. I said that we had had to choose between peace and justice.

There’s no such thing as a perfect peace. When people are at war, in order to stop the war, each side has to give something up. And they were bludgeoned into doing it by American-led NATO bombing and by the NATO force, which included the 20,000 Americans that you mentioned earlier.

By the way, that was a lot of troops. If you pro rate the troops we sent to Bosnia against Iraq, it would be 600,000 troops in Iraq, not 150,000. But to get back to your question –

JIM LEHRER: What needs to be fixed?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: We thought from the beginning, we really thought that Dayton was flawed, it was imperfect and it needed to be improved.

For the last four years none of that happened, but now there is something going on, and I’m pleased there were these events today in Washington.

JIM LEHRER: The central thing that’s come out of this agreement is that there will now be one president. Do you agree that is important instead of three that exist now?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: That’s a little bit further than they went today, Jim. They agreed to move towards a single presidency.

JIM LEHRER: They didn’t decide to do it. They just decided to start going in that direction. Okay. Got it.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: They couldn’t get that far. Listen, at Dayton ten years ago, Milosevic wanted seven presidents; Izetbegovic wanted seven presidents and — excuse me, Izetbegovic, the Bosnian Muslim wanted nine presidents. Tuchman of Croatia wanted seven because they were building off the old Yugoslav model, a very weak presidency.

We wanted one president because three presidents based on ethnicity is undemocratic. Getting it down to three was an achievement. I have always said we should have one president.

And I was very pleased today that Secretary Rice at the lunch where I sat at her table and Undersecretary Burns, who is leading the effort for the Bush administration, both told me that they had promised the participants in these negotiations that what had happened today in Washington was just the beginning of an aggressive reengaged American policy in the Balkans.

And that will lead, I hope to, a single presidency, and it will also address the far more daunting negotiating task ahead in Kosovo.

JIM LEHRER: Now, why does it matter? Why will a single presidency make any difference?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: First of all, Bosnia-Herzegovina is not going to get into the European Union until it has a single president, and it shouldn’t have an ethically divided presidency.

Secondly, why does the Balkans matter to us? Well, we went over this a decade ago. When the Balkans are at war, Europe is unstable. When Europe is unstable, we get sucked in.

I know a lot of people opposed our involvement a decade ago, and it was expensive in terms of dollars, and we lost three of our best diplomats there on our first attempt to get into Sarajevo, Bob Frasure, Joe Kruzel, and Nelson Drew. I was very pleased that Condoleezza Rice honored all three of them today at the ceremony.

JIM LEHRER: Refresh our memory as to how they died.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: On the first attempt we made to get into Sarajevo, we couldn’t get in by airplane because the airport was under mortar attack. So we were reduced to driving in over the Mt. Igman Road, a winding, narrow road that went through what Bob Frasure, my deputy, called “Indian country,” by which he meant Bosnian Serbs were there shooting at us.

Gen. Wes Clark and I were in the first vehicle, and the rest of our team, Joe Kruzel, Bob Frasure and Nelson Drew, were in the second vehicle. They went around the curve and the armored personnel carrier they were in went off a very steep ravine and tumbled some 400 yards straight down. All three of them were killed.

We brought them back to Washington, buried them in Arlington Cemetery and President Clinton met us there and sent us back out into the field immediately to show his determination. And we dedicated our negotiation to them, and today Condoleezza Rice honored the three widows and the children, and it was a very moving part of today’s ceremony.

JIM LEHRER: Another thing, Mr. Ambassador, also remind us, particularly in the current climate as it relates to Iraq, this was opposed by Congress and even the public opinion polls, right? I mean, to take military action was not a popular move.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Yeah, you’re absolutely right, Jim. 70 percent of the American public opposed it, thinking that it would mean more casualties, like the U.N. peacekeepers. But Congress, the House of Representatives under Newt Gingrich voted three to one against the policy on the day before Dayton.

President Clinton, showing the kind of commander-in-chief leadership that made us proud to be part of his administration, said that he would fulfill his responsibilities as commander-in-chief and he would do what was constitutionally necessary, and he sent in those troops.

Everyone was wrong about the casualties, even the Pentagon, Jim. They had body bags at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany ready to go. The secretary of defense said that the casualties would be at least as high as the Gulf War.

And, as you said in your setup piece, there were no casualties. So it was a very — I don’t think it’s unfair to say that this was a successful peace agreement, perhaps the most successful since President Carter’s Camp David 1978 agreement.

And I also think that it was very remarkable that the Bush administration honored today an achievement of the Clinton administration, but I think it was a wonderful thing to do in a bipartisan spirit.

JIM LEHRER: The lack of casualties and the fact that there’s been no outbreak of violence since, is that because the NATO troops were there and they forced the peace, or was it really the people themselves said they were tired of war and they stopped on their own? What caused it to be peaceful for so long?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: The first thing is that the U.N. forces went in with a poor and weak mandate and took over 1,000 casualties — peacekeepers chained to trees. It was a low point for the U.N. Learning from that lesson, we did not let the U.N. even come to Dayton.

We wrote a very tough military annex — Gen. Clark was the primary drafter of that — in which we gave NATO the authority, to put it bluntly, to shoot first and ask questions later.

The first time someone was challenged, they shot and killed the man. There were no more incidents. Then we shut down the radio television from the Bosnian Serbs, which was preaching racial hatred. And we took a very aggressive position throughout. And I think that was critically important.

The second point I would make is that we had a peace plan, unlike Iraq. We went in with a 200-page peace plan this thick with annexes on everything, and we got everyone to participate in it. And everyone agreed on the special powers that you mentioned earlier that Lord Paddy Ashdown has carried out so effectively in the last three years. I’m very sorry that he’s leaving, but he is. And I’m concerned that we keep the same kind of pressure in the region.

So there was a commitment; it was international. It didn’t have the kind of bitter acrimony with our European allies that plagued the Iraq thing. One more point, Jim: al-Qaida. We wrote into the agreement that we would give ourselves the unilateral right to get rid of foreign elements. There were over 1,000 people in the country who belonged to what we then called Mujahideen freedom fighters.

We now know that that was al-Qaida. I’d never heard the word before, but we knew who they were. And if you look at the 9/11 hijackers, several of those hijackers were trained or fought in Bosnia. We cleaned them out, and they had to move much further east into Afghanistan. So if it hadn’t been for Dayton, we would have been fighting the terrorists deep in the ravines and caves of Central Bosnia in the heart of Europe.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Ambassador, congratulations. You feel good about what you did ten years ago, do you?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Well, of course all of us today felt an amazing feeling, Jim, that something that had happened ten years ago had held. And even the criticisms — and your criticisms of it are absolutely correct — we all agree with those. The criticisms showed that it was worth criticizing.

And now I hope that the Bush administration with Condi Rice and Nick Burns will take it to the next level and also take on Kosovo, which is going to be much tougher.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Thank you, Jim.