JANA WENDT: Ambassador Holbrooke, when you look back now, not only at your time as UN Ambassador but your key involvement in crises like Bosnia and Kosovo, do you feel “mission accomplished”, or more work left undone?
RICHARD HOLBROOKE, FORMER US AMBASSADOR TO THE UN: I think there`s always work to be done in international relations – Problems don`t get solved without new problems arising.
but I think that in the areas you`ve mentioned – Bosnia, Kosovo, the United Nations, a few others – the situation today is better than it was five years ago, and so we can say, “Well, we helped out.”
JANA WENDT: In the case of Bosnia and Kosovo, the US went in there for the sake of certain principles. Do you think, in the case of Bosnia firstly, which was effectively partitioned, that those principles won out in the end?
RICHARD HOLBROOKE: When was it partitioned?
JANA WENDT: Well, it`s a de facto partition, isn`t it?
RICHARD HOLBROOKE: You can get in a car in Zagreb today, drive through the Serb part of Bosnia, drive to Sarajevo, keep going and drive all the way to Kosovo, and keep going and drive all the way to Greece, and no-one will ever stop you. Do you call that partition?
JANA WENDT: But the continuing enmity between those ethic groups is as good as an unofficial partition, isn`t it?
RICHARD HOLBROOKE: No. I think you have enmity among ethnic groups, which is a code word for racial groups, in many countries – including, regrettably, ours and perhaps there`s some racial problems that still exist in Australia.
The issues in Bosnia are real, but let`s not confuse racial tension, which is one of the underlying facts of the world today, and one of the most pernicious – let`s not confuse that with a war based on false ethnic divisions. I stress `false`, because there never really was any significant difference between Croats, Muslims and Serbs. You can`t tell the difference between them when you walk down the street. They spoke the same language – still do. They intermarried in large numbers; it was a secular society; it was exploited by demagogues.
JANA WENDT: And yet the issues of justice remaining hanging over from that war are dramatic, aren`t they – where the tribunal is talking about 16 more years, perhaps, to hear all the cases involved?
RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Truth and reconciliation – to use the phase from South Africa – is a vital part of binding up the wounds of war in any society. We need to promote the search for justice.
When a few days ago, Madam Plavsic, the former president of the Serb part of Bosnia, voluntarily surrendered to The Hague – a woman who knows the secrets and was a henchperson of Karadzic, the worst war criminal in Europe, and Milosevic, another indicted war criminal hiding now in Belgrade; hiding in full sight, I might add – when Madam Plavsic voluntarily went to The Hague, that was another breakthrough.
But you`re absolutely right about truth in reconciliation, but I don`t agree with you about partition. There are still separatists abroad in the land, and I`m sure that`s what you`re referring to – people who would like to tear the country apart. But day by day, month by month, election by election, they`re losing ground.
All three of the men who I negotiated with five years ago are gone and a post-Dayton generation is coming to the fore and they`re coming back together. It`s slow, Jana – it`s slower than it ought to be. I`m very unhappy with the some of the implementation, but the country is not partitioned.
JANA WENDT: Do you accept that the failure to make the issue of Kosovo an issue at Dayton led to the taking up of arms by the Kosovars?
RICHARD HOLBROOKE: No, absolutely not. Let me make two points – one about Dayton and secondly, what happened at Kosovo. First of all, the parties came to Dayton to settle the war in Bosnia, a war in which 300,000 people died and 2.5 million were made homeless. The actual numbers in Kosovo are like, maybe 3%-4% of that. So the numbers were not comparable.
The real major war that was blowing Europe up was in Bosnia, not in Kosovo. The leaders, Tudjman, Izetbegovic and Milosevic, who went to Dayton went only to settle this. However, I did continually raise Kosovo with Milosevic, and he wouldn`t talk about it, and Izetbegovic and Tudjman said, “We don`t want to talk about it.”
Now, what happened was the war was caused by Milosevic`s refusal to have a peaceful dialogue with Dr Rugova, the peaceful, non-violent leader of the Albanian-Kosovar movement. And when Rugova couldn`t produce a deal for a peaceful, Martin Luther King, Ghandi-type approach, a group of people modelling themselves after the IRA and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, PLO, decided to use violence to provoke international tension. And they call themselves the KLA, the Kosovo Liberation Army, and they succeeded spectacularly. And in less than a year, an organisation that no-one in the world had heard of beforehand had seized world opinion and created a crisis.
Milosevic made every mistake in the book. His brutality in cracking down on the Albanians galvanised people, polarised people, and pulled everyone into this conflict.
JANA WENDT: When you deliver an ultimatum to a man like Milosevic how do you…
RICHARD HOLBROOKE: (Laughs) I don`t know anyone else like Milosevic. There`s no-one else like him.
JANA WENDT: How do you, in that situation – how do you gauge how to use the enormous power that is vested in you?
RICHARD HOLBREOOKE: Milosevic and I had about a half-dozen real ultimatum showdowns over the negotiations from 1995-1999. And in all but the last one, he backed down and we got what we wanted. Sometimes we had to bomb to do it. We bombed in 1995 and bombed them to the peace table and bombed them to Dayton and got a peace agreement which still holds five years later for Bosnia.
In October of `98, we had the bombers on the runways and Britain and the US ready to go, and he backed down and gave us what we wanted. And 130,000 people came out of the hills just before winter and came back down to their homes and their lives were saved. They would have frozen to death.
But in March of 1999, when I delivered the final ultimatum, he had made up his mind to take the hit – that is, to take the air strikes. And that was a whole different meeting. I think he misjudged us. He thought we weren`t going to hit him as hard as we did. It was a mistake.
JANA WENDT: Presumably he misjudged you because of what was seen as procrastination in Washington because…
RICHARD HOLBROOKE: No. You know why I think he misjudged us, Jana? I`ve thought a lot about this. Because there was such a contrast between his behaviour in October of `98, when he gave us what we wanted and he was really sweating it, and March of `99 when he said very calmly, “Go ahead and bomb us.”
My theory – I can`t prove it, but my theory is that somebody had leaked to him from NATO the secret bombing plans. And the initial bombing plans were for a very weak slap on the wrists – not a serious, sustained bombing campaign. And I don`t think he realised how hard NATO was going to hit him.
JANA WENDT: But plainly speaking, is it true that Kosovar villages were emptied out of their inhabitants because of the story of an intern and the President?
RICHARD HOLBROOKE: No. I think that`s a stretch. I`m not going to pretend that political factors don`t affect the context of decision-making, but let`s be very clear on this. When Secretary Albright, Secretary Cohen and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger went to the Hill two days before my October `98 trip to Kosovo and Belgrade, two days beforehand, the Republicans said absolutely clearly, “Under no circumstances can Holbrooke negotiate for American or NATO ground troops in Kosovo.”
JANA WENDT: Did you feel your hands were tied by that?
RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Not tied, but kind of loosely bound. I had a huge threat – B52s on the runway. But what I was seeking in return for not bombing was not sufficient, and I said so at the time. But those were my instructions, and that was not because of Monica Lewinsky – although I won`t try to pretend it wasn`t part of the mood. but it would have been the same thing with or without Lewinsky, because it was driven by the leadership of the Congress at that point.
JANA WENDT: Let me take you back to that point again – this enormous power that was vested in you as an individual to negotiate with this man, Milosevic. How do you gauge how to play that power that you have?
RISCHARD HOLBROOKE: I didn`t think of it as power – I thought of it as a responsibility. It`s kind of scary to go in there and you`re talking to a genuinely bad man who started four wars, lost them all, who has wrecked south central Europe, who seems to have no conscience at all, and it`s not a lot of fun. It`s like mountain-climbing without a rope, without anyone belaying you. If you fall, you`re going to go all the way down.
JANA WENDT: Let me bring you back to our part of the world. Obviously, you have a very keen interest in Indonesia. Talk today about the probable disintegration of Indonesia is very common. What you think about the situation?
RICHARD HOLBROOKE: In my nightmares, I see Indonesia becoming a South-East Asian Yugoslavia, torn apart by ethic divisions that are accentuated by demagogues who turn minor differences into major ones. Let`s face it, Indonesia is far more ethnically diverse than Yugoslavia was, and it has far more capacity for bloody explosions, as we saw in 1965-66 and again more recently. So I really worry about it.
I respect President Wahid a great deal – Gus Dur, I know him. I think it was a fantastic thing to bring democracy to Indonesia and to finally let East Timor go. But the seeds of disintegration have not been conquered. The forces of backwardness and darkness, epitomised by General Wiranto and some of his colleagues, remain around.
The fact that those refugee camps in West Timor are still filled with people too afraid to go home over a year later. I visited those camps, as I suspect you have. They are just awful, awful camps, and it`s a grotesque thing that the world community has to pay for those people to live in those camps instead of allowing them to go home. So Indonesia is one to watch. Ambon, Aceh, and West Irian Jaya, all are areas of genuine concern.