I’m not sure if there is any irony that Lawrence Eagleburger died in the same week that Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic appeared in the Hague to face trial on genocide and crimes against humanity. Eagleburger was the only career foreign service officer to rise to the rank of Secretary of State and in his death, he is receiving plenty of accolades for his analytical mind, his straight-talk, and his diplomatic and bureaucratic skills.
My own take is more mixed. I served in INR’s office of Eastern Europe and worked as an analyst on Bosnia during the war — including responsibilities for collection of Bosnian war crimes. In that capacity, I had multiple interactions with him. I liked him and often found him very funny. But, my conclusion then, and today, is that Eagleburger was wrong on Yugoslavia of the late 1980s and early 1990s and he was dead wrong on Bosnia.
Eagleburger had served two tours in Yugoslavia during his foreign service career — including a tour as the U.S. ambassador to Belgrade — before becoming the Deputy Secretary serving under Secretary James Baker. So when Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in 1989 and ultimately dissolved in 1991, he became the point person in the Bush administration. Contrary to the description of Eagleburger as having a keen analytical mind, I saw a very different mind at work on Yugoslavia and Bosnia. He was slow to accept that the federation was on the brink of disaster and often downplayed our (INR) analyses — preferring to see the world through the lens of his ambassadorial tour from 1977 – 1980 when Belgrade (and Tito) could still exert control.
When the war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, he and the other senior Bush officials blamed it on ancient hatreds that had spiraled out of control. Eagleburger faulted us for reporting levels of civilian violence. During one briefing, he chided me for the constant flow of INR reports on the Serb ethnic cleansing campaign in northern Bosnia — he stated something to the effect that everyone knows these people hate each other and are killing each other. For him, once the war began, all parties were equally complicit in the violence. We were often pressed to provide more “balanced” assessments of the war crimes and atrocities — even though 80 – 90% of the intelligence reports from the field reflected the disproportionate level of violence by Serbs.
Two months after the public disclosure of Serb concentration camps in August 1992 and the corresponding pressure placed on the administration to do something, Eagleburger spoke on a television news broadcast and announced:
This tragedy is not something that can be settled from outside and it’s about damn well time that everybody understood that. Until the Bosnians, Serbs and Croats decide to stop killing each other, there is nothing the outside world can do about it.
I can’t speak to his longer career achievements, but I remain convinced that Eagleburger was wrong in his views on the conflict. His analytical conclusion was that the conflict was fueled by age-old ethnic hatreds and spontaneous violence about which nothing could be done. Very few Yugoslav watchers shared that view — most saw it as the deliberate manipulation of nationalism by elites.
I recall a conversation I had with him shortly after the Dayton Peace Accords were signed in 1995. He speculated that it would be the end of the Clinton administration to deploy troops to Bosnia under the Implementation Force. He refused to believe that the war — fueled by “age-old ethnic hatreds”– could end simply by putting the region’s leaders in a room and demanding they stop the fight. Yet, in the sixteen years since Dayton, much work still needs to be done to consolidate the peace, but there has been no organized inter-ethnic violence in Bosnia since the international community took a strong and robust stance against the war-time leaders. (There also was not a single American combat-related casualty during the entire 12 year U.S. deployment in support of IFOR/SFOR in Bosnia).
I guess it is fitting that Eagleburger lived long enough to see Milosevic die in the Hague and to see both Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic stand before the judges there. He once scoffed at me during an early briefing on the special United Nations commission set up mid- 1992 to assess the reports of war crimes and determine if there was sufficient evidence for a UNSC resolution to set up the ad hoc tribunal — even as he signed off on INR’s efforts to task the broader intelligence community to dedicate assets to the collection of war crimes and atrocities — he bluntly noted that the idea that anyone in the region would face any kind of international tribunal was a “pipe dream.”
He was certainly a straight talker — blunt and direct — but on the Balkans, he was also wrong.