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How Carter, Begin and Sadat Helped End Bosnia's Bloody War

The 1978 Camp David and 1995 Dayton Accords ended very different conflicts, but their U.S. brokers employed surprisingly similar, and successful, tactics: This is how they made imperfect, but lasting, peace

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As Richard Holbrooke, President Bill Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State, thought about how to end the war in Bosnia in the 1990s, he turned to the peace talks between Israel and Egypt, brokered by the U.S. at Camp David in 1978 as a model.

The diplomat recalled reading accounts of Camp David negotiations, and sought advice from several Camp David participants, including former president Jimmy Carter. In trying to end a Balkan conflict, Holbrooke took his cue from the one clear success up to that time of American peacemaking in the Middle East. As we mark the 25th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the carnage in Europe, it’s clear that Holbrooke’s choice of model worked.

At first glance, the 1978 peace summit seems an unlikely precedent. Camp David, the negotiations that brokered the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty, involved making peace between two states; Dayton included three states at war, with separatists scattered around.

The Camp David negotiations were conducted at the highest-level with top U.S. officials directly involved throughout; they were led by a sitting president. An Assistant Secretary of State oversaw the Dayton talks; high-level U.S. officials were brought in to prevail upon negotiating parties at sequenced intervals. While the personal presidential involvement in 1978 was nearly unprecedented, so was the assistant secretary of state’s clout in 1995 – a reflection of the American unipolar moment. 

Peace talks lasted 13 days in September 1978; by contrast, Dayton dragged through 21 days in November 1995. Egyptian and Israeli delegations negotiated at the presidentially prestigious Camp David retreat; Bosnians, Serbians and Croatians negotiated at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base a symbol of U.S. military power.

Members of the Israeli delegation at Camp David, September 1978: Aharon Barak, left, Ezer Weizman, Menachem Begin, Ilan Tehila, Moshe Dayan, Elyakim Rubinstein, Avraham Tamir. Credit: Moshe Milner/GPO

The success of both of these negotiations was not preordained, but failure would have carried huge political costs for their American hosts. Those costs were pre-eminently political for the Clinton administration, in a pre-election year, and even higher for President Carter; the  reputational costs of failure for both Holbrooke and Carter, who had both staked so much on the outcome, were also considerable.

Both mediators anticipated likely failure and had speeches acknowledging failure drafted. Both mediators, however, possessed personality traits which proved crucial: self-confidence, mastery of details, and persistence.  

The differences in history and dynamics notwithstanding, Camp David and Dayton presented unexpected similarities. Multilateral Geneva conferences preceded both Camp David and Dayton. From multilateral frameworks, the peace process turned into U.S.-led peace summits.

And the participants at the two summits provide for striking comparisons. Most principals at both summits were battle-hardened and relied on a few trusted aides.

Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin had made a name for himself in the pre-state paramilitary underground targeting the Mandate British forces; Egyptian President Anwar Sadat participated in the1952 coup which overthrew the monarchy, and initiated the 1973 war against Israel. Alija Izetbegovic led the defense of Bosnia, Franjo Tudjman defended and recaptured lost Croatian territory, while Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic had launched three wars.

Osama Al Baz, left and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at Camp David in 1978.Credit: Wikicommons

Several of the principals brought longstanding associates. Sadat’s team included Mohamed Ibrahim Kamel from his days in the underground, while Begin brought a decades-long associate Yehiel Kadishai. Bosnian president Izetbegovic’s foreign minister, Mohamed Sacirbey, was the son of an old friend from his days as a communist dissident.  

U.S. officials employed remarkably similar negotiating tactics at both peace summits; indeed, the degree to which Holbrooke's tactics mirrored those of his predecessors in 1978 is striking.

By conducting the peace summit in the U.S. and under American auspices, both Carter and Holbrooke excluded and limited the role of potential spoilers. Carter excluded the Soviets and Europeans; Holbrooke merely paid lip service to the Russians and Europeans by including them as co-chairs of the Dayton talks but with no real clout.  

Psychological profiles and detailed knowledge of likely belligerent delegation members allowed American negotiators to identify in advance and bypass in practice the intransigent ones.

A photo of the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his friend Nikola Koljevic found in a house in Pale raided by NATO-led troops seeking Karadzic, later convicted of war crimes. July 2, 2002Credit: AP

For instance, at Camp David, Anwar Sadat's advisors were far more hardline than the president. The inverse was true with the Israeli delegation. Carter's solution was to bypass the hardliners in both delegations. This meant dealing mostly with Sadat, while sidelining Begin, and reaching out to comparatively more moderate Ezer Wiezman and Moshe Dayan.

Taking a page from the Carter playbook, Holbrooke identified the pragmatists and hardliners in the Balkan delegations. This meant bypassing the Bosnian Serbs in Yugoslavia's delegation, and dealing directly with the more pragmatic Slobodan Milosevic. Among the Bosnians, Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic was seen as pragmatic compared to Foreign Minister Mohamad Sacirbey. Hence, the American diplomat's outreach to Silajdzic.  

When both summits reached an impasse, American negotiators broadcast not-so-subtle messaging.

At Camp David, when negotiations threatened to disintegrate, Carter decided to take the delegations to Gettysburg, to convey to the participants the lessons of the American Civil War and the potent legacy of failure and bloodshed should the Camp David talks break down.

Sadat, Carter and Begin signed a peace agreement that ended decades of war, Washington, March 26, 1979Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

The message at Dayton was more direct: the U.S. team organized a dinner at Wright-Patterson’s Air Force Museum. Izetbegovic observed that Bosnian Serb official Nikola Koljevic was seated right beneath a huge Tomahawk, the type used by NATO to shell Koljevic’s hometown of Banja Luka to halt Serbian war crimes shortly before the talks began. The symbolism was not lost on anyone. Dining amid fighters and a Tomahawk cruise missile could not go unnoticed.  

Not all tactics were coercive, symbolically or not. At crucial moments in both summits, American negotiators stepped in to offer major incentives.

At Camp David, a key incentive for Egypt was the prospect of closer bilateral relations with the U.S., and in its wake – major arms and economic assistance deals.

For Israelis, maintaining the existing special relations with the U.S. was crucial; and Begin was offered assistance to build new airfields to compensate for the bases Israel would abandon in withdrawing from the Sinai. For Bosnians, the prospect of U.S. troops implementing the peace accord was instrumental. A further incentive was that the U.S. offered an equip-and-train program for the Bosniak-Croat army. 

Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic shakes hands with Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, as Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic looks on after signing the Dayton Peace Accords in Paris. Dec 14, 1995Credit: GERARD JULIEN/AFP

Both summits were successes – but they didn’t please all their participants. The Egyptian foreign minister Mohamed Ibrahim Kamel resigned in protest when the Camp David Accords were signed, while several Egyptian delegation members opted to skip the White House signing ceremony.

In the case of Dayton, Bosnian Croat leader Krešimir Zubak refused to initial the agreement. Milosevic initialed the final agreement on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs in his delegation who had refused to endorse the Dayton result. Subsequently, the agreement was initialed by the Bosnian Serb leadership. The objections of certain delegation members in both summits notwithstanding, the delegation leaders chose pragmatism: to proceed with the best deal they could clinch at the time. 

Despite achieving an imperfect peace, both summits came to represent cornerstones of their respective administration’s foreign policy legacy, Carter’s and Clinton’s. In fact, Camp David and Dayton came to represent two of the most successful cases of U.S.-brokered peace agreements in more than four decades. 

What both summits showed are remarkably similar tactics employed by American negotiators in ending very different conflicts. But the underlying conclusion is inescapable: successful peace negotiations involve major compromises and produce an imperfect peace - which can still last.

Hamza Karcic is an associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo. Twitter: @KarcicHamza

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