Of all the names associated with contemporary American foreign policy, few evoke stronger reactions than Richard Holbrooke. By many accounts, Holbrooke was arrogant, dismissive and a bully. As a former colleague told me, "he kissed up and kicked down." He was also possibly the most influential American diplomat since George Kennan. His vision and forceful personality forged the Dayton Peace Accords (1995), which have led to nearly two decades of sustained peace in the Balkans. It is to this iron-willed diplomat that the current administration -- which faces a crisis in Syria no less daunting than that faced by President Clinton during Bosnia-Herzegovina's civil war in the 1990s -- should look.
Some of the most thoughtful words on Syria were recently written by Jeffrey Goldberg, who conceded that he is "one of the approximately three columnists in the U.S. who don't know exactly what President Obama ought to do in Syria." The sense that one must do something rather than nothing grips many policymakers and pundits. Yet none of the "somethings" proposed are likely to bring about an end to the bloodshed. The recent decision to arm the rebels merely formalizes what has been taking place covertly for more than a year; most observers agree that the proposed no-fly zone would have no meaningful impact, except as a step toward direct U.S. military intervention; few expect the small arms shipments to Syria's disintegrating secular rebel groups to alter the outcome, as momentum has swung back toward Assad in recent weeks. The administration's indecision and vacillations are reminiscent of those of the Clinton administration two decades ago. Into that uncertainty stepped Holbrooke.
From the earliest days of the war in Bosnia, Holbrooke, then Ambassador to Germany, advocated for an international force to intervene to establish peace. It was he who insisted on the unconventional location of an Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio, where limited access to the press would preclude media posturing and leaks. A loosely affiliated, regionally autonomous Bosnia was agreed to by the principals in the terms of the accords; an Implementation Force (IFOR) was responsible for implementing the accords using the novel technique of "peace enforcing." It was the crowning achievement of Holbrooke's career, perhaps the most significant foreign policy success of the Clinton administration.
Much like Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995, Syria as a nation does not exist in any meaningful way today, and has not for more than two years. It is now split into three distinct groups: Alawi, Sunni and Kurd. The ruling Alawites are most analogous to Bosnia's Serbs (both groups, incidentally, have close ties to Russia). The Sunni majority most closely resembles the (also Sunni) Bosnian Muslims -- poorly organized, with links to the Gulf states that enable them to import mujahedeen and other extremists, though Bosnia imported far fewer than Syria. And the Kurds, like the Croats, remain largely on the periphery of the civil war, preferring to focus on political independence. Before peace could be achieved, it had to be acknowledged that Bosnia-Herzegovina could not be reconstituted. Similarly, attempting to restore Syria under a single government would be not only futile but dangerous.