David Owen and his Balkan bungling
Back to Bosnia Links Home Page
This is from Bosnia Report

Noel Malcolm

The first duty of any reviewer is to say whether the book under review will be of interest to the general reader. In the case of Lord Owen's Balkan Odyssey (London 1995, New York 1996), this poses an unusual dilemma. On the one hand, this is clearly a book for specialists in Bosnian affairs and international diplomacy. General readers will quickly weary of the blow-by-blow accounts of conferences and reports to committees, w here every blow sends a shower of acronyms into the air like sparks from a blacksmith's anvil: VOPP, JAP, ICFY, UNSCR, UNPA and so on.

On the other hand, this book will hold an extraordinary fascination for anyone who is interested not in diplomacy but in human psychology. Seldom have all the syndromes of resentment and retrospective self-justification been so thoroughly exposed to public view. Not until Sir Edward Heath writes his long-awaited memoirs will we ever have a chance to study pique on such a monumental scale. The problem is that in order to appreciate and interpret the display of symptoms in Lord Owen's case, we do also need a specialist knowledge of recent Bosnian history. Only then will you be able to spot all the ways in which Lord Owen's account depends on factual error, false logic and sheer omission.

Self-justification comes naturally to Lord Owen: he has, one might say, a lot to justify himself about. Most commentators would agree that his entire mission in ex-Yugoslavia has been a failure, and that his attempt to bully the US government in public was cack-handed; many regard his famous Vance-Owen Peace Plan (the 'VOPP') as having encouraged the vicious Croat- Muslim conflict in 1993; some have criticized the methods he used to put pressure on the Bosnian Government; and a great many observers think he should have resigned or been dismissed after his VOPP was finally rejected by the Serbs. But Lord Owen sets about his self-justification with surprising zest. His first defence against the general charge of failure is a novel one. He tells us that, secretly, he always favoured a completely different solution anyway, a solution which nobody was prepared to consider: redrawing the borders of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.

Actually, the redrawing of borders was being not only considered but carried out - at enormous cost in human suffering - by Serb politicians and gunmen. To justify what they were doing, those Serbs put out bogus claims about how the borders of Bosnia and Croatia had been arbitrarily invented by Tito. Such claims are put forward also in the very first section of Owen's book. According to Milovan Djilas, Owen tells us, the borders were sometimes drawn quickly 'during a march' in the middle of the Second World War, and were 'often arbitrary'.

Any reader with an elementary knowledge of Yugoslav history will be puzzled by this: they will know that the borders were set by a commission headed by Djilas, who at that time was Tito's right-hand man, after the war; that it spent months considering points of detail; and that it restored the historic borders of Bosnia which dated back to 18th- and l9th-century treaties. If they look up the passage in one of Djilas's books which Owen cites as evidence for his claim, they will find that the decision made 'during a march' was not about drawing borders, but about the status of Bosnia as a republic. Nor does Djilas say that this decision was made 'arbitrarily'; it was made for good reasons, and would no doubt have been made whether marching, standing still or sitting down.

Again, discussing the Serb-held Croatian 'Krajina', another of his candidates for border changes, Lord Owen chides 'commentators' for having failed to understand that the Krajina, which included 'the Serb-inhabited areas of northern Dalmatia', had never been governed from Zagreb. He seems unaware that northern Dalmatia was never part of the Krajina; and that the entire Krajina was brought under Croatian administration as long ago as the 1870s. Those who think these are trivial points should pause to consider the feelings of Bosnians or Croatians who had to watch the fate of their countries being influenced by a man whose head was filled with such errors - errors which happened to match quite closely the claims of Serb propaganda.

The citizens of the republic of Macedonia will have similar feelings when they find Lord Owen endorsing equally false Greek propaganda claims about the printing of a picture of 'a Greek castle' on Macedonian stamps. All this from a man who chides President Clinton for his inadequate grasp of Balkan history.

But then, factual accuracy is not Lord Owen's strong point. Just a few examples of his errors must suffice here. On the question of British military involvement in Bosnia, he declares that the Government's position was strongly influenced by British public opinion, 'where there was never anything remotely approaching a majority for becoming a combatant'. The truth is that many public-opinion polls indicated just such a majority: on 15 April 1993, for example, the Daily Telegraph reported on its front page: 'Nearly two-thirds of people questioned by Gallup about Bosnia believe that an international force should intervene to enforce peace, and that British troops should take part.'

Lord Owen is capable of equally glaring inaccuracies even when stating what his own opinions were at the time. He insists that, as a negotiator, he was constantly emphasizing 'the dangers of inaction'; on the very first page of this book he announces that 'the killing and maiming made it impossible to justify waiting until the fighting petered out into an exhausted peace.' What he said at the time (in a public speech delivered in Dublin on 16 November 1993: see Bosnia Report No 2, pp. 1-2) was, however, completely different: 'As physicians and surgeons we have long been aware of the dangers of simply responding to the cry to "do something". All too often we know that an illness has to work its way through the system. As a protective mechanism the medical profession has developed the skill of masterly inactivity...Politicians need some of the same skills.'

Again, discussing General Morillon's visit to Srebrenica in March 1993, Owen writes that he 'found himself stuck there, in effect a hostage, having been refused permission to leave by the Muslim soldiers within the enclave'. The truth, as recorded in some detail by Morillon himself, is that he was never 'refused permission to leave' by soldiers: he was detained for some hours by a crowd of women and children. He slipped past this crowd during the hours of darkness, but, on reaching the outskirts of the town, decided of his own volition to return (see Morillon, Croire et oser, Paris 1993, pp. . 172-4).

Another curious error is made when Owen refers to the fact that large numbers of Serb military helicopters were crossing freely from Serbia into Serb-held territory near Srebrenica during February 1995. He describes the incident as follows: 'The Russians felt that the helicopter controversy, where the UN Military Observers watching the Serb radar screen at Belgrade airport had picked up tracks of what might have been helicopters flying from Bosnia to Serbia, was designed to discredit Milosevic. Investigation by experts from Contact Group countries was inconclusive.' The truth is that 62 helicopter sorties were observed, visually, by UNPROFOR personnel in the Srebrenica area: 10 helicopters flying simultaneously on 2 February, 6 on the morning of 3 February, 15 that afternoon, and so on. They entered the area flying in a westerly or south-westerly direction, which strongly suggested that they had just crossed the Serbian border (these details are from the UNPROFOR log, printed as an annex to Security Council report S/1995/6/Add. 8, and reproduced in Globus 24 February 1995). The Belgrade authorities denied UN personnel access to radar screens which could have demonstrated that the flights came from Serbian territory (see the briefing note of the American mission at the UN, reproduced in the same article). What is the significance of the fact that Owen has got these details entirely the wrong way round? The answer may be that, having set up a small, inadequately staffed monitoring mission to report on Milosevic's so-called 'sealing' of the Serbian-Bosnian border, Owen found that it was criticized by the US administration for failing to notice large-scale violations (which, of course, made nonsense of the policy of trust in Milosevic on which Owen's diplomatic efforts were now based). He objected to such criticisms, which he describes as having 'undermined' his monitors. Hence, perhaps Owen's miss-remembered or revised version of the 'helicopter controversy', in which those aircraft are downgraded from real visible helicopters to uncertain from traces on a screen, and in which Milosevic's friendly air- traffic controllers continue to give the UN their unfailing support.

For, in the end, the only way to make sense of this book is to look at everything it contains through the spectacles of Lord Owen's retrospective self-justification. Facts which might not reflect well on his judgement are passed over at remarkable speed. The two most important examples of this concern the two civil wars which caused so much suffering to Bosnian people: the war between Abdic's forces and the Bosnian Army in the Bihac enclave and the Croat- Muslim war of 1993-4. In both cases, competent observers have judged that Owen may have contributed (indirectly, of course! and unintentionally, no doubt) to the fomenting of these subsidiary wars. And yet his defence is either to ignore the criticism, or to offer only the most perfunctory of replies.

In the case of Abdic, the criticism has been frequently stated, most recently by Allan Little and Laura Silber. In the summer of 1993, they say, Owen and Stoltenberg took steps to weaken Izetbegovic's position on the Bosnian Presidency. 'At their invitation, Fikret Abdlc. .. emerged from a long silence in the Bihac enclave to challenge Izetbegovic for the leadership of Bosnia's Muslims. The mediators [Owen and Stoltenberg] believed that Abdic would cut a deal with the Serbs and Croats on partition. . . Given a boost by international attempts to bring him into the game, Fikret Abdic declared his own state. . . Another front line emerged, and war erupted between Muslims in the Bihac enclave' (The Death of Yugoslavia, London 1995, pp. 337-9). Owen's comment on his encouragement of Abdic is confined to a single sentence: 'We [Owen and Stoltenberg] had urged Abdic to stay in the collective Presidency and warned him that his influence would go if he broke away.. while within the Presidency his influence was legitimate and benefited from his realism.' Informed readers will recognize just how tortuously coded that final phrase is, but casual readers will be none the wiser.

On the stimulating of the Croat-Muslim war in 1993, the criticism of Owen was made by no less an authority than Tadeusz Mazowiecki the UN Human Rights Rapporteur, who observed that the Vance-Owen Plan was acting as a stimulus to Croat-Muslim fighting in central Bosnia (see the report in The Times, 20 May 1993). One might think that such a serious criticism deserved a full and detailed reply. But no such reply is made in this book. Owen admits that 'we knew, of course, that some of the boundaries of provinces [the provinces delineated by the Vance-Owen Plan] would inevitably be treated as front lines.' But his defense, which consists of only two brief points, is a feeble one. His first point is that the conflict between Croats and Muslims had already begun in 1992, with episodes of fighting in some central Bosnian towns. But episodes are not the same as full-scale war; some factors must have helped produce the shift from the former to the latter, . and the accusation that the Vance- Owen Plan was one of those factors must still stand.

The second point is largely implicit: he implies that his Plan cannot have been responsible for fomenting inter-ethnic war, because the provinces did not have ethnic labels anyway. 'We were careful he says, 'not to label any provinces Serb Croat or Muslim, contrary to the impression given by some newspapers and commentators.' This is extraordinarily disingenuous. It is true that ethnic names were not formally added to the cantons on the official map issued with the Plan; but, as Lord Owen well knows, all parties to the negotiations understood that the basis of the Plan's territorial division was primarily ethnic, and it immediately became the normal practice of all parties to refer to the provinces envisaged by the Plan as Serb, Croat or Muslim. What makes Lord Owen's disavowal here peculiarly absurd is that he himself, a few pages later, starts to give the provinces ethnic labels: he refers to 'provinces with a clear Serb majority', 'the Muslim- majority province; 'provinces. . . allocated to the Serbs; and even, concisely and conclusively, 'Serb provinces'.

One rather comical detail must also be recorded here: while accepting no blame for stimulating the Croat-Muslim war, Owen does demand credit for ending it. He tells us that a meeting which he helped to organize in January 1994 between Tudjman and Izetbegovic at the German state guest-house of Petersberg 'laid the foundation for the Washington Accords three months later'. How exactly did it do that? The only comment he makes on the substance of the meeting, a little earlier in his text, is as follows: 'the Petersberg two-day meeting made no real progress and, what was worse, personal relations between Izetbegovic and Tudjman deteriorated even further.' It is nice to know that Owen's magic touch did not fall him, even at that critical hour. And, of course, it would anyway have been quite wrong for 'peace mediators' such as Lord Owen and Mr Stoltenberg to end a war between Croats and Bosnian Government forces: as he said on 14 March 1994, after the signing of the Washington Accord, 'it would have been very, very difficult indeed for us to have done it, without compromising our impartiality.' What he meant, quite simply, is that Mr Karadzic might have objected.

The illogicalities of Owen's position on the Croat-Muslim war are as nothing, however, compared with the absurdity of his argument on the central theme of the book: the failure of the Vance- Owen Plan. Anyone who knows anything about the history of the war will remember that the Plan was first accepted by the Bosnian Government, then initialled by Karadzic at Athens, and then taken back to the Bosnian Serb 'parliament' at Pale, which denounced it and called for a referendum in the 'Republika Srpska'. That referendum, held on 15-16 May 1993, rejected it by 96%. During the following week, the representatives of America, Russia and other states met in Washington and agreed on a package of new proposals. Owen's claim in this book is that the Plan was destroyed not by the Pale Serbs but by the US Government. He blames the Clinton administration for publicly criticizing the Plan, and for raising the hopes of the Bosnian Government that an alternative strategy of 'lift and strike' would be pursued instead. In this way, he thinks, the Americans first 'undermined' his efforts, and then 'ditched' his famous Plan on 20 May.

This whole argument is both logically and chronologically absurd. The one party which might have been encouraged to reject the Plan by American talk about 'lift and strike' was the Bosnian Government; but it agreed to sign. The one party which had reason to fear the hawkish tone of American statements, and therefore to accept the Plan instead, was the Pale regime; but it was the Pale Serbs who rejected the Plan. And how does Owen deal with the fact that their rejection was sealed by a 96% vote in a referendum, four whole days before the Washington meeting which he blames for 'killing' the Plan? The answer is marvelously simple. He does not even mention the result of that referendum.

Instead he insists, with the obsessive energy of a true monomaniac, that the Plan should just have been 'imposed', whether or not anyone on the ground accepted it, and that the Americans are to blame for not having agreed to impose it. This is truly breath-taking. If consent was not needed to make it effective, why had he wasted four whole months trying to get that consent? Why did he claim, in the earlier part of this book, that any suggestion about ignoring the objections of one side was 'unrealistic' (referring to a time when, of course, it was the Americans who were suggesting that Western policy should ignore Karadzic and treat the Bosnian Government as a legitimate government)? And why does he always dismiss as naive and impractical those 'politicians, retired generals and commentators in television studios' who proposed that the West could impose a settlement on the Bosnian war by force? Did he have a practical proposal of his own for imposing the Vance- Owen Plan by force, against the wishes of General Mladic?

The answer is yes and no. He did have a plan, but it was not really his own proposal. It was, rather, a plan generously supplied to him in Belgrade by 'senior advisers' to the 'Serbian leadership' Under this plan, a UN Implementation force', including American and Russian troops, would have imposed order on Bosnia with the assistance of 'Yugoslav Army liaison officers'. How cross Lord Owen must have felt when this wise and practical proposal failed to gain the instant approval of those naive Americans in the Pentagon and the State Department.

Finally in order to give the reader an idea of the general character of this book, it is necessary to say something about Owen's attitude towards the Bosnian Government and its overall moral position. His general method here is to devote many sentences to describing the wrongdoing of 'the Muslims', and then round the passage off with a single sentence pointing out that, of course, as everyone knows, the wrongdoings of the Serbs were much greater. It is a handy technique: the final sentence is always there to cover him should anyone accuse him of playing down the crimes of the Pale Serbs, but the overall effect is unmistakable.

When he summarizes Ejup Ganic's message to the Americans as 'We are the victims', he describes Ganic as a 'propagandist'. Lord Owen after a couple of briefings in London in August 1992, knew better. 'While the terms "aggressor" and "victim" were being brandished as weapons in a propaganda war, the true situation was obviously far more complex than that dichotomy implied.' Those of us who regard the outbreak of the war in Bosnia as an act of planned aggression against the Bosnian state are 'obviously' quite wrong - so obviously, indeed, that there is no need to offer any evidence to the contrary. At no point in this long book does Owen offer any account of how or why the Bosnian war began. He tells us repeatedly that no one is guiltless on Bosnia, and that there are no clear aggressors' or victims'. Like so many diplomats and military men, he seems to treat the war in the way that a referee would treat a football match; all his talk about guilt relates only to the good or bad behaviour of each side as combatants, once the war has begun. The judgement that one side is indeed guilty because it deliberately started this war, is not even considered here. But since others have made such a judgment, Lord Owen devotes great effort to trying to paint as black a picture of Bosnian Government behaviour as possible, in order, it seems, to redress the balance.

Thus he gives great prominence to an Incident which happened just after his appointment as Balkan negotiator: according to a UN press release in Zagreb, two French UN soldiers were killed in cold blood by Bosnian Muslims, who made an unprovoked attack on a humanitarian convoy. This taught him, he says, to shed his illusions about the so-called innocence' of the Muslims. What it should have taught him was a lesson about the unreliability of the UN press office, which, not for the first time, had rushed out a garbled version of events. A more accurate version was printed two years ago by the UN commander General Morillon, who naturally took a close interest in the fate of the French soldiers. Morillon explains that the two Frenchmen were killed 'in a convoy which was caught in a firefight between Serbs and Muslims: Muslim army riflemen, newly arrived in the region, badly controlled and over- excited in the fighting, were responsible for the deaths' (Croire et oser, p.104). Nothing about 'cold blood' there.

Similarly when discussing the market-place massacre in Sarajevo of February 1994, Lord Owen goes on at length about a UN investigation which concluded that the mortar shell had been fired from a Bosnian Government position. Dramatically, he confirms that General Rose put pressure on Bosnian ministers by threatening to reveal this finding, unless they did as they were told. What Lord Owen does not tell us is that a second. more thorough investigation found that the first had made mistakes in its calculations, and concluded that the shell could equally have come from the Serb side. It is surely inconceivable that Owen is unaware of this second report; yet he chooses not to mention it. Readers will have to draw their own conclusions about the overall reliability of this grotesquely vainglorious book.

This is a greatly extended version of a review first published in The Sunday Telegraph on 12 November 1995.

Back to Bosnia Links