Envoy's Balkan odyssey inches towards peace

THE SCENE is a military airport south of Rome on a summer morning. An American executive jet, painted in blue, silver and grey, descends out of a cloudless sky past the Alban hills to land on the single runway. It taxis to a halt outside the small VIP lounge, where Italian soldiers stand guard. Richard Holbrooke, US special envoy, hurries down the steps and into the lounge in search of a telephone. This is the private world of taxpayer-funded travel. Personal planes, super-trained pilots, no circling for "air traffic control to give us clearance", no check-ins or passport queues, attentive diplomats on every airstrip and a reassuring absence of prying eyes.

A second, smaller aircraft belonging to the US government touches down at the end of its flight to Italy from the former Yugoslavia. It carries the Bosnian Foreign Minister, Mohammed Sacirbey. So closely does the US mediator work with the Muslim leaders of the Bosnian government that their schedules appear effortlessly to intermesh. Mr Sacirbey and Mr Holbrooke go into a huddle in the lounge before jetting off respectively to Paris and Geneva.

The price of diplomatic success can sometimes be eternal air travel. Mr Holbrooke embarked earlier this summer on his quest to broker a settlement in the Balkans and to get President Clinton out of a hideous policy dilemma, Since then he has done his best to out-Kissinger Kissinger in the pursuit of shuttle diplomacy.

For Henry Kissinger, then US Secretary of State, the famous shuttle of 1973 to 1974 was relatively simple because only two key protagonists, Israel and Syria, were involved and their antagonism was concentrated on one tiny warfront along the Golan Heights. The stakes, of course, were much higher than in Bosnia, because in Tel Aviv and Damascus the nuclear superpowers had clients on whose behalf they were - in extremis - committed to intervene.

But it was precisely to avert the same risk, that Russia and America could be drawn into a Balkan war, that Mr Holbrooke set out on his fiendishly complex odyssey. The conduct of American policy over Bosnia has often drawn scathing criticism in London and Paris. But this time the Clinton administration decided to play it flawlessly.

Mr Holbrooke and his team made their first transatlantic visits to Britain and France, spending several days to outline their plans and the Holbrooke "timetable" which aimed at a settlement by the end of this month.

He then flew to Zagreb, the Croatian capital, which all previous would- be peacemakers have found on first impressions the most accommodating to their proposals. The treacherous truth usually dawns later.

Next he went to Sarajevo, no doubt to face the winning combination of moral outrage and low cunning which has made the Bosnian government the most effective operator in Washington's policy wars. It would be a mistake to suggest that the Bosnian leadership is in America's pocket, as Mr Holbrooke was to discover when it accused him of softening his demands on the Serbs and conceding the possibility of a divided Sarajevo.

Mr Holbrooke logged a few thousand more miles, flying off to sound opinions in Bonn, Washington and Paris before he landed in Belgrade to see President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, whose influence over events in the Balkans exercises a mendacious hold over envoys to the region. Within five days, Mr Holbrooke had gone back to Zagreb, returned once more to Belgrade, done the rounds of Bonn and Brussels and headed off to Ankara to win over Turkey, a key Muslim nation and a player both at Nato and in the UN.

After that, an intermission in Belgrade and the refuelling stop in Rome, there came the Geneva conference at which the US envoy unveiled his peace plan.

Then it was off to Washington to report to the President and back to the Balkans for a wearying round of visits. Mr Holbrooke does not get any air miles for his frequent flying in the sleek aircraft provided by the US government. But perhaps, he should rack up awards for the number of lies he has had to listen to over the past month or so.

Profile, page 19

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