David Owen's Balkans -- hostility, mendacity

February 11, 1996|By RICHARD O'MARA | RICHARD O'MARA,SUN STAFF

"Balkan Odyssey," by David Owen. Harcourt Brace & Company. 389 pages. $25

The London Conference of August 1992 was convened to end the fighting in the former Yugoslavia. There, David Owen and Cyrus Vance, Jimmy Carter's secretary of state, were commissioned by the European Community to negotiate a settlement to the conflicts. They failed.

This book is Mr. Owen's account of their efforts. It is excessively detailed, mildly self-serving and sadly lacking in that delicious scathing quality common to the memoirs of English peers. Yet it does illuminate the dynamics of the recent hostilities.

Mr. Owen, a founder of Britain's Social Democratic Party, and former foreign minister, was no stranger to mendacity. But in the former Yugoslavia he encountered quantities of it beyond his experience, breathtaking duplicities at all levels. Nothing was fixed; there was no certainty about who the enemy was at any given time, as this intercepted conversation between a Muslim commander and his Bosnian Serb counterpart during the

Muslim-Croat war indicates:

"First they bargained over the price in Deutschmarks of Serb shells which the Muslims wanted to buy from the Serbs to fire at the Croats in Mostar. After a price was agreed and rates for the supply in lorries arranged, the Muslim commander was heard to come back and ask if the Serbs could for a little extra money fire the shells if they were given the cross-bearings. After a brief haggle on the number of extra Deutschmarks this would involve, the Serbs duly fired on the Croats, paid for by the Muslims."

Though Mr. Owen never morally equates the Muslims with the Bosnian Serbs, the odious practicioners of ethnic cleansing, he LTC reveals some of their specific treacheries, as when a Muslim mortar squad in Sarajevo deliberately fired on a Serb artillery position from behind a hospital, then made sure a TV crew was on hand to record the Serb response.

This was no aberration; it reflected the larger strategy of Bosnian President Aliya Izetbegovic: to draw the United States into Bosnia, by any means, in defense of the Muslim government.

It may be hard to believe, but the Bosnian wars have had their comic moments. Mr. Owen's first visit to the presidency in Sarajevo occurred to the accompaniment of explosions set off nearby by the Muslims themselves, to lend the affair an aura of danger and urgency, kind of a Potemkin Village of dynamite.

Mr. Owen was evidently embittered by Washington's rejection of the Vance-Owen Peace Plan of 1993, which would have divided Bosnia into 10 provinces. It sank their only chance of fulfilling their mandate. From the beginning, Mr. Owen knew what to do, '' but couldn't bring it off. He told the Americans that nothing would be achieved in Bosnia without the active support of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president who instigated the conflict in the first place. He tenaciously resisted attempts to lift the arms embargo on the Muslims. And he told Washington it had to put its own troops on the ground before it could control policy toward the region.

In Dayton, American diplomats exploited the centrality of Mr. Milosovec to get their deal; proposals to lift the embargo were muted, and today American troops are deployed in Bosnia.

Richard O'Mara is a features writer for The Sun. For 12 years, he was foreign editor and before that, foreign correspondent in Europe and Latin America. He has written for the Virginia Quarterly Review and the Saturday Review.

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