“A politician . . . one that would circumvent God.”
—William Shakespeare

The title gives the game away: David Owen, a failed British politician who was for three crucial years (1992-95) Europe’s chief negotiator on the issue of the former Yugoslavia, seeks to cast himself as a Homerian hero. After 400 pages of tedious and at times clumsy prose, including every little detail of his busy travel schedule, Owen’s attempt appears first infuriating, but finally pathetic.

Far from being heroic, or even significant, Owen’s Balkan assignment was purely technical: to help impose an inherently unjust settlement, in the making of which he had not played any part. The pillar of this settlement was “Europe’s” recognition of administrative boundaries between Yugoslavia’s former constituent republics as fully fledged international frontiers. The chief architects of the blueprint were the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and his then foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher. For geostrategic reasons of their own, they successfully bullied the other 11 members of the European Community into the premature recognition of the secessionist republics at Maastricht in December 1991.

Owen’s predecessor as Europe’s chief Yugoslav mediator was Lord Carrington, an old Tory cynic who soon realized that there was precious little to choose from among the three warring factions in the Balkans. Crown Prince Alexander and I paid several visits to this paternalistic grandee at his splendid office at Sotheby’s, in St. James, to listen to his off-the-cuff remarks on “that awful Balkan mess.” His views on Messrs. Milosevic, Tudjman, and Izetbegovic were scathing in the extreme, but Peter Carrington equally despised the strident tone of pseudo-moralists on both sides of the Atlantic, who sought to construe “Bosnia” as a test of Western resolve in the epic struggle of the good (“multiethnic,” blue-eyed Muslims) versus the bad (mass-raping, sliwowitz-swilling, ethnic cleansing Serbs). To him, the advocates of unitary Bosnia ruled from Sarajevo were living “in a realm of fantasy.”

By August 1992, shortly before David Owen took over from him, Carrington concluded that the optimal post-Yugoslav solution would involve a Serb-Groat land and population swap, with “a decent piece of real estate” left to the Muslims in the middle. He understood that no viable “Bosnia” could be created on Yugoslavia’s ruins. But he also realized that there were people in Bonn and Washington with very different ideas, and he was deeply uneasy about the fundamentals of Europe’s Yugoslavia policy. “The Germans got away with it because the other 11 were supine,” was his verdict on Genscher’s fist-banging at Maastricht.

Carrington’s increasing reluctance to subscribe to the Manichaean view of the conflict, which cast the Serbs in the role of perpetual villains, finally made his continued role untenable. And so, in mid-summer of 1992, the search was on for a successor. It was agreed that this would be another Briton, but someone whose views were more to the Germans’ liking. Thus, yet another Anglo-French retreat was disguised as a compromise in the course of the Yugoslav war.

This is the backdrop prudently omitted from David Owen’s account. What Owen also chose not to tell his readers is that the job of Co-Chairman of the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia was given to him in August 1992 by the ruling Conservatives as a consolation prize, when the Governorship of Hong Kong (previously promised to Owen in return for supporting the Tories against his former comrades in the Labour Party and among the Lib-Dems) was preempted by Chris Patten. Although in British domestic politics the then 53-year-old Owen was distinctly passé—a fading “nearlyman”—he was owed a political debt by Prime Minister John Major. Such debts are defaulted on if the debtor can get away with it, but Owen retained his considerable capacity for mischief. Carrington’s departure provided an opportunity for easy repayment.

To earn his spurs, Owen had first to prove his solid anti-Serb credentials. And so his memoir opens at the end of July 1992 when, infuriated by a story in the Guardian about a Serb-run “concentration camp” in northern Bosnia, he wrote to Major demanding that the Serbs be bombed. The fact that the atrocity story proved to be bogus—another detail known to Owen but omitted from his book—illustrates the enormous role that a committed, leftish-liberal press played in the formation of policy in the Yugoslav crisis. As Nora Beloff, a British journalist, remarked in her review of Balkan Odyssey (in the Times Literary Supplement last November), “The story might have been very different if the Guardian man had happened to be on the west bank of the Drina River during the same period, the summer of 1992, There, in the towns and villages where the Muslims were a majority, it was the Serbs who were being driven out and, in many cases, slaughtered.”

Knowing that German acquiescence was the key to his appointment, Owen was careful not to question Bonn’s Diktat on Yugoslavia imposed at Maastricht. On the contrary, he explicitly indicated to the Germans that he was not going to make any trouble. In what is probably the most revealing passage in his book, he recalls a meeting with the German foreign minister, Kinkel, a few days after being given Carrington’s job:

I decided then and there that I would not spend time on public finger-pointing about German support for premature recognition of Croatia and Bosnia or the rights and wrongs of EG policy hitherto. My task was to keep the twelve member states together, and the best way to do that was to look forward. I adopted a somewhat similar attitude in public toward the causes of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. It was enough to deal with present outrages and future peace.

This is a remarkable admission. By deciding (“then and there”) to treat recognition as an irreversible fait accompli, Owen had abdicated any possibility of acting as a mediator in the Yugoslav conflict. Perceiving his role to be that of the upholder of European unity—which was but a misnomer for an unseemly Gleichschaltung on terms imposed by Germany—he assumed the mantle of a combatant. By becoming a mere accomplice in the fight to force over two million Serbs west of the Drina River into submission, Owen accepted a role which was not only subordinate, but squalid.

What makes Owen’s complicity unforgivable is his awareness that what he was doing was wrong. He acknowledges that the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia suffered genocide at the hands of the Groats in 1941-45, and that their suffering went unacknowledged in Tito’s Yugoslavia, yet throughout his Balkan tenure he does not take this political fact into consideration. Even more significantly, Owen concedes that Tito’s internal boundaries were arbitrary, and that their redrawing should have been countenanced at the time of Yugoslavia’s disintegration:

It is true that there could not have been a total accommodation of Serb demands; but to rule out any discussion or opportunity for compromise in order to head off war was an extraordinary decision. My view has always been that to have stuck unyieldingly to the internal boundaries of the six republics within the former Yugoslavia as being the boundaries for independent states, was a folly far greater than that of premature recognition Itself.

Owen’s greatest failure, as a diplomat and as a man, was to brush aside his own objections to the blueprint imposed on him. He never explains the somersault, and this is the most disturbing aspect of his book. Suppressing one’s own critical and moral judgment in favor of an earthly objective—be it “European unity” or one’s personal vanity—is the hallmark of a bureaucrat, or of a war criminal. So was he a lickspittle or a Nero? We do not know. Owen is a bit of both; his obedience was bureaucratic, his disregard for justice was criminal.

Having made his choice, Owen devoted his considerable energy to devising and imposing not a “fair,” but a blatantly anti-Serb, settlement. The much heralded Vance-Owen Plan was the result. Its key objective was to give the Muslims their chief war aim—a single, centralized Bosnian state—and to reduce Serb ancestral lands to a patchwork of semiautonomous Nagorno-Karabachs. In Owen’s own words, “We could not accept a state within a state and therefore had to avoid as far as we could a geographical continuity of Serb provinces.” The boundaries of those provinces were jointly drawn by Owen, Tudjman, and Izetbegovic in Zagreb, and then brazenly presented to the Serbs (and the rest of us) as a proposal by himself and Vance, the two international mediators!

Owen’s conversion remains unexplained: having made the opposite case with some eloquence, he treats Tito’s borders as inviolable, and their corollary, unitary Bosnian state and a Greater Croatia encompassing the Krajina, as axiomatic. But his mind is predictably “rational” in that it demands that others accept his axioms. Referring to a different tragedy (India) and a different time (1947), a shrewd analyst aptly captured this frame of mind: “It was as if the wolf, when presenting his argument to the Iamb for eating it was assuming that he was speaking only to a fellow-wolf, his equal, and at the same time taking it for granted that if the lamb was not persuaded it must be a very unreasonable animal.” (Nirad Chadbury, Thy Hand, Great Anarch: India 1921-1952.)

Since most Serbs were (unsurprisingly) loath to subscribe to Owen’s freshly adopted opinions, they had to be irrational, or plain dishonest. He treated them as both. In either case, they were to be denied a place in the New Europe unless they yielded, and relentlessly punished until they did. They merited air strikes, which should be “as surgical as in the desert flatness of Iraq.” Towns with a prewar Muslim plurality, such as Foca, Visegrad, or Prijedor, are “Muslim towns” to Owen, while overwhelmingly Serbian towns and districts are always labeled “Serb-held.”

By the same token, their enemies could get away with anything. The Serbs were to be punished if they violated the “safe areas,” but the Muslims were not expected to demilitarize them. The Krajina Serbs were to be lectured by an “adamant” David Owen for being in Croatia, but a little later we find Owen giving comfort to Albanian separatists in Kosovo. Although “they are ready to wait until they can join up with Albania,” and “we could never interest the Albanians in any solution based on autonomy,” Owen refuses to exert pressure, let alone to remind them that Kosovo was in Serbia after all. On the contrary, he has “no wish” to meet any local Serbs on his arrival in Pristina.

Once he gets on track, Owen is unrestrained, even brazen, in his application of the double standard. Karadzic’s or Mladic’s nationalism is despicable, but not Tudjman’s. This holocaust revisionist and ethnic cleanser of half a million Serbs is, to Owen, “the genuine choice of his people to be their leader.” Owen was perfectly aware that Tudjman had regular Croatian troops in Bosnia, and quietly condoned his intention to violate all agreements in order to destroy the Krajina Serbs. Accordingly, “There was therefore no feeling between us of resentment at being let down when he did attack across agreed ceasefire lines.”

Alija Izetbegovic is treated with similar charity. We are not told what Owen knows: that he had ordered various bomb-stunts against his own people (e.g., the “breadline massacre” of May 1992, and the Markale market massacre of February 1994) in order to gain Western sympathy and support. Even when his Muslim militiamen prove to be “capable of killing in cold blood U.N. troops in blue berets,” Owen is careful to blame “someone in political authority, though not necessarily Izetbegovic.” The Muslim leader’s loyalty “to multiethnic Bosnia” is taken at face value, and Owen selects a benign, bland quotation to illustrate the tone of Izetbegovic’s magnum opus, his Islamic Declaration. Owen does not give us the true Izetbegovic, who proudly proclaims that “there can be no peace or coexistence between the Islamic faith and non-Islamic societies and political institutions,” and who warns his fellow Muslims that “the Islamic movement should and must start taking power as soon as it is morally and numerically strong enough not only to overthrow the existing non-Islamic power structure, but also to build a great Islamic federation spreading from Morocco to Indonesia, from tropical Africa to Central Asia.”

David Owen boasts that his job “was to think the unthinkable and to challenge conventional attitudes.” His ability to make the claim with a straight face is truly unsettling. Rebecca West was right to warn that “one can believe little of what people say of each other, but even less of what they say about themselves.” Owen’s sole complexity seems to be his grimness; “Dr. Death”—his nickname from the old. Labor days—rings eerily true to form. When he is duplicitous, which he is often, one senses that the Welsh Puritan in him secretly longs to be unmasked. When he is at his most arrogant, he is also, curiously, his most pitiful.

Far from being “unconventional,” David Owen is the paragon of the aging, neurotic yuppie. His inner void is papered over by thousands of hours of long-haul flights, dinner parties, and press conferences. He is reliant upon bands of assistants and piles of meaningless memos, addicted to make-do conferences and 15-hour working days. In the end, left alone with himself, he is seemingly as vacuous as the decade, and just as sad. His exercise in self-aggrandizement is doomed, and we sense that he knows it.

Owen’s greatest claim to “unconventionality” is his alleged discovery that Milosevic had never been the “Serbian nationalist leader” of 1,000 Western editorials, but a cynical apparatchik who had never identified with the nationalist agenda. But by promoting an intra-Serb split, Owen did not accomplish anything that Milosevic had not been ready and willing to do anyway. The Serbs of Bosnia and Croatia, unwilling to submit to Tudjman and Izetbegovic but unable to resist without help from Serbia itself, were doomed to defeat once Milosevic decided that they could pose a threat to his undisputed authority.

David Owen has failed in the Balkans. He and I would probably disagree on the nature of his failure, but that is a part of his tragedy: this need not have been so. Had he genuinely dared to “think the unthinkable” and to “challenge conventional attitudes,” Owen would have been remembered as—at worst—a controversial, troublesome Brit; but at best (and just maybe) as a genuine hero in Goethe’s eternal war against Dummheit. His unheroic refusal to play this role further reduced the possibility of a genuine debate on the Balkans in the West, and in “Europe” in particular. It helped promote a bogus consensus, and it facilitated the temporary triumph of a narrow-minded, vindictive Mitteleuropa over genuine European understanding. Denying the validity of any Serb claim thus became the corollary of excluding Eastern Orthodox nations—above all, Russia—from the New Europe.

The fruits of David Owen’s labors belong—for now—to the Clinton administration (which has stabbed him in the back by torpedoing his beloved peace plan), and to the Germans (who despise him). The final result may well prove to be fatal, not only for the interests of the “wrong” type of Slavs but for what remains of the ability of Western civilization to remain cool and detached in the face of interventionist hysteria and the manufacture of enemies.