The Dayton Accords underscored this thinking; they established a tentative peace in the Balkans, but they also dealt a crippling blow to the hunt for Mladic and Karadzic before it had truly begun. The Implementation Force (IFOR) deployed to Bosnia and Herzegovina to enforce the Dayton agreement put 57,000 pairs of boots on the ground, including 20,000 U.S. soldiers. But Pentagon officials insisted that U.S. troops not be tasked with arresting indicted war criminals: That was considered a law enforcement duty, not a military one. At a critical NATO meeting in London in early December 1995, top U.S. and European officials decided not to give IFOR any explicit arrest authority. Albright pressed the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution designed to stiffen NATO's -- and the Pentagon's -- wobbly spine on the issue. But it was blocked by Russia, whose allies in Belgrade had no interest in giving IFOR the authorization to arrest their own leaders.
What this meant, in effect, was that IFOR would not arrest Karadzic or Mladic even if the two walked arm in arm into a room full of IFOR soldiers. It was an absurd position, and ultimately an untenable one. By late December, NATO revised its stance: IFOR troops couldn't go looking for the war criminals, but in the unlikely event that they happened to bump into one, they could nab him and hand him over to tribunal officials -- who, in turn, had to be present in Bosnia for the actual arrest. Otherwise no clear rule required them to hang onto the fugitive. This was like giving a police officer in Texas the authority to detain a federally indicted felon only if he happened to pull him over for speeding and a U.S. marshal happened to be nearby to serve the arrest warrant. I thought we had entered the comedy of errors.
Perversely, Adm. Leighton Warren "Snuffy" Smith, the top U.S. commander dispatched to Bosnia, was less concerned that he wouldn't find Karadzic and Mladic than that he would -- that he would run into one of the men, perhaps on a visit to the Bosnian Serb capital of Pale, and find himself in the awkward position of having to personally arrest him. Smith scoffed at any suggestion that his forces had the authority or mandate to make such arrests. His was an old-school way of thinking that drove Holbrooke, me, and many others crazy as we struggled to work with the military to deal with the unconventional challenges of Bosnia.
Fed up with the intransigence, Louise Arbour, the Yugoslav tribunal's crusading prosecutor, visited Washington in early 1997 to push for giving NATO troops a mandate to do more to catch the fugitives than to simply hope for an accidental run-in with them. Pentagon officials told her to forget about it. Arbour's talks with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where she had hoped to find seasoned law enforcement professionals who would take up the challenge, proved equally futile. "Everyone has a good reason why someone else should [make the arrests]!" Arbour burst out to me as we crossed Pennsylvania Avenue afterward. She left Washington deeply frustrated.
In July 1997, two years after the first indictments of Karadzic and Mladic, U.S. officials finally gave the OK for special operations forces to actively pursue the criminals. At that time, the two men were believed to still be in Bosnia, but moving back and forth to Serbia and Montenegro. The newly appointed NATO supreme allied commander, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark -- who had been criticized for taking a friendly meeting with Mladic in August 1994, in which the two men were photographed playfully exchanging hats -- took a more active role in the manhunt than any of his predecessors. But inaction remained the rule, and by late May 1998 the whole project seemed dead in the water. By the end of that year, everyone involved in the arrest effort was more interested in pulling off a no-risk operation than a successful one. One American soldier joked despairingly to me that his boss wanted the number of tiles on the fugitive's roof triple-counted before even considering a raid.
As far as Mladic was concerned, it was already too late; a crucial opportunity had been lost. An early arrest of the general would have prevented him from finding sanctuary across the border in Serbia, where NATO forces had no authority to go after him. But that simple point never persuaded key officials -- and indeed, I wondered whether they even wanted to arrest him. They were perpetually worried about what an arrest of Mladic in Bosnia or, for that matter, in Serbia might do to the stability of Bosnia and to the security of NATO forces there.
In fact, as other indicted Bosnian Serb fugitives were arrested, the reaction of the Serbs appeared relatively tame, and the dreaded backlash that so many had predicted never materialized. Rather, it was our failure to catch Mladic and Karadzic that proved toxic. It perpetuated the septic influence of these two men among Bosnian Serbs, the ethnic group with which the Bosnian Muslims and Croats most needed to achieve reconciliation in a regenerated and democratic Bosnian nation. The longer the fugitive leaders roamed free, the longer NATO forces would have to remain in Bosnia to keep the peace, and the longer those men actually posed a threat to the safety of those forces.
It's possible that apprehending Mladic and Karadzic quickly would even have deterred Milosevic and his lieutenants from launching their deadly assault on Kosovo in March 1999. Arbour pleaded with me during the Kosovo conflict that if NATO would just take down at least one of these indictees, that act alone could influence Belgrade's aggressive attitude. I agreed and pressed the idea in Washington, but to no avail. International justice renders consequences that usually work in favor of U.S. interests, but to understand that, policymakers have to take the long view -- which, of course, they seldom do.
I always counseled the public during my ambassadorial days that international justice requires infinite patience, but that the perpetrators of atrocities ultimately will stand before the judges and face up to their crimes. Leaders must have the courage to bring about these reckonings sooner rather than later; after all, the public memory of these crimes does fade, and the victims whose rights must be upheld don't live forever. In the case of Mladic, justice will, at long last, be done. I just regret that the general made fools out of so many of us for so long.