Lawrence Eagleburger passed away today at his estate in Virginia, at age 80.
He had been Washington's envoy to Yugoslavia twice, spending seven years in Belgrade altogether. After retiring in 1984, he returned to the State Department in 1989, as James Baker's right hand. Eagleburger was acting Secretary for a while, and actually held the post for just over a month, from December 1992 to January 1993.
Today's NY Times obituary claims Eagleburger "was unable to keep Yugoslavia from dissolving" in the early 1990s. Well, here's an interesting question: did he even try?
Conventional wisdom has it that the Bush I administration supported Yugoslavia's survival, and only reluctantly changed its mind after "Serbian atrocities". Warren Zimmerman, the last US ambassador to Yugoslavia, claims that Washington supported Yugoslav unity, but not "if it were maintained at the expense of democracy or by force." That was at best facetious (isn't that precisely what Lincoln did?), at worst disingenuous: in the paragraph preceding that claim, Zimmerman explained the influence of Croatian and Albanian ethnic lobbies, which very much worked towards dismembering Yugoslavia.
Washington's official position - paying lip service to Yugoslav unity, openly opposing the use of force to preserve it, and talking about democracy and human rights - amounted to tacit support for the separatists.
The NY Times obit quotes Eagleburger's warning to the Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, “You can’t hold Yugoslavia together by force.” But the claim that Milosevic tried to do just that is simply not true.
It was, in fact, Milosevic who supported the secession of Slovenia and Croatia -though not Croatia's claim to Serb-inhabited territories, at least not without rescinding the clause in Tudjman's new constitution disenfranchising the Serbs - and even tacitly recognized Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia, by creating the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (consisting of Serbia and Montenegro) in April 1992. None of that mattered to the policymakers in Washington and several European capitals, who by then had decided to designate the Serbs as the principal villain of the Balkans drama, the better to cast themselves as heroes.
In 2008, Eagleburger gave an interview to Voice of America, arguing that carving out Kosovo from Serbia set a bad precedent. It was too little, too late - the precedent was already set, back in 1992, when the Badinter Commission decided that Yugoslavia had "dissolved", and Washington went along with this. By 2008, as well, there was a new generation at the State Department, which believed they could shape the world with their willpower, disdaining the "reality-based community" and all that.
Still, I'll always wonder whether people like Eagleburger and Zimmerman, with their extensive Balkans experience, could have contributed to things unfolding differently, rather than being accessories to the murder of Yugoslavia. Perhaps some day American historians and media will honestly re-examine their country's role in this sordid episode, rather than dismissing it as "the fault of those evil Serbs" - but I'm not holding my breath.