From Dayton to the Pentagon, Derek Chollet reflects on Bosnia and "a remarkable journey"

In the year after the November 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that would end the conflict in Bosnia, Derek Chollet met Richard Holbrooke and started helping him write his book about the historic occasion. On Wednesday at the Pentagon, Chollet sat next to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel across the table from Bosnia-Herzegovina's minister of defense, Zekerijah Osmic, reflecting on how a war that once consumed Washington could fade so gratefully into obscurity.

"This has been a personal mission," said Chollet, now assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, in an interview with the E-Ring in his third-floor Pentagon office on Thursday. 

Chollet, like his mentor Holbrooke, has spent much of his career consumed and influenced by Bosnia. In his 2005 book, The Road to the Dayton Accords: A Study in American Statecraft, the prologue begins with a blunt reminder of the necessity of U.S. diplomacy, and muscle: "From 1991 to 1995, the crisis in Bosnia cast a dark shadow over American foreign policy. All other accomplishments abroad during those years were diminished by Bosnia's bleeding. This shattered the world's confidence in America's leadership and power."

For Chollet, pictured above center, Wednesday's brief meeting was a long way from 1995, when Bosnian crisis was in "full boil."

"I took a moment yesterday to think about how far they've come," he said, but deflecting an opportunity to talk about his own journey.

"This was a country that 17 years ago most people didn't give much of a chance to and asked why would the United States put 20,000 men and women in uniform in harms way, as part of a NATO mission, to help these people. It was gratifying to show that that kind of effort can pay off, and does pay off."

Bosnia barely registers any attention in Washington anymore. After Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met Osmic, on Wednesday, the Pentagon released a short "read out," indicating that Hagel expressed support for the Bosnian military's reforms and promising to help with their concerns about NATO ammunition disposal and logistics reform, and Bosnia-Herzegovina's too-complicated internal issue of registering military property.

There was far more meaning, however, for Chollet.

"It struck me during the meeting, as I was thinking, that so many of what we deal with every day and certainly what the secretary has to deal with everyday are the toughest issues that are real problems," he said. "It is rare during the day to deal with issues that are opportunities for us. And they were problems that engulfed the previous administrations."

"In May of 1995, the discussion here in Washington was about whether or not NATO should conduct air strikes in Bosnia," Chollet explained. Then came the Srebrenica massacre that summer and finally, in the fall, Dayton. But today the Bosnian military today is considered a leading influence in the country's unification and push toward NATO membership.

"That's a remarkable journey."

Over the past year, the Pentagon's policy staff has reached out to each of the militaries from the region by arranging meetings with former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met the defense ministers of Serbia, Croatia, and Montenegro. Hagel continued that effort this week but has no plans yet to visit the Balkans, Chollet's staff said.

"They're countries that less than two decades ago dominated our attention," Chollet said, "but for very troubling reasons."

Croatia joined NATO in 2009. Bosnia has, he said, "struggled but has made great progress over the last seven, eight years in the defense sector."

"In many ways the military has been the leading edge of the unification of the country, in terms of institutionally in bringing the three sides [Bosnians, Serbians, and Croatians] together."

It was a poignant meeting too, he said, for Hagel, who visited Bosnia several times as a senator after the wars ended. Also at the table on Wednesday was Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, director of the Joint Staff, who in December 1995 was one of the 20,000 U.S. soldiers who deployed to Bosnia as part of the NATO peacekeeping force.

Pentagon and U.S. officials now are helping Bosnia "think through," Chollet said, the process toward readying a Membership Action Plan (MAP), the initial step toward joining NATO.

"It's a difficult political process for them, its as much bout their internal politics as it is about anything military," he said. NATO and the European Union also are involved in making sure Bosnia meets benchmarks across political, economic, and social spheres.

The Pentagon now has just 18 people in Bosnia, working within a NATO contingent of fewer than 100 people led by a one-star U.S. commander, Brig. Gen. Walter Lord.

For at least a brief moment, Holbrooke's work shone through his protégé, who often gazed downward as he described a new Bosnian experience -- one of respite from the currently lengthy threat sheet on the daily agenda inside the Pentagon.

After Holbrooke's death, Chollet and Samantha Power compiled an anthology of tributes to the legendary ambassador. In the preface, they wrote:

"He wanted to be at the center of things and, from the White House job he held at age 26 to his last mission as President Obama's Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he constantly found a way to place himself there."

As the interview wrapped an Air Force colonel promptly swept Chollet's office of its visitors. It was time for the next meeting.

DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo