Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

"Cowboy" Toughs it Out in Bosnia

Bosnian nationalist leaders back-pedal on threats to revoke accreditation of "meddlesome" US ambassador.
By Tanya Domi

A diplomatic storm threatened to disturb the waters in Bosnia and the United States last week when the chairman of the Bosnian tri-partite presidency, Bosnian Serb Zivko Radisic, announced the government was considering revoking the diplomatic accreditation of US ambassador to Bosnia, Thomas Miller.

 

At a news conference in Banja Luka on February 6, Radisic named Miller as one of a few foreign diplomats the presidency had criticised for exceeding their diplomatic mandates and interfering in the internal affairs of the country. He said the presidency had discussed removing diplomatic accreditation from the offenders.

 

Radisic and his fellow presidents - the Bosnian Croat Ante Jelavic and Bosniak Halid Genjac - appeared to be particularly annoyed by the perceived role of these officials in bringing together the opposition Alliance for Change coalition. The Alliance secured majorities in the Bosnian state parliament and the Bosnian-Croat federation assembly in the recent general elections.

 

As soon as reactions to the comments began pouring in, Jelavic and Genjac distanced themselves from Radisic's statement. Local and international analysts suspect Jelavic encouraged his Bosnian Serb counterpart to make the comments. The next day Radisic too complained he had been misquoted.

 

One local paper ran the mocking headline, "I Didn't Say What You All Heard".

 

This latest clash with the world's only super-power is one of many recent and ridiculous moves by Bosnia's nationalist parties and demonstrates that local hardliners are clearly becoming increasingly frustrated as their decade-long grip on power slowly but surely ebbs away.

 

Throughout the diplomatic ruckus, Miller stood his ground, leaving the US state department and other Western officials to speak on his behalf. When the dust settled, Miller was still standing, basking in Washington's vocal approval, and ready to continue his vigorous leadership of US policy on the ground.

 

Those who know Miller reckon he probably enjoyed the dust-up with Bosnia's nationalist hardliners. But the whole incident has propelled the ambassador into the Bosnian spotlight and many, who had viewed him as part of the furniture, are now asking, "Who is this cowboy?"

 

Miller joined the US foreign service in 1976 and has risen to the senior rank of Minister Counsellor. He is familiar with regions of conflict having served in Cyprus as Special Coordinator before coming to Sarajevo in July 1999. He has worked in Greece on Middle East issues and earlier in his career focused on South East Asia.

 

He has a reputation for preferring the "hard knuckle approach" and some US observers are frankly surprised it's taken 18 months for confrontation with local nationalists to spill into the public arena.

 

A local journalist said Miller is "as undiplomatic with the local thugs as they are with him". The ambassador appears to be tough and straight to the point when it comes to US concerns.

 

Miller is a protégé of Richard Holbrooke, chief negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords, and has been likened to him in style, if somewhat less charming and sophisticated.

 

US Balkans policy has been the preserve of diplomats of Holbrooke's ilk - extremely tough negotiators.

 

Holbrooke's successor as special advisor, Robert Gelbard, enjoyed a similar reputation. Miller has worked closely with both men and has shown himself to be from the same mould.

 

According to an IWPR source, Miller only agreed to the post in Sarajevo on condition he would be allowed to make policy rather than rely on instructions and interference from Washington.

 

Miller's staff are vigilant to ensure all information moving between Washington and Sarajevo passes only through embassy channels. It's not uncommon for US embassy staff to demand their colleagues from the Dayton implementation agencies route communications via the embassy. Miller has thus shut down much of the independent communication which had by-passed him in the past.

 

Among the Bosnian public, Miller is very popular. He has adopted a direct, informal approach to the thousands of displaced and dispossessed and is renowned for his weekend excursions to help rebuild houses - an act of charity no other Western officials or local political leaders have proferred.

 

Miller's wife Bonnie teaches for free at Bosnian universities and actively supports non-governmental organisations in the country. She has published a book in Sarajevo on working with traumatised children.

 

But it is Miller's undoubtedly deep involvement in Bosnia's political development which provoked the Radisic attack. Prior to the elections, he hosted numerous "secret dinners and lunches" for Bosnian opposition leaders which helped to bring together the Alliance for Change opposition bloc.

 

Even local and international officials, who admire Miller, fear he could be too much of a "cowboy", lacking the subtlety needed to navigate Bosnia's multi-layered and Byzantine political games.

 

Looking west to the new administration of US President George W Bush and his Secretary of State Colin Powell, Miller's tough-guy style may be falling out of step with Washington's thinking.

 

The Bush administration purports to favour a "hands-off and humble" approach to foreign policy.

 

A Clinton-era state department official commented, "The Holbrooke, Gelbard, Miller style is becoming passe and is not really embraced anymore. They don't necessarily create a good image of the US abroad."

 

But Powell's reorganisation of the state department could result in Miller enjoying greater power and latitude than he could have envisaged under the previous government of former US President Bill Clinton.

 

Although not officially announced, the dismantling of the Dayton Implementation office is already well underway. The office, run by the Balkans special advisor, reported direct to the secretary of state. It was exclusively focused on Bosnian implementation and later on Kosovo intervention. The last special advisor, Jim O'Brian, left in January. According to IWPR sources the state department does not plan to fill the vacancy.

 

All special advisor positions are to be terminated and responsibilities shifted to long-established regional bureaux. Bosnian implementation is to be subsumed under the Bureau of European Affairs.

 

Many state department watchers feel this reorganisation is long overdue. Congressional penny-pinching and increasing bureaucracy have gradually undermined the state department's effectiveness in making foreign policy over the past decade.

 

But the reorganisation, coupled with the Bush administrations message that it plans to remove its troops from the Balkans, indicates the US may be downgrading the importance of its Bosnia policy.

 

Miller has won a good scrap with Bosnia's nationalists. Washington is detached for the time being from the day-to-day concerns in the region, focusing on reshaping the state department and settling in the new administration.

 

Miller's most difficult challenge in the coming months may be implementing his new government's professed "humility" in foreign affairs.

 

Tanya Domi is the former OSCE spokesperson in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She is now taking an advanced degree in Human Rights at Columbia University in New York.

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