From Bob's archive: When the LRB whitewashed Europe's shame over Bosnia
This one, from July 2008, was originally entitled "An Extraordinary Claim". It seems extremely relevant now for a few reasons. The "realist" foreign policy line which it describes, pursued in the 1990s by George Bush I and by John Major, has become the dominant foreign policy position against since 2008. With Bush II and Blair having toxified interventionism's brand, Both Obama and Cameron (despite the latter's occasional empty Churchillian rhetoric) have largely pursued "a policy of disapproval" in relation to Syria, the great moral change of our time. Sadly, Samantha Power, to whom this post owes a lot, has played a part in running PR for our tolerance of atrocity. Most recently, David Owen, one of the most awful practitioners of a do-nothing "policy of disapproval", has popped into the UK's Brexit debate to say that the EU is responsible for Russia's aggression in Ukraine and that we should let Russia get on with it in their sphere of influence. Anyway, here we are:
I read slowly. I subscribe to the London Review of Books. I'm currently reading the 10 April edition. On the bus this morning, I was reading a review by Henry Siegman of two books about the Israeli settlements in the Occupied lands. The review is a sharp indictment of the settlement movement, and the wider Occupation policies of the Israeli state.
About half-way through came this extraordinary claim:
the driving force behind the settlements is a small religious-nationalist group, whose members are widely considered the most savvy, well connected and effective political operators in Israel. Their ideology combines an intense form of religious messianism with an extreme nationalism that has far more in common with the religious and ethnocentric nationalism of the Serbian Orthodox militias of Mladic and Karadzic than with any Jewish values I am familiar with. That Sharon and some of his settler friends were virtually the only politicians in the West (other than Serbia’s Slavic supporters) who opposed military measures to prevent Serbian ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo was not an accident.
Let's take a look, in this week when arch-cleanser Radovan Karadžić has finally been arrested, at Serbian ethnic cleansing. First, Bosnia, where ethnic cleansing took place mainly between 1992 and 1995 (that is, more or less exactly coinciding with the Rabin years in Israel, when Sharon was in the political wilderness). The first significant action by "politicians in the West" took place as war clouds gathered: the 1991 arms embargo, which was a great boost to the Serbian forces who had inherited most of the Yugoslav national army's arsenal, and a great threat to the future victims of ethnic cleansing, who were unable to defend themselves and thus left, essentially, at the mercy of "politicians in the West". Politicians in the West then stood by during the Foča massacre and the Prijedor massacre. When, finally, UN troops were committed: to defend the international airport. The rest of the story is essentially the story of Western politicians' utter inactivity: a refusal to name what was happening as genocide in order to avoid the legal and moral responsibility to act, and literally standing by while massacre after massacre occurred.
What was the position then of Western politicians? Some Western politicians, like Bob Dole, called for action. The majority of the Bush I clique American politicians, epitomised by James Baker, Lawrence Eagleberger, Dick Cheney, Brent Snowcroft and Colin Powell, opted for a "realist" response: doing nothing, shifting responsibility to Europe. Samantha Power has dubbed the Bush policy as a policy of disapproval: disapprove, but do nothing. In Baker's memorable words, America "did not have a dog in this fight".
Bill Clinton, who won the Democratic Party nomination for president during the period of ethnic cleansing, called for action. It was only after his election at the end of '92 that intervention became politically possible. But despite some American politicians (notably Dole, Frank McCloskey, Al Gore and Joe Biden, as well as Madeline Albright), calling for action to finally be taken, the majority of Republicans and Democrats denounced them as war-mongers.
Thirteen months into the war, well over a hundred thousand Bosnians massacred, Clinton finally sent Carter-era hack Warren Christopher to Europe to persuade the Europeans not to actually act but to lift the arms embargo so the victims of cleansing could defend themselves. He came back having changed his mind, and the Bush I policy of disapproval and inactivity continued for months, a continuity signalled by Colin Powell remaining in post. Warren Christopher even claimed the Muslims were themselves responsible for their own genocide. The official line was: this is a tragic civil war, there's nothing we can do.
Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, the David Owen led European diplomatic initiative was signally ineffective. The UN came up with a tepid "safe areas" plan over a year into the slaughter (de facto accepting genocide outside the safe areas), but failed to send anywhere enough troops to defend them. France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark were the only European countries to actively support this. Mitterand, under pressure from both left and right-wing politicians to act more decisively, accepted a minimal UN presence. Only when Chirac took over in 1995 did France take a more robust position. Italy opposed intervention from the start. Greece not only opposed intervention but supported Milosovic. Helmut Kohl, to the intense irritation of Major and Mitterand, took a stronger line - but Germany's official military neutrality stopped it from actually committing troops.
What was Britain's position? Under John Major and Douglas Hurd, Britain took an even more anti-interventionist "realist" position than Bush I. As Melanie McDonagh put it in 2001:
In the Bosnian war, Britain supported Milosevic. It dealt with him as a peace broker - from the start, it had set its face against the idea that the Bosnian government should be supported in fighting to prevent the dismemberment of its territory. And by maintaining the arms embargo, Britain consolidated the weakness of the Bosnian army vis-a-vis the Serbs. Indeed, as a forthcoming book by the Cambridge academic Brendan Simms makes clear, Britain was decidedly lukewarm about the establishment of the international war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia, lest it make Milosevic that bit less likely to strike a deal.Or, as Ed Vulliamy, a witness to genocide, has written:
It was David Owen whose endless, futile maps and plans bought the Serbs time and which seem so grimly absurd with hindsight. The enduring image of the bungled history of Unprofor will be of General Michael Rose supping on suckling pig with the butcher Ratko Mladic.
It was the British who objected to food-drops over Srebrenica, lest the Serbs see them as the thin end of the wedge of air strikes. But: 'The Bosnian Serbs need to realise they are not going to gain what they have grabbed by force,' proclaimed Major's Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd in May 1993. And yet Hurd was the leading critic of any attempt to check the Serbs by military means. At his side, always, was Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, former chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee.It took the Srebrenica Massacre and the shame of the failure to stop the Rwandan genocide before the West finally actually intervened in August 1995, with a bombing campaign that halted the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia within weeks.
So, so much for Israeli exceptionalism.