Sarajevo remembers: each red chair signifies a civilian killed during the siege
One Friday in April, 11,541 red plastic chairs were laid out along Sarajevo’s main street. Each commemorated a civilian killed in the Serb siege of the city 20 years previously. That assault lasted longer than the Nazi siege of Leningrad. The Bosnian war of 1992-95 killed almost 100,000 people in a country the size of Scotland. Its anniversary sparked media commentary but not much introspection. The war was a human catastrophe for Bosnians and a disaster for European and transatlantic diplomacy.
Intervention in foreign conflicts is always risky. In Bosnia, western states decided in advance against it and thereby showed the costs of ideological inflexibility masquerading as realism. Not intervening did not mean that nothing happened. It meant that an aggressor was enabled to commit genocide.
Because the violence accompanied the dissolution of the old Yugoslav federation, western policymakers assumed that this was an intractable conflict born of ancient hatreds. In reality, the politics were simpler. This was a racist war of aggression by one state against a smaller neighbour. It is a truism that atrocities were committed on all sides. But overwhelming responsibility lay with Slobodan Miloševi´c, the Serbian President, and his plenipotentiaries Radovan Karadžic and Ratko Mladic, now on trial at The Hague.
The European Union and United States granted diplomatic recognition to Bosnian independence in April 1992. They hoped to stabilise the rapidly dissolving Yugoslavia. The policy was not wrong but it was futile, because it reckoned without the character of Miloševic, a thuggish and intellectually limited apparatchik with a penchant for ballot-rigging, whose only true friend was his unstable and equally fanatical wife.
Miloševic’s intentions were hardly obscure. He signalled them with an inflammatory speech in 1989 on the 600th anniversary of the Serbian defeat in Kosovo by the Turks. He envisaged an ethnically “pure” Greater Serbia and initiated a campaign of expulsion, torture, mass rape and murder. With his similarly unsanitary counterpart in Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, he engineered a cynical division of Bosnia.
Miloševic judged that the member states of the EU and Nato would give rhetorical support to Bosnian independence but recoil from any wider commitment. He was right. Western policy could scarcely have been better calculated to ease his way.
An international arms embargo preserved a gross disparity in force. The tanks and heavy artillery with which Bosnian Serb forces pounded Sarajevo came from the former Yugoslav national army. Western policy not only abjured military intervention: it ensured that the forces of Bosnia’s legitimate government could not mount an effective defence either. Only with the genocide of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995 did international handwringing end. Nato air attacks did what they were intended to do. Bosnian Serb forces melted away. Even then, international agreement at Dayton later in the year took their advances as an established fact and implemented a de facto partition of Bosnia. Miloševic´ remained a threat to the region for years afterwards, till the failure of his assault on the province of Kosovo in 1999 and one attempt too many to rig an election caused his downfall.
The implications of this history remain largely unmentioned in western policy. First, the case for interventionism does not rest on the ease with which constitutional democracy can be transplanted in emerging states. Because western-style democracies are rare, and some states (such as Afghanistan) have proved resistant to them, it is fashionable for critics of intervention to claim to be realists. In reality, they are more usually sophists. Liberal-democratic internationalism, for all its limitations, holds out some hope of avoiding a Hobbesian world in which aggression is rewarded.
Secondly, nationalism has a justification and its variants need to be distinguished. Support for national claims does not mean acquiescing in every irredentist territorial demand. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an example of a clash of competing and legitimate nationalisms; justice demands that each be represented in a territorial accommodation. The Serb assault on Bosnia, on the other hand, was more like the German demand for the Czech Sudetenland in the 1930s, Indonesian subjugation of East Timor in the 1970s, or Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. In these cases, a larger power tried to dismember a smaller state and render it territorially unviable.
Thirdly, political bipartisanship can be suffocating and destructive. Political pressure in the US eventually persuaded the Clinton administration to drop its quietist approach to Bosnia, whose critics included high-profile figures such as Senator Bob Dole. In the UK, however, there was wide political and media consensus in support of the policies of John Major’s Conservative government, which stressed humanitarian aid but withheld the military intervention that would have stemmed the need for it. Those who saw the issue most clearly were, on the whole, minor politicians and a few journalists, such as Ed Vulliamy of the Guardian and Penny Marshall of ITN, who exposed the Serb concentration camps at Omarska and Trnopolje.
Fourthly, Bosnian Muslims were the target of calumnious misrepresentation in western media while they suffered genocide at home. These were not jihadist fanatics: they were an integrated population of an ethnically mixed, unitary state. A few became radicalised quite unnecessarily by western policy failure, thereby giving further impetus to the right-wing fringe that cannot distinguish between Islam and theocratic fanaticism.
Western failure in Bosnia was almost total. The reputations of its authors have barely been scathed by it.