Britain bears its share of responsibility for the Bosnian fiasco but a simplistic polemic does little to deepen understandingby David Hannay / December 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
It is chastening to be reminded by the publication of this book just how completely Bosnia has drifted out of public view. Even before the events of 11th September blotted out pretty well every other subject on the international scene, Bosnia had receded into the margins of international concern. The odd cameo performance in the Hague by the Butcher of Belgrade, cross-references to the atrocity of Srebrenica, some bracketing with Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia as unsolved Balkan trouble spots. That was about the sum of it.
Yet for half of the last decade, Bosnia was almost as pervasive a presence in the 24-hour-a-day media as the war against terrorism is now. It came close to destroying Nato’s post-cold war rationale and mission. It laid out the Anglo-American special relationship on the mortuary slab. It destroyed any hope that the UN could itself conduct a complex peace enforcement mission. It tore apart the solidarity between the five permanent members of the security council. And it spread a feeling of despair and guilt among the governments of every country which had the misfortune to try to grapple with it. Not a bad score for a country which began as an obscure province of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires before becoming a part of the former Yugoslavia.
Now Nato is alive and well, preparing to add new members and keeping the peace in Bosnia itself as well as in Kosovo and Macedonia. The special relationship is flourishing as never before in recent times. The permanent five are working together in the war against terrorism. So we can see that the Bosnia poison, although powerful, had fewer lasting effects than predicted. That is one reason, though not a justification, for Bosnia’s disappearance from public view.
This book will help to remedy that. It is a passionate polemic against Britain’s policies during the Bosnian crisis and in particular against John Major, Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind, David Owen and Michael Rose, as well as against an army of spear-carriers (including this reviewer)-diplomats, military men, journalists-who did not share the views of the author. The virulence of the onslaught can be judged by the gratuitous speculation that, if Major, Hurd and Rifkind had still been in office, their prescription for the Macedonian crisis earlier this year would have been to clap an arms embargo on all sides, to tell the government in Skopje to cut the best deal it could with the rebels and to signal to Macedonia’s neighbours to help themselves.
It argues that the policy of lift (the arms embargo) and strike (drop a lot of ordnance on the Bosnian Serbs), espoused by the US in 1993 and eventually applied with some success in 1995 was the right one all along. While its method is historical, with a fair amount of original research and a number of interviews with some of the key players, the outcome is not a serious work of history. For one thing, not a single official document, other than those which governments or organisations have chosen to put into the public domain, is yet available. For another, this multi-dimensional puzzle is examined entirely from a British point of view, with virtually no attempt made to consider the views and input of the French, Germans, Americans or Yugoslavs. And for a third, every fact and event is fitted into the author’s preconceived view of the conflict. That requires other perspectives on the distribution of blame to be dismissed whenever they appear. For example, the possibility that the German-led drive in late 1991 for the early recognition of Slovenia and Croatia might have had a knock-on effect in Bosnia by prematurely bringing to a head the issue of the independence of the country, is swatted away as unworthy of serious examination. Yet it was considered sufficiently serious at the time for the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Perez de Cuellar, to write to the German foreign minister asking for a more measured approach, given the risks of spreading the war to Bosnia. To argue that this was one important factor in the slide towards mayhem in Bosnia is not to embrace the wilder ravings of anti-German opinion in Britain.
Similarly, the policies of the Bush senior administration come off pretty lightly considering just how damaging James Baker’s remark-“the US has no dog in this fight”-turned out to be. It was that US policy of neglect, together with the cynical calculation that the Europeans would make a mess of Bosnia and that this would serve as a salutory lesson to them, which led to the Europeans wading deep into the quagmire of a major humanitarian military operation on their own. From then on, this mismatch between US and European policies got more acute, particularly once the new Clinton administration had rejected the desperate plea of the Major government in January 1993 to get involved on the ground alongside the Europeans.
The book’s treatment of the Vance-Owen Peace Plan also leaves a good deal to be desired. The author correctly says that the plan was blocked by the Bosnian Serbs in May 1993, having been accepted by all other parties, including Milosevic. But that is not the whole story. The Clinton administration had by that time refused a whole series of pleas by the Europeans to allow the security council firmly to endorse the plan. The Bosnian Serbs knew that rejection of the plan would bring no particularly dire consequences on their heads. The Vance-Owen plan will always remain one of the “what ifs” of the Bosnian crisis. Whatever one’s doubts about the practicality of its implementation, it is hard to see it as other than an infinitely more multi-ethnic and humane approach to a settlement than Dayton was-and hard to avoid a sneaking suspicion that the requirement on Nato to implement it was what turned the Americans off.
Which brings one to the “what if” that dominates the whole of this book. What if “lift and strike” had been tried earlier? Would it have worked, as it did in 1995? Or would it have led to a bloodier, longer war, with the Bosnians getting the worst of the inevitable Serb and Croat onslaughts; and with that leading in turn to pressure on the west to intervene on the ground as a protagonist in the war, to save a member state of the UN being wiped off the map? That was certainly what many of those who opposed “lift and strike” when it was originally put forward in 1993 believed was a real risk and why the policy came to be known as “lift and pray.”
So does British policy really bear such a heavy responsibility for what went wrong in Bosnia, as this book suggests? There is no doubt that much went wrong. That Britain bears its share of the responsibility is also not in doubt. But to follow Simms’s argument, one would need to believe that Britain could have stifled American policy, controlled Nato and run the UN single-handedly. This is the stuff of fantasy.
What general conclusions can we draw from the Bosnian experience? Certainly no one emerged from it unscathed. It was one of the international community’s unfinest hours, although Rwanda was surely even worse. Many lessons have been learned, as subsequent operations in Kosovo and Macedonia have shown. The Bosnian poison which put Sarajevo on the map in 1914 and helped to destroy four empires by 1918, has over the years become a little less virulent; but its capacity to give the patient a dangerous fever has not disappeared-and we had better not forget it.