Reflections on Bosnia

by Ronald Bleier ( rbleier@igc.org)
June 1993


In early February '93, Lord Owen made appearances in New York City on the Donahue and Charlie Rose shows. On a couple of occasions on those shows Lord Owen gave away his pro- Serbian position when he made the point that much or most of the Bosnian territory then in dispute or already overrun by Serbian forces had been controlled and occupied by Serbs before WWII. It was as if he were saying that since the Serbs had previously occupied those territories and lost them during the Hitler years, they should be allowed to reconquer them today.

I was familiar with this view because my father, a Yugoslav Jew who escaped to this country during the war, was aided and found sympathy among the Serbs during those harrowing years. In recent months when the subject of Serbian aggression was mentioned, my father would make the point that 850,000 Serbs were killed by Nazi and pro-Nazi Croatian forces known as the Ustasha. My father is so pro-Serbian that he dismissed reports of Serbian atrocities. My father also excoriated New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, because, my father said, Anthony Lewis "is always talking about the Muslims."

Update--April 28, 1993

After an uneasy truce in and around Srebrenica, shelling has resumed in nearby areas by all sides and the killing and the misery continues apace while the Clinton administration dithers its response. In the days leading to the collapse of resistance at Srebrenica, Lord Owen changed his tune. Previously he had opposed military intervention on the grounds that it would endanger U.N. relief workers. When Serbian forces began to march on Srebrenica, the threat to U.N. relief soldiers went unmentioned while Lord Owen called for outside intervention to stop Serbian aggression, including the use of air strikes. The current disastrous situation can be seen as a failure of the West and a failure of the Vance-Owen initiative which did nothing to halt the Serbs. Now that it's too late to save Muslim areas that Lord Owen felt should be in a Muslim state, Lord Owen belatedly calls for strong action.


In the summer of 1992, George Kenney, a senior State Department official, the undersecretary in charge of the Yugoslav desk, made news when he resigned from the State Department because of the Bush administration's refusal to take any action to halt Serbian aggression. As Kenney saw it, Bush's inaction was largely due to the president's unwillingness to risk any political capital by getting involved there.

Clinton has turned out of course to be a tremendous disappointment. It's beginning to become clearer and clearer that there's no there there. He's worse than Carter; much less serious and with less backbone! On this issue, Clinton has made me wistful for Bush. Bush and Baker could not have done worse, and might have been pressured to do better well before this time. Lives in Bosnia might have been saved and the destruction might have been curtailed. Certainly Bush couldn't have dithered and postponed action as long as Clinton has been able to do.

I suspect that part of the unease about President Bush and the view of him over the last couple of years of his administration as someone unable or unwilling to act is that he did nothing about the Yugoslav situation. Similarly with Clinton. I suspect that the White House has it exactly wrong. Strong and decisive action on Bosnia would in the likeliest event enhance Clinton's popularity rather than the opposite.

Instead of helping the desperate Bosnians, Clinton has signalled again and again that Milosevic and the Serbs are free to do what they want in Bosnia--indeed, Clinton and the West have been signalling that the Serbs should get on with the job and finish off the Bosnians as quickly as possible while we turn the other way. A key signal was when Clinton made it clear that he would NOT send in American military forces on the ground.

The key to our current disastrous policy was when Clinton hinted and then said clearly that he would NOT use U.S. forces on the ground in Bosnia. In an article that appeared in the The Washington Post National Weekly Edition (May 17- 23, 1993) George Kenney argued that the Serbs pose a negligible military threat to an allied force and said that we should send in 70,000 troops--or five times that number if that's what it takes.

It seems clear that Clinton has decided to do nothing until he is absolutely forced to. Meanwhile people are suffering and dying and the tragedy intensifies. And the worst part is that there seems to be no national or international pressure to do something meaningful about it. Bosnia for the moment is slipping into the category of situations along with Angola, Haiti, Cambodia, Palestine, Northern Ireland and elsewhere. The thinking seems to be, it's just one of those horrible dilemmas and let's try not to think about it.

My guess is that the current disaster and tragedy will continue until somehow Clinton is forced into action. Perhaps events in Kosovo will do it; or the fall of Sarajevo; or events in Macedonia.

The Nation, the left and "the Bosnian QUANDARY"

Typical of the left's inability to come to grips with the core issue involved in Bosnia, i.e., a clear aggressor destroying hundreds of thousands of lives, is the editorial on the "Bosnian quandary" in The Nation (4/26/93). In the end the editorial votes to do nothing, even while noticing "the ghastly atrocities of the Bosnian Serbs" and that the "greater and lesser powers...dither and fuss [and] hang back." ("Before anything else happens, the Clinton Administration ought to pay the $530 million the United States owes the" U.N. the editorial concludes.)

In its most striking passage, the editorial writer warns that "those who are pushing President Clinton to intervene on the side of the Bosnians had better review U.S. foreign policy since World War II." The editorial argues for inaction on the basis that the Bosnian Serbs are no worse than any number of U.S. clients including the Chileans, the South Africans, the Greek fascists and others. (In a subsequent column for The Nation, Christopher Hitchens correctly called this editorial, "contemptible.")

William Pfaff, a European based journalist who writes for the The New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times, is among a group of liberal columnists like Anthony Lewis, and Leslie Gelb who have clearly and consistently called for strong Western and American intervention to stop the Serbs. Pfaff's most recent column (Liberal Opinion Week 4/19/93) is entitled "International Cowardice Worsened Bosnian Tragedy."

He clarifies the international failure which has led to present situation in one sentence. "Having refused to intervene to sanction the threat to minority rights in newly independent Croatia in June 1991, or to block or penalize the military aggression by Serbia that immediately followed, and the atrocious "ethnic cleansing" which followed that, the United Nations now contemplates deploying in Bosnia military force on a scale which two years ago could have deterred the horrors Yugoslavia has since experienced." He goes on to explain that U.N. plans now envisaged call for a "more daunting and open-ended military assignment than a direct military intervention to halt the aggression would have been a year ago."

Aryeh Neier on the Serbs

In his "Watching Rights" column in the The Nation (5/3/93) Aryeh Neier gets to the heart of the motivation of the "aggressors"--the preferred term for the Serbian forces who have been besieging and shelling Sarajevo for more than a year. He explains that "there is no military purpose that is served by the destruction of its fabric and its people...Above all, few of those aligned with the forces attacking Sarajevo would want to live there even if the city could be rebuilt. They are not city people.

"It is this, I believe--aside from a desire to break the morale of Bosnians and make them press their government to accept peace at any price--that explains the conduct of the siege of Sarajevo...[I]t is a loathing for all that is urban, pluralist and cosmopolitan that has made Sarajevo the object for devastation.

"Historically, most of the Serbian population in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been rural, while Muslims, who were the civil servants and intelligentsia during the centuries of Ottoman rule, made up a disproportionate share of the urban population....The destruction of Sarajevo is not only an expression of hostility against this city; it is also an attack on the urban idea....The demagogues who whipped up the passions let loose by this war exploited not only ethnic and religious bigotry but also hatred for all that is cosmopolitan."

The light that Neier sheds on the issue helps to clarify what is at stake. The Serbs represent the know-nothing, anti-secularist, fundamentalist, fascist forces who are attacking the urban, cosmopolitan, secular, multi-cultural idea. They are attacking the rest of us, just as Hitler did. One irony is that at the beginning of the crisis over Bosnia, it was for awhile maintained by the Serbs and their supporters that they were responding to a threat by the Bosnian Muslims to create a fundamentalist state.

Neier has shown that it is the Serbs who are the great threat to secularism, multi-culturalism, diversity and democracy. It's the Serbs who are attacking the democratic notion, the democratic idea.

Anthony Lewis comes close to the point when he asks why does respect for Clinton's presidency "depend...on his acting effectively against Serbian aggression?...First of all because to do nothing about genocide would be such a betrayal of the values we and our allies profess." (Times, 4/26/93) But it's not merely a betrayal of our values. It's because the Serbs are attacking us by proxy, just as Hitler was.

One argument for decisive action by the West that is heard in a different form, is that war in the Balkans is destablizing for Europe. We hear it as, the Bosnians are Europe's Palestinians; that is to say, just as the Palestinian refugee problem has been the key to instability in the Middle East, just so will the hundreds of thousands of Yugoslav refugees of all ethnicities result in turmoil in Europe for decades to come.

One of the lessons of the twentieth century is that even though the Atlantic Ocean divides us, the Americas are ultimately tied to the destiny of Europe. If Europe is destabilized, the U.S. will inevitably be affected and drawn into its problems. As in a whirlpool, sooner or later we will be drawn into the maelstrom. And as history teaches, it's much better that we do so decisively, quickly and on our terms.