Embracing Complexity, Nuance and Empathy in a Post Conflict Society
Thursday, 23 July 2015
The Road to Srebrenica: The West's (Non)Response
It has been 20 years since the Srebrenica Massacre and the cheerleaders of the West's intervention were everywhere to be seen during the recent commemorations. But where were they when it was all happening? I hope that this piece will shed some light on their non-response to the slaughter in the Balkans during the 1990s:
The region of Yugoslavia that is now constituted as Bosnia
and Herzegovina (BiH) was once the epicentre of a war that has had
ramifications for how the world now looks at ‘intervention’ in conflict. This essay will focus on the period leading
up to the violent conflict, the war itself and the years following on from the peace.
The activities of actors external to BiH will be at the centre of this
The creation of the state of BiH came out of the
disintegration of Yugoslavia. During the
Cold War Yugoslavia was viewed as a somewhat modern, viable communist country
with a growing economy which was almost entirely publicly owned. The
population enjoyed many benefits including a one month paid holiday every year,
free education, free healthcare, a guaranteed right to employment and a decent
standard of living (Parenti, 1999).
Parenti (1999) puts forward the notion that the capitalistic West embarked on a ‘concerted’ mission
to ‘dismember’ and ‘mutilate’ Yugoslavia in order to install a neo-liberal free
market economy more conducive to the predatory form of capitalism that had
flourished in the aftermath of the West’s victory
in the Cold War.
During the 1970s, in an attempt to expand its industrial base
and to increase consumer goods the Yugoslav government borrowed heavily from
the West which led to a crippling debt crisis, exacerbated by hyperinflation (Lampe,
Prickett, & Adamovic, 1996; Wight, 2014). Yugoslavia, argues Parenti (1999) and Mansouri
(2000), was to be the subject of some considerable ‘restructuring’and austerity
programmes. To do this the country would require a dose of economic shock
therapy utilising international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF
(Klein, 2008). The public sector
services and social programmes that had kept Tito’s Yugoslav Republic, with its
underlying ethno-nationalist rivalries, united would have to be abolished. The standard of living decreased. Stability
eroded. With reference to Maslow’s (1943)
Hierarchy of Needs the basic human necessities such as food, shelter, safety
and security that had long been provided in this socialist society began to
vanish leading to a deterioration in the self-esteem and self-actualisation of
the population with future devastating results.
The ‘ultimate goal’ of this treatment, according to Parenti
(1999), would be ‘the privatization and Third Worldization of Yugoslavia’ in
which this once unified country would be balkanised into a ‘cluster of weak
right-wing principalities’; primarily pointing to the 1991 Foreign Operations
Appropriation Act as evidence of the conscious attempt by the US to ‘dismember’
Yugoslavia. This Act of Public Law provided
that any part of Yugoslavia which failed to declare independence within six
months would lose US financial supportand that any future aid would only be
directed to the separate republics, on condition that they elected democratic parties, approved by the US
State Department. Economic sanctions on
Belgrade were used as another weapon in the West’s intervention. Yugoslavia was
doomed to disintegration.
The argument that external economic intervention led to the
subsequent war is compelling. With this
in mind, any future interventions that followed should be viewed with caution. Can the subsequent ‘humanitarian’
intervention by the West be categorised as a benign and altruistic undertaking?
The causes and context of the war in Yugoslavia are important.
As above, economic instability may be
one factor. Ancient ethnic hatreds were put
forward as another reason (Blagojevic, 2009).
Gagnon (1994) disputes the notion that ethnic nationalist hatreds are
the essential, primary cause of the conflict by pointing the finger at the
ruling elites, within the ethnic groups themselves, manipulating ethnicity,
culture and religion to solidify their own domestic power bases.
The West responded to the conflict engulfing Yugoslavia in
various ways; not all being viewed as a success. Samantha Power (2003) argues
that the West sat on its hands during the bloodiest period of the war in
Yugoslavia. Some believed that this was
the correct course. ‘We got no dog in
this fight’ was a typical response (James Baker). On the other hand, interventionists were
intent on ripping up the Realist rulebook by claiming that the West was morally
bound to intervene in the affairs of this sovereign nation to protect the
Bosnian people. The intention should be ‘…
[T]o help the helpless’, in the words of Anthony Lake (in Mandelbaum, 1996),
Clinton’s National Security Adviser. The
discourse that ensued in the new 24 hour news cycle on news networks may have
played a part in how the US would respond to the conflict, a term that has
become known as the ‘CNN effect’ (Robinson, 1999). It has been argued that the reporting of
events such as the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995 led to a sea change in US
public opinion on the war in BiH and thus a change in US foreign policy. ‘After Srebrenica, nothing would ever be the
same’, (Silber and Little, in Rozen, 2002, p.1063). Previously, there had been little appetite to
expend US blood and treasure to aid the war torn region.
The West is viewed, especially in the mainstream Western
media, as being the saviours of the Bosnian people from ‘unrelenting Serb expansionism’
(Boyd, in Parenti, 1999). However any
meaningful intervention to stop the killing stalled. Candidate Clinton had earlier pledged to
intervene in Yugoslavia to stop the fighting: President Clinton was more
reticent (Mandelbaum, 1996; Smith, 1994).
Power (2003, p.307) alludes to the moral ambiguity of the Clinton
Administration who chose to ‘blame the victim’ by promoting the story that
there were atrocities on ‘all sides’ which led to equivocation. However, the reporting, which blamed the
Serbs aggressors, could be viewed as ‘consistently one-sided’ argues Parenti(1999).
There is no argument that multiple atrocities and gross violations of human
rights were carried out during the course of the conflict (Tabeau, 2009).
Clinton came into his presidency in a world that was trying
to come to terms with various new paradigms.
What was the role of the preeminent, predominant USA in a unipolar world
and should the US become the world’s policeman?
Is there a need for NATO in a post-Cold War Europe? Is the United Nations (UN) efficacious in
Realists such as Mandelbaum (1996) have poured scorn on
Clinton’s attempts to ‘help the helpless’ in that, the Clintons policies ‘made
things worse’. He cynically
characterises the Clinton administration’s response as an attempt to ‘bolster
[their own] political standing’ which was suffering from a failure to resolve
the problem in BiH. Clinton threatened
military intervention early on but failed to carry out such attacks. In a realist sense this inaction is
detrimental to the US as it displays an air of weakness thus bolstering
potential US challengers.Proponents of Realpolitik did not advise a humanitarian
intervention in the Balkans. National
sovereignty, the primary tenet of realism, was one block to this. It was also viewed that an intervention was
not in the US national interest. In
contrast, Ramet (1992, p.98) predicted that the 1991 view of the war as a
‘Yugoslav affair’ soon transformed into a ‘European affair’ and would become
‘one that would affect U.S. interests as well’.
A policy directive from the Clinton administration in May
1994 (Sciolino, 1994) suggested that the UN was ill-equipped to deal with
conflicts such as BiH in the future.
Strict conditions were laid down as to when the US would consider
involving troops in international operations under the auspices of the UN such
as the ‘advancement of [US] interests … the presence of clear objectives … [and
a clear exit strategy’ (Sciolino, 1994).
Presidential Decision Directive 25 attempts to absolve the US of the
responsibility of ‘world policeman’ while also undermining the UN as an
effective peacekeeping institution (Sciolino, 1994).
The UN’s role in BiH demands scrutiny. Did the UN have a ‘Responsibility to Protect’
the victims (R2P, 2014)? Why were the
‘safe havens’, as set out by a number of UN resolutions, not safe (White, 1997,
p.126). Kaldor (2007, p.125) points to
the ‘inadequacy of the mandate’ as a possible reason for some failures in BiH. White (1997) says that the UN peacekeepers
were forced to concentrate on delivering humanitarian assistance to civilians
while avoiding any confrontations with the warring parties due to
vulnerability. Diehl, Reifschneider and
Hensel (1996) are critical of the UN as effective peacekeepers, peacemakers and
peace-builders. They (ibid., p.697 &
p.685) find that the short-term goals of the UN’s efforts to stop fighting are
‘not enough to promote long-term conflict resolution’ and that ‘[it may be] … counterproductive
in some instances’.
This begs the question, how can any intervention work in a
conflict like that in BiH? Does external
intervention do more harm than good (Anderson, 1999)? There are many arguments in favour of the
notion that the war should have been left to play itself out (Luttwak, 1999;
Boyd, 1995). Luttwak, (1999) also
accuses the Dutch UN troops of collaboration in the fall of Srebrenica by
helping to separate the men from the rest of the population. Should the West have just let the stronger
party claim a decisive victory and shorten the conflict or to keep the arms
embargo in place (Boyd, 1995); ‘… [t]here are enough arms there already’,
proclaimed G.H. Bush (in Power, 2003).
Then came the reports of genocide, ethnic cleansing and
concentration camps. Power (2003) talks
of the analogies made to the Holocaust in WW2. The Western powers were also
compared to the appeasers of 1938
Munich. Lewis (in Power, 2003 p.278)
called Bush ‘a veritable Neville Chamberlain’.
Dissenters to non-intervention such as Congressman McCloskey recounted
the stories of the ghastly brutality visited upon the survivors and witnesses
of so many atrocities (Power, 2003).
There were arguments as to whether what was happening in BiH could be
classed as genocide made clear by Clinton’s Secretary of State, Warren Christopher,
(in Power, 2003, p.300) when he questioned whether these ‘… atrocious set of
acts ... [met] the legal definition of genocide’. McCloskey (in Power, 2003) argued that the threshold
was set too high in that Nazi levels of killing should not be the marker for
calling out genocide. Power (2003,
p.305) talks about the use of wording to downplay events by choosing phrases
such as ‘tragedy’ over ‘terror’.
Liberal interventionists reject this theory of
non-intervention. They advocate the use of military intervention to protect the
weaker victims against the strong oppressors (Kaldor, 2013; Smith, 1994). They rejected realpolitik terms like nations,
interests and sovereignty; describing such terminology as dehumanising. Machiavellian amorality should be set aside
for a new moralpolitik (Russell-Johnston, 2001). Liberal interventionists find themselves
aligned with unlikely allies in the guise of the Neo-conservatives. The neo-cons promote Manichean principles of
good and evil when it comes to international politics and see the USA as the
preeminent force for good in the world (The Phantom Victory, 2004; Boyd, 1995). They also reject balance of power theories in
favour of using the brute power of the US military industrial complex to change
The war ended with
the Dayton peace Accords in 1995 however the legacy of the international
response is ongoing. BiH remains a
country that remains in conflict. There may have been a peace process, which
stopped the bloodshed, but the political process is incomplete. The international community still has a say
in the internal politics of BiH. The
Office of the High Representative (OHR) from the European Union acts as a
proconsul overseeing the democratic process.
Mladen Ivanic (2005, p.275), a former Foreign Minister of BiH, characterised
the international intervention as ‘successful’ but questioned the
‘paradoxically problematic role’ of the OHR into the future. Manning (2006, p.724) expands on this
continuing interference in the domestic politics of BiH by questioning the
efforts of external state-builders who give primacy to getting the ‘right’
elites into power. Nationalist parties
would be sidelined, moderates encouraged, legislation removed, individuals
ejected from office (Manning, 2006).
This interference mirrors the above 1991 US Foreign Appropriations Act
which provided that the US would vet the results of free elections in the separate republics. This display of arrogance by the
international community portrays the population of BiH as being incapable of
governing themselves and could further the seeds of resentment. Ethno-nationalist ambitions are still evident
in BiH most notably in Republika Sprska.
In conclusion, the intervention in the Bosnian conflict could
easily be described as messy. Were the
origins of the conflict born in the backrooms of Foggy Bottom, the White House,
the Pentagon or Wall Street? The lack of
any early meaningful intervention to protect the population of BiH could be
viewed as an indirect intervention in its own right. Did the international community just leave
this war to resolve itself? Did the
fighting only really stop when the warring parties had reached their objectives
of making their areas ethnically
pure? There are many theories floating
around the academic journals and far reaches of the World Wide Web as to how
this war unfolded. There are more ideas
of how to finally resolve the ongoing tensions.
It remains to be seen how successful they will be.
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