Indictment at The Hague: The Milosevic Regime and the Crimes of the Balkan Wars 
by Norman Cigar and Paul Williams.
New York, 339 pp., $24.95, July 2002, 0 8147 1626 1
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Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia 
by Brendan Simms.
Penguin, 464 pp., £8.99, July 2002, 0 14 028983 6
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Under Orders: War Crimes in Kosovo 
by Fred Abrahams.
Human Rights Watch, 593 pp., £18, October 2001, 1 56432 264 5
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Milosevic: A Biography 
by Adam LeBor.
Bloomsbury, 386 pp., £20, October 2002, 0 7475 6090 0
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In 1992, the UN Security Council opened a dossier on breaches of humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions in the former Yugoslavia. Paragraph 5 of UNSC Resolution 771 called on all states or humanitarian organisations with knowledge of such violations to pass it on to the Security Council. These were the early days when Bosnia was high on Clinton’s list of priorities (it remained a priority for many in his first Administration long after the President had lost interest), and the US made several submissions.

One of these, which appears in an appendix to Indictment at The Hague, contains evidence from a Bosnian doctor who worked at Trnopolje, in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina. Trnopolje was a ‘labour camp’ run by the Serbs. Here they detained able-bodied Bosnian males, and assembled women, children, the elderly and the sick for transit. The doctor’s submission details many abuses which took place there, including rape and beatings. It also states that the staff at the camp clinic kept records on the patients. Circumventing camp regulations, they used a code to signal that a patient had been mistreated. ‘Several times,’ the submission goes on, ‘the employees of the clinic came under suspicion, and their lives were threatened. One of the female aides . . . was repeatedly interrogated and told to stop working at the clinic, but she stayed.’ It’s thought that her presence saved the lives of the other staff on several occasions.

Norman Cigar and Paul Williams argue that war crimes prosecutions are necessary not simply for the well-rehearsed reasons – ending cultures of impunity, achieving ‘closure’, restoring faith in due process – but because they seek to establish individual responsibility and, in doing so, ‘reinforce the principle that nations or entire populations . . . are not collectively responsible’ for criminal acts in wartime. A war crimes tribunal, properly handled, recognises that the Serbian woman in the clinic at Trnopolje, and others whose innocence is less obvious, are not to be tarred with the same brush as the accused themselves.

Williams and Cigar believed for some years before the indictment was finally drawn up during the Nato campaign in Kosovo in 1999 that Slobodan Milosevic should stand trial at The Hague. Cigar is squarely in the anti-Milosevic camp: he has served as an analyst for Army Intelligence at the Pentagon and as a consultant to the International Criminal Tribunal itself. He now teaches in the strategic studies department at a US Marine Corps college. Williams was a legal adviser to the Bosnian Government during the Dayton negotiations and to the Kosovo Albanian delegation at Rambouillet a few weeks before the bombing began.

Cigar and Williams’s expert little book deals with the principles that would have to be borne in mind at The Hague, and the evidence that would have to be submitted, in order to secure Milosevic’s conviction. Brendan Simms, for his part, is a staunch defender of the Bosnian cause, or at least its dedicated mourner. He has written a polemic against John Major’s Government and David Owen, the EU mediator in the remains of Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1995, for their connivance in the ferocious dismantling of Bosnia-Herzegovina. He is keen on Major’s New Labour successors, and confident that Tony Blair’s support for the Milosevic indictment ‘hastened the Serb retreat from Kosovo’.

What can true believers, so eager for Milosevic’s appearance at The Hague, make of the progress to date? Since he was delivered up, he’s taken the only available course, short of craven apology: refuse to recognise the court, but wring what you can out of the situation. He’s appealed to the home crowd by comparing Nato to the Nazis. He’s grandstanded for ‘oppressed peoples’ everywhere – Serbs, above all. To dissuade the world of his individual responsibility for much of what happened in the former Yugoslavia, he has said that it is ‘Serbia . . . the people, the nation’ which is actually on trial.

He has also undertaken some tricky cross-examinations. A year ago, he made a fool of a key Kosovo Albanian witness for the prosecution, a former Yugoslav Communist League apparatchik, who got the date of Milosevic’s inflammatory speech at Kosovo-Polje wrong by two years (easily done). The same witness, Milosevic was quick to remind the court, had called the tanks into the province in 1981 to crush support for an autonomous Kosovo republic. Despite his scorn for The Hague, he can evince a stickler’s commitment to detail, complete with flourishes and stylised impatience à la Perry Mason – a characteristic that becomes less mannered as he runs out of time in a cross-examination. Then, too, he does good deadpan and good put-upon. When Halit Berisha, an Albanian municipal official from Suva Reka, in the north of Kosovo, testified about the flurry of killings which took place in the town soon after the Nato bombing began, the prosecution produced an annexe of documents for the court to inspect. ‘I fail to understand the purpose of this heap of paper,’ Milosevic pitched in through the interpreter.

The transcript of his cross-examination gives a good idea of the overall technique. On a point in Berisha’s testimony stating that he’d seen the minaret of the Suva Reka mosque blown up, Milosevic put it to him that it was being used by a KLA sniper.

berisha: No.

milosevic: Please. You’ve sworn to tell the truth here.

Later, Berisha recalls seeing Serbian paramilitaries in the bell-tower of the church:

milosevic: I am asking you whether you saw them shoot at anyone.

berisha: Not only once, but many times. I saw it with my own eyes. And to go from one house to another, you had to go in the shadow of the walls.

The reply continues for another minute or so, after which Milosevic remarks: ‘All right, you’ve explained all of this at great length, but you haven’t answered the question. Did you see them kill anyone?’ The judge reminds Milosevic that this was not his original question, but suggests to Berisha that he might want to answer it anyway. Berisha, of course, did not see anyone shot dead. Milosevic tries to show that Berisha’s testimony is unreliable inasmuch as he, Berisha, didn’t see the killings take place. Berisha has to explain that he couldn’t ‘be present’ at the scene of a killing without being killed himself; that he heard of killings from family members and others.

berisha: I didn’t see them because I was on the other side of town. But the people who came to my house, to my yard, they told me that these people were killed . . . on the road of the old town. They told me.

milosevic: All right. All right. Please, could you try to cut this short, because I don’t want to spend so much time on all of this. What are you personally testifying about, Mr Berisha?

A further witness – another Berisha – is called to testify about his own investigations into his family’s mass grave, and eventually also into other graves, in Suva Reka. Milosevic again cross-examines. He points out a number of discrepancies in the evidence, including some mishandled figures about Albanian houses and educational premises destroyed by Bosnian Serb forces. He then concludes:

We have a witness here who is at the same time an amateur investigator. And then, in his capacity as a witness, he explains what he found out as a dilettante investigator. I think that the other side is really being very imaginative when they bring in such witnesses. I don’t know how many roles he is performing right now, during this examination.

It’s clever stuff, but unlikely to convince the bench. When states wage war against pariah populations such as the Albanians – or the residents of the South African townships in the days of apartheid, or the Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territory – there is always a shortage of professionals to assist relatives with their inquiries into the plight of their families: if they’re not thought of as terrorists themselves, then they’re seen as guilty of supporting or abetting terrorism, and in a reversal of the process described by Cigar and Williams they come to be regarded as members of a ‘terrorist’ collectivity, which should expect no solace from the law. But when third-party investigators move in, as the international war crimes teams did in Kosovo after Milosevic’s withdrawal in June 1999, they depend a great deal on local people’s ‘dilettante’ research and on the ad hoc associations formed to gather material about killings or disappearances.

There is, as it happens, the nearest thing to an impartial source on what took place in Suva Reka, in the form of a lengthy Human Rights Watch report on war crimes in Kosovo. Under Orders was released a few months after Milosevic was handed over to The Hague. Among 40 documented killings in Suva Reka town, ‘at least 24 members of the extended Berisha family’, including children, were massacred on 26 March. The family was targeted, it seems, because they’d let property to the OSCE monitors, who arrived in 1998, and were very unpopular with the Serbian authorities until they left in some haste a few days before the bombings began. ‘At least 24 people’ were killed in a village outside the town, and Human Rights Watch also documented a number of other killings in the municipality. After the bombings, war crimes investigators exhumed three grave sites; they contained 103 bodies. So it’s not as if Milosevic’s eloquence will expose a worldwide conspiracy to blacken the honour of his security forces in Suva Reka or anywhere else, and a lot of his interventions at The Hague seem vain or off the point.

Yet his cynicism wears away at the view that he is a war criminal. Often, too, he plays cunningly on the confusion which is part of any well-run state terror, and which persists in every contradiction or incoherence on the part of the prosecution’s witnesses, many of them deeply damaged by the actions of the Serbian Army, police and paramilitaries in Kosovo. It’s unlikely, as the wheels grind on, that any of this will alter the outcome – why try a major historical figure if there’s any possibility of an acquittal? – but it will deepen some of our anxiety about war crimes hearings and victors’ justice.

It’s not just defeated Serbs who go before the court at The Hague – there have also been Bosnians and Croats – yet a classic war crimes trial like that of Milosevic looks very much like the continuation of hostilities by legalistic means, or like a politico-military accessory. And quite probably if you were in favour of military intervention, you’ll be in favour of the tribunal. But the war in Kosovo was fraught with problems, while the fanfare that’s attended the trial, and the foregone conclusion that floats above it like a line of bunting, are bound to serve as a vindication of the Nato campaign. This, too, is something of a problem.

As Cigar and Williams remark at the start of their book, the ‘international community’ had ‘full knowledge of the extent of the war crimes being committed in Bosnia and Croatia’ in the early 1990s, yet continued to negotiate with Milosevic, ‘producing successive peace plans that would meet with his approval’. At the time, Cigar felt strongly that there should have been a less compliant posture. He crops up in Simms’s book, arguing that the Bosnian Serbs did not have a ‘formidable fighting machine’ and that Milosevic was ‘quite responsive to a cost-benefit calculus’: with the right degree of pressure from the US and Europe, the willingness to back it up, and the lifting of the embargo on supplying arms to the Bosnian Government (or ‘Bosnian Muslims’, as the Government side became known), Cigar believes that the ethnic claptrap, the serial atrocities and the uninterrupted target practice on ‘Muslim’ cities, all hallmarks of the Bosnian Serb campaign, could have been brought to an end quite swiftly, without any fuss from Belgrade.

In this light the campaign in Kosovo seems not so much a job well done as the pale shadow of an intervention which should have occurred very much sooner, and threatened to hit very much harder, than it did. Those who were against intervening in Kosovo would no doubt have opposed an intervention in Bosnia (or practically anywhere), and their position had the merit of being clear cut. Many supporters of the campaign, who would have preferred an earlier intervention in the former Yugoslavia, had grave doubts. In the context of Bosnia and Croatia, intervention was long overdue, almost too late; the Nato alliance, moreover, was as addicted to national sovereignty as its enemy, a fact which clouded any prospect of a long-term settlement (the status of Kosovo remains a fudge: independence from Serbia – sooner or later inevitable – was explicitly not a Nato war aim); the organisation’s military spokesmen couldn’t tell the truth (‘100,000 dead at the hands of the Serbs’ etc) or apologise convincingly when refugees were wiped out by accident. Above all, there was Nato’s decision to wage an air war.

Under Orders shows how serious this last point was. In the absence of ground troops, or even the threat of ground troops, an enemy may move freely among civilians and do its worst. That is more or less what happened. The KLA, where they mattered at all, were powerless to tie down the Serbian security forces and distract them from atrocity, as a proper infiltration of Nato ground troops might have done. Under Orders finds ‘no evidence of war crimes in its investigation of Nato bombing in Kosovo’, but concludes that Nato violated ‘international humanitarian law’ by not taking sufficient precautions when it came to identifying concentrations of civilians in or near military targets. That’s OK as far as it goes, but among the many grim aspects of bombing, even when it doesn’t violate any law or norm, is that where it sows terror on the ground, it also heightens anger: to the forces on the receiving end, the adversary is inaccessible, and appears cowardly – he refuses, just as Nato did, to come down and fight fair. A violent frustration is then vented on the nearest thing to an accomplice that one can lay hands on – in this case, Kosovo Albanians. Historians will perhaps take a chilly view of the Kosovo campaign and plot the absence of Nato casualties against the large numbers – about four thousand bodies found so far – of Albanian dead, the 800,000-plus evictions (much harder to organise if one’s engaging a competent enemy on the ground) and the routine beatings, theft, arson, sexual intimidation and abuse. Whatever its importance in other ways, the Milosevic trial ought not to cover the Nato bombardment in further unearned glory.

Kosovo was, as Adam LeBor explains in his absorbing and informative biography, a far more dangerous business for Milosevic than the alluring spectre of a Greater Serbia that hovered over the wars in Bosnia and Croatia. Kosovo was an integral part of Serbia; Milosevic told the Nato General Klaus Naumann in 1998 that he ‘could not give it up’. And so the province which had been the making of him at the end of the 1980s was his undoing a decade later. By the time the US negotiator Richard Holbrooke met him days before the bombing began, there was no going back. Holbrooke told Milosevic, ‘It will start very soon after I leave,’ and Milosevic told Holbrooke: ‘There is nothing more I can say.’

The most intriguing aspect of the bombing is surely that the vast majority of Kosovars regarded – and still regard – Nato as the cavalry, even though, by being left at the mercy of the Serbs for three months, they were asked to pay a higher price for the organisation’s commitment than it exacted from their oppressors. About five hundred civilians in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia lost their lives as a direct result of the bombings, according to Human Rights Watch. Milosevic’s people killed around ten times that number of Albanians before they pulled out of Kosovo. Significant too, though scarcely very admirable, is the fact that a zero-casualties approach held the Alliance together. For the duration of the campaign, the Kosovars were locked into an arrangement whereby they were sacrificed in fair numbers in order to minimise the casualties of their liberators. Some of them must have thought it wasn’t worth it, but they were in a tiny minority. As matters came to a head, most believed that anything was better than domination by the fraternal regime in Belgrade, which had already done so much killing and burning in 1998. That is behind them now. The successor states of the former Yugoslavia are trying to sort out return arrangements for displaced people and refugees (war compensation is still a vexed question for Belgrade and Zagreb). A new set of problems, somewhat less brutal, has evolved from the earlier, intractable set. Milosevic meanwhile sits in the dock at the Hague like a decommissioned battleship with gun-turrets still capable of creaking through 360 degrees. Now and then there is a ritual salvo. But if his heart trouble doesn’t get him first, he’ll go down, as he deserves to do.

Kosovo, for the time being, muddles along as a pretend-state under a UN mandate that debars it from statehood – a non-entity seeking independence from a highly tenuous entity (the Union of Serbia and Montenegro). It’s scarcely a promising situation, though better than it was for Serbs in Kosovo three years ago, and much better than it’s been since the late 1970s for most Kosovo Albanians. Bosnia, on the other hand, does not look good. It’s eight years since the Dayton Accords were signed. The transition to normality they envisaged, including the return of refugees to ‘cleansed’ areas, the development of strong civic institutions and the pursuit of indicted individuals such as Karadzic and Mladic (both still at large) has yet to seem very convincing. For the moment Dayton’s most conspicuous achievement is to have formalised the ethnic separation the Bosnian Serbs wanted all along.

Simms is convinced that British foreign policy played a crucial role in the destruction of Bosnia. He has drawn up a brilliant archival reckoning of the Major Administration’s handling of the war, from 1992 to that long-awaited moment at the end of the summer of 1995 when Nato planes finally struck artillery positions and arms dumps with intent to destroy, and four years of civilian slaughter, largely by Bosnian Serbs, came to an end. Until that moment, British policy – and that of the French, as it happens – had been to do nothing to stop this, and to see that no one else did anything either. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office stood out for the embargo on arms sales to the Bosnian Government, which the UN Secretary General’s report of 1999 described as having done ‘little more than freeze in place the military balance within the former Yugoslavia’ while ignoring ‘the attendant duty to protect Bosnia’. The FCO also campaigned forcefully against air strikes, before it put a ‘humanitarian’ troop contingent into the country. Once they were deployed, it argued simply that air strikes would put British soldiers at risk. The same was said in relation to ending the arms embargo. In Simms’s memorable words, Britain ‘continued to argue that the Bosnians should not be allowed to protect themselves because that would endanger the troops sent to protect them, but who had failed to do so.’

At one time or another, Britain also opposed the use of outright force to ensure the delivery of aid to destitute Bosnians; it opposed and then obstructed implementation of a ‘no fly zone’ against the Serbs and Belgrade, and scoffed at the idea of aid flights to beleaguered Bosnian enclaves. ‘In short,’ Simms writes, ‘Britain worked to wreck any initiative on behalf of the Bosnian Government which it regarded as “rash” or “unhelpful”.’ His paper-trail of memos, speeches and minuted stand-offs with Washington, where there was strong support for ‘lift and strike’ (lift the embargo and call in air strikes), is extraordinary.

Simms picks up a telling remark in John Major’s autobiography: ‘The conflict in Bosnia crept up on us while our attention was on the turmoil in the Soviet Union, and took us almost unawares . . . its roots were bewildering.’ Major was indeed very bewildered: he could see the point in improving facilities at motorway service stations in the UK, but he left Britain’s Bosnia policy, such as it was, to Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and Malcolm Rifkind, the Defence Secretary (and briefly Hurd’s successor). One of Simms’s subterranean themes is the extent to which the old guard – Hurd especially – were still fixated on the Cold War. There was an unstated belief that Bosnia should be sacrificed to the Serbs because any opposition to Serbian wishes might upset the Russians, distracting them from the ‘turmoil’ so astutely spotted by the good John Major, and provoking a keen reaction to Western encroachment. Simms reminds us of Hurd in the Commons in 1995 arguing against lifting the arms embargo: ‘We have an interest in stopping a war spreading across the map of Europe, particularly a war which would range the US and Russia on different sides.’ ‘In Bosnia,’ Anatol Lieven said in 1994, ‘Russia is not Nato’s enemy, but Nato’s alibi; if Russia had not existed, then Britain and France would have had to invent it as an excuse for their cowardice and indecision.’

But Tory diplomacy on Bosnia had precedents: Hurd and Rifkind seem to have imagined themselves as realpolitiker descendants of the consummate Disraeli faced by a posse of minor Gladstones – Paddy Ashdown leading the LibDem charge, for instance, or Martin Bell of the BBC – whining about the agony of the Balkans. Hurd and Rifkind, and minor figures such as Douglas Hogg, all fancied themselves as men of steel, cool under fire, especially if it happened to be raining down on Sarajevo. They had their own Ottoman agenda. In their view Bosnian-Serb extremism was merely a case of referred pain: the real problem would surely turn out to lie somewhere in the direction of Moscow. But as Simms explains, the elites that mattered in Russia at the time had no great interest in Belgrade, or Pale, or Sarajevo: Russian stirrings about Bosnia were very largely an expression of populist pan-Slav sentiments – of the sort known as racism in other contexts. Both LeBor and Simms are sure that the Conservative Party and the FCO were fundamentally pro-Serb. LeBor puts payments by Belgrade to the lobbyist Ian Greer’s company in 1992 at roughly £100,000 – which can have done Milosevic no harm in Tory circles.

Major’s chaps could in any case pursue their policy as they saw fit, having lately dispensed with the nearest thing the Party had to a piping hot Gladstonian internationalist, in the form of Margaret Thatcher. As Simms reminds us, she strode up and down at the edge of the fray, incandescent. ‘This is in the heart of Europe,’ she fumed down the telephone to the Mayor of Bihac in 1994, ‘and the lack of effective action has robbed Nato of its credibility. You have got to stand up to the Serb aggressor. That is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of fact.’ Of course it was a partial vision of Europe, from a great anti-federalist and a formidable Cold Warrior, and anyone disposed to scoff at her, from Malcolm Rifkind through Dennis Skinner and on to Arkan, could have made fun of it, but one of the many things in its favour was its distaste for the humanitarian rhetoric of the new, cuddlier Tories.

To Thatcher, ‘humanitarianism’ meant appeasement; a gloomy evasiveness might be more accurate. In ‘Britannia Waived the Rules’, a paper on the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Linda Melvern and Paul Williams* draw many comparisons with the Major Government’s attitude to Bosnia. They are particularly scathing about denials – by Rifkind and Hogg among others – that Britain was asked to commit troops in Kigali during the critical stages; they cite a press release by Boutros Ghali in May 1994 stating that he’d been to the members of the Security Council and ‘begged them to send troops’. Kofi Annan, head of UN peacekeeping at the time, put out a faxed request in the same month, asking for help from all member states with spare military capacity, including Britain. The British Government was unwilling to oblige. But it’s the gamey patrician disdain, which had crept back in Thatcher’s absence, that reminds one of Bosnia. That and the hollow gravitas: Rifkind choosing to ignore Rwanda completely in a keynote foreign policy speech less than a year after the events; Sir David Hannay, Britain’s Ambassador to the UN, quibbling over the term ‘genocide’; Hurd describing Rwanda (wait for it) as a ‘true “heart of darkness”’. And then, sure enough, the studious dispatch of soldiers once the worst was over. To condemn the intervention in Kosovo because nothing had been done in Rwanda – an anti-Nato argument that briefly did the rounds – was perverse. Kosovo was the result of failing to intervene in Bosnia and, as far as British policy went, Rwanda and Bosnia were of a piece.

Simms isn’t content to dismiss British prevarication in Bosnia as a simple series of misreadings. While he admits the reasonableness of the Major Government’s position that Britain was no longer an imperial power, capable of pitching in all over the place – standard doctrine in post-Thatcher Tory circles – and while he’s fair about their (equally reasonable) view that war would squander the so-called ‘peace dividend’, he can’t forgive them a deeper vice. This was summarised by James Rubin, Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State, when he described the British who dealt with Bosnia – Hurd and Rifkind to be sure, but one must also include David Owen and the Unprofor commander, General Sir Michael Rose – as ‘hyper-realists’. Hyper-realism was really a case of twirling the moustaches you didn’t have (the clean-shaven Rose was a master of this style) and sticking so pedantically to the principle of caution in all diplomatic ventures that you couldn’t formulate or implement a policy worth the name. When people continued dying at the margins of that non-policy, and then in the very thick of it, you reiterated your position, twirled a little more, and wrote off anyone who disagreed with you – in Washington above all – as a fool or poseur, insisting as you did so that yours was a grand, compassionate understanding of how ‘complex’ things really were.

Complexity has flattered many vanities, in journalism and politics; in the wars of the former Yugoslavia it was probably more dangerous than over-simplification; and in Bosnia, as Simms shows, it became a bogus intellectual siege-engine wheeled out at every opportunity to assail the arguments for intervention with its array of clever gadgets, trompe l’oeil counterweights and enamelled piston-caps releasing thoughtful little gusts of steam. (Simms believes that Owen became fatally enthralled by ‘complexity’: that he congratulated himself on knowing the whole story, with its many twists and turns, and grossly mistook the situation as a result, deciding that the effective partition of Bosnia was the only possible solution.)

Three views were common among the hyper-realists. First, that the US was a force for ill in Bosnia, and that the potential efficacy of ‘lift and strike’, which it continued to advocate even when Clinton’s interest had subsided, was a childish fantasy. In the end, lift and strike came about by default: Congress voted against the arms embargo after Srebrenica; Britain ceased to oppose air strikes once the French had slid (also after Srebrenica) from non-intervention to interventionism. The Americans, meanwhile, had armed and trained the Croats and pressed them into alliance with the Bosnian Government. The presence of basic fighting forces on the ground, as Simms tells us more than once, was what distinguished the Bosnia air strikes from those over Kosovo, and when Rose’s successor, Rupert Smith, ordered in the Nato planes in August 1995, the Bosnian Army and the Croats surged forward, stopping the Serbs in their tracks.

The second belief shared by the hyper-realists was that the Bosnian Serbs were fearless, resourceful guerrilla fighters who could pin down a Nato force for years if they wished. The Bosnian Serbs, however, were artillery addicts with a love of thickly clustered civilian targets. They could, of course, manage close-range killings of the unarmed, but combat in the sense that a regular soldier or guerrilla fighter would understand it was not really their bag.

The third was the doctrine of ‘equivalence’, or ‘moral equivalence’, as Simms calls it: this meant spinning the facts in such a way that the Bosnian Government always seemed as culpable and wretched as its assailants. The objective here was to play up the idea that Bosnia was an unintelligible tribal conflict and that ethnic slaughter was the only thing on everyone’s mind – a ‘quagmire’ worth avoiding. There were certainly Bosnian atrocities against Serbs – Hazim Delic, one of the Bosnians tried at The Hague for his cruelties in the Celebici camp, got 20 years in 1998 – yet it was far harder for British establishment propaganda to depict the Bosnian Government as a tribal butcher than it had been, say, for the Catholic Church to depict the Republican forces as barbarians in Spain. Even so, it had a go. When the marketplace in Sarajevo was shelled in 1994, the FCO put it about that the Bosnians might have killed their own people in the hope of undermining the non-interventionists. This was hyper-realism in sublime mode: a case of denying people the help they desperately needed and then imagining how far you might be prepared to go yourself, if you were in the impossible situation to which you’d consigned them.

One of the great lessons of Simms’s book, then, is that realist doctrines may have nothing to do with the real world. Another is that when Europeans behave as contemptibly as the French and British did over Bosnia, it undermines their credibility when they do have a reasonable case, as the French and Germans have over Iraq. And so the idea of a degenerate ‘Old Europe’ comes to prevail in Washington and eventually congeals into a piece of abuse, to be hurled across the water at anyone who believes that the dangers of a war against Saddam outweigh any possible advantages. Another still is that the mask of ‘humanitarianism’ is easily torn away. Clinton’s people in the State Department were against the humanitarian mission – first as a palliative for failing to intervene with proper force and, once in place, as an argument against any further push for a military solution. They also saw that the humanitarians – Malcolm Rifkind! – were politicians by any other name and that the argument was about how seriously you ought to deal with a brutal, cowardly ethnic expansionism within Europe. The difference between Britain and the US on this issue was fundamental: whatever their reasons, the Americans had a more commendable policy and were, in this case, the greater realists. Predictably, the humanitarian tag was used again, four years later, to justify Nato’s violation of Serbian and ‘Yugoslav’ territorial integrity. It was scarcely necessary. By then, the worst of the damage had been done and if the non-intervention in Bosnia was humanitarian, the word could describe just about anything.

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Vol. 32 No. 16 · 19 August 2010

Jenny Turner quotes a former RCP supporter saying that ‘LM felt itself to be up against “the very one-sided, anti-Serb stance" of “the liberal media"’ on the matter of Bosnia (LRB, 8 July). Reporters like Maggie O’Kane and Marcus Tanner reported some of the horrors committed against that country, but their editors toed the British government line, which was that there was right and wrong on both sides and the matter was too complex to take a stand. As Jeremy Harding wrote in the LRB of 20 February 2003: ‘Complexity has flattered many vanities, in journalism and politics; in the wars of the former Yugoslavia it was probably more dangerous than oversimplification; and in Bosnia … it became a bogus intellectual siege-engine wheeled out at every opportunity to assail the arguments for intervention.’ Until the gruesome wake-up call of Srebrenica, LM was merely echoing the government-media line.

John Barker
London N16

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