Reappraising Western failures during the break-up of Yugoslavia

Reappraising Western failures during the break-up of Yugoslavia

As we approach the sad day of 20 years on from the Srebrenica massacre, it has become – unsurprisingly – the object of much reappraisal and speculation. The events of that summer are just the middle of a long Western failure to comprehend the nature of the break-up of Yugoslavia and to act in a timely fashion to limit the damage.

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By Gerard M. Gallucci

As we approach the sad day of 20 years on from the Srebrenica massacre, it has become – unsurprisingly – the object of much reappraisal and speculation. Also the subject of a pending UK-sponsored UN Security Council resolution that seems to be opening old wounds. Hopefully, looking back on those horrible days – and the performance of the international community as well as the local forces – may lead to learning lessons that might help prevent future such breakdowns of civilized behavior. But it appears that re-examination of the events surrounding Srebrenica has also provided an opportunity for some heavy breathing about possible Western complicity in what eventually happened there, as in a recent story in The Guardian.

The Guardian reports on a new book apparently alleging the “shocking findings” that the “western powers” were trying to give Srebrenica to Serbian leader Milosevic even though they “were also aware, or should have been [emphasis added], of the Bosnian Serb military ‘Directive 7’ ordering the ‘permanent removal’ of Bosnian Muslims from the safe areas.” The story notes that US diplomat, Robert Frasure, reported that his efforts to gain Milosevic’s agreement to accept a “peace map” with Bosnia met with his refusal unless “safe areas” with Bosnian Moslem concentrations were ceded to the Serbs. Reportedly the US then urged Britain and France to agree to have the UN peacekeepers pull back from those areas. In the event, the Dutch UN peacekeepers on the ground – outnumbered, isolated and exposed – left the area to the Bosnian Serb militia.

Frasure – my friend and colleague – was a first class diplomat. That August and while on mission, he died with two other Americans when the vehicle they were riding in plunged down a hillside outside Sarajevo. I don’t doubt that he – on behalf of the US government and working under Richard Holbrooke – had tried to gain a negotiated outcome to the Bosnian conflict that involved land for peace. Indeed, the Srebrenica massacre finally energized the US to push these negotiations to finally end with the Dayton Agreement in December of the same year.

It is fair to ask who was at fault in Bosnia so that lessons might be learned and those guilty of crimes held responsible. The Dutch have held themselves accountable and Bosnian Serb leaders (and others) have gone before the court. It also must be admitted that the Western powers share a significant load of guilt. But the story didn’t start in 1995.

The events of that summer are just the middle of a long Western failure to comprehend the nature of the breakup of Yugoslavia and to act in a timely fashion to limit the damage. This history stretches from the late 1980s and includes the eventual bombing of Serbia and intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and extends through today. The time to act was in 1989-90 when Milosevic initiated the process of tearing up Yugoslavia (perhaps unintentionally) by starting with Kosovo. I believe that strong US action to support a federal solution for Yugoslavia and act aggressively to corral Milosevic could have led to a softer landing. But in 1990-91, the Europeans – led by Germany and the UK – acted too quickly to encourage and recognize the successions while the US fiddled with its many-headed policy focused on democracy and human rights – seen by locals as encouragement to ethnic nationalism. The essential problem was two-fold: that the Europeans failed to understand the tribal nature of ethnic feelings in post-Tito Yugoslavia and how to deal with the leaders stoking it, and; that the US left handling the breakup to those same clueless Europeans. This remained US policy throughout, as reaffirmed in 1991 when Secretary of State Baker reportedly told his staff that Yugoslavia was “shit on a stick” and should be left to the Europeans as “their problem.”

It is not at all clear that the West is doing much better with the former Yugoslavia these days. Kosovo remains under tutelage and the only way out seems to be through Germany brow beating Serbia into surrendering it while perhaps now also pushing Belgrade to abandon support for the Bosnian Serbs as well. The British meanwhile surface their genocide resolution while so much remains incomplete in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Will they ever learn?

Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He was Diplomat-in-Residence at Drake University for the 2013-14 school year and now works as an independent consultant.


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