The road to Srebrenica - the West's (non)response

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?

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By Paul Gallagher

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 essay.

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 conflict prevention?

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 world.

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.

Paul Gallagher was injured at his home in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in an indiscriminate sectarian gun attack in 1994 in which he was left paralysed and confined to a wheelchair.  He is currently the Chairman of Victims and Survivors Trust – a registered charity supporting victims of conflict.  He is also studying for a Degree in Psychological Trauma Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast.

This article was originally published on Paul Gallagher’s blog, ‘A Journey into the Grey Zone’, and is available by clicking here.

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