Forever Bosnia

An emotional misreading of Srebrenica and the war in the Balkans could get us into a lot of trouble in Libya.

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The significant role played by National Security Council staffer Samantha Power in our current Libyan war raises interesting and troubling questions about what commentators are terming “humanitarian imperialism.” Certainly the potential implications of Professor Power’s “Right to Protect” doctrine on U.S. foreign and defense policy appear vast.

Understanding the motivations of Power and related human rights thinkers who have pushed for intervention in Libya’s civil war is important. For Power herself, who won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for her book The Problem from Hell, there can be no doubt that her formative experience was the Bosnian civil war of 1992-1995, which she witnessed as a young reporter. For Power—a “child of Bosnia” by her own definition, transplanted from Yale to the Balkans in 1993—as for many advocacy journalists who reported from that ugly conflict, the Bosnian disaster changed lives and worldviews irrevocably. Appalled by American “impotence” in the face of war crimes, their reportage was emotional more than analytical and, in many cases, wrong on the facts, as subsequent investigations have determined.

Like her fellow advocacy journalists, Power has adhered to a version of the Bosnian conflict that is one-sided, and she is hardly the worst offender. Ed Vulliamy, who won numerous awards for his coverage of Bosnia, admitted his role in trying to get NATO intervention, even at the expense of accurate reporting, describing journalistic neutrality as “ridiculous,” asserting, “We have to take sides,” memorably adding, “If the professional ethics say I can’t take sides, screw the ethics.” CNN’s ubiquitous Christian Amanpour admitted that she in no way covered Bosnia objectively, serving instead as a mouthpiece of the Sarajevo government, because doing anything else would have made her “an accomplice to genocide.”

But is “Bosnia” as portrayed by Power and related advocacy journalists accurate? There is ample evidence to indicate it is not. In the first place, while the lion’s share of atrocities were committed by Bosnia’s Serbs, they had no monopoly on war crimes, and investigations since 1995 have demonstrated that Croats and Muslims, too, ran concentration camps and killed civilians intentionally.

Moreover, the figure of 250,000 Bosnian Muslims, mostly civilians, massacred during the war, routinely used by advocacy journalists, turns out to be wrong. The Bosnian war was significantly less deadly than initially believed. Balanced assessments since the war have shown that the actual death toll was about 100,000 for all sides. Muslim dead amounted to about 64,000, half of them soldiers, a figure endorsed by the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, no friend of the Serbs. While the Bosnian civil war was undoubtedly a disaster for the region and a genuine humanitarian crisis, it was hardly the unprecedented slaughterhouse depicted by advocacy journalists, ignorant of even recent history, who failed to mention that it was vastly less bloody than the last conflict, World War II, had been in Bosnia. (It bears noting that Algeria’s fratricide, which was occurring at the same time as Bosnia’s, killed likely twice as many people, overwhelmingly civilians, but got almost no attention in the Western media.)

Just as important, the fate of Bosnia since 1995, following massive Western military and political intervention, ought to raise questions about what the Obama administration is attempting today in Libya. While the Dayton Accords brought peace to Bosnia, after Croatia’s major military victories over the Serbs backed by NATO airpower, they have failed to bring stability, much less restore societies and economies. Even with massive NATO intervention on the ground—60,000 troops in the mid-1990s, down to 1,600 today under EU command—Western occupation backed by billions of dollars of reconstruction aid has done little to rebuild a multiethnic society shattered by war and corruption. Bosnia today is a broken and impoverished polity that appears to be an indefinite ward of the West. Hopes that intervention would resurrect Bosnia in political, social, or economic terms have proved fruitless and today the country is just as divided along ethno-religious lines as when the war began nearly twenty years ago. The only difference is that the sides are largely disarmed, so a return to full-scale war appears impossible.

Intervening in Libya to prevent Benghazi from becoming “another Srebrenica” is undoubtedly well intentioned, but thinking realistically about Bosnia’s history over the last two decades ought to raise questions about how to intervene and why, not encourage immediate military action in a complex, multi-sided civil war which we little understand. If putting NATO troops on the ground in Libya proves necessary, as it well might given the weak nature of the rebellion, the lessons of Bosnia could be very relevant, just not in the way Samantha Power may intend.

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