Bosnia and the West: A Study in Failure

Bosnia and the West: A Study in Failure

Mini Teaser: The Western world's reaction to the destruction of Bosnia has been a triumph of diplomacy. A triumph, that is, of diplomacy over foreign policy.

by Author(s): Noel Malcolm

The immediate consequence of this doctrine of equivalence was that
Western diplomats and military men conducted their activities in
Bosnia on the principle that everyone was more or less equally
guilty. "Everybody is to blame for what is happening in Bosnia and
Hercegovina," declared Lord Carrington, the EC negotiator, three
weeks after the initial Serb attack there, "and as soon as we get the
cease-fire, there will be no need to blame anybody." (Time has
brought no further illumination to Lord Carrington's thinking on this
matter. In an interview at the end of December 1994, he declared, "I
don't think any of them are particularly in the wrong. They are all
in the wrong. And all have some right on their side.") The military
commanders who were sent into Bosnia quickly adopted the same
attitude. It was easy for them to do so, because, apparently on
principle, they had never been briefed about the origins and
underlying political purpose of the war. All they could observe was
people fighting, and people breaking cease-fires; and since this
happened on both sides of the front line, they declared (like
schoolmasters awarding points for good or bad behavior) that both
sides were guilty. As the first Unprofor commander in Sarajevo,
Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, put it in a phrase which was to be
widely repeated in official circles, "There is more than enough blame
to go around for all sides, with some left over."

Two other damaging consequences of this doctrine of equivalence need
to be emphasized. The first is the distorted view it created of the
nature of the Bosnian war, and of how to stop it. In the eyes of
Western policymakers, this war was not a project engaged in by a set
of people with political aims; it was an outbreak of an
undifferentiated thing called "violence," which had just sprung up,
as a symptom of Bosnia's general malaise, here, there and everywhere.
Clausewitz was out; Freud and Jung, as theorists of the death wish
and the collective unconscious, were perhaps thought more
appropriate. Lacking a political understanding of the origins and
nature of the war, the West responded to it not with politics but
with therapy. The main aim of our policy, it was frequently said,
should be to "reduce the quantity of fighting." The way to do this,
it was claimed, was to reduce the quantity of weapons entering the
war zone. Nowhere was the failure of understanding more graphically
expressed than when politicians such as Britain's Douglas Hurd said
that to allow arms into Bosnia would be like putting petrol on the
flames. A fire is a single, undifferentiated thing; a war is a
conflict between two parties with opposed sets of intentions, in
which disparity in arms between them may be just as much (or more) of
a stimulus to greater killing than parity.

Only by removing almost all trace of political understanding from
their view of the Bosnian war could Western politicians continue to
argue about it in this way. And yet that excision was performed, and
performed thoroughly. It is hard, for example, to think of a single
speech by any British, American, or European politician which has
discussed Serbian war aims at any length, or even used the term "war
aims" at all. In the absence of such analysis, it is not clear what
Western politicians can really mean when they claim that their
policies have at least "contained" the conflict within the former
Yugoslavia. This is another one of those phrases which relate to
images of brush fires or epidemics; but unless the people who use it
believe that Milosevic's war aims included the conquest of, say,
Hungarian or Austrian territory, they cannot claim that it is their
own policies which have "contained" the war within the former
Yugoslav border.

The Single Most Damaging Instrument

The arms embargo, which flowed as a natural consequence from these
misunderstandings and misrepresentations, was the single most
damaging instrument of the Western world's policy on Bosnia.
Politicians who like to describe their policy as "non-intervention"
have, by the means of this embargo, intervened decisively,
entrenching the massive military superiority of the force which
launched the original attack on Bosnia in April 1992. The application
of this embargo to Bosnia was itself a classic illustration of the
shortcomings of any doctrine of equivalence. UN diplomats liked using
the phrase "even-handed" to describe this embargo, which was indeed
applied to Serbia as well. But since Serbia, and its proxy forces in
Bosnia, had the stockpiles of the fourth largest army in Europe,
while the Bosnian government, on the first day of the war, had no
army at all, the effects of this even-handedness were far from

By September 1992 it was estimated that the Bosnian government forces
had two tanks and two armored personnel carriers (APCs), while the
Serb forces had three hundred of the former and two hundred of the
latter. The most recent detailed breakdown of forces, compiled by the
Croatian General Karl Gorinsek in October 1994, gives the Bosnian
army forty-five tanks and thirty APCs, and the Serb forces four
hundred tanks and two hundred and fifty APCs. (Serb forces in the
UN-controlled areas of Croatia, who now cooperate openly in joint
campaigns with the Bosnian Serbs, also have two hundred tanks and one
hundred and fifty APCs.) The fact that, even with this imbalance in
heavy armor, the Bosnian government forces have managed to hold the
front lines almost static for more than two years, is in itself
suggestive. What it suggests is that the Bosnian government forces
possess certain other advantages--of motivation and morale--over
their Serb opponents. This in turn may suggest that if only the
Bosnian government troops had had more arms of their own (including
anti-tank weapons, and artillery-locating radar), they would have
been able not only to hold the front lines, but to inflict defeats on
their attackers. In the long term, the Bosnian arms embargo has not
so much "reduced the quantity" of fighting as extended its duration.

British and French politicians tend to talk about the embargo as if
it were out of their hands--a legal matter, locked up in a UN
Security Council resolution which cannot be unpicked. The truth is
that the application of this embargo to Bosnia is a matter of policy,
not law. The resolution introducing an arms embargo (no. 713) was
applied to the whole of Yugoslavia, at Belgrade's request, in
September 1991. At that time Bosnia was still part of the Yugoslav
state. In April 1992 Bosnia was recognized as a new state,
independent and separate from Yugoslavia, and on May 22 it was
admitted as a member-state to the United Nations. Yet still the
embargo was applied, despite the glaring prima facie conflict between
this application and Bosnia's right of self-defense under
international law. On what basis was the decision made to continue
the embargo in this way? The answer is that in late December 1991,
when the UN secretary-general was considering the implications of
recognizing Croatia, he wrote to the UN-appointed negotiator, Cyrus
Vance, asking whether it would be advisable to keep up the arms
embargo against any ex-Yugoslav republic. Vance replied that this
would be helpful for the peace process, and Boutros-Ghali embodied
this advice in a report which he submitted to the Security Council on
January 4, 1992. Cyrus Vance was not even a legal officer of the UN;
he had merely given his advice on a point of policy, relating to a
country (Croatia) where the war was in the process of ending. And yet
this opinion was treated as a matter of legal principle, and used
three months later to tie the hands of the Bosnian government when a
war was launched against it.

"Facts on the Ground"

The other consequence of the doctrine of "ancient ethnic hatreds,"
wrapped up in an attitude of policy-less diplomacy, was an acceptance
by Western diplomats of the principle of ethnic division. The
reasoning here was very simple. If violence is the natural product of
hatred, and hatred the natural mode of interaction between people who
are ethnically different, then the obvious way to stop the violence
is to separate the ethnic groups. At no point in the entire Bosnian
story was the close fit between the failure of Western understanding
and the success of Serb war aims made more apparent. One key player
in the story, the Unprofor commander General Philippe Morillon, has
made the point explicitly himself. In his own recently published book
about the war, a monument to political and historical incomprehension
grandiosely entitled Croire et oser ("To Believe and To Dare"), he
repeats the usual mantras about ancient ethnic hatreds and then adds:

"This past lends itself very well to the theory of ethnic cleansing.
Since the brothers who live on this territory never stop fighting one
another, you have to separate them. The idea is simple; it may not be
in good taste, but it catches on.... "

Essay Types: Essay