Trop de Zle

Trop de Zle

Mini Teaser: Lord Owen is one of those many unfortunates who, in the period of terminal decline of the British Empire, was sent off to sup with devils, equipped only with an undersized spoon.

by Author(s): Hasan Unal

David Owen, Balkan Odyssey (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996), 394 pp., $25.00.

Lord Owen is one of those many unfortunates who, in the period of terminal decline of the British Empire, was sent off to sup with devils, equipped only with an undersized spoon. His job was, as representative negotiator for "Europe", to bring peace to Bosnia. He started his performance just as news of the Serbs' death camps was breaking in 1992. The atrocities continued as Lord Owen whizzed back and forth, and he has had, on the whole, a bad press for so doing. He put his name to a plan which, in the true style of bas-empire Britain, appeased the powerful--in this case, the Serbs, who were to be given a lot of land in Vance-Owen's division of Bosnia-Herzegovina into a bewildering variety of ethnic "cantons." The plan collapsed in the spring of 1993 when, despite this generosity, the Bosnian Serbs refused the deal. Lord Owen, who had called the plan "spring-time in the Balkans", might, with dignity, have then resigned. Instead he persisted well into 1995.

In the early summer of 1995 I, along with a delegation from the Turkish Parliament, visited him. Public opinion in Turkey, which has a large Balkan-descended population, was highly indignant at the continuing massacres of Muslims in Bosnia, the connivance of British officers in them, and the insults which, by implication, British policy seemed to be directing toward secular Muslims in general. The deputies wished to find out for themselves what on earth had motivated this policy, coming as it did from a country that Turks regard as an ally. We talked to Lord Owen for two and a half hours; he endeavored to defend himself, but unfortunately the feeling afterwards among the delegation was that not a word he uttered could be believed.

Lord Owen has, of course, collected many critics, Margaret Thatcher not least among them. In order to defend his conduct over his three years as European Union negotiator he has now published his memoirs of the experience. The book, Balkan Odyssey, came out in November--just a few weeks after the United States had decided to clip the Serbs' wings by embarking on a relatively sustained and intensive air campaign against selected Bosnian Serb targets. Though they were not directed at the Serb tanks and artillery that had been pounding Bosnian towns with impunity, or at the Serb (former jna--Yugoslav National Army) soldiers who were unquestionably responsible for much of the carnage, these air strikes, coming on the heels of a successful Croatian campaign in western Bosnia, were enough to force the Serbs to accept a peace deal that they had rejected in the past. David Owen criticizes "lap-top bombardiers" who had argued for this policy since the late summer of 1992, when the Serb's death camps became manifest to some degree at least. But it was these derided figures who had come up with the policy that finally stopped the slaughter.

It seems to be one of Lord Owen's characteristics that he combines remarkable intuition with remarkable lack of spine. For he himself had argued for airstrikes, early on. Perhaps that was why he was made eu negotiator: Throw responsibility at him, and he will learn sense. In writing, for instance, to Prime Minister John Major in late June 1992, Owen urged him "not to accept the conventional wisdom that nothing can be done militarily to stop the escalation of fighting and the continuation of . . . grotesque abuses of human rights." His suggestion at this time that nato, with its "sophisticated proven and trusted command and control", be brought in to beef up the United Nations and stop the Serbian war machinery was the right one. It certainly worked in 1995.

Whether or not it was in fact the responsibility of representing "Europe" that changed his mind, he was soon on record arguing that airstrikes would not be right after all. (The efficacy of airstrikes now having been proved, he claims that he had always advocated them. But those of us who have followed the conflict closely know that this is not so.) Certainly, the initial use of airpower seemed to bear out his objections, but what an utter farce it was. There would be pinprick strikes against a Serb tank or two, which had been transgressing the truly lavish standards of the United Nations Protection Force (unprofor). The Serbs would be informed well in advance that their tank would be well and truly exploded. On one occasion, the tickings-off were offered so very far in advance, and the attacking aircraft was required to circle the offending tanks for so long, that even the Serbs' primitive anti-aircraft weaponry managed to bring down a British Harrier.

And then there was the amazing legend--truly amazing in that it was propagated by what is supposed to be one of the premier Intelligence outfits in the Western Alliance--of the invincibility of the Serbs. In order to cozy up to these allegedly invincible mountain chieftains, unprofor even helped them with intelligence. All this was done so as to confute arguments against the invincibility theory. The length to which it was taken is indicated by recent revelations that the British un commander, Michael Rose, ordered British sas (Special Air Service Regiment) scouts stationed deep inside Serb-held territory that they were not on any account to identify Serb artillery positions for nato pilots to bomb--even when the international mandates for this were unambiguous, and when a ferocious Serbian advance on the so-called safe area of Bihac was in full swing late in 1994.1

On the whole, Lord Owen's memoirs are neither superficial nor, in a factual sense, misleading. On the contrary, they reveal a solid record of tortuous negotiations (and are complemented by a cd-rom of source materials). Political scientists, used to swimming in a glue of prose, will not find their muscles particularly stretched by the style, which makes things clear, and historians are apt to find much that helps to illuminate the mind of the appeaser. Rather too much of the information is of the bureaucratically mundane--meetings here, meetings there, cameras whirring, tea-cups clattering, interpreters muttering. Owen's records trek through hundreds, if not thousands, of official and semi-official meetings, encounters, and talks with all and sundry, from the parties to the conflict to the officials of far-away countries that expressed some interest in Bosnia. The curious mechanisms of "Europe" even required much politesse to stray Belgians or Portuguese, those without the slightest real interest in, or leverage on, the problem. Politeness is not one of David Owen's best-documented qualities, but he manages to display it toward some strange customers--to the Greeks' weird insistence on changing Macedonia's name and flag, and to Dobrica Cosic, whose memorandum for the Serbian Academy of Sciences in 1986 may be described as the starting point for the entire vicious program of ethnic cleansing upon which Milosevic and his men were launched. All in all, the facts in this book--and in the cd-rom--are useful enough. But Owen's is a very partial view, and is tinged throughout with Islamophobia.

The expertise he acquired overnight of Bosnia is reminiscent of that acquired by Thorvald Stoltenberg, who, having studied the history of Bosnia--meticulously by his standards--concluded that all the people in Bosnia were originally Serbs, and that in fact "the whole lot of them are Serbs."2 Throughout the book Owen repeats the oft-reiterated arguments to prove that there was no genocidal war in Bosnia, that it was a simple civil war, and that there were no goodies and baddies in it. According to him, all the parties were capable of killing in cold blood, and all of them were "masters of disinformation, propaganda and deceit." And he refers to the ubiquitous myths about wild people in the Balkans killing each other for ages, and advances the equally false view that hundreds of years of ethnic hatred explain the Bosnia war. In insisting that it was a civil war, he outdoes even Douglas Hurd, the former British Foreign Secretary, who had to admit that Belgrade was involved in Bosnia in the initial stages.3 What Owen, and all others who ascribe the bloodshed in Bosnia to the break-up of Yugoslavia and "the ancient hatreds" supposedly endemic in the Balkans, refuse to understand is that the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina broke out because Belgrade wanted it to break out. Had the ethnic composition of Bosnia been the real reason for its outbreak, Macedonia would have shared the same fate by now. But, as Belgrade did not and could not provoke a war in Macedonia, peace there has been maintained.

Every country in the Balkans is colorful and multicultural: all host a number of minorities despite their claims to homogeneity. And no civil war in these countries has taken place between one or a group of minorities and the majority. Since the establishment of nation-states in the region, every civil war that has been fought was fought between such groups as royalists and republicans or communists and non-communists, between, that is, certain sections of the ruling majority, never between a minority and a majority. Even in the case where significant minorities live right on the border with their "mother states"--such as the Turks in Bulgaria or the Hungarians in Romania--there is no reason to believe that civil wars are likely to break out between them and their "host nations." That could only occur if those mother states give a green light and become involved--which would then turn the conflict into an inter-state war much like the Bosnian war.

By the same token, since Belgrade did not order "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo, peace, however fragile, has been preserved there. What has deterred Milosevic from embarking upon new adventures in Kosovo and Macedonia has not been Lord Owen's overzealous diplomatic activity but the clear-cut warning sent to Belgrade in the form of strongly-worded letters by the United States government that any such Serb action in the southeastern Balkans would trigger large-scale bombing of Serbia itself. The American military presence on the Macedonian border, though small, underwrote that warning and this was rightly understood by Belgrade. In the absence of this sort of a threat, Lord Owen might well have had to negotiate over yet another genocide.

Lord Owen repeats the canard that the Bosnians shelled their own people in order to arouse public indignation in the West and to provoke intervention to save them from the Serbs. This assertion is baseless. No one, including Owen himself, has ever been able to identify any Bosnian provocateurs, and never have the enraged relatives of the victims attacked an alleged provocateur or accused the Bosnian government of being implicated in such crimes. As Mr. Izetbegovic told journalists in London in August 1992, there was and would be no need for the Bosnian government to do anything undercover to enrage the international public, because that work was being done for them more than adeptly by the Serbs, with their daily boasting about their bestial behavior before television cameras. And the Bosnians were not so foolish as to expect anything concrete out of such crimes, given that people like Lord Owen were determined to forestall any extensive nato bombing of Serb targets, whatever the provocation. As Lord Owen himself insisted in Belgrade in February 1994, after the terrible marketplace massacre in Sarajevo: "Nobody but a fool wants airstrikes." And his spokesman John Mills had told the press as early as July 1993: "The message to Muslims is to negotiate or perish." Interestingly, none of these quotations appears in the book.

Perhaps the mass graves unearthed daily, and the recent steady flow of information indicating that in various parts of Bosnia the Serb forces and paramilitaries committed war crimes on a large scale, will help Lord Owen to understand that many of the rumors as to the Bosnians' self-inflicted massacres were made up by unprofor personnel, weary and ashamed of their own impotence. Transferring the blame to the Muslims obviated having to take stronger action against the Serbs, action that the international public would have clamored for had un personnel honestly identified the guilty party. Hence unprofor efforts to either misinform the public or to keep essential information secret, until and unless the Western media got wind of it.

Though Lord Owen's book is fundamentally flawed and unconvincing, he does make two valid points. The first is that he was subjected to a barrage of undeserved invective by enraged politicians and diplomats. A number of Western-oriented Muslim states directed their artillery tacitly or openly at international mediators such as Owen, the United Nations and its secretary general. For instance, playing to the gallery and taking the easy option, the Turkish government continually criticized Owen and Boutros Boutros-Ghali for failing to respond decisively to Serbian aggression. Otherwise, Ankara and other capitals would have had to turn their guns at the real culprits: the Security Council, and those European governments--above all the British government--that sent Lord Owen to negotiate any alternative to military intervention. The upshot of laboring under these circumstances was bound to be a distorted diagnosis of the conflict, an unjust peace, and the virtual destruction of a European state. Lord Owen grasped his duties quite well and acted accordingly. But it should be remembered that he did not write his own brief.

The second point refers to his criticism of the U.S. administration for undermining his studiously prepared peace in early 1993. Here Owen is on rock solid ground because, after all, on paper the Vance-Owen plan was less rewarding to Serbian ethnic cleansing and conquests than the Dayton deal. The U.S. administration, which had condemned the Lord's plan as repulsive to the principles it was trying to uphold, waited for more than two years simply to come back with a deal based on the same flawed premises. "What's the difference between the Vance-Owen plan and the Dayton agreement?", asked Misha Glenny, and he gave the answer: "Nothing except two years of mass graves."4

All this should haunt the Americans, but whether it does or not remains to be seen (the Nobel Prize Committee may bless those two years as the mark of statesmanship). In any case, there is one other difference between Vance-Owen circa 1993 and the Dayton peace of late 1995, and it is an important one. This time the Americans are heavily involved and clearly have become impatient with European "sophistication." The one British figure who might have carried conviction in the whole grisly story was, of course, Margaret Thatcher, whose instincts were, from the start, quite right. But it is one of the curious facts of modern English politics that when you need a man you get a woman.

Essay Types: Essay