How the Butcher of the Balkans changed us
by David Aaronovitch
One of the more tragic aspects of the demise of Slobodan Milošević is that the international committee to defend him will now have to be wound up. The committee have been assiduous jail-visitors, invariably finding the former Serbian leader resolute or unbowed, his belief in his own innocence virtually luminescent. And they have been determined petitioners, demanding Mr Milošević’s release and the jailing of ‘the real war criminals: the NATO leaders who committed crimes against humanity and against Yugoslav sovereignty and who continue to commit those crimes today’. One of their signatories was the new Nobel laureate for literature, Harold Pinter, though somehow this fact was left off the citation.
All that remains for them to do is to spread as many rumours as they can that the forces of imperialism done the old boy in, and then they can get down to the business of pre-emptively defending Kim Jong Il, or posthumously rehabilitating Beria, or something useful like that. What I want to do, however, is to chronicle how the Serbian leader was responsible for the invasion of Iraq. Along a line of logic that runs, crudely, no Slobbo, no Bosnia, no Kosovo, no fashion for intervention, no Iraq.
This is also a personal journey, because, back in 1993 I was as ardent a peacenik as you could find. Or, rather, I was irritated by all these reporters filing their stuff from Balkan towns with z’s in them, emoting about villagers and implying that there was a crime of omission going on, and the international community should do something to sort it out. From the safety of London I preferred the writings of those who, like the author Misha Glenny, suggested that it was all incredibly complex over there, and that getting stuck in on one side or the other would be a terrible mistake. Diplomacy, that was the thing. Humanitarian convoys. Aid. That way no British soldiers would be killed, and truly dreadful conflict might be avoided. I distrusted those who, like Martin Bell, seemed to advocate a campaigning, tendentious journalism.
For a while I put my faith in Douglas Hurd and David Owen and their various peace plans. As the former Yugoslavia fell apart I felt some residual sympathy for the view that, after all, things had been better before under Tito, and that all this was about the resurgence of a petty nationalism that it would have been better to discourage. And if they said you could do business with the unlovely Milošević (who was no worse, surely, than Croatia’s Tudjman), or if they hinted that the Bosnian Muslims might somehow be complicit in some of the worst attacks on Sarajevo, or if they argued that selling arms to the Muslims would be like adding petrol to the fires, who was to say that they were wrong? Didn’t these Balkan types all do it to each other?
Then came Srebrenica. Of course there was plenty of reason, even before July 1995, to doubt that diplomacy could save hundreds of thousands from ethnic cleansing and murder. But Srebrenica was the moment when our responsibility for all this simply could not be denied. The UN was there, in the form of Dutch soldiers supposedly protecting an enclave. Our cameras were there as Ratko Mladić swanned into the invaded town and smilingly reassured Bosnian women that everything would be dealt with. In front of our eyes, just about, with our full knowledge, thousands were taken to European fields — just as they had been 50 years earlier — and murdered en masse. It was the most shaming moment of my life. We had let it happen again.
Someone recently wrote that everything is either Vietnam or Munich. It’s either a quagmire, where it would have been better to stay out - or it’s inaction in the face of an enemy, who merely sees passivity as an invitation to behave worse. I was a child of the Vietnam era, but Srebrenica - and Slobbo - moved me and thousands more from one column to the other. It was our Munich. When Slobbo turned his attention to Kosovo, it was Poland. Working backwards I could see that Bell and others had been right. We had betrayed the Bosnian Muslims, and we couldn’t do it again.
Such understandings are forged as much by opposition as by realization. In Kosovo the same forces - weaker now - lined up against NATO involvement as had argued against any military action over Bosnia. There were the relativists questioning why we should intervene here, when we hadn’t in Burma, Tibet or Zimbabwe. There were the lawyers arguing that military action without the imprimatur of the United Nations might be illegal. There were the anti-Americans, who suggested that the motivation for military action was some hitherto unsuspected strategic or economic interest. There was Pinter saying that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were the real criminals, not Slobodan Milošević.
Some of these apologists have never gone away. Recently, after a published interview with the antiwar intellectual Noam Chomsky, The Guardian erased the article from its website and apologized to Professor Chomsky for the interviewer’s suggestion that either he, or Diana Johnstone - an author whose work he praised - had denied that the Srebrenica massacre had taken place.
This correction was entirely wrong. In the sense that the world understood there to have been an act amounting to genocide at Srebrenica - ie, an act that we would have been justified in attempting to prevent by force - Johnstone certainly, and Chomsky implicitly, had most certainly denied the massacre. In Johnstone’s book Fools’ Crusade and elsewhere she had argued that the numbers of deaths had been exaggerated, that many supposed victims were in fact still alive somewhere, that Srebrenica had actually been an armed camp, that the Bosnians had deliberately let it be overrun hoping for a anti-Serb propaganda coup, that there had been some regrettable ‘revenge’ killings, as can happen in wartime. Anything and everything, indeed, except the truth - which was that 7,000-8,000 Muslim men were killed by the Bosnian Serb forces precisely because they were Muslim men. Johnstone argued this, and Chomsky commended Johnstone. But why?
Most charitably we may understand this by thinking that Chomsky sees the road from Srebrenica to Iraq just as I do. If Bosnia was the betrayal through inaction and appeasement, Srebrenica the consequence and Kosovo the determination not to let it happen again, then the line runs clear. And if Milošević, far from being someone we could do business with, was in fact an opportunistic tyrant who played us for fools until we saw the light, then what was Saddam?
Slobodan Milošević, more than anyone else, caused a division within the Left and Centre Left, dividing the pacifists, anti-imperialists and anti-Americans from the anti-fascists and the internationalists. He reminded too many of us that inaction can be as toxic and murderous as action. He prepared us - for weal or woe - for the new world. RIP Slobbo.
This article appeared in The Times (London), 14 March 2006