bosnia report
New Series No: 55-56 January - July 2007
History will judge Blair less harshly than Hurd
by Roger Cohen

One of the least edifying sights in Britain today is that of Douglas Hurd, the former foreign secretary, expressing his righteous anger over the war in Iraq, handing out lessons to Tony Blair and leading the charge for an official inquiry into the conflict. ‘Our interests and our reputation have suffered so badly that the case for an inquiry into the preparations and conduct of the war is now overwhelming,’ Hurd declared last month.

Lest anyone has forgotten, and forgetfulness characterizes our times, this is the very same Lord Hurd whose circumlocutions and general gutlessness characterized Britain's response to the Serbian genocide against Bosnian Muslims between 1992 and 1995. Unfinest Hour is what Brendan Simms of Cambridge University called the performance in his fine book of that name, noting that Hurd and others contrived to turn the Bosnian war into ‘a perpetrator-less crime in which all were victims and all more or less equally guilty.’

Indeed. I was among those who sat in Sarajevo over a period of years and listened as the slaughter before my eyes - with its very evident chief perpetrators (the Serbs) and equally evident chief victims (Muslims) - was reconstituted by Hurd as an impenetrable morass of ‘warring factions’ and ‘ancient hatreds.’ The political point of this intellectual and moral feebleness was clear: nobody in their right mind should try to intervene to end a fathomless, tribal free-for-all.

Like Bismarck, Hurd did not consider the Balkans ‘worth the healthy bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.’ Concentration camps and mass murder! So be it, this is the Balkan pit after all! Margaret Thatcher commented that Hurd made Chamberlain look like a warmonger. Slobodan Milošević, the late Serbian dictator who ignited the killing, was free to pursue his dirty work.

This, for those who lived through it, was a marking experience. It turned a generation influenced more by 1960s peace and love than the hard calculus of conflict into liberal interventionists. A generation largely untested in war became convinced by Bosnia that force is sometimes needed to stop egregious crimes against humanity perpetrated by dictators manipulating the cowed minds forged by closed political systems. The Serbs' Omarska camp was not Auschwitz. Still, it was murderous enough to focus the mind.

Blair, when he arrived in power almost exactly a decade ago, became our man. He was the anti-Hurd. He was the moral interventionist, the politician prepared to override the time-honoured principle of non-interference in a state's internal affairs when the crimes committed within that state's borders were unconscionable. Five times in six years Blair ordered British troops into battle: in Iraq for Operation Desert Fox in 1998; in Kosovo in 1999; in Sierra Leone in 2000; in Afghanistan in 2001 after 9/11; and in Iraq in 2003, a decision that has come to haunt him.

Over this arc of time, Blair evolved his doctrine. He articulated it in a speech in Chicago in 1999. ‘We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure,’ he said. His vision was of ‘a new millennium where dictators know they cannot get away with ethnic cleansing or repress their people with impunity.’ In Kosovo, he added, ‘we are fighting not for territory but for values.’

The NATO victory in Kosovo was an important one. It stopped Milošević and ultimately led to his downfall. For those of us who had lived through Bosnia, the sight of the dictator being judged before an international court in The Hague was extraordinary. Blair was instrumental in bringing this about. He was naturally reinforced in his convictions - and reinforced again when British troops stopped the drugged-up mutilators of Sierra Leone, restoring order to that country by going beyond the letter of the United Nations mandate.

A phrase began recurring in the Blair lexicon: ‘This is simply the right thing to do.’ He spoke of justice overcoming barbarism, good vanquishing evil. He alluded to Dante's ‘world law’ as an expression of the grounds for his moral interventionism. Far from Bush's poodle, Blair was Bush's guide-dog. All of Blair's convictions were reinforced by 9/11, a murderous act against civilians that, for Blair, crystallized the dangers of allowing barbarism or tyranny to go unchecked in a faraway place - Afghanistan in this instance. His support of the overthrow of the Taliban was forthright.

At the same time, the threat of global terrorism and nuclear proliferation intersecting began to obsess Blair. Like others, he was wrong on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's totalitarian Iraq. No doubt, the success of his earlier moral wars led to hubris. Perhaps religious conviction clouded judgment. No doubt, he got little in return for his support of President George W. Bush's decision to head into an unplanned war.

But the question for my Bosnian generation remains, and it is acutely framed by Hurd's withering criticism of Blair over Iraq: why is Baghdad not Sarajevo or Prishtina? Why is the overthrow of the murderous, Stalinist regime of Saddam ultimately not an act as worthy of our support as that of Milošević, whatever the current cost of the invasion's mismanagement? How has Hurd's position on Iraq come to be shared by the liberal ‘bien-pensants’ who once decried his position on Bosnia?

These are not easy questions. They are too often treated as easy by the right-thinkers now so blinded by hatred of Bush or Blair that it would never occur them to ask an Iraqi what he or she thinks of Saddam's ouster. The head-for-the-exit school in Iraq was once the intervene-now school of Bosnia. Go figure.

Hurd asked last month why the British ‘experience of Iraq’ did not counsel caution. That was Bosnia redux with a familiar subtext: anyone who understands the place knows inaction is right. So, Hurd's wisdom or Blair's vision? I know where I stand, and I believe history will comfort the British prime minister.

This op-ed by a leading US journalist and author who covered Bosnia during the war appeared in the International Herald Tribune, 7 March 2007


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