bosnia report
New Series No: 27-28 January - May 2002
The great betrayal
by Branka Magas

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 precipitated the vision of a 'Europe whole and free' to be built upon shared foundations of human rights and parliamentary democracy. Soon, however, Western Europe abandoned its responsibility for shaping the continent's future. Conservative Britain led the retreat, using the war in Yugoslavia as convenient testimony to the folly of any such enterprise. 'We have not the right, power or appetite', Douglas Hurd told the European parliament in July 1992, 'to establish protectorates in Eastern Europe in the name of a European Order. We must not exaggerate our power to remove these agonies. ' The 'agonies' to which he was referring was genocide brought about by Serbia's aggression, then in full swing, against Bosnia-Herzegovina. Between 1992 and 1995 Whitehall proved indulgent of Serbia's methodical destruction of Bosnia, while passionately rejecting all political or military measures designed to help its government and people. As Bosnia was being 'cleansed' of its population, so too was Europe to be 'cleansed' of Bosnia. British officials firmly confined the country and its people to a supernatural world of 'ancient hatreds' and 'permanent tribal warfare'.

Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia by Brendan Simms is the first serious analysis of the mind-set that inspired the adoption of this discreditable and disastrous course, and of a system of governance that permitted it to be maintained thereafter. The men responsible for the policy, the author stresses, were neither isolationists nor pacifists. On the contrary, they greatly valued Britain's membership of the Security Council and the NATO alliance. The British government helped draft relevant UN resolutions, sent troops to Bosnia to serve in the UN 'protection force', and seconded key military and civilian personnel to the UN's Sarajevo headquarters. Two former foreign secretaries acted as mediators in the Yugoslav wars of succession. Britain was thus in a unique position to ensure that Western policy would be guided by the principles of collective security in Europe and the right of self-defence of a state under attack. It chose to do exactly the opposite. Britain used its influence in each and every international association of which it was a member to prevent intervention on Bosnia's behalf, grimly pursuing this course even when it led to the first open breach with the United States since Suez and endangered the existence of NATO itself.

How is one to account for this behaviour? The explanation offered by this compelling study is both complex and deeply disturbing. For the main problem lay in the fact not that the government's initial policy was wrong, but that it proved unable to alter that policy when circumstances changed. Britain was not alone in 1992 in believing that Serbia would quickly win the war against Bosnia. But it was particularly zealous in its efforts to hasten this outcome, by minimising Serbia's responsibility, energetically defending the arms embargo against Bosnia, delaying the opening of its Sarajevo embassy, pressing the Bosnian government to surrender, treating it as a 'warring faction', and through myriad other means and ways chronicled in this book, including emptying the war of its political meaning through the policy of 'humanitarianization': i.e. by treating it as a natural catastrophe to be remedied by humanitarian relief, not military intervention.

Bosnia's expected collapse, however, did not occur. Serbia's genocidal campaign stimulated both Bosnian resistance and American criticism of non-intervention. The US policy, unlike that of Britain, proved capable of developing. Washington was quick to identify Serbia as the main culprit, and considered air strikes against its positions in Bosnia as early as the spring of 1992. While important segments of the US elite rallied to Bosnia's cause from the start, it was during 1992- 4 that a powerful groundswell - involving Congressmen, government officials (some resigning in protest against government inaction), the mainstream press, analysts working in foreign-policy think tanks, as well as hundreds of grass-roots organisations spanning the United States - brought about a 'revolution from above', pushing the Clinton administration in the direction of military intervention. This reached its peak in 1995 when a constitutional crisis between Senate and White House over lifting of arms embargo against Bosnia was only narrowly averted. A war that Britain was determined to treat as peripheral became a major issue of world politics. The British abandoned resistance only when France under Chirac swung into support of Western military intervention. The American policy of 'lift and strike', which the British had consistently derided, proved highly effective when applied in 1995, with Bosnia and Croatia supplying the ground troops while NATO planes struck at the Bosnian Serbs' communication centres.

While chief responsibility for the British dereliction undoubtedly lies with John Major's government, the truth is that throughout the Bosnian crisis it never came under any significant pressure for a change of heart. Unlike in the United States, British government, civil service and military operated here as a seamless whole. The government acted on the advice of its various officials, who offered the kind of advice the government wanted to hear. Experts working in international policy institutes, universities and the media pundits readily followed in the footsteps of the civil servants, with the intellectuals doing little more than decorate the repugnant policy with a veneer of academic respectability. The churches remained silent, or when they spoke agreed with the government. 'Our churches', wrote the late Adrian Hastings in 1993, 'tied in one way or another only too closely to the state, have sought the advice of the Foreign Office and as a result do nothing but mouth banalities.' Nor did parliament offer any sustained challenge to the executive. The Labour Party, indeed, prided itself on not turning Bosnia into a party-political issue, despite the unhappiness of many of its backbenchers - not to speak of an increasing majority of the British people. Britain's position on Bosnia as a result assumed the form of a 'closed system': it remained unaltered because British political and cultural institutions failed to generate the necessary corrective momentum.

The root of this malaise, Brendan Simms writes, lay in the 'treason of the intellectuals', who abandoned 'the right of reason' and with it the universal values of the Enlightenment that are modern Europe's birthright, in favour of an expedience which in practice appeared only too often as exaltation of the strong over the weak. One of the book's most chilling chapters deals with the effects of the policy of 'moral equivalency' on 'the men on the ground', i.e. on British officers and soldiers serving in Bosnia, especially in the period of General Rose's command. The atmosphere of the 1990s was becoming 'uncomfortably close' to the 1930s. It was simply impossible to dismiss the parallel between the fate of the European Jewry in the hands of Hitler and of the Bosnian Muslims in the hands of Milosevic.

This book tells us why the issue of Bosnia inevitably came to haunt us all. It continues to do so because we have not exorcised this shameful past. The Labour government for some strange reason has chosen to continue the Tories' anti-Bosnian policy, which in its latest stage has consisted of not implementing those parts of the Dayton Accords which could make Bosnia heal, while not contesting those which keep it divided. As before, the Foreign Office tells us that there is no other way. Bosnia's violent partition remains, however, a potent symbol of Western Europe's failure to create a new order in Europe. It is simply insincere to speak of its desirability while insisting that the Dayton Accords cannot be changed in order to make Bosnia 'whole and free'. It is equally absurd to welcome Slobodan Milosevic's indictment in The Hague, while continuing to sanction his crimes' final result. What makes Brendan Simms's The Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia a magnificent work of history is not simply its superb scholarship but the passion with which he deconstructs Britain's collusion in the attempted destruction of a small European nation.


This review appeared in The Tablet (London), 2 November 2001


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