Strategic Dialogue: Yugoslavia

As part of our strategic dialogue on Yugoslavia, Ed Herman and John Feffer contributed two viewpoints on the atrocities committed in that region 10 years ago. Here are their responses.

Reply to John Feffer by Ed Herman:

John Feffer uses the word “revisionism” or “revisionist” 16 times in his critique of my work on Yugoslavia. This is curious, as IPS and FPIF are supposedly dedicated to offering “unconventional wisdom,” which clearly ought to “revise” conventional and established opinion. But Feffer’s own analysis is hard to distinguish from that of Richard Holbrooke, Madeleine Albright, Michael Ignatieff, and the editors of The New York Times. Like them, he always makes the United States and NATO responsive to the actions of the evil Milosevic.

“The Clinton administration was dragged kicking and screaming into involvement in the conflict…Later, of course, the Clinton administration backed the Croatian army in its terrifying turning of the tables and bombed Belgrade to put an end to the Kosovo crisis.” This is nonsense from beginning to end — the Clinton gang sabotaged a series of peace accords from 1992 till November 1995, as documented by Lord David Owen; the open design of the ICTY from 1992-1993 was to go after the Serbs in NATO war service; the Croatian “turning of the tables” was a long-planned operation to ethnically cleanse all Serbs from Croatia; and the U.S. underwrote the KLA, did nothing to end the Kosovo crisis by any peaceful means, and ended up, no doubt coincidentally, with its largest military base in Europe (Bondsteel in Kosovo).

Feffer makes my revisionism an effort to rehab Milosevic’s reputation. This is as untrue as a claim that my critiques of the Vietnam War were to rehab Ho Chi Minh’s reputation. The issues are twofold: truth, and the closely related desire not to allow a falsification of history to cover over Western policies no more defensible than those in Vietnam or Iraq, and to prevent the false showing that “humanitarian intervention” can work. In his own way, Feffer makes this false showing, claiming that Serbia is better off than earlier (which is completely untrue), and ignoring the sorry state of Bosnia and mafia-drug and women-trade capital Kosovo.

Feffer contests my claim that the Milosevic-Serb quest for a “Greater Serbia” is a fraud. My first argument is that the ICTY prosecutor, Geoffrey Nice, shocked the judges by conceding that this claim was untrue and that what Milosevic wanted was to prevent the dismantling of Yugoslavia, and if that wasn’t possible, allowing Serbs to stay in one country. My second point was that Milosevic supported at least seven peace proposals from 1991 through Dayton in late 1995 that would have involved Serbs staying outside any “Greater Serbia.” A third point was that Serbia was unique in the Yugoslav Republics in not doing any ethnic cleansing within its own borders. This isn’t compatible with the theory of a Belgrade-based Serb drive for ethnic purification.

Feffer never mentions or contests any of these substantive points. He does, however, note that in making the third point I cite Mihailo Marković, and Feffer spends three paragraphs denouncing him, but never addressing or contesting the empirically valid point that Marković is making and that Milosevic uses.

I urge readers of the dialogue to consult my article with Peterson, whose points John Feffer ignores or misrepresents. “The Dismantling of Yugoslavia,” Monthly Review, October, 2007.

Reply to Ed Herman, by John Feffer:

In his apologia for Serbian war crimes, Edward Herman displays a well-trained eye for media analysis and a remarkable blindness to everything else.

As I argue in Why Yugoslavia Still Matters, all sides committed atrocities in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Every reputable analyst of the situation readily acknowledges these facts. But by quoting selectively and choosing only the observers that bolster his argument, Herman manages to construct an alternative universe in which Serbian military forces only acted in defense, Slobodan Milosevic was a benevolent Gorbachev figure, and the international legal community functioned as some kind of adjunct to NATO. Such a picture is as nonsensical as the demonization of all Serbs that Herman rightly criticizes.

Let’s start with Milosevic himself. Herman shows a singular talent for deconstructing the propaganda of the West and swallowing uncritically the propaganda of others. So Slobodan Milosevic made a few speeches calling for “tolerance” toward other nations. You can find such lovely appeals in the speeches of all authoritarian leaders. What matters are the policies, not the words. Milosevic made his speeches even as he was whipping up anti-Albanian sentiment within Serbia. Later he would urge the maintenance of Yugoslavia while boycotting Slovenian goods and, after that, letting loose the army and secret police to kill Croatians and Bosnians. But he also had no problems working with Croatian strongman Franjo Tudjman when it suited his purposes — when, for instance, the two met secretly in 1991 to craft the Karadjordjevo agreement on dividing up Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia. Later he even distanced himself from Bosnian Serbs because they wouldn’t follow his orders. He had no allegiances but to himself.

Milosevic was a brutal and banal man who surrounded himself with toadies and apparatchiks, set into motion the nationalist forces that eventually tore the country apart, and then put on a sad and self-serving display at his trial in The Hague. He was the last great hope of unified Yugoslavia in the same way that Konstantin Chernenko was the last great hope of a unified Soviet Union. His reputation is as little in need of rehabilitation as Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s.

Let’s now turn to the demonization of the Serbs themselves. When a war lets loose demons, as the conflicts in the Yugoslavia did in the 1990s, it’s not surprising that demonization takes place as well. We have to be careful to distinguish between the actions of state, army, and paramilitaries and the actions of millions of ordinary Serbs. Herman dances a remarkable two-step. First he ignores all the Serbs who opposed and criticized their government’s policies and their army’s actions. Second, he bends over backwards to excuse the deplorable actions of Serbian soldiers in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Were these actions at times inflated in the Western media? Perhaps: just as the violence committed by U.S. soldiers in Iraq has occasionally been inflated in the non-Western press. But through this fog of war reporting, Serbia like the United States was the aggressor state, and Serbian paramilitaries instigated violence. Did Bosnia attack Serbia and try to absorb its Muslim-dominated Sandzak region? Did Croatia shell Belgrade on behalf of Croatians living there? No, it was the Milosevic government that waged war against Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, using the largely spent ideology of “Yugoslavia” to justify its actions.

It was certainly an embarrassment for the Bosnian government when the two alleged victims of Borislav Herak turned out to be living in a Sarajevo suburb. But this appalling miscarriage of justice doesn’t somehow wipe away all the evidence collected at The Hague for killings and ethnic cleansings committed by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica, Sarajevo, and elsewhere. On the numbers of dead at Srebrenica, Herman is simply out of date, as I detail in my initial essay. He tries to dismiss the DNA evidence by arguing that it was compiled by the Bosnian government. In fact, the evidence has been compiled by the International Commission on Missing Persons. Although headquartered in Sarajevo, it is an independent organization with international staff and international funding.

On the prison camps, Herman makes it seem as though the journalists John Burns and Roy Gutman constructed this narrative by themselves. But in fact the camps are well-documented: from eyewitnesses, the reporting of other journalists, and work done by Helsinki Watch and the UN. As for the Markale Market massacre in Sarajevo, the canard that the Bosnian government shelled its own citizens to gain world sympathy has circulated for some time in the conspiracy underground. In 2004, the judges at The Hague reviewed all the evidence, including new data, and convicted Stanislav Galic, commander of the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps of the Republika Srpska Army, of the crime. Herman also neglects to mention that, this particular controversy aside, Bosnian Serb shelling of Sarajevo resulted in 10,000 deaths in the city, including 1,800 children.

I’m not sure what mainstream propaganda Herman was reading when he concluded that the mass killings of Serbs during World War II were “blacked out.” Every reputable book about Yugoslavia treats the Croatian Ustasha period and details the atrocities committed against Serbs. It would also perhaps complicate Herman’s own black-and-white reading of history to find out that the Chetniks, in addition to being quite ruthless themselves when given half a chance, also collaborated with the Nazis when circumstances dictated (see Philip Cohen’s Serbia’s Secret War).

And Herman writes as if only he is revealing for the first time the atrocities committed by the men under Bosniak leader Naser Oric. Did Herman read David Rohde’s Endgame? Mark Danner’s pieces in the New York Review of Books? More importantly, Herman seems to forget that Bosnia was under siege, that Serb forces had surrounded the towns of Sarajevo, Srebrenica, and Gorazde and were trying to starve them into submission. Herman seems to forget how the Bosnian conflict broke out in the first place, when the Serbian paramilitaries, including the criminal leader Arkan and his Tigers, crossed into Bosnia to begin ethnic cleansing. Only then did Oric and other Bosniaks begin to arm themselves in response. But the Bosnian army was always out-gunned and out-manned.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) isn’t a perfect institution. But it was by no means an extension of NATO. It tried and convicted Croatians for war crimes, and the Croatian army was the closest thing to an ally that NATO had in the region. It’s a rare occasion when justice is meted out after a conflict as horrendous as what happened in former Yugoslavia. One can argue with this or that verdict. But in general, the ICTY investigators worked long and hard and in as balanced a way given the circumstances. The United States was by no means always cooperative. When chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte pressed CIA Director George Tenet to work harder at apprehending Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, he replied “Look, Madame, I don’t give a shit what you think.”

Let me repeat: All sides in the Yugoslav war committed atrocities. As the region known as Yugoslavia creates a future for itself, an honest appraisal of the responsibility of all parties for these atrocities is necessary. But like Germany in Eastern Europe, Japan in East Asia, the United States in Iraq (and many other places), Indonesia in East Timor, and many other aggressor countries, Serbia must come to terms with the disproportionate role that the government of Slobodan Milosevic played — through the army he directed, the paramilitaries he supported, and the nationalist ideology that he promulgated.

The revisionists aren’t engaged in such an honest appraisal. They are engaged in a whitewash.

Edward S. Herman, Professor Emeritus of Finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, is the author of many books on economics, foreign policy, and the media, including Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis (with Philip Hammond, eds., Pluto, 2000). John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.