19 February 2008

Bosnia, 1998: A Colony Once Again

From History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s, by Timothy Garton Ash (Vintage, 1999), pp. 337-339:
My Sarajevan friends are delighted with the ten thousand foreigners living there, and the nine billion dollars being spent on the country every year. They tell me that Sarajevo has actually never in its history been so genuinely cosmopolitan. The new cafés are pulsating. Increasingly, the Office of the High Representative, headed by the Spanish diplomat Carlos Westendorp, rules like a colonial administration. It's tempting to say that Bosnia-Herzegovina has again become an Austro-Hungarian protectorate, as it was after the Congress of Berlin, with the Americans as the Austrian Habsburgs and we Western Europeans as the Hungarian junior partner (although picking up most of the bill). But it's not a real protectorate. Rather, it's a bizarre novelty in international relations. We have had protectorates before. We have had partitions before. This is half protectorate, half partition.

The official ideology of all Western agencies in Bosnia is that the unitary state is being pulled together again. It's just taking rather a long time. Alas, I don't think this is true. I fear all the king's horses and all the king's men will not put Humpty-Dumpty together again. But final partition would be an even less acceptable option. For the Bosniaks to have a serious, viable state, you would need to give them at least part of the western half of the "Serb Republic." That would almost certainly mean more bloodshed and tens of thousands more people driven from their homes. If, on the other hand, you allowed the Serb- and Croat-run parts to secede as they are, you would be left with a landlocked rump Bosniak state. Bosniaks warn that this could turn their people into muslim-fundamentalist nationalists. The result would be a "Gaza strip in the middle of Europe."

In fact, the Bosniaks hold the conscience of the West in a powerful moral half nelson. In effect, they say, "We are the Jews of the Balkans and the Palestinians of the Balkans!" The Jews, because no people in Europe has suffered something as close to genocide since the Jews in the Holocaust. So how could we abandon them? The Palestinians, for the reasons already given. I very much doubt that a rump Bosnia would actually become a muslim-fundamentalist state. But in a sense this doesn't matter. Earlier this autumn, the former German defense minister Volker Rühe told me that the deepest issue in Bosnia and Kosovo was "whether the West sees a place for Islam in Europe." Powerful Islamic countries agree. Faced with these complementary perceptions of the powerful, the local truth is largely irrelevant.

So, in some parts of former Yugoslavia, violent separation has already happened. In Kosovo, there remains a difficult but still Humvee-navigable dirt road to peaceful separation. That road we should take. Elsewhere, in Bosnia, but in a different way also in Macedonia, I see no morally acceptable alternative to a direct Western involvement lasting many years, probably decades. Even if, intellectually, we will the end of separation, we cannot will the means.

But why on earth should Americans be the new Habsburgs ? Why should American diplomats enter the twenty-first century trying to solve problems left over from the dissolution of the Ottoman empire at the end of the nineteenth? Why should sons of Kansas and daughters of Ohio risk their lives in these perilous, snow-covered mountains ("What do you need? Plastic?") to stop Europeans fighting over obscure patches of territory? After all, the great-grandparents of some of these Americans probably fled these very mountains to escape just these insoluble squabbles.

The vital national interest is indeed hard to see. The new catchall bogey of "regional instability" hardly compares with the old fear of the Soviet Union getting the upper hand in the cold war. But empires—especially informal, liberal empires—are like that. You muddle in; then somehow you can't quite muddle out. Somalia could never apply the moral half nelson that Bosnia has. For the Balkans, this has been a decade of Western bluster. First, we had the Western bluster of intervention. Now we have the Western bluster of withdrawal. I don't believe this bluster either. I think the sons of Kansas and the daughters of Ohio will be here for a good long time.

"Take up the White Man's burden," Rudyard Kipling wrote a hundred years ago, welcoming the United States's willingness, in the Philippines, "To wait in heavy harness / On fluttered folk and wild." There, and elsewhere, he prophesied, Americans would reap only "The blame of those ye better, / The hate of those ye guard." Today, some of the finest white men are, of course, black. And the local savages are Europeans.

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