The media frenzy surrounding the arrest of the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic on July 21 was based entirely on the doctrine of nonequivalence inaugurated in 1992: Serb crimes are bad and justly exaggerated; Muslim crimes are understandable. This doctrine was spectacularly reiterated a month before Karadzic’s capture, when the Muslim wartime commander of Srebrenica, Nasir Oric, was found not guilty by The Hague Tribunal of any responsibility for the killing of thousands of Serb civilians by the forces under his command in the three years before the fall of the enclave in July 1995.
The imbalance is more than unfair. The talking heads gloating over Karadzic’s capture have no need to suppress the thought that different U.S. policies could have prevented the horror of “Bosnia,” because no such thought ever occurs to them.
Over the past two centuries Balkan lands have been bargaining chips for alliance construction. The Bosnian war of 1992-95 was the most destructive segment of the War of Yugoslav Dissolution that began when the Yugoslav republics of Slovenia and Croatia seceded in the summer of 1991. With no ethnic majority and no “Bosnian” nation, the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina had the most to fear from violent secession. And with a reunited Germany committed to the recognition of Croatia and Slovenia, the Muslim leadership in Sarajevo knew both that the old Yugoslavia was dead and that historic opportunities beckoned.
Of the three constituent peoples of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Muslims had the plurality of 43 percent. Most of them were prepared to accept a compromise—especially if full independence risked war—but they nervously followed their implacably Islamist leaders in the Party of Democratic Action, who demanded a leap in the dark.
The Croats were the least numerous (17 percent), but they were the most determined to get Bosnia out of Yugoslavia, and then to break away from Bosnia with the support of Croatia. In 1992 they forged a tactical alliance with the Muslims to get the independence vote but clearly saw their interests in an extended Croatia.
The Serbs of Bosnia overwhelmingly refused to be ejected from Yugoslavia. Radovan Karadzic and other leaders of the Serbian Democratic Party rejected the referendum on sovereignty in February 1992 as it was held in violation of the constitutional right of each of Bosnia’s three peoples to veto any decision unacceptable to its vital interests. Karadzic warned repeatedly that there was never any prospect that Bosnia could be taken out of Yugoslavia, regardless of the Serbs’ objections, without a war.
President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, however, played the Bosnian crisis primarily as a means of consolidating his power without committing himself to any clearly defined strategic objective, such as a “Greater Serbia.” By contrast, President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia did not shed Marxist crocodile tears at the passing of the old Titoist certainties. Unlike Milosevic, he was a true nationalist. In April 1992 he brought Croatian troops into western Herzegovina just as Milosevic withdrew the Yugoslav National Army from Bosnia.
When the Bosnian Serbs took control of the Serb-majority areas and connecting corridors in 1992, they were well equipped. But the numerical advantage lay with the Muslims, who hoped to win in the end with international help. Karadzic never understood that this was, indeed, Bosnia and Herzegovina President Alija Izetbegovic’s grand strategy, and that time was not on the side of the Serbs.
In addition, both Karadzic and the Serbs were severely damaged by the Western media’s handling of their mistreatment of Muslim prisoners and by their expulsion of non-Serb civilians in the summer of 1992. Similar atrocities by Croats and Muslims against Serbs and against each other, while no less common, were less conspicuous and deemed unworthy of attention.
Of several peace plans offered or mediated by the Europeans, Karadzic was under particular pressure—especially from Belgrade—to accept the Vance-Owen plan (May 1993), which would have divided Bosnia into ten “cantons.” After Karadzic signed off, it was rejected by the Republika Srpska national assembly. Only months later Muslims rejected the Owen-Stoltenberg plan (December 1993), which provided for a confederal model of three sovereign national entities. A vague yet “nonnegotiable” plan presented by the “Contact Group” in 1994 was refused by the Serbs. It was quietly discarded in early 1995, by which time the Clinton administration decided to intervene directly on the Muslim side.
The media call for intervention made the Bosnian war the subject of international debate to an extent unknown since Vietnam. Many Europeans were inclined to support a compromise peace, a federalized Bosnia, and a real arms embargo; whereas the United States disliked European peace plans, broke the arms embargo starting in late 1993, and overtly supported the Muslims.
In 1992-93 Karadzic made a fundamental miscalculation that rendered the war unwinnable for the Serbs. Ever obsessed with maps, square miles, and territorial percentages to the detriment of strategic planning, he sat on his advantages and hoped that in the fullness of time the world would recognize the Serbs’ apparent victory. His oft-repeated saying—“We don’t want to defeat them, we want to separate from them”—was absurd: The latter could not be secured without the former.
Karadzic failed to grasp the tectonic shift that took place in January 1994, when the United States sponsored a Croat-Muslim alliance and the Europeans realized that there would be no settlement unless they surrendered political leadership to Washington. This new stage was inaugurated in February 1994, when a mortar shell fell on the crowded Markale market in Sarajevo. The Serbs were duly blamed, and evidence that the shell could not have been fired from Serbian lines surfaced too late to affect the subsequent crisis.
From this point the war became a matter of Muslim attempts to exploit the U.N. “safe areas”—in Sarajevo, Gorazde, Tuzla, Bihac, and Srebrenica—which had never been demilitarized. Muslims were allowed to attack out of these areas, but Serbs were not allowed to pursue them back in. From spring 1994 on, the Muslims could no longer lose the war, which, in view of their weak starting position, was tantamount to winning it.
By early 1995 Karadzic was no longer a player in the big game. In Washington, Bosnia was seen as an opportunity to transform NATO from a purely defensive alliance into an “out-of-area” enforcement agency, thus paving the way for the Kosovo intervention four years later. Russia was a constant source of disappointment for Karadzic. Often puzzled by Moscow’s supine posture, he kept hoping that it would “shake itself up.” Yet Yeltsin’s Russia was weak, eager to appease the West, and reluctant to exert herself in the Balkans. Russia was slow to grasp that Washington wanted a peace settlement based on the defeat of the Serbs. By 1995, informed Russian opinion reflected alarm at the direction events were taking, but it was too late, and too difficult, for Yeltsin to devise a new policy.
In the summer of 1995 London and Paris reluctantly agreed to allow NATO to bomb the Serbs, while the United States reluctantly accepted the sort of settlement the Europeans had wanted in 1992-93. But the bombing of the Bosnian Serb army in August 1995, which appeared to end the war, was less important militarily than the entry of the Croatian army into Bosnia, now trained and extensively reequipped by the United States. Even this Croatian intervention was only possible because the Yugoslav army refused to intervene to save its clients west of the Drina. The war ended because Milosevic wanted it to end.
The war transformed NATO and renewed American leadership in Europe to an extent not seen since Kennedy. It established that America wanted to be indispensable in the process of European reorganization after 1989. Richard Holbrooke, the chief U.S. negotiator in 1995, boasted a year later: “We are re-engaged in the world, and Bosnia was the test.” By “we,” he meant the United States, not “the West” or the “international community.” Indeed, no nation-state started and finished the Bosnian story as a political actor with an unchanged diplomatic personality. Each great power became a forum for the global debate for and against intervention, the debate for and against a certain kind of NATO, and an associated media-led international political process. The interventionists prevailed then, and their narrative dominates the public commentary on Karadzic’s arrest now.
Far from bringing the Bosnian episode to a close, Karadzic’s transfer to The Hague raises an old question that remains unanswered by the interventionists: If the old Yugoslavia merely collapsed under the weight of the supposedly insurmountable differences among its constituent nations, how can Bosnia—the Yugoslav microcosm par excellence—develop and sustain the dynamics of a viable polity? For an answer, we will have to wait for the outside powers to lose interest in upholding the constitutional edifice made in Dayton.
As for the specific charges against Karadzic, we need not hypothesize a pre-war “joint criminal enterprise” of ethnic cleansing and murder to explain the events of 1992-95. The crimes that followed were not the direct result of anyone’s nationalist project. These crimes, as Susan Woodward notes, “were the results of the wars and their particular characteristics, not the causes.”
By recognizing an independent Bosnia, the “international community” made loyalty to Yugoslavia look like a conspiratorial disloyalty to “Bosnia”—after all, if there is a “Bosnia,” there must be a nation of “Bosnians.” In 1943-44 Tito was able to force the Anglo-Americans to pretend that his struggle was not communist revolution. In 1992-95 Izetbegovic forced the West to pretend that his jihad was the defense of “multiethnicity.” Then as now, great powers pay a fee for entering the Balkan casino: They must exchange the truth for someone’s story.
Radovan Karadzic will be duly convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, and he will not come out of jail alive. The verdict is already written. And yet the conclusion of this episode reflects a fundamental imbalance. It ignores the essence of the Bosnian war—the Serbs’ striving not to be forced into secession—while remaining mute about the culpability of the other two sides for a series of unconstitutional, illegitimate, and illegal political decisions that caused the war.
The judgment against Karadzic at the U.S.-sponsored and largely U.S.-funded tribunal at The Hague will be built on this flawed foundation. It will be neither fair nor just, so it will be detrimental to what America should stand for in the world. It will also give further credence to the myth of Muslim victimhood, Serb viciousness, and Western indifference, and therefore weaken our resolve in the global struggle euphemistically known as the “War on Terror.”