Karadzic’s Arrest: Bosnian Myths Rehashed

Karadzic’s Arrest: Bosnian Myths Rehashed by • July 22, 2008 • Printer-friendly

The spirit of the media frenzy surrounding the arrest of the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic on July 21 is based entirely on the doctrine of non-equivalence inaugurated in 1992: Serbs willed the war, Muslims wanted peace; 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. It is also apparent today, in the endless media repetition of Karadzic’s alleged bellicose intransigence before and during the Bosnian war.


The imbalance is more than merely unfair. The talking heads gloating over Karadzic’s capture no longer need to suppress the thought that different U.S. policies could have prevented the horror of “Bosnia,” because no such thought—however pertinent in this case—ever occurs to them. Yet the fact remains that in the spring of 1992 the late Warren Zimmermann, the last U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia before its breakup and civil war, materially contributed—probably more than any other single man—to the outbreak of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The facts of the case have been established beyond reasonable doubt and are no longer dosputed by experts.

Nine months earlier, in June 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, a move that triggered off a short war in Slovenia and a sustained conflict in Croatia where the Serbs refused to accept Tudjman’s fait accompli. These events had profound consequences on Bosnia and Herzegovina, that “Yugoslavia in miniature.” The Serbs (34%) adamantly opposed the idea of Bosnian independence. The Croats (17%) predictably rejected any suggestion that Bosnia and Herzegovina remains within a Serb-dominated rump Yugoslavia.

Alija Izetbegovic, the leader of the Muslim community (43%), had decided as early as September 1990 that Bosnia should also declare independence if Slovenia and Croatia secede. On 27 February 1991 he went a step further: “I would sacrifice peace for a sovereign Bosnia-Herzegovina, but for that peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina I would not sacrifice sovereignty.” The process culminated with the referendum on independence (29 February 1992). The Serbs duly boycotted it. In the end just over 62 percent of voters opted for independence, overwhelmingly Muslims and Croats; but even this figure was short of the two-thirds majority required by the constitution. This did not stop the rump government of Izetbegovic from declaring independence on 3 March.

Simultaneously one last attempt was under way to save peace. The Portuguese foreign minister Jose Cutileiro organized a conference in Lisbon attended by the three communities’ leaders, Izetbegovic, Radovan Karadzic, and the Croat leader Mate Boban. The EU mediators persuaded the three sides that Bosnia-Herzegovina should be independent but internally organized on the basis of ethnic regions or “cantons.”

The breakthrough was due to the Bosnian Serbs’ acceptance of an independent Bosnia, provided that the Muslims give up their ambition of a centralized, unitary one. Izetbegovic appeared to accept that this was the best deal he could make—but soon he was to change his mind. When he returned from Lisbon, Zimmermann flew post haste from Belgrade to Sarajevo to tell him that the U.S. did not stand behind the Cutileiro plan. He said it was a means to “a Serbian power grab” that could be prevented by internationalizing the problem. When Izetbegovic said that he did not like the Lisbon agreement, Zimmerrmann encouraged him to renege. State Department subsequently admitted that the US policy “was to encourage Izetbegovic to break with the partition plan.” The New York Times (August 29, 1993) brought a revealing quote from the key player himself:

The embassy [in Belgrade] was for recognition of Bosnia and Herzegovina from sometime in February on,” Mr. Zimmermann said of his policy recommendation from Belgrade. “Meaning me.” … Immediately after Mr. Izetbegovic returned from Lisbon, Mr. Zimmermann called on him in Sarajevo… “He said he didn’t like it; I told him, if he didn’t like it, why sign it?”

After that moment Izetbegovic had no motive to take the ongoing EC-brokered talks seriously., just as the Albanians had no motive to negotiate with Belgrade in 2007, after President Bush declared in Tirana that it would become independent. After his encounter with Zimmermann Izetbegovic felt authorized to renege on tripartite accord, and he knew that the U.S. administration would come to his assistance to enforce the independence of a unitary Bosnian state.

The motives of Zimmermann and his political bosses in Washington were not rooted in the concern for the Muslims of Bosnia as such, or indeed any higher moral principle. Their policy had no basis in the law of nations, or in the notions of truth or justice. It was the end-result of the interaction of pressure groups within the American power structure: Saudis and other Muslims, neocons, Turks, One-World Nation Builders, Russophobes… all had their field day. Thus the war in the Balkans evolved from a Yugoslav disaster and a European inconvenience into a major test of “U.S. leadership.” This was made possible by a bogus consensus which passed for Europe’s Balkan policy. This consensus, amplified in the media, limited the scope for meningful debate.

Zimmermann’s ploy heralded a virulently anti-Serb, agenda-driven form of Realpolitik that was to dominate America’s Bosnian policy. Just as Germany sought to paint its Maastricht Diktat on Croatia’s recognition in December 1991 as an expression of the “European consensus,” after Zimmermann’s intervention in Sarajevo Washington’s fait accomplis were straightfacedly labeled as “the will of the international community.” Europe was resentful but helpless when the United States resorted to covert action to smuggle arms into Croatia and Bosnia in violation of U.N. resolutions. Zimmermann’s torpedoing of the EU Lisbon formula in 1992 started a trend that frustrated the Europeans, but they were helpless.

Cutileiro was embittered by the US action and accused Izetbegovic of reneging on the agreement. Had the Muslims not done so, he recalled in 1995, “the Bosnian question might have been settled earlier, with less loss of life and land.” Cutileiro also noted that the decision to renege on the signed agreement was not only Izetbegovic’s, as he was encouraged to scupper that deal and to fight for a unitary Bosnian state by foreign mediators.”


Over the past two centuries Balkan lands were bargaining chips for alliance construction. The Bosnian war of 1992-95 confirmed this trend. It 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, of all six republics of the old Yugoslav federation the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina had most to fear from violent secession. Yet once reunited Germany was 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.

At the outset of the present crisis most inhabitants of Bosnia-Herzegovina did not want to become “Bosnians” in any political sense; but they were unaware of the extent to which their future depended on events beyond their republic’s boundaries. The ruling League of Communists of Yugoslavia literally disintegrated in the first months of 1990, setting the stage for multi-party elections in all six federal republics. The resulting power vacuum was felt in Bosnia-Herzegovina more keenly than in other republics because the Party rule there was more rigidly doctrinaire than in other federal units. When the first multi-party election since 1938 finally took place in November 1990, the voters overwhelmingly acted in accordance with their ethnic loyalties that proved more enduring than any ideological differences between them.

The weakness or even non-existence of non-nationalist opposition to the old communist establishment was at least partly due to the deliberate Western policy of appeasement of Tito’s dictatorship following his break with Moscow in 1948. Contrary to the situation in Poland (“Solidarity”) or Czechoslovakia (“Charter 77”), in Tito’s lifetime and even in the decade following his death in 1980 there had been no serious attempt by the United States to develop or cultivate alternative political teams in Yugoslavia among the narrow stratum of the intellectual establishment which could have been considered friendly to “Western democracy.” In accordance with the Kennan Doctrine, Tito’s dictatorship enjoyed America’s cheque blanche to do as it pleased domestically, for as long as it shunned full rapprochement with Moscow.

When the system unravelled the Muslims were the first to organize, founding their Stranka Demokratske Akcije, SDA (Party of Democratic Action) in March 1990. The Croats followed two months later with the creation of Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica Bosne i Hercegovine—HDZ BiH (Croatian Democratic Union); in reality theirs was but a local subsidiary of the retired YPA General Franjo Tudjman’s HDZ in Zagreb. Finally, in July the Serbs established the Srpska Demokratska Stranka Bosne i Hercegovine, SDS (Serb Democratic Party of Bosnia-Herzegovina). The pattern of the Muslims and Croats acting proactively, and the Serbs reacting, was thus established very early on.

When the Bosnian election results were tallied, they effectively read like a census plain and simple. The overwhelming share of the vote—80 percent—went to the three parties that had grounded their appeal in the ethnic-national identity and issues. In the National Assembly of 240 seats (Chamber of Citizens and Chamber of Municipalities), the SDA won 86 seats, the SDS took 72 seats, and the HDZ 44. The three winning parties soon reached a power-sharing agreement. Although the maverick businessman-politician Fikret Abdic from the region of Velika Kladusa polled more votes, due to the constitutional vagaries of the late-Yugoslav Bosnia Alija Izetbegović was elected President of a seven-member multi-ethnic rotating presidency. The prime ministry of the Republic went to the HDZ, and the presidency of the Assembly to the SDS.

The tripartite coalition agreement was applicable not only to the distribution of posts at the level of the Republic, but also at the regional and municipal level. The ruling SDA-SDS-HDZ coalition, contrary to some dark predictions by the defeated communists, started functioning without major difficulties in the early months of the new regime. The notion of such cooperation was counter-intuitive to the outside observers of the Bosnian scene, but it made perfect sense in the context of the common desire by all three groups to purge the body-politic of the decades-long layers of communist lies and distortions.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1990 three tiers of government authority were in existence, those of the Republic itself, of the regions, and of municipalities. Depending on the level of participation among the coalition partners, the distribution of political power was accordingly carried out at all levels. The apparent ability of the three “nationalist” parties to cooperate in the immediate aftermath of the election was based on one thing they all had in common: the desire to break free from the Titoist straightjacket. During Tito’s lifetime the three constituent nations of Bosnia-Herzegovina found themselves under steady pressure to “Bosnify” their identities. (Bosnian Serb writing, to take a little known but drastic example, was not to be classed as Serbian literature but as Bosnian literature.)

The SDA, the HDZ, and the SDS, all sought to recreate long-established identities, to represent real, traditional national diversity as against a new, synthetic (“modern”) composite identity. This was a blast of fresh air; it was not the precursor of war as one can see from the simple fact of amicable co-operation. It was, in any case, a natural response to the decay of communist authority. But the SDS were in no sense “anti-Yugoslav” in the political sense: what they were against was the communist cultivation of false nationality (“Yugoslav,” “Bosnian”), as against the spontaneous, natural identities of the historic nationalities of Yugoslavia.

Had Yugoslavia not been breaking up in 1991-92, this emphasis on traditional identities would have passed as a perfectly natural democratic readjustment to reality. The “Left Bloc” was finished, defeated even in the municipality of Prijedor where it confidently expected to be victorious thanks to the area’s “Partisan” tradition and strong “Yugoslav” spirit. The old CPY apparat was simply irrelevant: the pampered friends and clients of the old bureaucracy, who could not explain why their version of Yugoslavia had needed a police state to keep together. The truth is that there was no internal, Bosnian threat to peace at the beginning of 1991: when it came the threat was from outside. The SDS and the SDA were not simply in coalition: they were natural allies while Bosnia remained at peace, although they would become just as natural enemies if Yugoslavia fell apart.


Karadzic headed the party representing the Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and they wanted, overwhelmingly, to preserve the status quo. Since they had no desire for the destruction of Yugoslavia, they were forced into reactive posture vis-à-vis those who willed the Federation’s disintegration. It is important to dispose of the idea that the Serbs of Bosnia in 1991 were simply fanaticized by Belgrade propaganda: they were still gasping for air after the Titoist era and composing a revisionist history of ethnic civil war and Serbian suffering, a history which may have contained new exaggerations, but which corrected the evasions and lies in the old story.

At the outset of the last Yugoslav crisis, the Serbs’ basic argument—even if seldom stated with simplicity and coherence—was clear when freed from rhetoric: they had lived in one state since 1918, when Yugoslavia came into being. They reluctantly accepted Tito’s arbitrarily determined internal boundaries between the six federal republics—which left one third of them outside Serbia-proper—on the grounds that the Yugoslav framework afforded them a measure of security from the repetition of the nightmare of 1941-1945; but they could not swallow an illegal ruse that aimed to turn them into minorities, overnight and by unconstitutional means, in their own land.

Even without the vividly remembered trauma of the Second World War, they reacted in 1991-1992 just as the Anglophone citizens of Texas or Arizona might do if they are outvoted, one day, in a referendum demanding those states’ incorporation into Mexico. They demanded the right that the territories, which the Serbs have inhabited as compact majorities long before the voyage of the Mayflower, not be subjected to the rule of their rivals. In the same vein the Protestant Ulstermen demanded – and were given – the right to stay apart from united Ireland when the nationalists in Dublin opted for secession in 1921. In the same vein the state of West Virginia was created in 1863, incorporating those counties of the Commonwealth of Virginia that refused to be forced into secession. The Loyalists of Ulster and the Unionists of West Virginia were just as guilty of a “Joint Criminal Enterprise” to break up Ireland, or the Old Dominion, as were the Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina who did not want to be dragged into secession against their will.

Yugoslavia was admittedly a deeply flawed polity, and there could have been no rational objection to the striving of Croats, and even Bosnian Muslims, to create their own nation-states. But equally there could have been no justification for forcing over two million Serbs west of the Drina to be incorporated into those states against their will, and without any guarantees of their rights. Yugoslavia came together in 1918 as a union of South Slav peoples, and not of states, or territorial units. Its divorce should have been effected on the same basis; the boundaries of the republics should have been altered accordingly.

This is, and has been, the real foundation of the Yugoslav conflict ever since the first shots were fired in the summer of 1991. Even someone as unsympathetic to the Serb point of view as Lord David Owen conceded that Josip Broz Tito’s internal administrative boundaries between Yugoslavia’s republics were grossly arbitrary, and that their redrawing should have been countenanced at the time of Yugoslavia’s disintegration:

Incomprehensibly, the proposal to redraw the republics’ boundaries had been rejected by all eleven EC countries… [T]o rule out any discussion or opportunity for compromise in order to head off war was an extraordinary decision. My view has always been that to have stuck unyieldingly to the internal boundaries of the six republics within the former Yugoslavia… as being the boundaries for independent states, was a folly far greater than that of premature recognition itself.


Of the three ethnic-religious parties in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Muslim party—the SDA—was perhaps the most radical, in that it alone advocated a fundamental restructuring of the Bosnian society in accordance with divine revelation. It attempted to do so not on Bosnia’s own terms, not within the Republic’s own local paradigm, but within the terms of the global-historical process—as its leaders saw it—of the global Islamic renaissance. Many commentators in the West have been in a state of denial for years about the true nature of Alija Izetbegovic’s long-term program. To put it simply, they preferred to believe their own assurances that Izetbegovic’s blueprint is not “Islamist” but “multicultural.”

Not unlike Islamist parties elsewhere—notably the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey—the SDA had a public, “secular” front, and an inner core of Islamic cadres that remained semi-conspiratorial in the early days. This is vividly described by one of the party’s founders who had previously made a successful business career in the West, Adil Zulfikarpašić. He was appalled by the “fascist” methods of the SDA and by its “conservative, religious, populist” orientation, Adil Zulfikarpašić founded his own party, the MBO (Muslim Bosniak Organization). It fared badly in the elections of 1990 but it nevertheless left an important mark by charting the potential for a genuinely secular, “post-Islamic” political force of the Bosniaks.

In the early stages of the Bosnian crisis numerous Western reporters and commentators have claimed that the SDS sought to scare Bosnian Serbs with exaggerated and untrue claims of the militantly Islamic character of the SDA ideology and policy. It is a matter of record, however, that Izetbegovic was an advocate of Sharia law and a theorist of the Islamic Republic long before the first shots were fired. Already as a young man during World War II, Izetbegovic was a member of the Young Muslims organization (Mladi Muslimani). His was a radical Islamic political organization inspired by the teaching of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Al Husseini, who toured the German-occupied Europe preaching that the Third Reich and the Muslim world had a natural community of interests that demanded personal commitment of every able-bodied Muslim. Izetbegovic’s ideas subsequently matured into a comprehensive, programmatic statement in the Islamic Declaration (1970), the document that led to his imprisonment by the communist authorities in 1983.

The Declaration became Izetbegovic’s de facto political platform. Reprinted in Sarajevo at a key moment in 1990, it startled the public. In the language familiar to the students of militant jihad everywhere, it called for Islamic moral and religious regeneration, and for the strengthening of different types of Islamic unity—up to, and including, armed struggle for the creation of an Islamic polity in countries where Muslims represent the majority of the population.

As Izetbegovic put it,

The Islamic movement must, and can, take over power as soon as it is morally and numerically so strong that it can not only destroy the existing non-Islamic power, but also build up a new Islamic one… There is no peace or coexistence between the Islamic faith and non-Islamic social and political institutions.

This was a political program par excellence that non-Islamic groups in Bosnia could not accept; for the Serbs “it confirmed their suspicions that Izetbegović wished to transform Bosnia-Herzegovina into an Islamic state.” The author’s contempt for Western values is evident in his dismissal of the Kemalist tradition: “Turkey as an Islamic country used to rule the world. Turkey as an imitation of Europe represents a third-rate country the like of which there is a hundred in the world.” Elsewhere, he accepts the “achievements of Euro-American civilization” but only in the area of “science and technology… we shall have to accept them if we wish to survive.” In a revealing sentence, Izetbegović discusses the status of non-Muslims in countries with Muslim majorities: “The non-Muslim minorities within an Islamic state, on condition that they are loyal [emphasis added], enjoy religious freedom and all protection.” He advocates “the creation of a united Islamic community from Morocco to Indonesia.”

It should be stressed that Izetbegovic’s views are unremarkable from a traditional Islamic point of view. The final objective is Dar al Islam, where Muslims dominate and infidelssubmit. That is the meaning of Izetbegovic’s apparent generosity to the non-Muslims, “provided that they are loyal”: the non-Muslims can be “protected persons” only if they submitted to Islamic domination.

In his daily political discourse Izetbegovic behaved throughout the 1990s as a de facto nationalist, fostering narrowly-defined Bosniak (i.e., Muslim) nationalist feeling and seeking to equate the emerging “Bosniak” identity with an imaginary supra-ethnic “Bosnia.” He was juxtaposing the construct with the two traditionally Christian communities—Serbs and Croats—whose loyalties were alleged to lie elsewhere, with Belgrade and Zagreb respectively. The two sides of Izetbegovic’s personality—the deeply committed Islamist on one hand and the functional nationalist on another—were not at odds, since within his terms of reference the Bosniak ethnicity was defined by religion, the Muslim religion.

Izetbegovic should not be blamed for being what he is, nor should his followers be condemned for subscribing to his outlook: Luther would say that he and they kann nicht anders. But to have Alija Izetbegovic, with his record and his vision, as the head of a democratic, pluralist state anywhere in the world, is simply unthinkable. But for his peculiar vision to be applied in practice, Bosnia-Herzegovina had to be taken out of Yugoslavia and proclaimed independent and sovereign.


As the fateful year of 1991 approached, the Serbs would have preferred an all-Yugoslav referendum based on the principle of “one man-one vote,” with a simple question—“Yugoslavia, Yes or No?”—and with the result binding for all. While in theory this same principle should have appealed to the Western democracies, in practice the “international community” appeared to be too deeply committed to the quasi-federal Titoist framework to question the assumptions of the secessionist-minded leaders in Croatia and Slovenia—assumptions that paved the way for disintegration. The separatists preferred the model of localized, republic-by-republic elections. Once they were in power, those elections would be followed by ambiguously worded referenda on independence with de facto preordained outcomes. This strategy had little to do with “democracy,” but it proved effective in radicalizing political discourse and escalating Yugoslavia’s crisis.

In early 1990 separatist parties had already triumphed in Slovenia and Croatia. In December of that year Slobodan Milošević’s authoritarian Socialist Party of Serbia gained a convincing victory in Serbia’s elections. The media in all republics had been busy pursuing openly nationalist themes, and the politicians followed suit. In December 1990 the Slovenes voted for an “independent and sovereign state,” and within months Slovenia stopped sending conscripts to serve in the federal armed forces. That same month the Assembly of the Republic of Croatia adopted the new Constitution—the so-called Christmas Constitution—that defined the Republic of Croatia as the “nation-state of the Croatian people.” The constituent status of the Serbian people in Croatia was thus abrogated and the Serbs in Croatia were reduced to the status of a national minority.

Unlike Slovenia, however, Croatia had within its boundaries a large Serb population that resented being stripped of its status as a constituent nation. The Serbs had initially favoured the preservation of Yugoslavia, but in the light of Slovene and Croat moves towards independence they raised the issue of self-determination. This was specifically related to the question of adjusting borders between the Yugoslav federal units in such a way as to allow various Serb communities outside Serbia to remain attached to it.

Separatist republics are free to go, the Serb argument essentially went, but they should not be allowed to take areas with a Serb plurality along with them. Slovenia’s and Croatia’s declarations of independence (June 25, 1991) were accordingly followed by rather different responses. There was a short conflict in Slovenia involving the Yugoslav Army, and a sustained and much bloodier war in Croatia involving local Serbs. Inevitably these events were bound to have profound consequences on Bosnia.

Izetbegovic’s chief concern was to find a pretext for the intended separation from Yugoslavia—any Yugoslavia—and to use the Croat tactical alliance in pursuit of that goal; the day of reckoning with the HDZ could come later. The decision by Izetbegovic to treat Tudjman’s bid for independence as the cue for Bosnia’s repeat act was fateful: the moment that the SDA made it clear that it would not remain in any Yugoslavia without Croatia, war was inevitable in Bosnia. Izetbegović was willing to risk that war. In the 1990 election campaign he said that the Muslims would “defend Bosnia with arms.” In February 1991 he declared in the Assembly: “I would sacrifice peace for a sovereign Bosnia-Herzegovina, but for that peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina I would not sacrifice sovereignty.” To the Serbs this was a war cry. By May Izetbegovic went even further, saying that the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina probably could not be avoided because “for a state to be created, for a nation to be forged, it has to endure this, it is some kind of fate, destiny.” This statement echoed his Islamic fatalism.


Over the past two centuries Balkan lands were bargaining chips for alliance construction. The Bosnian war of 1992-95 confirmed this trend. It was the most destructive segment of the War of Yugoslav Dissolution. With no ethnic majority and no “Bosnian” nation, of all six republics of the old Yugoslav federation the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina had most to fear from violent secession. Yet once reunited Germany was 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.

President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, however, played the Bosnian crisis primarily as a means of consolidating his power in Serbia proper and extending his influence 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 (JNA) from Bosnia. Furthermore, in a twisted re-enactment of the chetnik-partisan divide, Milosevic had constantly sought to deepen the divide between the civilian leadership in Pale headed by Karadzic, and the military HQ at Han Pijesak led by General Ratko Mladic.

When the Bosnian Serbs took control of the Serb-majority areas and connecting corridors in 1992, they were well equipped and officered. But the numerical advantage lay with the Muslims, who hoped to win in the end with international help. Radavan Karadzic never understood that this was, indeed, Izetbegovic’s grand strategy, and that time was not on the side of the Serbs.

In addition Karadzic personally and the Serbs collectively were severely damaged by the western media 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. The Western elite class chose its sympathies at the start and kept up an agitation in favor of military intervention against the Serbs.

Of several peace plans offered or mediated by the Europeans, Karadzic was under particular pressure—especially from Milosevic in Belgrade—to accept the Vance-Owen Plan (May 1993) that would have divided Bosnia into ten “cantons.” He initialled its acceptance, but subsequently it was rejected by the Republika Srpska national assembly. Only months later Muslims rejected the Owen-Stoltenberg Plan that provided for a confederal model of three sovereign national entities (December 1993). A vague yet “non-negotiable” 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, launched in its early stage, 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 1992-1993 Karadzic made a fundamental miscalculation that made 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 fulness of time the world would recognize the Serbs’ apparent victory. His often repeated adage, “we don’t want to defeat them [Muslims], we want to separate from them,” was absurd, however: the latter could not be effected without securing the former.

Blinkered by his flawed assumptions, Karadzic failed to grasp the tectonic shift that took place in January 1994, when the U.S. 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 became available too late to affect the subsequent crisis.

From this point the war became a matter of Muslim attempts to exploit the “safe areas”—in Sarajevo, Gorazde, Tuzla, Bihac, and Srebrenica—which had been declared by the UN but never demilitarized. In short the Muslims were allowed to attack out of these areas, but the Serbs were not allowed to pursue them back in. From spring 1994 on the Muslims could no loger lose the war, which, in view of their weak starting position, was tantamount to winning it.

Once treated as a key interlocutor in London, New York, or Geneva, 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. The success of the pro-intervention lobby in the media must be seen in the context of strong support for their agitation from parts of the U.S. administration.

Russia was the source of Karadzic’s constant hopes and repeated disappointments. 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 itself in the Balkan area. Russian policy began with an almost ideological commitment to accepting Western good faith, and Russia was slow to grasp that Washington wanted a peace settlement based on the defeat of the Serbs. By 1995 informed Russian opinion was getting alarmed at the direction events were taking, but it was too late, and too difficult, for the Yeltsin presidency 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 1992-3. 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 re-equipped by the U.S. 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 of Serbia wanted it to end.

The chief outcome of the war was a transformed NATO, and the renewal of American leadership in Europe to an extent not seen since Kennedy. It established that America wanted to lead, and to be indispensable, in the process of European reorganization after 1989. Bosnia itself was not much affected by international intervention. The war took longer than it would have done and the Serbian position is more uncertain, but the settlement that followed Dayton is not unlike a plausible compromise that seemed within reach in Lisbon in April 1992.

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.” This “we” 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 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 was untenable and eventually 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? The answer will become known only when the outside powers lose their present 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” to ethnically cleanse and murder, to explain the events of 1992-5. The crimes and violations of human rights that followed were not the direct result of anyone’s nationalist project. These crime, as Susan Woodward notes, “were the results of the wars and their particular characteristics, not the causes.”

The effect of the legal intervention of the “international community” with its act of recognition was that a Yugoslav loyalty was made to look like a conspiratorial disloyalty to “Bosnia”—largely in the eyes of people who supposed ex hypothesi that if there is a “Bosnia” there must be a nation of “Bosnians.” In 1943-4 Tito was able to force the Anglo-Americans to pretend that his struggle was not communist revolution. In 1992-5 Izetbegovic forced the West to pretend that his jihad was the defense of “multi-ethnicity.” Both pretenses were absurd.

How do they do it, these Balkan political impresarios? The Hague Tribunal does not recognize the question as legitimate and therefore does not seek answers. The strange truth is that then, like now, great powers pay a fee for entering the Balkan casino. They consent to someone’s story, not “the Truth.”

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, but it 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 or just, and therefore it will be detrimental to what America should stand for in the world. It will also give further credence to the myth of Muslim blameless victimhood, Serb viciousness, and Western indifference, and therefore weaken our resolve in the global struggle euphemistically known as “war on terrorism.” The former is a crime; the latter, a mistake.

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