The democratic order that has reigned in Western Europe since World War II, and that has since expanded to include the Iberian Peninsula, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, owes its existence to our wartime alliance with one of the most murderous totalitarian regimes in human history. It was Stalin’s Soviet Union, heavily supported militarily and economically by the US and Britain, that bore the brunt of the fighting that destroyed Hitler’s Third Reich, thereby enabling the liberation of Western Europe from Nazism. In the cause of this war-effort, Allied leaders Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt befriended Stalin and hobnobbed with him; their medias extolled the virtues of his regime. It was not a pretty thing to do, as Stalin’s Western-backed forces carried out genocidal crimes of their own against Chechens, Crimean Tartars and other Soviet subject nationalities during and after the war. It defeated one mortal enemy of the democratic world, only to raise another in its place; one that took nearly another half-century to bring down. Yet history has generally looked favourably upon our wartime alliance with Stalin, as one born of necessity.
In the sixty-six years that have followed the defeat of Hitler, the dilemma has been posed again and again, as successive Western leaders have felt compelled to ally with one monster to contain or defeat another. Nixon brokered a rapprochement with Mao Zedong’s China so as better to contain the Soviet Union. Henry Scoop Jackson quashed a Congressional motion directed against Marcelo Caetano’s Portuguese dictatorship as the price for the use of a base in Portugal’s Azores Islands to transport military supplies to Israel during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Margaret Thatcher enjoyed crucial support from Chile’s Augusto Pinochet during the Falklands War of 1982 against Argentina’s Galtieri dictatorship.
These dealings with dictators often burn the hands of the Western statesmen who engage in them, or return to haunt them.The US tilted in favour of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against Khomenei’s Iran during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s; Donald Rumsfeld’s handshake with the Iraqi tyrant during his 1983 visit to Baghdad was widely publicised by his enemies during the 2000s. The US’s alliance with Islam Karimov’s Uzbekistan collapsed following US criticism of Karimov’s massacre of protesters at Andijan in 2005. Most recently, Tony Blair’s dealings with the now-embattled Muammar Gaddafi are being loudly trumpeted by his critics, despite the benefits they brought to Britain and the US in the War on Terror.
Those ready to condemn Blair over Gaddafi should ask themselves whether they would equally have condemned Churchill for his support for Stalin in the 1940s. Or whether Britain was wrong to go to the aid of Ioannis Metaxas’s fascist dictatorship in Greece, when it was attacked by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy in 1940. Or whether we would have done better to have left undemocratic Kuwait to Saddam Hussein in 1990. The reality is that, so long as the world is largely made up of tyrannical regimes, the West will be forced to collaborate with some of them. The alternative would be for the US and Britain to abandon foreign policy altogether and become like Switzerland or Sweden. Nobody should need pointing out that it was the US and Britain, not Switzerland or Sweden, that defeated first Nazi Germany, then the Soviet Union.
There is, however, no getting away from the fact that collaboration with dictatorships is discrediting and morally corrupting for the Western statesmen who engage in it. It may be imposed by necessity, but it should not be chosen by preference. Nor do such alliances work well in the long run. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab tyrannies may be long-standing allies of the US, but it was they that spawned al-Qaeda – led by the Saudi Osama bin Laden and the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. Pakistan, with its dysfunctional parliamentary system and history of periodic military rule, may be a traditional US ally, but its weakness in the face of Islamic extremism and the collusion of parts of its security forces with the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan makes it a much graver security risk for the West today than traditionally pro-Moscow but stable democratic India.
Conversely, though the US may have prickly relations with some of the world’s democratic states, most notably in Latin America, these states do not pose any major security risk. Hostile president Daniel Ortega of democratic Nigaragua may cause annoyance with his support for Russia’s dismemberment of Georgia, but this cannot be compared with the security threat posed by some of our own ‘allies’. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez may be more of a threat, with his collaboration with Russia and Iran, but he is the exception that proves the rule, since he is an authoritarian demagogue who has eroded Venezuelan democracy since coming to power. Even so, it is not Venezuela, any more than Brazil or Argentina, that is generating a global jihad directed against the West. Authoritarian Latin America did generate radical anti-Western movements (or radical movements perceived as anti-Western), from Fidel Castro’s 26 July Movement to FARC, the Shining Path and the Sandinistas; the region has ceased to do so as it has democratised. And at the end of the day, we can live with the hostility of an Ortega or even a Chavez, but God save us from allies such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan !
The current upheavals in the Arab world have been variously described in terms of the fall of America’s Middle Eastern empire, or the revival of Arab self-determination. Yet ‘empire’ – if that is indeed what the US exercises in the region – is a burden not a privilege, and should be relinquished just as a soon as there are Arab democracies capable of assuming responsibility for the region, even if we do not always agree with how they do it. Nor should Israel fear this change; it was dictatorships that attacked it in 1973, as it was a dictatorship that attacked our Falkland Islands in 1982. Today, democratic Argentina pursues its dispute over our ownership of the islands by peaceful means. Israel’s best chance for permanent security lies in the democratisation of the region – even if a democratic Egypt proves to be at times less straightforward to deal with than was Mubarak’s dictatorship.
Better hostile democracies than friendly dictatorships. Yet Arab democracies do not have to be hostile. We would do well to assist the Arab struggle against the ancien regime as best we can, so as best to ensure good relations with the Arab leaders who will emerge from this struggle. In Libya, this means doing our best to hasten the complete defeat of Gaddafi’s already moribund tyranny and restricting its ability to slaughter its own citizens, through the imposition of a no-fly zone. We cannot ensure that the battle for democracy in the Arab world will be won, but we can stop fearing its victory. For its victory would represent for us a burden lifted, not privileges lost.
This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.
Review of Savo Heleta, Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia, AMACOM, New York, 2008
It is a truism that there were victims among all national groups in Bosnia-Hercegovina during the war of 1992-95. Though Serb forces were guilty of most of the killing and persecution during the war, and Bosniaks made up the great majority of its civilian victims, yet Serb civilians, too, were victims at the hands of Bosnian and Croat forces. It should not need saying that their suffering was no less real or worthy of recognition than that of other Bosnians. Unfortunately, all too often, accounts of Serb suffering have been instrumentalised by propagandists for the Great Serbian cause, who will for example, highlight the killing of Serb civilians by the Bosnian Army at Kravica in January 1993 and in virtually the same breath deny the Srebrenica massacre. Such abuse of victimhood adds to the sensitivity with which any discussion of Bosniak atrocities against Serbs must be treated. In these circumstances, eyewitness accounts of such atrocities by enlightened Serb witnesses are particularly valuable.
In Savo Heleta’s book Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia, we have one such eyewitness. Heleta has provided a gripping, harrowing account of his family’s suffering in wartime Gorazde. He describes the intimidation, murder attempts, vandalism of property and other abuses to which he, his family and other Serb civilians were subjected at the hands of local Bosniak thugs, as well as lengthy arbitrary incarceration without food, dismissal from employment, humiliating forced labour such as street-sweeping, and enforced virtual starvation at the hands of the authorities. Some Serbs fared worse, and were beaten or murdered. In the words, of Heleta’s father, as quoted here: ‘Everyone in this city is suffering, but we are also seen by Muslims as the enemy. Muslim extremists, hit squads, and even the police and government officials have threatened to kill us. The only reason we are oppressed is because we are Serbs. Many innocent people have already been killed just because they were Serbs and remained in their homes.’
Yet Heleta also describes the support and kindness extended to his family by Bosniak neighbours and friends, including the provision of food and shelter that may have saved their lives; he does not portray the persecution as the work of Bosniaks in general. The official persecution of Serb civilians he attributes to segments of the Bosnian authorities, including the city mayor and senior police officials, but mentions that other Bosnian officials, including senior army officers, disagreed with the persecution and tried to stop it, or intervened to protect Serbs. There is much nuance in this account, though this should not be allowed to overshadow the suffering to which the Heleta family and other Serb civilians were subjected. In one graphic passage, he describres the impression created when his parents, emaciated after months of semi-starvation and abuse, swam in the River Drina: ‘When they took off their clothes, the entire beach turned toward us and stared at them. People whispered in disbelief, asking if anyone knew who the two skeletons were.’
Heleta does not shy away from describing the wider context of the persecution of the Serbs: the Serb shelling and sniper attacks on the town; the arrival of large numbers of Bosniak refugees who had been expelled from their homes elsewhere in the region by Serb forces; and the fear that the town would be overrun by the Serb army, as all other Bosnian towns in the region were. He describes how, in response to NATO airstrikes against Serb forces in the spring of 1994, ‘the Serbian forces, incensed by the NATO attack, went on to brutally and indiscriminately bomb the city.’ And elsewhere: ‘The Serbian snipers often shot at everyone – women, children, and old people – even though they were located on the hilltops not far fromt he city center and could probably distinguish between civilians and soldiers. I saw with my own eyes old women getting shot while scurrying across the street with water canisters in their hands.’ Faced with this existential threat, some Bosniaks looked upon Gorazde’s Serbs as spies or as the enemy within, though as the Serbs often pleaded, they were not responsible for the Serb assaults and were themselves at risk from Serb shelling. The agony of the Gorazde Serbs, caught between a rock and a hard place, is starkly portrayed by Heleta.
Tragically, it was the very Serb civilians who stayed in Gorazde and endured the Serbian assault alongside their Bosniak neighbours who were inevitably likely to end up most wholly alienated from their once multiethnic town. As Heleta relates: ‘After thugs and the police had terrorized my family so many times over the course of the previous months, I didn’t feel I was living in the same city. I no longer felt safe anywhere. I didn’t know most of the people in my neighbourhood anymore. Most of them were refugees. Those people I did know I didn’t feel like I knew anymore. I knew many of them hated my family. They lied that my parents were spies, that they should be killed. Some talked about this even in front of us. I started seeing my city and the majority of the people in it in a different light than before the war. They were now a source of degradation, forcing me to lose all connections to the world outside my circle of family and close friends.’
Though the narrator generally comes across as a sympathetic individual in difficult times, he is not uncritical of himself; he confesses that his anger at his family’s wartime treatment drove him, among other things, to throw rocks at Bosniak cars that drove between Gorazde and Sarajevo after the war, sometimes smashing windscreens and windows: ‘It hardly crossed my mind at the time that perhaps those people in the buses and trucks had not done anything bad to my family. Some of them could even have been those who had helped us. Maybe even the man who gave us his last loaf of bread. I was completely blinded by fury.’ This book is valuable reading for anyone wishing to understand how a multiethnic society can be pulverised by war; it was not simply a question of the authorities destroying multiethnic coexistence from above, but of ordinary people – Serbs and Bosniaks alike – responding to suffering and injustice at the hands of officials or thugs from the opposing side by adopting a generalised hostility to the entire other nationality.
Unlike nationalist Serbs who responded to the Bosnian war by embracing the crackpot politics of genocide-denial and anti-Western conspiracy theory, Heleta has, to his credit, spoken out against instances of persecution and injustice in other parts of the world in the years since his ordeal. I do not agree with all of his politics, but he has, in his blog and elsewhere, genuinely attempted to be consistent in his condemnations of killing and human rights abuses, and has spoken out against the regimes in Iran, Zimbabwe and Sudan – and in particular over Darfur – while being strongly critical of US and Israeli policy as well. If he has a weak spot, it is in his readiness somewhat to gloss over Serbian wrongdoing; his book makes no mention of Serbia’s role in engineering the Bosnian war, which he blames vaguely on ‘nationalist politicians’ and ‘bad leadership’. He also rather unfortunately describes the Nazi-collaborationist Chetniks of World War II as having ‘fought against the Nazis’.
On his blog, Heleta downplays the killing of Kosova Albanians by Serbian forces in the late 1990s, and complains of the fact that the Western alliance intervened in Kosova but not in Darfur: ‘Western governments are eager and ready to send troops, equipment, aid, and money to stop conflicts in Europe, while conflicts in Africa are ignored. They have done this in the case of Bosnia in the early 1990s, while ignoring the Rwandan genocide in 1994. They are doing this again in Kosovo since 1999, while ignoring the Darfur conflict and suffering of millions since 2003. Whether it is due to skin color, geographic location, natural resources, or effective lobbying, it seems that some people do matter more than others.’ Critics of Western policy are often fond of making this sort of point, though it begs the questions: Should the West intervene neither in Kosova nor in Darfur, or should it intervene in both ? And if it intervenes to stop the persecution only in one place and not the other, is this not better than intervening in neither ? The answer one gives to these questions reveals if one is genuinely opposed to persecution and injustice, or whether one is merely exploiting it opportunistically to score points against the West. I believe that Heleta is sincerely opposed to injustice, but there are a couple of wrinkles in his political ethics that he needs to address. But this does not detract from the value of his moving memoir.
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