Michael Dobbs on Bosnia: Explaining evil or parroting cliches ?
Michael Dobbs of Foreign Policy and of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) appears upset at criticisms of his article ‘In defense of the Serbs’. He had claimed that the international community in 1991-1992 had treated the Serbs in an unfair and contradictory manner, on the grounds that ‘Croats and Muslims were given the right to secede from Yugoslavia, but Serbs did not have the right to secede from Croatia or Bosnia.’ Responding to the accusation that he thereby ‘legitimizes the aggression and genocide committed by Serbs’, Dobbs has responded that ‘to explain evil is not to justify it’.
Dobbs is simply putting forward a general principle, since he is incapable of responding to the concrete arguments. In my last response to Dobbs, I refuted his claim that the international community had treated the Serbs unfairly. I pointed out that Serbia was not treated differently from the other former-Yugoslav republics, in terms of its right to seek international recognition, and that the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia were not treated differently from minority groups in other republics (e.g. Croats in Bosnia, Bosniaks in Serbia, Albanians in Macedonia) in terms of being denied the right to secede from their respective republics. Dobbs was unable to challenge this point.
Dobbs is right that ‘to explain evil is not to justify it’. Unfortunately, he does not explain evil; he merely parrots the evil-doers’ own excuse for the evil, taking it as face value. Had he said ‘Serb nationalists opposed the international recognition of Croatia and Bosnia within their existing borders, and argued that the Serb minorities in these republics should have the right to secede from them’, then he could have reasonably claimed to be explaining the Serb nationalists’ point of view (or at least the point of view that they gave in public). But he went further than this, and effectively said that the Serb nationalists were right; that though they may have carried out the bulk of the atrocities, their view of the break-up of Yugoslavia was the correct one.
As has been suggested by bodies such as the Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada (IRGC) and Congress of North American Bosniaks (CNAB), this does not explain evil; it justifies it. Dobbs is claiming that the aggression and genocide unleashed by Serb leaders against Bosnia was merely a response – albeit an illegitimate and disproportionate one – to their legitimate grievances at the anti-Serb policy of the international community. As if the Serb leaders had not been planning or waging war and genocide prior to the international community’s recognition of Croatian and Bosnian independence in late 1991 and early 1992, and would not have embarked upon this war and genocide if the international community had not treated them unfairly.
Thus, Dobbs claims that as a result of the international recognition of Croatia and Bosnia within their existing borders, ‘The delicate ethnic balance sanctioned by the Great Powers after World War I and enforced by Marshal Tito (a Croat) in the four decades after World War II was upset.’ As if this ‘delicate ethnic balance’ had not already been ‘upset’ by Belgrade’s crushing of Kosovo’s autonomy, raising of a Serb rebellion in Croatia, full-scale military assault on Croatia and destruction of the city of Vukovar ! All of this having occurred, of course, prior to the international recognition of Croatia or Bosnia.
Dobbs continues: ‘To use a phrase attributed to the French statesman Talleyrand, leaving two million well-armed Serbs in other people’s republics was “worse than a crime.” It was a gross error of political judgment.’ He is accusing the international community of being guilty of something ‘worse than a crime’ because it rejected Serb-nationalist demands to dismember Croatia and Bosnia. It is a statement that is erroneous at several levels. Croatia and Bosnia were not ‘other people’s republics’; Croatia was the state not only of the Croatian nation but of all its citizens and minorities, among which the Serbs were explicitly listed in the Croatian constitution; Bosnia was the common homeland of Muslims, Serbs, Croats and others. In the free elections of 1990, most Croatian Serbs voted for the Social Democratic Party of Croatia, which supported a sovereign Croatia, rather than the nationalist Serb Democratic Party. In Bosnia, too, although the great majority of Serbs voted for the Serb Democratic Party, significant numbers voted for non-nationalist parties that supported Bosnian unity. Dobbs speaks of ‘two million well-armed Serbs in other people’s republics’, as if every single Serb civilian – woman, child, elderly, invalid, anti-nationalist, etc. – were ‘well armed’, and ready to burst spontaneously into armed action the moment Croatia’s and Bosnia’s independence were recognised. The very title of Dobbs’s original post, ‘In defense of the Serbs’, is patronising and offensive; he is not defending ‘the Serbs’, but merely the Serb nationalist arguments. He certainly isn’t defending the brave anti-nationalist Serbs who opposed the war and genocide: Bogic Bogicevic, Jovan Divjak, Gordana Knezevic and many others. I wonder if he even knows their names ?
Dobbs appears to treat as some sort of vindication, the fact that his commentary has offended Bosniak survivors along with Serb nationalists: ‘Judging from the comments on this blog, I have succeeded in antagonizing champions for both sides.’ One of the most consistently offensive aspects of the West’s involvement in Bosnia, has been the propensity of even the most ignorant Western observers to feel they have the right to patronise the natives ‘on all sides’.
I wonder if Dobbs would have been equally pleased with himself, if he had written something about the Holocaust that had succeeded in offending equally both Germans and Jews ? His argument about Bosnia is equivalent to saying ‘Yes, the Nazis did start World War II and murder six million Jews and millions of Poles, Ukrainians, Gypsies and others, but on the other hand, the international community was wrong to have imposed the Treaty of Versailles that left millions of Germans in other people’s countries – Czechoslovakia, Poland, etc. – so things are not really black and white, and Jews should try to understand the Germans’ point of view.’ Yet every student of German history knows that the Treaty of Versailles, and the ‘unfair’ borders imposed on the Germans, are not sufficient reasons to explain why the Nazis embarked upon total war and genocide.
To put it differently: Dobbs is right that Serbs had ‘perfectly legitimate concerns’ about how their rights would be protected in an independent Croatia or Bosnia. But people with ‘perfectly legitimate concerns’ don’t normally slaughter tens of thousands of people in genocidal campaigns. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the US had ‘perfectly legitimate concerns’ about the treatment of black Americans, but they did not organise a genocide.
Contrary to what Dobbs claims, I do not think he is an idiot; merely extremely naive. I do not think he is a ‘Mr Bean’; merely that he has as little to say about the Bosnian war as Mr Bean had to say about the painting ‘Whistler’s Mother’. I am not familiar with his work in other areas; for all I know, he may be an excellent journalist. But I remain unable to comprehend how someone with so little knowledge and such a superficial understanding of the Bosnian war and genocide should be given so much space to write about them by Foreign Policy and the USHMM.
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