Saturday, October 6, 2007

Not Looking Good

Back in June, I bemoaned the fact that, according to the polls, the leading contenders in the primaries (now less than four months away) were Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton. They are still out front. In Hillary’s case, the lead is growing alarmingly. Is everybody nuts?

The Republicans certainly are. A plurality of them don’t seem able to get beyond that day more than six years ago when Giuliani was there at Ground Zero while the Bush boy was cowering in a bunker in Nebraska and Dick Cheney was in his spider hole near the Pennsylvania – Maryland border. No GOP elephants these; Republican voters are fledgling ducks “imprinting” on their Mama. No matter that Giuliani messed up big time that day and all the succeeding ones; no matter that he was a piss poor mayor or that he is a wretched human being; no matter either that his views on gay rights and abortion are of a sort that no God-fearing “values voter” can abide. What matters is that Giuliani, not the man but the idea, is the anti-terror, national security candidate. Neocons (like his foreign policy advisor, Norman Podhoretz) rejoice! Names like Giuliani and Podhoretz should cause even Bush voters fear and loathing. Somehow that hasn’t registered yet.

As for the Democrats, there was hope last spring that, by now, Obama would have knocked Hillary out of the water, and that the Edwards campaign would have caught on. It hasn’t happened, and there’s no indication that it will. Could it be that Democrats too are crazy? Or are they just obtuse?

On domestic “issues,” there’s little doubt: HRC is worse than any Democrat running. But for the pundit-wannabe voters flocking to the Lesser Evil Party, that just might be a good thing; it might make her more “electable.” They’re dead wrong, of course. Just as too few people hate Hillary for the right reasons, too many hate her for the wrong reasons. If she’s the candidate, that “vast right wing conspiracy” is sure to gear up again; making it not impossible, despite Bush’s and Cheney’s best (unwitting) efforts, that a Republican will win in 2008.

On foreign policy, the line is that there’s hardly a shade of difference between the major candidates. That’s not true on trade or global environmental policies or any of a host of other issues where, as with domestic policy, Hillary brings up the rear. But, if we restrict attention just to matters of the most immediate concern to most voters – the Iraq War and “security” in the face of “Islamic extremism” – the conventional wisdom is right in a sense; the “electable” candidates (Clinton, Obama and Edwards, but also Richardson and Dodd and even Biden) are close. [Kucinich and Gravel are another story, but alas they have no chance at all.] There’s no likelihood any of them (except maybe Richardson, were he true to his word) would bring ALL the troops home from Iraq or close down military bases in the Middle East and Central Asia or pressure Israel to do anything it doesn’t want to do or, not unrelatedly, lift a finger to prevent Cheney and Bush from going to war in Iran. In these matters, Hillary isn’t significantly worse than the others; she may not even be worse at all.

But wait. Though I still harbor (groundless) hopes for John Edwards, we may face an inevitable Clintonite restoration, even if Edwards somehow wins. But Clintonism is susceptible to more or less bad implementations. If an actual Clinton oversees the restoration, then beware the return of the likes of Richard Holbrooke, Mad Maddy Albright, Donna Shalala, Richard Rubin and the rest of that sorry crew – maybe not in person (though Holbrooke is plainly angling for the job of Secretary of State), then in spirit. Would this be better than a Giuliani administration? Of course. Instead of preemptive aggression, we would have “humanitarian interventions”; instead of ground wars and brutal occupations, we would have the occasional aerial Anschluss; instead of “unilateralism,” the US would go back to getting whatever it wants from the UN and other international organizations; instead of a torture state, we’d have the appearance, if not the reality, of the rule of law. All of these and other changes would be for the better. But there is still time to do better (or rather less bad) still. If the HRC juggernaut continues on track, it will soon be too late.

This is why now, more than ever, it is urgent that Democratic voters learn about and focus on the Clinton era sanctions that accounted for upwards of a half million avoidable deaths in Iraq, about Clinton’s (unacknowledged) “war on terror” with its bombing campaigns and “extraordinary renditions,” and about how the US government under Clinton would bypass the UN whenever it couldn’t get its way there (getting retroactive approval, wherever possible, from a servile Kofi Annan and compliant Security Council members). Most important, we all need to reflect on what the US – and our NATO partners (especially Germany) -- did to the former Yugoslavia. Even many of the folks who, out of sheer niceness, opposed the Iraq War from the start still don’t get it. They should read Diana Johnstone’s Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, Nato and Western Delusions (Monthly Review Press, 2003) and, if nothing else, the article by Ed Herman and David Peterson in the current Monthly Review (vol. 59, no. 3, October 2007): “The Dismantling of Yugoslavia: A Study in Inhumanitarian Intervention – and a Western Liberal-Left Intellectual and Moral Collapse.”] Then they should decide if the devil we know too well really is good (not bad) enough.


cian said...

Let me first off say that I broadly agree with most of what you write on this blog.

However on Yugoslavia both Herman and Johnstone got it badly wrong. Johnstone's book is an appalling piece of propagandistic trash. She minimises atrocities (ignoring archaeological and journalistic evidence that contradicts her thesis), while offering in support of some of her arguments evidence that barely qualifies as hearsay. Herman is not much better.

For example, she makes the bizarre (and offensive) claim that the shelling of Sebrenica might have been carried out by the Muslims themselves to gain sympathy, and offers as evidence a speech that not only has she wrenched out of its original context, but which doesn't even prove it in the context she provides.

She distorts speeches to make Bosnians look bad, and Serbs look good. Her grasp of Yugoslav history is appalling (even on non-controversial stuff she is wildly off), and she apparently believes Serbian mythologies about their past wholesale (which have long since been discredited by historians). Her footnotes are bizarre. Detailed condemnations are constructed that condemn the Bosnians - one looks for support in the footnotes, and it will be a person communication from somebody she met briefly, or sometimes no footnote at all. Maybe she's right on some of this stuff, but she offers no serious evidence. She just KNOWS. Oh, and there are plenty of wacky and weird conspiracies in there. What's depressing about so many left-wingers citing this book, is that they are familiar with this stuff from the other side. Its exactly the same kind of crap that Zionists pull. Palestinians are always bombing themselves to gain sympathy.

There are many criticisms to be made of both the bombings, and the standard western discourse on the war. The Croatians (literally) got away with murder, the KLA is a collection of drug smugglers and bandits. The some Bosnians certainly did some bad stuff (though were far more sinned against, than sinning - not something you can say of any other group save possibly the Kosovars [ignoring the Slovenians, who ducked the whole thing]). The Western bombing was carried out in a dishonest way (there was no way that Milosevic could appease them - though to be honest given that all that he had done by that stage, tough), and an air war as carried out which was reasonably grotesque. The Kosovo campaign was mixed with a lot of exaggeration and propaganda from both sides, and many claims made during the war were wildly wrong.

However to minimise Serb atrocities, or the fact that Milosevic was a very bad man who used ethnic chauvinism to hang onto power, or the poisonous and racist atmosphere of Serbia during the conflict, is simply wrong. To blame the victims as both Johnstone and Herman tend to, is grotesque. And to pretend that well documented mass killings didn't occur - well there's a word for that.

Andrew Levine said...

In substance, both the Johnstone book and the Herman and Peterson articles are not pro-Serb (in the sense of unambivalently siding with Serbia in the Yugoslavian civil wars) but anti-anti-Serb. One of their points is that it wasn't just the US and Nato that sided against Serbia in the civil wars (for a variety of reasons which they both amply discuss) but also many (though not quite all) liberals (and many on the harder Left as well).

Also, when you say that Johnstone made the bizarre claim that Srebrenica was bombarded by the Muslims, etc--two points: aren't you confusing Srebrenica with Sarajevo?, and w/r to the latter are you unaware of the fact that U.S. military officer, John Sray, who was posted to Sarajevo agreed with the bizarre claim, as did quite a few UN and other people, and that the NYT's own reporter David Binder wrote a very compelling article supporting the bizarre theory?

David Peterson said...


Above all, Edward Herman and I opposed the materially and politically self-interested categories of foreign interference that had always been practiced by the NATO bloc powers and that, in the case at hand, were to inflame the conflicts then astir in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from the late 1980s on.

As Tito once observed (June 2, 1964): "Historians have recorded the disastrous fact that not one in fifty generations on our territory has been spared the devastation of war and heavy losses."

The post-World War II Yugoslavia was an attempt to spare the peoples of this region more of the same. Largely, it worked -- thanks in no small part to a lot of internal repression directed from Tito on down. Particularly against anyone who tried to revive the "national question," and to give it priority over the "Yugoslav" answer. (The best study of this remains Lenard Cohen and Paul Warwick, Political Cohesion in a Fragile Mosaic (Westview, 1983).)

In response to Cian's query about the "shelling of Srebrenica," if this does indeed mistakenly refer to the several incidents when civilians were targeted while gathering in public spaces in Sarajevo, both of you might take a look at the outstanding study by Cees Wiebes, now archived as Appendix II to the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation's report on the fall of Srebrenica (

See especially Wiebes' Ch. 2, "The Western intelligence community and the war in Bosnia" ( Though you'll need to work your way into this chapter as far as section 4, "The perception and information position of the Western intelligence services" ( Therein you'll find:

….Western [intelligence] services had more balanced ideas than the Western media, who were more emphatically pro-Muslim. SIS presumably used the conservative magazine here as a counterweight to sound a balanced note. For the press this confirmed the image of SIS as pro-Serbian, and from that moment on this service was unreservedly branded as ‘pro-Serbian’, while many British journalists followed the CNN view ('good guys, bad guys') of the war. [26]

For instance, anti-Serbian reports were shown on television of the battle around Gorazde in April-May 1994, according to the former American head of the intelligence section (in military terms: the G-2 section) in Sarajevo, Lieutenant Colonel J. E. Sray. A British SAS soldier was killed by the VRS and a British aircraft (a Sea Harrier) was shot down. US networks accused General Rose of cowardice and reluctance to deploy NATO air power against the Bosnian Serbs. What was not mentioned on television, however, was that ABiH soldiers had left their positions during the VRS attack and taken up new positions behind the SAS unit, which caught the British in the middle. No one took the trouble to make enquiries of the Public Affairs Officer of Bosnia-Hercegovina Command (BHC), or to request an interview with UNPROFOR staff in Sarajevo. In later documentaries this story would indiscriminately be repeated on American television. [27] More generally, the press in the crisis around Bosnia was transformed from mere opinion shapers into prominent policy drivers who, depending on the situation, had an influence on the political decision-making that should not be underestimated. [28] This is not the appropriate place to give a comprehensive analysis of the role of and reporting by the press on the war in Bosnia, but it is clear that this helped to shape a manifestly pro-Muslim view. [29]

Another example of misleading information was probably the mortar attack on the Markale market in Sarajevo, which killed 68 civilians in February 1994. Eleven artillery specialists subsequently spent nine days studying the shell attack. [30] The official final assessment was that the attacks were executed by the VRS, but there were serious doubts about this within the Western intelligence community. Various staff of intelligence and security services from Canada, the UK, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands established independently of each other that this was an act by the ABiH to show the Bosnian Serbs in a bad light. [31]

A similar suspicion arose when on 28 August 1995 a shell landed on a busy square in Sarajevo. As early as October 1995 journalist David Binder reported in the weekly The Nation that four UNPROFOR specialists (a Russian, a Canadian and two Americans) had arrived at the incontrovertible conclusion that it was an ABiH shell. American intelligence officers admitted that the ABiH had taken responsibility for this incident. [32] Sray, head of the intelligence section in Sarajevo, subsequently signalled in a publication that the ABiH was responsible for both shellings. [33] Even the most important British policy body in the field of intelligence, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), came to the conclusion that the shelling of Sarajevo market was probably not the work of the VRS, but of the Bosnian Muslims. [34]

In a third incident that followed this pattern, the head of the UNMOs (UN Military Observers) in Sarajevo investigated the mortar attack on the water distribution point in Sarajevo, which was the trigger for the later air strikes by NATO, and in doing so demonstrated that the attack was executed by the ABiH itself. However, all the associated evidence was pushed aside by American officers. [35] Russian intelligence officers even told the author Ljiljana Bulatovic that the Bosnian General Rasim Delic had organized the attack. [36]

[26] Dorril, MI 6, 2000, p. 791.
[27] John Sray, 'Selling the Bosnian Myth', in: Foreign Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, October 1995. Other American, Canadian and European intelligence officials repeatedly expressed their dislike of CNN reports. Confidential interviews (9), (12), (47) and (54).
[28] Drs. R. Theunens, 'Intelligence en vredesoperaties' ('Intelligence and peace operations'), Militaire Spectator, 170 (2001) 11, p. 599.
[29] See also the Scholten appendix to the main report.
[30] David Binder, 'Bosnia's bombers', The Nation, Vol. 261, No. 10, 02/10/95.
[31] Confidential interviews (8), (9), (12), (21), (37), (44), (45), (47), (68) and (69).
[32] Confidential interview (54).
[33] John Sray, 'Selling the Bosnian Myth', in: Foreign Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, October 1995.
[34] Confidential interview (8).
[35] Confidential interview (44).
[36] Bulatovic, General Mladic, pp. 125-126, 129 and 131.

But -- I'm happy to leave the rest up to you guys.

David Peterson
Chicago, USA

cian said...

Well the US media was very bad on Yugoslavia (the NYT included, incidentally), though why this should be any surprise escapes me. There's a tendency to simplify events in the US so that they fit into a simplistic good vs bad scenario, with simplistic causes - extreme left, to extreme right. This was always going to be disastrous when it met a war as complex as the Yugoslav conflicts and where there were only degrees of badness. It wasn't helped by the fact that pretty much nobody in the US, journalists included, understood the region. And when they decided to find out, they mostly seemed to ask locals... Good luck with that one.

So yes, in theory a good even handed revisionist history was needed. And a pretty good one exists. It was written by Misha Glenny, a BBC journalist who had been covering the region from before Milosevic seized power, stayed throughout the conflict and who spoke the languages. His book does a very good (if not perfect) job of laying out the various actors, causes, tensions and events. He makes it pretty much clear that nobody comes out very well out of this, but certain individuals and groups were far more culpable than others.
And then we have Johnstone's book. As far as I could work out from the various errors in Johnstone's book (many of them unimportant in terms of the thesis, but they don't exactly give the reader much confidence in her handling of more contentious and less checkable sources), she doesn't have a particular deep understanding of the region.

And then there's her thesis. As I recall, her basic argument is that Milosevic was much maligned and was in fact trying to keep Yugoslavia intact against various internal and external enemies (Croatia, Germany, "Bosniacs", US, etc). Its a completely barmy thesis, which only really works if you ignore Milosevic's early career, and the ways in which he stirred up and played upon Serb nationalism to seize power in 87, and to maintain it (which had the paradoxical affect of breaking up Yugoslavia). Croatia's rebirth of nationalism was so clearly a reaction to that, that its hard to take seriously anyone who argues differently. It also requires ignoring the fascinating contradictions in Milosevic's character - that he personally wasn't a Serb nationalist (its hard to know what he was really, other than ambitious for power, and pretty authoritarian), but knew how to use Serb nationalism for his own personal ambitions. There was for example the way he used the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo to send out a very powerful message about Serb nationalism, which caused a counter nationalism among the Croats and Slovenes leading to the breakup. Or the way that he helped Serb-Croat politicians who were anti-Croatian to undermine their more moderate rivals. The idea that Milosevic was a Tito like figure is simply laughable - he rapidly destroyed the fragile balance that Tito had created (which Tudman then proceeded to destroy in Croatia).

There were all kinds of other tensions and actors in the Balkans, and to lay all the blame on Milosevic is bad history. Clearly there were plenty of other people who played their part, Tudman from the Croats(who incidentally was no fascist. He used Croat nationalism in a particularly crass and stupid way, but he was no fascist) and various Bosnian and Croat Serb politicians, generals, etc. As well as the various tensions between more liberal and urbane individuals from the cities, and the more extreme and conservative peasants. Not to mention gun culture in parts of Yugoslavia - Krajina say.

"In substance, both the Johnstone book and the Herman and Peterson articles are not pro-Serb (in the sense of unambivalently siding with Serbia in the Yugoslavian civil wars) but anti-anti-Serb. One of their points is that it wasn't just the US and Nato that sided against Serbia in the civil wars (for a variety of reasons which they both amply discuss) but also many (though not quite all) liberals (and many on the harder Left as well)."

Well Johnstone largelyt tries to exonerate Serbia and put the blame elsewhere - how is that not pro-Serbian? And the US was pretty peripheral until the Dayton accords, and even after that its hard to see what the US gained within Yugoslavia, though it gained a lot externally (particularly in reasserting military dominance in Europe and NATO, together with gaining a quite considerable propoganda victory).

I wouldn't put all the blame on Serbia either, but I'd lay a large part of the blame on certain Serbs/serb communities (while having considerable sympathy for other Serb communities who were slaughtered by Croat and Bosnian armies, just as I'm very sympathetic to Bosnian and Croatians who were similarly slaughtered).

And its simply not true to say that the US and NATO sided against Serbia in the civil wars - it was only towards the end that they did so. If one ignores Germany, who always (and shamefully in my opinion) pro-Croatia, they were largely in favour of ending the war and maintaining Yugoslavia as a distinct entity. Germany forced France and the UK to recognise Croatia, but neither was terribly keen on doing so (and the US was against this as well). The US also tended for much of the conflict to be in favour of maintaining Yugoslavia as a single country. In practice this meant that the UK and France tended to support Serbian forces, who British ministers described incidentally as Yugoslavian - and they were in favour of policies that would bring stability back to the region. Britain, France and the US all resisted letting the other states (Bosnia and Croatia) acquire extra weaponry (thus giving them some form of parity with the Serb forces, who controlled the Yugoslav army's armorouries). Now they may not have done so because they were pro-Serb, but its hardly the action of nation's who were anti-Serb. There also used to be, in the UK press at least, indications that a chunk of both the foreign office and army were fairly anti-Bosnian. Now some of these may have been warranted (the Bosnian-Heznogrevia government being a pretty slippery and unreliable bunch), but again it does rather undercut the thesis of the UK government as being pro-Serb.

What changed for the UK government was Tony Blair taking office, who was a true believer in liberal interventionism and who tends to see the world in a fairly black and white way. A very stupid man, who got by on charisma. We are blessed in the UK. Thatcher, Major, Blair - jesus. What I suspect changed for other countries, was that the various negotiators started to see Milosevic as the obstacle to stability, as somebody who couldn't be trusted to keep his word.

As for what the various external countries wanted, I've never understood why so many people miss the fairly obvious goal of the Western European countries, stability. Instability in the Balkans was terrifying. It brought weapons and refugees flooding into Western Europe, and was seen as a dangerous flashpoint, as it sucked in fighters from Greece, Albania, the Middle East and Russia - not to mention the interests those government all had in it (and Germany's interest in Croatia). There was a fear that it might draw bordering countries in as well (and Russia in particular - there was a lot of paranoia about Russia getting involved). And then there was the pressure of domestic opinion, which shouldn't be underestimated. In other words it was extremely complicated, and requires a fairly nuanced response from historians. Johnstone's book is a work of propoganda, though clearly a pretty effective one.

As for why liberals and members of the hard left were duped? Well liberals aren't particularly bright and got most of their information from the news which came to the war late and which tended to side with the Bosnians as they were the most accessible victims and had hired a good PR firm (though both the Croats and Serbs were pumping out propoganda into the US as well, just not as effectively). You expect the media to give you complex explanations? I mean, come on.