What Milosevic meant to them

Why some in the West are taking the death of the dictator personally.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

The death of Slobodan Milosevic, one-time president of Yugoslavia, has been greeted in the West by a curious combination of relief and regret.

Among politicians such as UK foreign secretary Jack Straw and US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice there is a palpable sense of relief that the messy trial of Milosevic has come to this kind of end. The trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was meant to be an international showcase for Western righteousness against backward Serbian bloodlust; in fact it had descended into farce, with prosecutors having to twist (to put it mildly) the rules of natural justice in order to pin the charge of genocide on Milosevic, and Milosevic himself having threatened to babble on about America and Europe’s own various crimes against humanity.

Western officials had discovered that it is one thing to create a propaganda monster on the battlefield, in the heat of a dirty and bloody civil war, as they had done with Milosevic and the Serbs first in Bosnia in the early 1990s and later over Kosovo in 1999. But it is quite another thing to sustain such propaganda in what is supposed to be a court of law, much less to prove it beyond reasonable doubt.

Elsewhere, there’s an equally palpable sense of regret at Milosevic’s passing. For those Western politicians and commentators who obsess over the Bosnian and Kosovan conflicts – indeed, who define themselves and their morals in opposition to what they describe as evil, Nazi-like Serbs – there is disappointment that they have suddenly been robbed off their bête noire, their bogeyman, the wicked dictator whom they had transformed into a symbol of evil against their own inherent goodness. That is why Paddy Ashdown, the failed British politician who had been appointed High Representative of Bosnia, a deeply undemocratic job that allowed him to boss about the Bosnian people, and Carla del Ponte, the chief prosecutor at the ICTY who has made a life’s work (and some might say irrational passion) out of chasing various Serb leaders, are everywhere saying what a shame it is that Milosevic died before he could be convicted and insisting that the trials of others must continue.

They make a cynical living out of pontificating about the Bosnian and Kosovo wars, and dictating how Bosnia and Kosovo should be run in the wars’ aftermath, and are not about to let something like the death of the man they claim was ultimately responsible for those wars stand in the way of their own self-interest.

In the broadsheets, among various liberal commentators who consider the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo to have been a personal coming of age, when they re-defined themselves as supporters of Western intervention, there is a similar whiff of regret that the man they loved to hate is no more. Some have even said that the trial of Milosevic should continue in his absence, which might be a complete perversion of natural law but it would at least make securing a conviction that bit easier. They seem to hope that Milosevic’s ghost can play the same role for them as the man himself did these past 10 years. (But as a letter-writer to The Times asked: what if the trial of Milosevic continued, and he was found guilty and sentenced to death…?)

What these sentiments of relief and regret reveal is that the trial of Milosevic had little to do with Milosevic himself. Rather, the trial was always about how the West saw itself in international affairs – and thus the death of Milosevic has become an occasion for handwringing about the West’s role today. This is not about Milosevic, but about me, me, me! At a time when there is so much doubt, disagreement and uncertainty about America and Britain’s venture in Iraq, and the ‘war on terror’ more broadly, many are wistfully looking back to the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo when the West appeared to have right on its side and support for its wars. In the demise of Milosevic they glimpse the further demise of that sense of Western righteousness.

It is striking that the further the conflicts in the Balkans recede into history, the more that various commentators bang on about them – and not as real events, but as symbols for something else. The headline to David Aaronovitch’s piece in The Times shows how much this is about ‘us’ rather than Milosevic: ‘The meaning of Milosevic: how the Butcher of the Balkans changed us.’ Aaronovitch describes his own ‘personal journey’ in observing the Bosnian war in the mid-1990s and coming to the conclusion that Western intervention to save people was a moral good. He describes Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serbs massacred Bosnian Muslims, as ‘our Munich’ (referring to an earlier British government’s appeasement of Hitler when it signed the Munich Agreement in 1938); Kosovo, he says, ‘was Poland’ – ie, the moment at which the West decided to take action to stop these new Nazis, the Serbs. Bosnia was ‘the betrayal through inaction’, Srebrenica ‘the consequence’, and Kosovo ‘the determination not to let it happen again’ (1).

In Aaronovitch’s telling, events in the Balkans become purely symbolic. They’re no longer bloody clashes in which people fought and died and balances of power shifted, but signposts on his own personal journey. He says Srebrenica was ‘the most shaming moment of my life’ (2). This is less about the impact that the conflicts had on the people of the Balkans – much less about exploring what were the drivers and causes of those conflicts – than about the impact they had on Western observers.

Of course, anyone with the smallest amount of historical knowledge could not seriously compare what the German Nazis did in the 1930s and 40s with what the Serbs did in the Balkans in the 1990s. Wartime Germany was one of the most powerful nations on Earth, which aimed to dominate Europe and executed a Holocaust against six million of Europe’s Jews; post-Cold War Serbia was a weak and isolated state taking part in a bloody and scrappy civil war. Milosevic and his cronies may have been nasty, brutish, self-serving politicians, responsible for much of the carnage in the Balkans, but they were not new Hitlers. It is only in the ‘personal journeys’ of Western journalists that the Bosnian civil war is redefined as a re-run of the Second World War, with Milosevic and co cast as the Nazis and Western liberals (many of whom did not even leave their offices during the Bosnian conflict) taking the role of brave warriors against the new fascism.

Aaronovitch is not alone in taking a narcissistic view of the Balkans; in certain Western circles the Bosnian war has long been discussed as a symbolic event of personal importance rather than as a war to be analysed and explained. Read any of (very many) personal memoirs written by journalists who covered Bosnia and you’ll see that they are full of puffed-up nonsense about taking on Nazis. The Guardian columnist Ed Vulliamy once wrote: ‘My father had the honour of fighting fascism; I instead have the strange privilege of meeting the people who are fighting a pale but unmistakable imitation of the Third Reich [the Serbs].’ (3)

In his widely-praised War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges, who covered the Bosnian war for the New York Times, also described how the war gave his own life meaning: ‘Many of us, restless and unfulfilled, see no supreme worth in our lives. [W]ar, at least gives a sense that we can rise above our smallness and divisiveness…. The eruption of conflict reduces the headache and trivia of daily life.’ (4) In My War Gone By, I Miss It So, journalist Anthony Loyd described the Bosnian war as being like ‘falling in love…a heady sensual rush’ which ‘I have never found elsewhere’ (5). All of these writers, and more, share a view of the Bosnian war as being about them and their own sense of purpose, rather than about anything that happened on the ground. Having invested so much into Bosnia – having perversely fallen in love with its war, or used it to inject some ‘worth into our lives’ – it is not surprising that some should cling to it even now and regret the death of Milosevic, the physical link to their earlier fantasies about taking a stand against fascism.

These ‘laptop bombardiers’ (as they came to be known) liked to present themselves as lone and brave voices calling for humanitarian intervention to save the Bosnian Muslims. The British ones, in particular, argue that their principled demands fell on the deaf ears of the then Tory government, which had little interest in physically getting stuck into the Balkans. These journalists saw themselves as plucky warriors challenging obtuse and uncaring governments to act in the name of humanity.

In fact, they were kicking at an open door. Western powers, in the 1990s, rediscovered a passion for foreign interventions. Such interventions were not about saving beleaguered populations but about saving an image of the West itself as good and decent and brave. At a time of political uncertainty and a crisis of legitimacy for Western governments, they ventured to the Balkans in search of a mission – redefining what was in fact a fairly ordinary bloody civil war as a battle between good and evil, in which the West, of course, was on the side of good. The Bosnian Muslims were made into pathetic victims and the Serbs into wicked Nazis, to fit a readymade script imposed by outside politicians and their cheerleaders in the media. It was striking that at a time when there was little clear consensus at home on the big political and social issues of the day – when, in the words of Chris Hedges, many in the West see ‘no supreme worth in our lives’ – American and European governments discovered an apparently clear-cut battle between good and evil in a far-off land, and a mission of supreme worth.

The interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo represented the pinnacle of the new ‘humanitarian interventionism’ – the attempt to offset and alleviate crises at home by intervening in conflicts overseas. Initially, there was much support (especially in the media) for these interventions, despite their bloody and disastrous consequences. During the Kosovo intervention, for example, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were treated as international heroes, fighting a brave and ‘good fight’ against the evil dictator Milosevic (6). How times have changed. Today Blair and Bush’s war in Iraq is being consumed by controversy – there is little support for it in the West and little stomach for it even in the highest echelons of the government and military. The war on terror is challenged for undermining international law and for giving rise to Guantanamo Bay (by some of the same people who called on America and Britain to ignore international law and intervene in Bosnia and Kosovo). Where the trial of Milosevic (initially at least) was about bringing a tyrant to justice on an international stage, the trial of Saddam has been left as a local affair lest it cause further embarrassment for Bush and Blair. Western righteousness over Bosnia and Kosovo has given way to Western doubt and handwringing over Iraq.

This shift shows just how shallow and shortlived were the West’s claims to international moral authority in the 1990s. For all the claims that finally the ‘international community’, freed from the divisions of the Cold War, could unite and fight wickedness in backward lands, in fact there was much competition between Western states in the Balkans arena. Indeed, a great game of one-upmanship between America, Germany and France did much to inflame and prolong the civil war. And for all the claims of a new Western mission to bring peace and democracy to the non-Western world, it was in truth a flimsy and kneejerk ‘mission’: the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo were motivated and sustained by an anti-Serb fervour (based on vast exaggerations about the Serbs’ power and influence) rather than by any idea of a civilising mission. Western humanitarians intervened, not with a mission, but in search of one; it was less the pursuit of politics by other means than simply the pursuit of meaning. Not surprisingly, while such interventions may have temporarily made some Western leaders and journalists feel mighty good about themselves, they did little to resolve conflicts in foreign fields or crises at home.

This is what Milosevic meant for some in the West: he was a symbol of evil against which they could define their own values, and the war against him was a long-gone highpoint in their fanciful new battle against fascism. They would rather cling to this old mythical war between right and wrong, than face up to today’s reality and ask why it is that there’s no ‘supreme worth’ in Western politics and society these days and why Western interventions only seem to be making matters worse.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:

After Milosevic, by Philip Cunliffe

(1) The meaning of Milosevic: how the Butcher of the Balkans changed us, The Times (London), 14 March 2006

(2) The meaning of Milosevic: how the Butcher of the Balkans changed us, The Times (London), 14 March 2006

(3) Guardian, 10 April 1993

(4) War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges, Anchor, 2003

(5) My War Gone By, I Miss It So, Anthony Loyd, Penguin, 2001

(6) See ‘Pressuring the press’, Brendan O’Neill, Spectator, 4 February 2006

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Topics World


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