As it turns out, this has been a stand-out month in the battle against evil. First, there was the killing of Osama bin Laden. Now, finally, the capture of the fugitive Serb war criminal, Ratko Mladic.
In 1994, I was a fairly junior media relations officer with the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), deployed in midst of the war in the former Yugoslavia. It was a time when Mladic was at the height of his powers, able to control the flow of aid into besieged Sarajevo with the imperious ease of a man turning a faucet on and off. Mladic’s strategy of squeezing, expelling, and murdering his largely Bosnian Muslim victims — known locally as “Bosniaks,” a term denoting an identity that is more national than religious — made a mockery of the UN operation.
The six towns and cities designated by the UN as “safe areas” ended up becoming the most dangerous places in Bosnia. Srebrenica, the place where Mladic’s forces carried out a massacre of 8,000 Bosnian men and boys in 1995, dumping the dead bodies into mass graves, was one of those “safe areas.”
In the hours that followed Mladic’s arrest, media coverage focused on the consequences for Serbia, pointing out that a major obstacle to the country’s integration into the European Union had now been lifted. My attention, though, was fixed on the past — specifically, upon the blatant appeasement of Mladic and his backer in Belgrade, the late, unlamented Slobodan Milosevic, that I encountered first-hand at the UN.
A number of fine scholars, notably Noel Malcolm and Brendan Simms, have traced in careful detail the evolution of a British-French-Russian axis of appeasement that set the tone for the UN’s role in Bosnia. The British foreign secretary at the time, Douglas Hurd, was a notorious proponent of the notion that Yugoslavia, in its first iteration as the kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, and then in its remaking under Tito’s communist regime, was little more than a seething cauldron of inter-ethnic hatreds. This theory, in which everyone and no one was responsible for the slaughter which followed Yugoslavia’s disintegration, could lead to only one conclusion: let them get on with killing each other. This was music to the ears of the Serb ultranationalists, who worked diligently with their Croatian equivalents on a plan to carve up Bosnia.
On the ground, one individual personified the appeasement approach: the British General Sir Michael Rose, who was UNPROFOR’s commander in Sarajevo. At UNPROFOR headquarters, stories of Rose’s gruff impatience with the pesky Bosnian refusal to roll over and die were legion. Rose detested the Americans too, for their impertinent insistence that the systematic abuse of human rights by Serb forces was a critical policy consideration. A widely circulated photograph of Rose shaking hands with Mladic, both of them grinning like old friends, said it all.
By the time the Dayton Accords ended the Bosnian war a few months after the Srebrenica massacre, Rose’s craven approach had been somewhat eclipsed (Rose himself had already been succeeded by another British general, Rupert Smith.) Nonetheless, the core principle that informed the appeasement policy in Bosnia — treating a brutal dictatorship as just another government with full sovereign rights — was to enjoy a new lease of life in the policy clash that followed the 9/11 atrocities.
In that regard, there’s one juicy detail that deserves highlighting again and again. Several individuals who now present themselves as the defenders of Muslim rage against Western encroachment were, during the Bosnian war and later in Kosovo, utterly contemptuous of the plight of Balkan Muslims.