The Price of Empire

Holbrooke Proud of Balkans "Victory"

By all rights, Richard Holbrooke ought to be a has-been. His 15 minutes of fame were under Clinton, when he emerged from the dark shadows of the American "foreign policy elite" to spearhead a military and political blitz that ended the Bosnian War on Washington’s terms. Less stellar was his failure to bully Slobodan Milosevic into surrendering Kosovo in 1998, which resulted in a war that nearly broke apart NATO. When Bush II claimed the 2000 election, Holbrooke’s hopes of succeeding Madeleine Albright as secretary of state sank with Al Gore’s presidential dreamboat. A similar shipwreck happened last year, when Holbrooke once again emerged from political obscurity to campaign for John Kerry, attempting to contrast the developing fiasco in Iraq with "victory" in the Balkans. American voters didn’t buy it; unfortunately, Bush II eventually did.

Perhaps desperate for any victory, even one claimed by political foes, the current Emperor has co-opted a platform developed by a cabal of powerful policymakers, institutes, and lobbyists who have all profited handsomely from Bill Clinton’s Balkans interventions. Whether they label themselves Democrats or Republicans, they are all dedicated to the idea of American Empire, and emotionally attached to the days of its founding in the Balkans.

Clintonites Resurgent

A Balkans-watcher from a decade ago who happened to be in Washington this summer could think that the Clinton days were here again. Holbrooke is a rising star again. Madeleine Albright’s NED is funding the NGOs currently destroying Serbia. Nicholas Burns is in charge of the "new" Balkans policy – same as the old policy. Editorials by noted presstitutes peddle the policy spam of the ICG and Council on Foreign Relations. Demonization of Serbs is once again in high gear, with the media harping about the "genocide" in Srebrenica and "collective guilt" of the Serbian nation. The United States – and the Emperor personally – are represented by two Clinton officials, Holbrooke and Pierre-Richard Prosper, "war crimes ambassador," at the Srebrenica ceremony. A week after the New York Newsday, a stalwart supporter of the 1990s intervention, editorializes about the moral glory of the Empire, Holbrooke pens his monthly column in The Washington Post and does exactly the same.

The piece is many things: a rehash of old propaganda, a narcissistic advertisement for Holbrooke himself, but also a call to the American people to recommit to the Imperial dream: Forget Iraq or Afghanistan, where things are going badly: look at the Balkans, where victory came easy, and another can be easier still. Not one American was killed in combat in Bosnia, Holbrooke writes (for once, accurately). He claims this is because everyone respects and admires (i.e., fears) the U.S. and NATO, and would probably reject out of hand the mere insinuation that perhaps the Serbs that he so reviles are nowhere near as murderous or fanatical as the Islamist insurgents in Iraq. That numerous NATO soldiers have been killed in Kosovo at the hands of the Albanian KLA is not mentioned. Indeed, Kosovo is glossed over almost completely, except for one nauseating sentence toward the end. Disturbing facts have no place in a fluffy narrative of Imperial greatness that Richard Holbrooke has constructed to frame his legacy.

Wallowing in the "Valley of Evil"

As one might have suspected, Holbrooke begins with claiming that one place justifies American intervention in Bosnia by its very existence: "a really horrible place, one whose name has become synonymous with genocide and Western failure" – Srebrenica. He calls it a "valley of evil" and invokes moving emotional images of grieving women in muddy fields, burying their dead and still nurturing both grief and hatred from a decade ago. But if Srebrenica has become a symbol of anything, it is because it was made into one by the Holbrookes and Amanpours of this world, always striving to replace reality with something more favorable to their agendas.

So it is with Holbrooke. According to his version of history, Srebrenica was a failure of Europe and the UN, proof that Washington needed to act:

"As assistant secretary of state for European affairs at the time, I argued, unsuccessfully, that we needed NATO airstrikes to stop the Bosnian Serbs – bullies who preferred long-range artillery and short-range murder to anything resembling a real military operation. But Britain, France and the Netherlands had troops deployed, as part of the United Nations’ peacekeeping force, in three extremely exposed enclaves in eastern Bosnia, including Srebrenica. Facing the brutal threats of Mladic, they refused to consider airstrikes until the Dutch troops were ignominiously escorted out of Srebrenica. By then it was too late."

In the aftermath, Bill Clinton made a decision that "took real political courage," and with the support of only 36 percent of the Americans polled, opposition in Congress, and only "reluctant backing" from the Pentagon, he decided to intervene:

"Thus began the diplomatic and military policy that led to the Dayton accords, to peace in Bosnia and, four years later, to the liberation of the Albanian people in Kosovo from Slobodan Milosevic’s oppression."

Crimes Against Reality

What we have here is the very overt manifestation of the "Srebrenica paradigm" – an attempt to distill the complex ethnic and political conflicts that tore apart Yugoslavia into a simple Manichean story of evil Serbs committing an inhumane crime against the virtuous Muslims of Srebrenica, which is then used to justify American intervention not just in Bosnia, but in Croatia (which has displaced and disenfranchised its once-substantial Serb population) and Serbia itself, specifically the Albanian-occupied province of Kosovo.

So far, none of that is unexpected from an Imperial apologist. But Holbrooke takes a step further, committing a blatant crime against reality. Without Clinton’s intervention, he avers:

"[W]e would probably have had to pursue Operation Enduring Freedom not only in Afghanistan but also in the deep ravines and dangerous hills of central Bosnia, where a shadowy organization we now know as al Qaeda was putting down roots that were removed by NATO after Dayton. … Had we not intervened – belatedly but decisively – a disaster would have taken place with serious consequences for our national security and the war on terrorism."

Say again? Holbrooke knows better than the American public that the U.S. government, supposedly "uninvolved" in Bosnia until 1995, helped prop up the Bosnian Muslim regime led by a clique of hardcore Islamic fundamentalists. Iranian weapons shipments, a steady flow of "holy warriors" and the alarming pattern of present-day terrorists with previous experience in Bosnia are all known to Holbrooke – but admitting them would interfere with the carefully forged image of Alija Izetbegovic as a paragon of multiethnic virtue, Bosnian Muslims as the suffering victim, and the U.S. as the reluctant savior.

Attempts to argue from facts that Izetbegovic was a theorist of militant Islam, that Bosnian Muslims he led were a belligerent in a civil war, and that the U.S. was a scheming meddler from the very beginning, are roundly denounced by anyone with the vested interest in Official Truth. To the present day, whenever new information about Islamic terrorism in the Balkans emerges, it is dismissed by Imperial supporters as "Serb propaganda." Meanwhile, veterans of Bosnia’s "liberation war" fill up American detention camps.

In face of these facts, Holbrooke offers a comparison of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Perhaps he believes that absent an American intervention, it would have been Serb suicide bombers on the streets of New York, with "dirty bombs" from Saddam Hussein’s WMD stash? Makes for a fancy Hollywood script, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the truth.

Square Pegs and Round Holes

However, there is a reason for trying to stretch reality by arguing that Clinton was fighting the "War on Terror" six years before it started: Holbrooke and other interventionists have, after all, just been co-opted by the Bush camp. In exchange for Bush’s acceptance of their Balkans misdeeds – which the Republicans once roundly condemned – they have to support the anti-terrorism crusade.

This would be idle speculation were it not for a similar mental acrobatic in the recent opus of one John Norris, formerly of the State Department and now an "advisor" to the ICG. In the foreword to Collision Course, Holbrooke’s friend and Norris’s boss Strobe Talbott tries to contextualize the intervention in Kosovo in the framework of the present War on Method. Yet if America had really fought the "war on terror" in 1995 and 1999, it was certainly on the wrong side. Besides, Talbott easily contradicts Holbrooke’s description of Kosovo as a war of "liberation," rather than aggression:

“It was Yugoslavia’s resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform – not the plight of Kosovo Albanians – that best explains NATO’s war.” (pp. xxii-xxiii)

"Was Bosnia Worth It?"

That is the title of Holbrooke’s editorial and the question it endeavors to answer. But worth what? Holbrooke never says – but the words sound eerily like his mentor Madeleine Albright’s quip to Leslie Stahl about the deaths of half a million Iraqi children due to the U.S. blockade. It isn’t dead bodies, or money, that Holbrooke refers to, though the United States government certainly sank a lot of taxpayer money into a vision of "multi-ethnic society" in Bosnia that never was and is unlikely to ever be, however much coercion is employed to bring it about. The reason he offers the answer is because deep down he knows the question all too well. "Dayton reasserted an American leadership role in Europe after a period of drift and confusion," he says: Clinton’s Balkans intervention created the opening that brought forth the present American Empire. In doing so, it destroyed the American Republic. That is the price Holbrooke, and others who think like him, find acceptable.

To maintain what they have accomplished, the Imperialists must seek to supplant the truth with myths of their own making. It reflects their incredible conceit that they seem to actually believe that facts exist, or cease to exist, if they are sufficiently established or suppressed in the public opinion. Yet it is only a matter of time and entropy before the edifice of lies comes crashing down on their heads. And though that may be scant consolation for those victimized by the Empire, it may provide a modicum of historical justice necessary to mend the devastation wrought in the Balkans – a wasteland the Empire made, and called peace.

Read more by Nebojsa Malic

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com debuted in November 2000.