A Desert Called Peace

Re-igniting Bosnia

In November 1995, after months of cajoling, threatening, scheming, plotting, bombing, and blackmailing, the American-organized peace conference in Dayton, Ohio, resulted in a peace agreement that ended the hostilities in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The agreement, commonly referred to in Bosnia as “Dayton,” was a compromise between the idea of unitary, centralized state championed by the Muslims (who, as a plurality, would dominate such an arrangement) and the concept of ethnic autonomy, fought for by the country’s Croats and Serbs. What emerged from it was an internationally recognized state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, comprising two “entities” (deliberately not called “states”), the Serb Republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation. The Federation, created in 1994 by an arrangement concocted in Washington, was subdivided into 10 provinces, or “cantons.” The weak common government was supposed to be in charge of foreign policy, international treaties, and little else.

A decade later, Dayton has been all but abolished through a series of “reforms” conducted by international viceroys, supposedly in charge of implementing the agreement. Bosnia has been centralized time and again, in incremental steps designed not so much to abolish Dayton but to erode it beyond recovery. This spring, the treaty’s main sponsor – Washington – decided it was time to get rid of Dayton altogether, and replace the current arrangement with a “unitary national government.” For that purpose, Bosnia’s imperial overlords staged two gatherings over the past two weeks, one in Brussels and one in Washington, in an effort to get the “Bosnians” themselves to rubber-stamp this plan. Unfortunately, it appears they have succeeded.

Matters of Need and Urgency

Connoisseurs of Imperial American policy aren’t in the least surprised with the “endgame” Washington is pursuing in the Balkans. The Clinton-era policies, untouched by the Bush regime, had continued by default for years after the 2000 election; this May, they were officially co-opted by the Bushites. Former Clinton official, Nicholas Burns, was put in charge of the Balkans, and even Richard Holbrooke, the chief architect of Dayton, once again represented Washington officially.

In last year’s race for the Emperor’s crown, Clinton’s wannabe successor John Kerry embraced the Balkans interventions as a paragon of imperial virtue and sought to contrast their “success” with the fiasco Bush II has created in Iraq. Holbrooke was one of Kerry’s advisers pushing for just such a strategy. Ultimately, it proved insufficient to win Kerry a victory; however, the policy cabal that saw Kerry as their tool simply shifted their focus on the increasingly vulnerable Bush. After four months of propaganda, and the steadily worsening news from Iraq, the White House was ready to adopt a Clintonite Balkans agenda in order to claim a victory somewhere.

Obliging Comparisons

The mainstream press, ever in the service of power, obligingly made comparisons between Iraq and Bosnia, pointing out the latter as a place where American “leadership” and “perseverance” made a difference. Roger Cohen of the International Herald Tribune made one such attempt on Nov. 20, celebrating the intervention that stopped “plum-brandy swigging Serbian gunners” and showed that “American leadership is indispensable” (Holbrooke).

Jackson Diehl, another prominent imperialist, opined in the Washington Post the same day that the intervention in Bosnia has worked much better than the one in Iraq, because of the American commitment of time, troops, and effort. Further demonstrating the refusal to allow facts to interfere with a good story, Diehl wrote: “Like Iraq’s Sunnis, the Bosnian Serbs were forced to abandon a regime of genocide and domination by a punishing U.S. military campaign.” Similar insanity was exhibited by “Stephen Schwartz,” a self-proclaimed expert on Wahhabi Islam and terrorism, in the Weekly Standard.

Not that every comparison of Iraq with Bosnia would be misguided. Both represent attempts to maintain artificial states opposed by a substantial number of their residents. Both are part of a pattern of aggression emanating from Washington since the end of the Cold War. Yet even among the rightful critics of “nation-building” in Bosnia and Iraq, the unfortunate meme of “Serbs as Sunnis” had found traction despite its near-absolute fallacy.


By mid-November, everything was lined up: the motive – need for an interventionist victory; the opportunity – the 10th anniversary of Dayton; the perpetrators – Clinton-era veterans with vested interest in perpetuating the myths about Bosnia; even the media-spun contrast with Iraq that focused on the false and the irrelevant. The only thing missing was an actual pretext. Once again, the media, obliged.

Even though Undersecretary Burns revealed last month, during his Bosnia visit, that it was Washington’s desire to see a strong, centralized Bosnian government and change the Dayton Constitution accordingly, the news wires and papers fell over themselves to show it was “Bosnians” who wanted and needed the “reforms.”

Reuters put it as a matter of expediting bureaucratic procedures (never mentioning the obvious solution of eliminating them altogether), trying to sound utilitarian. Associated Press went a step further, claiming that the desire for reform among the “Bosnians” was so great that a group of high-school sophomores had put together a proposal for a new constitution and sent it to Washington. That the teenagers’ proposal was the same as Nicholas Burns’ had been pure coincidence, of course. Also worth noting is that “Bosnians” in these stories are only and exclusively Muslim, just as the term was used during the war. And it is not a coincidence that the Muslim nationalist party’s agenda is that of a centralized Bosnia, in which they would be dominant.

Lighting the Fuse

The original Dayton Agreement was a paradox: even though the Empire had publicly described the Bosnian War as one of Serb “aggression,” the final treaty was more reflective of the war’s true nature: a struggle between most Muslims on one side, and most Serbs and Croats on the other, over the nature of Bosnia itself. It tried to reconcile the Muslims’ vision of an independent, centralized Bosnia with the Serbs’ and Croats’ desire for territorial autonomy. Because of this intractable issue of ethnic politics, in order to survive as a country Bosnia could not be a state. Even though the authors of Dayton explicitly rejected this obvious truth, they somehow crafted a political arrangement that made it possible. Then they proceeded to systematically demolish it, almost from day one.

Convinced that their own model of a welfare state with near-unlimited powers in practice (constrained as they may be on paper and in theory, to placate the masses) represents the pinnacle of political achievement, the Empire and its allies tried to impose it on Bosnia. Their violations of their own treaty were justified by conventional wisdom, carefully constructed by years of PR and “journalism,” about the war’s nature. The constant talk about “war crimes” and the persistent peddling of atrocity porn all had the function of reinforcing this view.

What no one has pointed out is that the “post-Dayton” Bosnia the Empire seeks to create would look distressingly like the one before Dayton: a centralized, unitary state dominated by its relative Muslim plurality, with Serbs and Croats fighting against it.

Democracy is divisive. In heterogeneous environments, it inevitably leads to group conflict. In Bosnia, those groups are ethnic in character; elsewhere, they are racial, religious, or linguistic, but the principle remains. If these groups mistrust each other, who gets to control a near-omnipotent central government with enormous impact on every aspect of its citizens’ lives becomes a question of life and death. And death is usually what ensues.

Only if the Bosnian state were minimal and limited would the Bosnians (all Bosnians) be able to coexist peacefully. Yet that state is emphatically not anywhere on the horizon. Instead, what slouches towards Washington to be born is the same rough beast that erupted in the flames of war in the spring of 1992. The inevitable fiasco of “nation-building” in Bosnia will hurt the Empire. But the people of Bosnia, all of them, will suffer much worse. It will be a desert called peace.


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.