Birth of an Empire

Review of Fools’ Crusade
by Diana Johnstone
317 pages, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2002

Books that have accompanied the 1990s Balkans wars have by and large been complete rubbish. There were, to be fair, some works worth reading. Yet the Balkans tragedy was missing a book that would explain things in layman’s terms – yet accurately – and put the events that took place between 1990 and 2000 in a coherent context. Diana Johnstone, a respected commentator on the American Left, wrote a "well-documented and lively study" (cover) that accomplished just that.

From the very beginning to the last page of this book, Johnstone challenges the prevailing orthodoxies in the West about what happened in Yugoslavia. Conventional wisdom, constructed from layers of careful propaganda, has been that the West’s intervention in Bosnia was too little, too late – and that the intervention in Kosovo was motivated by determination not to have "another Bosnia." Johnstone explodes this easily, offering facts instead of claims, arguments instead of assertions. She sets out to show that "the intervention of the NATO powers in Yugoslavia, far from being a last-minute rescue, was from the start a major driving factor in the tragic course of events." (p. 14) And she does.

The Yugoslav Guinea Pig

"The objective is not to recount the whole story … but to put the story in perspective." (p. 15)

Yet Johnstone does try to tell as much of the whole story as possible. Events in Yugoslavia had not taken place in a social, political, ethnic, religious, or diplomatic vacuum – yet the mainstream media and press have presented them precisely as such. Insofar as they’ve recognized any context at all, it was that of a villainous Slobodan Milosevic and "Greater Serbian nationalism." Johnstone explores the real Milosevic, deliberately ignored by the Western opinion-makers. She also spends time on the influence of IMF, and Yugoslavia’s bad debt, which left it a hostage to foreign dictates.

Thus it was the Badinter Commission, an ad hoc advisory committee of European lawyers, who declared in 1991 that Yugoslavia had simply ceased to exist, and that its republics should be recognized as independent states. This decision, entirely in contradiction to the Yugoslav constitution, escalated the secession crisis into open warfare.

When, as a consequence of the Badinter ruling, Bosnia seceded – and immediately exploded into civil war – in 1992, Western journalists and activists who visited the region created a "Bosnia cult." Having condemned a multicultural Yugoslavia, they suddenly elevated an allegedly multicultural Bosnia into a paragon of modern virtue.

"A real aversion to war might have led journalists and writers to find in Bosnia merely the destructive chaos that can result when human beings fail to manage their collective affairs in a sensible way." (p. 48)

Instead, searching for the Great Cause of their generation, they created an idea of Bosnia as a multicultural paradise under threat:

"The notion that ‘Bosnia’ represented the model for Western Europe’s integration of its Muslim immigrants helps explain the vehement hostility that arose against the Bosnian Serbs, accused of destroying this model society out of sheer racist nationalism." (p. 49)

In the end, Bosnia – and later Kosovo – were not at all about the people who suffered there, but about the Westerners who could cast themselves as their saviors and liberators.

Moral Dualism in a Multicultural World

But salvation required the threat of damnation first. In the second chapter, Johnstone explores how in the effort to present the conflict as a Manichaean struggle of good and evil, the Serbs were cast as demonic villains and their adversaries as angelic victims. The press and the public became obsessed with "war crimes," going so far as to claim they were the purpose of the war. And yet:

"The state of war is a state of crime. Killing people in peacetime, the worst of crimes, becomes a laudable act of civic courage. … Destruction of public and private property that would be considered vandalism and arson is encouraged and carried out systematically. On the sidelines of this massive and official criminal activity, war provides an opportunity for a multitude of more or less surreptitious private crimes, notably pillage and rape." (p. 75)

Faced with an onslaught of claims that genocide was taking place, the press had to decide: report it as true even if it might not be, or risk dismissing genocide that might later turn out to be real. They chose to err on the side of horror:

"A basic principle of caution, essential to justice, was rapidly abandoned. That is the principle that the more serious the accusation, the greater the need for proof. … Most in need of proof is the fact that the crime in question was actually committed. … The principle that has prevailed in Western media and public discussion has been quite the opposite, namely the more grave the accusation, the less the need for solid proof. Simply demanding evidence may be stigmatized as disrespect for the victims." (p. 75)

Johnstone spends the rest of the chapter exploring the devilish details: the origin of "genocide" imagery and words, the manufacture of "systematic rape," the numbers game, the uses of Srebrenica. She also dedicates several pages to the Hague Inquisition, showing how it was set up to validate the official story of genocide and war crimes.

Comparative Nationalisms and the Making of Empires

The next two chapters are pure context. "Comparative Nationalisms" deals with nationalist movements promoted by the West as a counter to the alleged "Greater Serbian" ideology supposedly championed by Milosevic. Here we get an overview of the role Slovenian, Croat, and Muslim nationalism played in the destruction of Yugoslavia.

One cannot discuss Slovenian or Croat nationalism without mentioning one of its principal sponsors, however. While the foremost champion of the Bosnian Muslims was the Clinton administration, Ljubljana and Zagreb were sponsored by Berlin. In chapter four, "The Making of Empires," Johnstone analyzes the role of Germany – an old Imperial power twice humiliated in the Balkans, who sought to settle old scores and assert its newfound political and military influence after reunification.

The New Imperial Model

Chapter 5 is dedicated to Kosovo. Three pages of Johnstone’s background on the region are more informative and accurate than the 300 pages of Noel Malcolm’s hack "short history." This is a story of the conflict in Kosovo, the Racak "massacre," the Rambouillet ultimatum, and the 78 days of terror from the skies NATO dubbed "humanitarian intervention."

Importantly, Johnstone does not end her account in June 1999, when Kosovo came under UN/NATO occupation. NATO continued the war through other means, eventually establishing in Serbia an acceptable client government through the "revolution" in October 2000. Since then, the cornerstone of NATO’s policy towards Serbia has been straightforward:

"It was not enough to bomb Serbia and detach part of its territory. The Serbian people must be made to believe – or to pretend to believe – that they deserved it." (p. 258)

Perpetual War

The title of the postscript refers as much to the continuing story of Yugoslavia as to the ongoing intervention by the American Empire. Kosovo was the culmination of Balkans interventions that established the U.S. as the overlord of Europe, and created an "imperial condominium" between Washington and Brussels.

"The NATO war against Yugoslavia might be studied by ethnologists as a contemporary example of the familiar role of blood rituals in sealing the unity of groups. … Once the NATO governments had taken part in devastating a country that had done them no harm, they had to stick together…." (p. 261)

Interventions in Yugoslavia were subsequently used as a template for conquest: economic crisis (debt, blockade, "reforms") impoverishes the nation, aggravating ethnic and/or regional tensions. Ethnic conflicts are then dubbed a "human rights crisis," at which point the U.S. intervenes. The resulting destruction only deepens conflict and bitterness. The region is then placed under the protectorate of the "International Community," which crushes any local government with potentially independent ideas. (p. 262)

Johnstone’s leftist politics come into play here, as she argues that Yugoslavia’s mixed-property socialism was an unacceptable alternative to globalization (i.e., hegemony of American capitalism). To support her argument, she cites (p. 263) Thomas Friedman’s notorious proclamation that "The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas" (New York Times, March 28, 1999). Friedman wrote this in one of his vitriolic tirades about bombing the Serbs into the Stone Age. Even though it is utter nonsense, on par with Friedman’s extensive opus of idiocy, most people in power consider it true and act accordingly. How else explain the war in Iraq, or the desire to control the world in general?

And this is where Yugoslavia comes in. It was a case that established a precedent for a pattern of aggression that has since become the hallmark of American Empire:

"The bombing of Yugoslavia marked a turning point in the expansion of U.S. military hegemony. … International law was circumvented in the name of an alleged higher moral imperative. A precedent was set…. In a world with no more legal barriers to might proclaiming itself right, there was nothing to stop a U.S. president from using military force to crush every conceivable adversary." (p. 1-2)

The end result of "humanitarian" interventions in the Balkans is the current world of perpetual war: a global Balkans, if you will, where might makes right and truth is whatever the mighty want it to be.

More than just telling the story of Yugoslavia’s dismemberment, Johnstone has told a story of American Empire’s rise to power in the 1990s – something no one else has seriously attempted, much less accomplished, to date. Fools’ Crusade is not the ultimate book about the Yugoslav 1990s, but it comes fairly close.

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 debuted in November 2000.