A Balkans Belgium?

Brits Debate Bosnia

At the end of 2008, basking in the glory of electoral victory, the soon-to-be-inaugurated Obama regime announced it would be going boldly backward, revisiting the Balkans and specifically, Bosnia-Herzegovina. The fact that Obama’s foreign policy team looked a lot like Bill Clinton’s was purely a coincidence, of course.

Nine months later, the Prophet of Hope and Harbinger of Change has shown reluctance to untangle his crumbling Imperium from the quagmire of Iraq, even as he becomes more involved in Afghanistan. War there has metastasized over into Pakistan as well. Not surprisingly, Bosnia has slipped down the list of priorities.

Enter the British, or more specifically the Conservative Party. Almost guaranteed an election victory in the spring against a devalued government of Tony Blair’s hapless successor Gordon Brown, the Tories have now inexplicably decided to outflank the Labor to the left and embrace the Balkans interventions.

Ashdown’s Talking Points

In a recent interview for the Independent, Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague warned that Bosnia was "on the brink of collapse" that would create a "black hole in Europe." Create? Bosnia has been a black hole of social engineering for years!

Not offering any specifics as to how Europe (meaning the EU) would re-engage in Bosnia, Hague actually recycled the talking points set out last year by Paddy Ashdown: the problem with Bosnia is the Serbs, encouraged with "Russian cash." Never mind that Ashdown’s arguments were quickly demolished by Ian Bancroft in the Guardian; politics means one must never allow inconvenient facts to get in the way of a good story.

Hague ought to know about that, having just been to Srebrenica.

Two of Hague’s statements are particularly intriguing. First, on the importance of the Balkans to Imperial plans:

"People think the Balkans are what we debated in the 1990s and now we can forget about it. In fact, it’s a crucial area in foreign policy in the next five to 10 years and will get a lot of emphasis in the next Conservative administration."

Second is his acknowledgment that Bosnia is actually an artificial state, sustained by force alone:

"The evidence is they [only] get together in Bosnia when there is some strong outside pressure on them."

Out-Blairing Brown

Something isn’t quite right with this Tory obsession with Bosnia, aside from the usual troublesome aspects of interventionism. The Balkans crusades were a Blair thing. John Major’s Conservative cabinet remained positively restrained in the face of the mass hysteria that had gripped Britain in the 1990s, with the press filled with claims of concentration camps, genocide, and all sorts of horrid atrocities. The Serbs in general, and those in Bosnia in particular, were cast as evil incarnate, providing a new sense of purpose to both Western activists deprived of focus by the end of the Cold War and the jihadists done with Afghanistan for the time being.

The Tories’ reluctance to jump into the Bosnian inferno on the Muslim side, guns blazing, infuriated the "Bosnia lobby." Cambridge historian Brendan Simms, for example, called the Major years Britain’s " Unfinest Hour." In reality, London was at the forefront of peace efforts, which more often than not ended up being scuttled by the Americans – who later took all the credit for ending the war.

Tony Blair, who replaced Major in 1997, was much more receptive to the Manichean narrative of the Balkans conflict and proved to be Bill Clinton’s staunchest ally in justifying the 1999 Kosovo war on "humanitarian" grounds. Blair had no problem endorsing Bush the Lesser’s wars in the Middle East, either. Though the last British soldiers retreated from Iraq in May 2009, they are still dying in the sands of Afghanistan.

Unwilling to abandon interventionism – even if the UK of today is hardly the British Empire of yore – the Tories are now trying to shift focus from unpopular wars to a seemingly popular one. That didn’t work for Obama’s Clintonites, and it won’t work for William Hague and his party boss, David Cameron. But they appear determined to try.

The Surprise Dissenter

Here is where things get even more curious. A day after Hague’s interview, the Independent carried a commentary by Marcus Tanner disagreeing with more intervention. Claiming that Bosnia has had enough foreign intervention "to last a lifetime," Tanner lays out a bitter tale of a plan gone terribly wrong:

"The idea was for the bigger of the two [entities] to act as a focus of national unity, slowly drawing the smaller into its orbit.

"It never happened. Since 1995, it is the bigger entity that has lost its way, economically and politically. The Serbian Republic, as the other entity is known, has sharpened up its act and become increasingly self-confident. Sarajevo did not become the capital of all Bosnians, as the peacemakers of 1995 intended. It dwindled, becoming an almost totally Muslim environment."

Under a succession of viceroys, Tanner explains, Serb and Croat politicians were dismissed and the central government made stronger, creating a feeling of entitlement among the Muslims.

"Europeans should stop dangling vague promises of yet more ‘intervention’ in front of the permanently aggrieved Muslims. Bosnia will never be Switzerland. The country’s DNA won’t allow it. […] The best that we can hope for is a ‘Balkan Belgium’ – an admittedly loveless arrangement, born out of geopolitical necessity and which staggers on, after a fashion."

Metaphors and Illustrations

Tanner reported for the Independent from Bosnia, and he wrote a book about Croatia. He is currently an editor for IWPR. The last time he discussed Bosnia in any detail was in 2005, when he painted a bleak picture of Bosnian Croats feeling "written out of the script." What was interesting about that particular piece was that Tanner blamed the Serbs, who had had very little to do with the Croats’ plight, while completely ignoring the real issue: the Croats’ position as junior partners in a federation with the Muslims. His most recent op-ed betrays no such reluctance.

The fundamental problem in Bosnia isn’t economic or administrative. It is that the three major communities in that country cannot agree whether they want to live together, let alone how. With the Serbs and Croats insisting on autonomy while the Muslims claim the entire country is rightly theirs and theirs alone (calling themselves "Bosniaks" and renaming the language "Bosnian"), it is obvious that the only way the country can be kept together is by outside force.

William Hague admitted as much. Yet he and his party boss seemingly want to believe that people like Mustafa Ceric would give up their Ottoman dreams for a fistful of euros. It’s hard to decide whether such wishful thinking is merely naïve or dangerously stupid.

Meanwhile, Belgium itself is becoming more like Bosnia. Back in 2005, the cover of Paul Belien’s history of Belgium was an image of the country split apart into Flanders and Wallonia, circling the drain. A better illustration of Bosnia’s predicament is yet to be drawn.

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.