From Srebrenica to Baghdad
What the genocide taught us about intervention.
Ten years since the hecatomb of Srebrenica … surely a decade cannot have passed so quickly? It really feels to me like yesterday. I can hear Susan Sontag's exact tone of voice as she described being in a ministerial office in Sarajevo when the mayor of Srebrenica got through on a bad line to say, "This is goodbye." He did not mean au revoir. Ronald Steel is one of the most gentle and humane liberals I have ever met, but I can still see his next-day's op-ed in the New York Times, announcing that the fall of the "safe havens" was "a blessing in disguise," since it might force the Bosnians to sue for peace. I can remember the red rage in which I wrote a letter to the Times, saying that a mass murder was a pretty effective disguise. And the sickening news, day by day, of the routine and organized torture and slaughter, and then the crude interment of the butchered cadavers, ploughed under like black plastic bags of refuse. I have had my differences with Mark Danner since that time, but if you wish to relive the episode (and you should want to do so) you really must look up his brilliant forensic inquiry in successive issues of the New York Review of Books.
Above all, what I remember is the sense of shame. A French general named Philippe Morillon had promised the terrified refugees that they would be safe. A Dutch commander had been mandated to make good on this promise. The United Nations, the European Union, the "peacekeepers" of all nations had assured the terrified civilians of Bosnia-Herzegovina that the international community was stronger than Milosevic's depraved regime and the death squads that it had spawned. And those who were so foolish as to trust this pledge were then hideously put to death. On video. In plain sight. Scanned from NATO and American satellites circulating indifferently in outer space. What must it be like to die like that, gutted like a sheep in full view of the vaunted "international community," while your family is bullied and humbled in front of you and while your captors and killers taunt you in their stolen or borrowed United Nations blue helmets? Because yes, all that really happened, too, and meanwhile the nurturing and protective Dutch officers were photographed clinking glasses of champagne with Gen. Ratko Mladic. Shame isn't really the word for it.
We still have to endure the disgrace (and the victims and survivors have to endure the humiliation) of knowing that Mladic and his psychopathic political boss Radovan Karadzic are still cheerfully at large. They are not hiding in some dingy cave in the unmapped hinterlands of Waziristan. They are in mainland Europe. Last Friday, when the New York Times covered both the London atrocities and the coming anniversary of Srebrenica, it ran an editorial that smugly inquired "why the wealthy nations have not done enough about the root causes of terrorism and why Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden continue to function after almost four years of the so-called war on terrorism. Many will wonder why the United States is mired in Iraq while Al Qaeda's leader still roams free."
Prettily phrased, you have to admit. Others might wonder why the wealthy nations took so long to address the "root cause" of Serbian terrorism—the root cause being Serbian fascism and irredentism—and why it is that Mladic and Karadzic are still gloatingly free after 10 years, not four. The "hunt" for the latter two gentlemen began during the Clinton administration, and on the turf of the sophisticated and multilateral Europeans, as the writer of the above words might have had the grace to admit.
Stepping lightly over easy-listening moral cretinism like that of the Times' editorialist, one ought nonetheless to accept the implied challenge about Afghanistan and Iraq. Those of us who have supported the rescue of both countries have had to put up with a great deal of slander lately. We have been accused of being thoughtless war-mongers, sinister neoconservative cabalists, slaves to Halliburton, agents of Zionism, enemies of innocent Muslims, laptop bombardiers, armchair warriors, and much else besides. I generally find that these loud insults conceal a surreptitious note of queasy unease. We were right about Bosnia.
The European Union utterly failed Bosnia, which was in its very own "back yard." So did the United Nations. So did the Clinton-Gore administration, for as long as it regarded Milosevic as "containable" by the use of sanctions. Bosnia did not cease to be a killing field, and Serbia did not cease to be an aggressive dictatorship until the United States armed forces took a hand. The neoconservatives, to their great honor, mostly supported an effort to prevent genocide being inflicted on Muslims: an enterprise in which Israeli interests were not involved. Many liberal and socialist humanitarians took the same view. The argument about intervention and force changed forever as a result, except that many people did not notice. Just go and look up what the leaders of today's "anti-war" movement were saying then … too many civilian casualties (of all things!); the threat of a Vietnam-style "quagmire"; the lasting enmity of the Christian Orthodox world; above all the risk of a "longer war."
Yes, well, we could have guaranteed a nice, short war if we had let the practitioners of genocide have their way. Except that, within a few years, the precedent of unpunished ethnic cleansing would have spread well beyond the borders of Yugoslavia. And we would never have been able to say "never again," because dictators everywhere would have had a free pass. Why did Saddam Hussein, that great lion of the Arab and Muslim world, denounce the American bombing of the Muslim-killing Milosevic? Why did Qaddafi do the same? For the very same reason that Christian fascists in Serbia now denounce the intervention in Iraq: They know that the main foe is the United States and that this fact transcends all the others. There has been a great deal of nonsense published in the last week to the effect that an alliance with the United States can put other countries like Britain in the position of being "targeted." Why deny this? I reflect on what was not done at Srebrenica, and on what ought to have been done in Rwanda, and on what was put off too long with the Taliban and the Baathists, and I think what an honor it is to have such enemies. Co-existence with them is not possible, which is good, because it is not desirable or tolerable, either. The Srebrenica memorial stands as enduring testimony to that inescapable conclusion.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Gen. Mladic from Agence France-Presse/Getty Images.