Sunday, August 17, 2008

Michael Dobbs Illustrates that the Lessons of Bosnia Haven't Been Heeded by all

One of the strongest motivations for continuing this blog 13 years after Dayton is my strong conviction that the issues raised by the Bosnian war, and the values and ideals at stake, had and continue to have relevance beyond the western Balkans. Whether we are discussing the role of religion, ethnic nationalism, and international law certainly can applied far from Sarajevo; dynamics of state building, ethnic self-determination, nationalism both positive (as a state-building ideology) and negative (as an expression of jingoism and a return to tribalism); and the conflict between notions of sovereignty and ideal so international justice--the echoes of Bosnia still reverberate.

It is distressingly clear that even here in the West there is anything but a clear consensus on what the Bosnian war was about or even what happened; despite intensive media interest and an impressive body of literature analyzing the war in detail, many glib and thoughtless generalizations regarding the conflict remain in currency. This is troubling enough for anyone working towards reconciliation and political reform in the region, but when the flawed analytical framework many Western opinion-makers and statesmen is applied to current crises, the possibility unfortunately exists for ill-conceived policies and interpretations to become a new, unquestioned status quo conventional wisdom.

With the above in mind, it is distressing to note that, in the wake of the current crisis in Georgia (where Russian aggression under the pretense of "peacekeeping" is facilitating the further dismemberment of a former Soviet colony-turned-independent democracy), it is common for pundits and observers of a decidedly "realist" bent to temper the criticism of Russia's actions with dispassionate "evenhandedness." Georgia, we are told quite often, has brought this on itself.

The degree to which the blame is placed on Saakashvili and his state varies from pundit to pundit, but one of the more forceful (in tone if not in persuasiveness) variants of this line of argument was featured in the August 18 Washington Post, in the Op-Ed 'We Are All Georgians'? Not So Fast by journalist and author Michael Dobbs. With his undeniable background in covering the region (he covered the collapse of the Soviet Union for the same paper in 1991), it's not surprising that Dobbs talks a good game. But while he may have a personal history in the region, his argument is neither coherent nor persuasive.

What is striking for a student of the Bosnian conflict is how neatly Dobbs' reasoning and even his rhetoric parallels that of the Western relativists and non-interventionists in the early 1990s. Dobbs may know a lot about how Communist federations fall apart, but he hasn't thought very deeply about the aftermath.

He begins by noting that many in the West had drawn parallels between Russian actions in Georgia and Nazi German annexations prior to the outbreak of World War II, and also to the Brezhnev Doctrine of the Soviet period--only to dismiss both parallels pretty much completely. Instead, he tells us, the crisis in Georgia is

"...better understood against the backdrop of the complicated ethnic politics of the Caucasus, a part of the world where historical grudged run deep and oppressed can become oppressors in the bat of an eye."

Where have we heard this before? Once again, the affairs of some little-understood mountainous region are far too complicated for outsiders to grasp--yet that "complexity" (just like in the Balkans, we were told)--boils down to age-old, irrational hatreds among intermixed peoples where everyone and no one is at fault, and todays "good guys" are tomorrows "bad guys." Just like Balkan revisionists, Dobbs uses gross simplifications (i.e., 'Those people are full of hate and they are turning on each other without warning or purpose constantly') as a tool with which to scold outsiders for not grasping "complexities".

The examples he gives are true, and I have no quarrel with mentioning that the Abkhaz and the Ossetians were ill-treated in the immediate aftermath of Georgian independence (although 1991 hardly seems "age-old" to me). However, Dobbs goes on to place blame on Georgia for the rashness of recent actions without, crucially, recounting the history of Russian interference between the atrocities of 1991 and a few weeks ago. And his criticism of Saakashvili for not being as democratic and liberal as the West had hoped carries far too much weight--while all that is true, Saakashvili is the democratically elected leader of a sovereign nation, and he really has offered a new autonomy deal to the separatists. Furthermore, his concession that

"The restoration of Georgia's traditional borders is an understandable goal for a Georgian leader..."

is much more backhanded than the tone implies, since it is not only the 'traditional' borders Saakashvili is attempting to restore, but the proper, and internationally accepted borders of the modern Georgian state.

To be fair, Dobbs is under few illusions about Russia and its intentions--he does not let Putin and his lackeys off the hook. When it come to US complicity, however, he seems to forget that Georgia is an independent nation--he argues that the US gave mixed signals since we claim not to have encouraged the Georgian offensive in South Ossetia yet have been offering Georgia NATO membership. I am not naive enough to ignore that the offer of NATO membership could, as he stresses, embolden the Georgian government, but the implication of an either/or relationship between those two statements is not as direct or clear as he seems to believe. Finally, he notes that

"It is difficult to explain why Kosovo should have the right to unilaterally declare its independence from Serbia, while the same right should be denied to places such as South Ossetia and Abkhazia."

This is a real issue which deserves an answer--but there are answers out there; I have little confidence that Dobbs has been actively seeking them.

And then, in the final two paragraphs, he abruptly shifts gears to note that our military is stretched to the limit and we have little diplomatic leverage in the world right now. He declares that

"...our ideological ambitions have greatly exceeded our military reach in areas such as the Caucasus, which is of onlhy peripheral importance to the United States but of vital interest to Russia."

So when all is said and done, it boils down to realpolitik and post-Cold War spheres of influence. "Ancient ethnic hatreds" and "complex" local conditions are just so much sand to throw in our faces.

1 comment:

Sarah Franco said...

"""""It is difficult to explain why Kosovo should have the right to unilaterally declare its independence from Serbia, while the same right should be denied to places such as South Ossetia and Abkhazia."""""

no, it's not dificult to explain at all.

the question is: how many people are willing to listen to such explanation???

very few, because the arguments of reason and justice are nothing compared with the excitment of a brand new 'age-old' ethnic conflict.

then when you try to explain it, you are just seen as biased, emotionally attached to the question, or, anti-serb and anti-russian.

this is so frustrating...

I agree with you, the lessons in Bosnia are yet to be learned. ever since I started studying this, only once it happened that a disagreement or divergence in point of views turned personal: this was when an american who had worked as an adviser to shvartz-shilling told me that it was not fair that republika srpska was denied self-determination.

I was totally disgusted, because this man said publickly that he had adopted a Muslim orphan...