Sunday, January 06, 2008

"The Bridge Betrayed" by Michael Sells [13]


Much of this chapter consists of material which should be agonizingly familiar to any reader of this blog. I will summarize many of these sections quickly, trusting that my readers know enough to flesh out the details I pass on; "The Bridge Betrayed" is a worthy book, but much of the content which is unique to it, and which reflects Sells' strengths, has already been covered in the preceding chapters. In this chapter, Sells considers Western complicity in the Bosnian genocide. Understandably, he felt obligated to make his case for that complicity, so this chapter contains a great deal of detail certainly familiar to those of you reading this blog. I will spend very little time on those details, and focus my attention on Sells' contention that different irrational--and often unspoken--biases in the West among both politicians and the general public contributed to this complicity.

Arming the Aggressor

Sells states that:

"A weapon is not a particular tool or device, but a disparity between one tool and another."

This succinctly expresses the reality behind the context-free "reasoning" which supported the placement and the continuation of the United Nations arms embargo, which of course preserved the gross imbalance in military capabilities and essentially doomed the Bosnian government and its army. Sells also notes that it was dishonest to label the violence of the first few months of the war a "civil war," since the "conflict" mostly consisted of well-planned, ruthlessly executed assaults on unarmed or virtually defenseless civilians by heavily armed military units.


This section details many of the ludicrous and irrational charges made by Serbian and Croatian nationalists, and their international allies and enablers, against the Muslim community of Bosnia and its leadership (particularly Alija Izetbegovic and the SDA). The hysterical charges of Islamic fundamentalist jihads, plans to abduct Serb women for harems, and so forth.

Sells also notes that academics added pseudointellectual commentary to the propaganda war, creating mystical, half-baked generalizations about the nature of Islam and Islamic culture.

"Orientalism" refers to the otherness of 'the East,'; Sells argues that as ridiculous and easily refutable most of this propaganda was, it fed into subconscious European/Western biases and fears regarding the Oriental "other" presumably at their doorstop.


"Bosnian Muslims are also objects of a dehumanizing discourse about Balkan peoples which portrays Bosnians as Balkan tribal haters outside the realm of reason and civilization."

That opening sentence explains the theme of this section nicely; Sells does a good job of briefly illustrating various examples by which the West has dismissed any possibility of constructive intervention in Bosnia through such dismissive reasoning. The cliched fears of "ancient Balkan hatreds" still inform much of what little debate on the region still goes on today, unfortunately. Sells rightly singles out Robert Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts as one example. Sells also notes that another myth of the Balkans--of the fierce, unconquerable Serb warrior--helped justify inaction.

Balkanism as a Mask

Balkanism was one of the 'mask' Western leaders would don in order to put a psychological distance between themselves and the reality of Bosnia in the 1990s. Sells argues that Bill Clinton donned the mask of Balkanism after taking office. Even though candidate Clinton had argued forcefully for intervention, once in office he and many other members of his administration began speaking of intractable hatreds, centuries of continuous conflict, and of the necessity of containing the violence rather than stopping it.

After Srebrenica, the Dole-Lieberman bill forced his hand--suddenly, the impossible was very possible. Sells notes that Strobe Talbot, in the wake of Dayton,

"denounced the idea that the Bosnia tragedy was the inevitable result of "ancient hatreds."--the Balkanist stereotype that had been propounded by the same administration for two years."

Of such hypocrisy is American leadership made.

Sells ends by noting that after Clinton took off the Balkanism mask, it was utilized by the "isolationist wing" of the Republican party for the 1996 elections.


I will continue my review of this, the penultimate chapter of the book, in my next post.


Anonymous said...

It was highly unresponsible for the United Nations to impose arms embargo, which ultimately left Bosnian Government defenceless. I am convinced that Europe wanted Bosnia-Herzegovina destroyed and Bosniaks stateless. I don't feel they cared about us at all. The U.N. failed at the beginning of the war and they failed at the end of the war which ultimately resulted in Srebrenica genocide.

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