Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Flawed Logic and Amoral Rationale for Partition

A few days ago, I was randomly searching for recent blog posts and articles on Bosnia, when I came across this opinion piece by Ivan Eland, at the "LA Progressive" website.

Entitled "Warning From Bosnia For Iraq", the short article presents a rather weak argument in favor of partitioning Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines, and proposes Bosnia as a case study of the dangers of failing to do so. Interestingly, it is not the wars of the 1990s which Mr. Eland points to so much as the current constitutional crisis and the ongoing political battle between entity leaders. Dodik is not mentioned by name, which is not surprising because it is painfully clear that for all his credentials, Eland does not do nuance, nor is he a detail-oriented man.

It should be noted that Eland has a new book Partitioning For Peace coming out; this is an argument he has given a great deal of time and effort to. I have not yet read the book, although as it turns out I have glanced at at least one of his other works, Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty, a work of Libertarian historical revisionism which might indeed be quite provocative--I haven't read it so I cannot make any judgment. However, some reviews and excerpts I have read suggest the general tone; Eland apparently argues that Lincoln deserves to be remembered as a terrible President because he used armed force to put down the Confederate rebellion, expanded the power of the Federal Government, and of course his infamous (if often overblown) suspension of habeas corpus. According to the references I have read, Eland argues that the proper course of action would have been to allow the Confederacy to leave, and then to have liberated slaves as they escaped across the border.

The flaws in this argument are obvious--the sovereignty of a nation and its government become meaningless if a regional political elite are allowed to simply dissolve the political bonds that bind them, for example. More to the point, the idea that simply freeing slaves as they escaped would have been the moral and reasonable thing to do seems to imply that denying habeas corpus to a handful of white Americans was a far greater crime than fighting what ended up being a war of liberation to free millions of black Americans from chattel slavery. When one chooses to argue that history should have happened differently, one must acknowledge what actually happened.

What is most striking about this book is the timing--it is just now coming out. Whatever one thinks of the merits of Eland's arguments, they might have carried more weight a few years ago when sectarian violence was a genuine threat to Iraqi stability. Yet now, the new state seems to be establishing some genuine legitimacy and the forces of division and segregation seem to be cowed. I cannot but help wonder if Eland is proposing a solution to a problem he sees, or is simply peddling a theory in search of real-world applications.

However, it is unfair of me to make accusations about a book I haven't read. There are many positive reviews of all his books listed on the "Independent Institute" website, and some of them are from names I respect.

On the other hand, Eland has published more than one article on the formerly pro-Serbian nationalist-turned-anti-Western site "" (I prefer not to link to them unless to a specific article under consideration) including this one. Freelance writers are free to publish wherever they want, and should not necessarily be linked to the editorial preferences of the venue they choose. Eland has published in both left-leaning and right-leaning websites and periodicals, so it would be unfair to assume he shares the ideological agenda of that disingenuous site. Still, the association deserves notice.

The reason I am casting such a cynical and doubting eye on Eland's associations and his agenda is not only because I so strongly disagree with the theme of this short article, but because of this passage:

"Critics have alleged that the confederation has reinforced ethno-sectarian divides rather than patching them up. Some are trying to change the Bosnian Constitution to strengthen the central government. The critics dream of a multi-ethnic nirvana where all ethno-sectarian identities are sublimated and everyone sings cum by yah."

As we have seen from the writings of Diana Johnstone, Michael Parenti, and other Bosnian revisionists, one red flag of their rhetorical dishonesty is the jarring reliance on strawman arguments. The language of this cavalier--and completely unsubstantiated (there are precisely zero sources or quotes for any of his assertions)--dismissal of any and all critics of the Dayton constitution is sarcastic and caustic and devoid of nuance or genuine insight.

Furthermore, Eland accepts the monolithic nature of group identities as a given--he asserts that a stronger central state would simply give "them" something more to fight over; it never occurs to him that a dramatic shift in the constitutional order might undermine the primacy of ethnic group identifications which the Dayton constitution and the entities reinforce and support. It is not clear whether this is because Eland is unaware of the recent political history in Bosnia, or whether he has little faith in civil democracy, or whether he simply accepts the "tribal" nature of Bosnians as an unquestionable fact of life.

It is also telling that constitutional reform, for him, simply means making the central government stronger--while this would, and should, certainly happen, the real issue is the cumbersome and centrifugal nature of the entity division of the country.

In short--Eland just might be someone I need to keep an eye on. The aforementioned bit of childish sarcasm might not be the red flag I took it for; a support for secession and a contempt for any and all strong central governments appears to be part and parcel with his general ideology. He might not be any kind of Serb nationalist apologist; merely a doctrinaire Libertarian ideologue who looks upon the world with dispassionate disinterest in the flesh-and-blood realities he seeks to fit into neat, analytical categories.


As an aside, I had submitted a rather lengthy rebuttal to the "LA Progressive" website on his article. Interestingly, the comment was originally approved and published; then, after a day or two, it disappeared. I wrote to them asking why it was removed; I have not yet received an answer. I submitted a second, briefer response. We shall see if they will allow it to stand.


UPDATE: In fairness to the editors of LA Progressive, they have restored my previous comment, as well as published the second one--along with a explanation that they are having technical difficulties. I appreciate their response, and I want to commend them for publicly addressing the issue. I apologize for any implied criticism of their editorial policies.


Anonymous said...

Kirk, one "m" in Amoral, plus two "d"s, an "o", an "i" and a "k".

According to Eland, "Some regard the threat of Bosnian Serb secession as a bluff, but it is a warning shot across the bow that should be taken seriously. The Bosnian Serbs are laying down a marker that they want self-determination and a referendum on independence.

Rather than strengthening the central government — which the various groups might have incentives to fight over, fearing one group could seize control of it and oppress the others — the only way for this artificial state to survive may be to further weaken the power of the confederation."

Of course what Eland means is that the State Department has told Dodik to back off from secession, so instead he's going for an interim solution that makes secession easier and more logical. And obviously Eland knows that. He's either being disingenuous or someone should ask George Washington University how he came by his PhD.

This article was presumably intended to follow up the interventions by Ivo Banac, Paddy Ashdown et al. before the US Helsinki Commission, warning that Dodik is preparing the ground for secession.

One of the reasons for their concern may have been the visit by the Serbian Defence Minister Sutanovac to discuss arms procurement and cooperation arrangements with Kuzmanovic and Dodik. This is not an area for discussion at entity level. Serbi and RS are clearly up to some serious mischief-making at the least and presumably rather more than that.

"Today in Banja Luka Sutanovac also met with Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik and discussed a joint engagement of the two countries’ military economies in the production and export of weaponry and military equipment."

Note the reference to "the two countries".

Eland's parallel between Bosnia and Iraq suggests that he envisages a confederation that is essentially a free trade area with diplomatic representation while the entities assume responsibility for social policy, judicial functions, and security. It's hard to see that falling very far short of virtual independence for RS.

Kirk Johnson said...

Thanks Owen, both for noting my spelling error and for your incisive comments.

Sarah Franco said...

regarding Owen's comment, what is more worrying is that sutanovac is, within the serbian political elite, one of the most moderate.

Daniel said...

Denialist arguments are so weak that Kirk managed to kill them with one sentence. Here is the sentence - make sure to read it and memorize it:

"When one chooses to argue that history should have happened differently, one must acknowledge what actually happened."

I couldn't have said it better myself!If I use your line in my research articles, which I intend to publish soon, I will give you full credits for it.

It is amazing how weak denialist arguments really are. With just one shot, you managed to beat Ivan Eland in his own game. Awesome!

J.C. said...

Thanks for the great and informative post.

" never occurs to him that a dramatic shift in the constitutional order might undermine the primacy of ethnic group identifications which the Dayton constitution and the entities reinforce and support."

I think that above mentioned excerpt from your post underlines the essential issue about the current Bosnia's political state. However fragile today's Bosnia may seem I think that there is no question about secession, at least not yet. Dodik and Jeremic-likes are continuing with their bizarre and bombastic claims but that something that people have already got used to hear from obstructive Serbian political rhetoric. What it boils down to, in my opinion, are not dramatic constitutional changes, not only if we consider introduction of civil rights and regular values of Western democracy to be something unreachable. But in Bosnia's case such introduction i.e. establishing constitutional rights based on civil instead of national(istic)premises would be, indeed, a giant leap forward. Current constitution that establishes a demand for everybody to declare as the member of one of the tree constitutional nations in order to get any job in public sector is the main obstacle and encourages sheer nationalistic and provincial trends and such politicians as Dodik and is deeply in contradiction with the Human rights conventions. By making a space for the people who see themselves as something more then just Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks, and those are not just a few, International community would provide much more space to breathe in Bosnia, in my view. But to do that an active involvement of Obama's administration is required.

Anonymous said...

J.C., what do people think is actually behind this Sutanovic visit?

J.C. said...

Hi Owen, I am sorry but I cannot really answer your question because I was not following the events regarding his visit. Right now I am still "on the road" traveling with a friend so I cannot comment about that particular event. Kirk's post was really excellent and I could not resist making a comment myself but in regards with some more general issues about the current political situation in Bosnia.

Anonymous said...

Enjoy your trip, Jac Cerouac! I was asking about Sutanovac's visit because it seems a really strange development. I can hardly think of a more high profile way for Serbia to be drawing the world's attention to the fact that it's meddling in Bosnia's affairs.

As you've pointed out at your blog previously, the constitutional requirement that Bosnians affiliate to one of the three nationalities is an invitation to trouble-making.

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And according to this article, I totally agree with your opinion, but only this time! :)

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