No Western solution
A land corridor through Bosnia or safe havens for refugees? Air-strikes
against the Serbs or a 100 000-strong army of occupation? Defensive peace-keeping
or offensive peace-making? At the time of writing, the debate continues
about what scale of humanitarian Western intervention is required in Bosnia.
But there is another set of questions which nobody seems to be asking, about
the credentials and motives of the would-be peace-keepers from the West.
George Bush, president of the USA, is responsible for killing a quarter
of a million Iraqi Muslims. He bombed Panama City into rubble. He sent troops
to occupy Los Angeles. Why should anybody think that he can become the saviour
of Muslims and champion of free cities in Bosnia?
John Major was Bush's loyal lieutenant in the Gulf bloodbath. He has a loyal
lieutenant of his own (Chris Patten) running squalid refugee camps and expelling
Vietnamese boat people from Hong Kong. He is still waging a dirty war in
Ireland. Why should we believe he can deliver peace and freedom to the ex-Yugoslav
Francois Mitterrand was the minister responsible for France's war and torture
campaign in Algeria in the fifties. As president he has fought a colonial
war in New Caledonia and a race war against immigrants at home. His agents
even blew up a Greenpeace ship in New Zealand. What can we expect him to
teach the peoples of Bosnia about humanitarianism?
Helmut Kohl is the German chancellor who has honoured the graves of SS men,
and barred from German citizenship anybody whose forebears fought against
the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe. He has set up a detention-camp-to-deportation
conveyor belt for refugees. Why should he be the man to prevent pogroms
Alongside the issue of whether it is sensible to expect Western statesmen
to act as social workers, there are other unanswered questions of the kind
raised by Joan Phillips (see p8): questions about why Western observers
tried to invent a Holocaust in Bosnia, when such prison camps and refugee
crises are commonplace around the world; or why they singled out the Serbs
for attack, when all sides in the conflict have acted in a similar
None of this can make sense if you accept the West's image of itself as
a benign force in the world. But get behind the mask of humane concern,
and matters become much clearer.
As the record of their presidents and premiers suggests, the Western states
are not charitable institutions or friendly societies. They are the leading
players in the cut-throat world of international business and diplomacy.
To survive in that position, they have to compete for profits and struggle
for power: against the rest of the world, and among each other. These are
the motives which inform every move they make on the international stage.
The need to operate at all times as the guardians of capitalist wealth and
influence makes the Western governments incapable of acting as humanitarians,
even if they genuinely wanted to. John Major might well choke on his peas
watching the TV pictures of suffering in Sarajevo. But when it comes to
deciding on policy, his cabinet's sole concern will be how best to bolster
the status of the British establishment against its rivals in the world's
markets and power summits.
All the hyperbole about preventing a Holocaust and stopping 'ethnic cleansing'
has acted as a cover for the West to pursue its own agenda in relation to
the Yugoslav war. However it is justified, an intervention based upon
the self-interest of the Western powers can do nothing for the well-being
of the peoples of Bosnia. To see what happens when such concerned rhetoric
is turned into action, look at the outcome of some of the West's other humanitarian
campaigns of late.
A few years back saving Africa was all the rage. But charitable gestures
did not alter the hard facts about how the Western-run world market operates.
Today, while millions face starvation, Western financiers are still
bleeding Africa of billions in debt repayments. Or what about Eastern Europe?
After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the air was thick with Western promises
of humanitarian aid and helpful investments. Today, as economies lie in
ruins from Romania to Russia, Eastern Europe has joined the third world
as a net contributor to the coffers of Western capitalism.
The Gulf War provides a stark example of what Western intervention can do
for those on the receiving end. Bush and Major presented it as a mission
to free Kuwait and save the Kurds from Saddam Hussein. But from a Western
strategic perspective, freeing Kuwait meant putting the Emir back on the
throne, and helping him pursue an 'ethnic cleansing'-style pogrom against
the Palestinian community. And saving the Kurds from Saddam meant penning
them into camps where they have been abandoned by the UN and bombed by Turkey,
a Nato ally. Meanwhile Iraqi civilians still suffer the bitter effects of
carpet bombing and sanctions. Such are the benefits of being liberated
by the Americans and the British.
From the Gulf to the Balkans, the motivation for increased Western intervention
today has nothing to do with a sudden outbreak of humanitarianism. The real
cause is the power struggle which has broken out among the Western states
since the end of the Cold War, as the old order unravels and America's leading
role in the world is called increasingly into question. Behind the banners
of humanitarian concern about Kuwait or Bosnia, the Western rivals are fighting
out their own power battles knee-deep in other people's misery.
In the Gulf, America blew up a local dispute between two tinpot dictators
into the biggest international conflict since the Second World War,
in an attempt to pull the fragmenting Western Alliance together behind US
military leadership. On that occasion it worked. But, as we pointed out
at the time, the accelerating slippage in American authority meant that
Washington was unlikely to be able to pull it off again.
The response to the Yugoslav war shows that we have reached the next stage
in the break-up of the Western Alliance. This time there is no one power
calling the shots and pulling the others in behind it. Instead, all of them
have become involved in a grotesque game of one-upmanship, trying to outdo
their rivals in posing as the champions of right.
Germany went first last year, with its crusade for Croatian independence
and its campaign to demonise the Serbs. The Americans have responded this
year by trying to seize the anti-Serbian mantle themselves over events in
Bosnia. France has sought to put itself in the picture through maverick
initiatives like Mitterrand's helicopter mission to Sarajevo, while Britain
has hovered in the background promoting Lord Carrington's rather pathetic
attempt at a peace mission.
Each time one Western statesman has urged the need for firm action
in Bosnia, the others have felt obliged to show some bravado of their own,
threatening the Serbs with air-strikes or war crimes trials, in order to
keep up with the Bushs or the Kohls. The result of these military-diplomatic
manoeuvres has been to create a downhill dynamic, pushing the West closer
The Western governments have tried to dig their toes in at the edge, staying
out of military involvement in Bosnia for as long as possible. With the
old world order falling apart and the new one little more than a slogan,
none of them can be sure what the consequences of escalation will be. Yet
neither can any of them afford to hang back and get left too far behind
their competitors. Things are slipping out of anybody's control and the
confused intra-Western contest for influence over Bosnia has set the
tone for the future of international affairs.
Whatever form Western intervention takes, and whichever foreign power finally
benefits the most, the biggest and most immediate losers will be the
peoples of the former Yugoslav republics themselves. At every stage of the
crisis, the pattern has been the same: the more the West becomes involved,
the worse things get.
It was the West's support for Croatian independence which exploded the conflict
between Zagreb and Belgrade into all-out civil war. Each time the West has
cranked up its campaign against Serbia, it has increased the tension. And
the West's more aggressive interference in Bosnia threatens to escalate
the war into an international conflict that could send shock waves
across the Balkans.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali, United Nations secretary-general, complained in August
that the Western powers on the UN security council were only interested
in the 'rich man's war' in Bosnia, but were doing next-to-nothing to save
the countless thousands dying from starvation and civil strife in Somalia.
He also said that Britain was treating him 'like a wog'. That seems like
fair comment on the humanitarian pretensions of the West. Boutros- Ghali's
mistake is to imagine that the Western powers really care any more about
the welfare of 'white niggers' like the Serbs than they do about 'wogs'
like the Somalis.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 47, September 1992