Bosniamania broke out in British media circles this summer. From Channel
4's Bloody Bosnia week to the Independent's Save Sarajevo
campaign, the message from liberal commentators was that the West should
use force in the Balkans to save the Muslims from the Serbs.
Joan Phillips looks into why Bosnia has become a moral crusade for liberals.
Her own documentary, Journalists at War, a critical review of media
coverage of the Yugoslav conflict, was broadcast on Channel 4 in August
As Nato bombers were warming up on the runways in August, the people shouting
loudest for Western intervention in Bosnia were the liberal media commentators.
Exuding a patronising contempt for all those who are not as consumed with
passion as they are about Bosnia, liberals everywhere combined to make sure
that the public would not be able to escape from it.
Channel 4 brought us Bloody Bosnia, a season of programmes aimed
at pummelling a public grown weary with war in the Balkans out of its apathy.
Guardian journalists joined in the jamboree, producing a book to
accompany the Channel 4 season. There were daily reviews of the Bloody
Bosnia coverage, printed extracts from the Bloody Bosnia book
and anguished editorials and articles in abundance.
Not to be outdone, the Independent tried to upstage the Guardian
and Channel 4 by launching its own Save Sarajevo campaign a week before
Bloody Bosnia began. A front-page editorial about the folly of betraying
Bosnia was followed within days by a front page taken up with the names
of Independent readers who had responded to the paper's appeal to
write letters in support of the Save Sarajevo campaign.
Artists for Bosnia got in on the Channel 4 act: singing songs, writing poems,
painting pictures and staging plays in solidarity with Sarajevo. Vanessa
Redgrave fronted Artists against Racism, for whom Bosnia has been turned
into the cause of the nineties. Susan Sontag went to Sarajevo to organise
a production of Waiting for Godot (geddit?). Meanwhile, Sam Fox entertained
our boys atop the tanks in Vitez....
Despite the frenetic activity, it was all a bit tedious. We were told nothing
that we have not been told a thousand times already by the same people,
except that we were now being told it day and night.
Essentially the argument from all concerned was that the Serbs are the aggressors
and the Muslims are the victims in Bosnia; that Western inaction in the
face of such aggression is appeasement; and that intervention to deal with
the aggressors is a moral imperative for the West.
Serb-bashing and intervention-mongering was very much the flavour of Bloody
Bosnia. Peter Salmon, Channel 4's Controller of Factual Programmes,
justified the emotive content of the programmes by arguing that 'the time
for polite discussion has passed' (Guardian, 20 July 1993). A Guardian
editorial opened Bloody Bosnia week with the opinion that 'if
Serb guns tilt the balance further against the Bosnian government, the time
has finally come to take them out' (2 August). The Independent, too,
advocated the use of force if necessary to open the road to Sarajevo.
Strong words from those who claim that right is on their side. But is it?
It probably escaped most people that the threat to the aid route to Sarajevo
was coming not from the Serbs, but, as the British commander in Sarajevo
divulged, from the Muslims and Croats fighting it out in central Bosnia.
Another thing that probably passed people by was the fact that the Serbian
advance on Sarajevo was largely a response to a series of Muslim offensives.
The fact that all the coverage during the Bloody Bosnia week ignored
these realities raises questions about what is going on.
There is something suspect about the crusade for Bosnia. For a start, the
liberal conscience seems to be somewhat selective.
Why Bosnia? Why is the liberal conscience stirred by Bosnia and yet left
comparatively unmoved by Angola, Liberia, Afghanistan, Lebanon - or the dozens
of other places around the globe where conflicts are raging?
Up to 1000 people are dying every day in Angola, far, far more than in Bosnia.
The civil war in Liberia has displaced 85 per cent of the population. In
Afghanistan, 1000 people were killed in one week in May, and that was only
in the capital, Kabul. In a few days in July, 300 000 people in southern
Lebanon were blitzed out of their homes by the Israeli armed forces.
Bosnia is clearly not a special case. So why has it been turned into one
by the liberals? It surely cannot be because all those cosmopolitan people
care more about what is happening in the heart of Europe than on the fringes
of Africa. And it certainly cannot be that all those liberal anti-racists
make any distinctions between the importance of black people in Liberia
and white people in Bosnia. Could it be because Western governments made
Bosnia into a big issue for their own purposes and liberals just followed
Why devote all that energy to defending the Muslims of Bosnia, and not the
Muslims of Lebanon? The selective character of liberal outrage was thrown
into sharp relief just before the Bloody Bosnia season began. The
Israelis chose this particular moment to start shelling the hell out of
southern Lebanon, turning more than a quarter of a million Muslims into
refugees through a deliberate policy of depopulation. Yet the plight of
these Muslims did not seem to move many British liberals as Bosnia did.
Why? Is it because Western liberals can identify with Muslims only when
they are victims or when they are supplicants of the West? Are Muslims who
associate themselves with resistance movements such as Hizbollah, and who
consider themselves to be enemies of the Western powers, beyond the pale?
Why is the liberal conscience stirred by the partition of Bosnia and not
by the partition of Lebanon between Israel and Syria?
Why the Muslims of Bosnia, and never the Serbs of Bosnia? Why have liberals
identified with the Muslim side in Bosnia so strongly that they have disqualified
the Serbs from any sympathy? The Serbs have certainly got blood on their
hands. But have all the atrocities in the dirty war in what was Yugoslavia
been committed by one side? Why are 800 000 Serbian refugees invisible to
those liberal commentators searching for victims? Is it because the Serbs
really are demons? Or is it because an increasingly conformist and uncritical
media jumped on the anti-Serb bandwagon created by their governments at
the start of the war in Yugoslavia, and never asked serious questions about
what was going on?
Asked if his Bloody Bosnia season had a governing viewpoint, Peter
Salmon said 'we're in favour of a multi-ethnic Bosnia' (Guardian, 31
July 1993). But there were no ethnic differences in Bosnia, only confessional
ones - between Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic Slavs. Never mind, whatever
it was, it was multi-something, and British liberals are very upset that
it is no more.
But why are the liberals suddenly so enraged by the break-up of a small
'multi-ethnic' state (Bosnia), when previously they had been all for the
break-up of a large 'multi-ethnic' state (Yugoslavia)? In fact, the same
people who are now crying over the destruction of Bosnia are implicated
in it. They never acknowledged it at the time and they have never admitted
it since, but the disintegration of Yugoslavia which they supported back
in 1991 led inevitably to the disintegration of Bosnia-Herzegovina. A unitary
Bosnia was a fantasy without a unitary Yugoslavia.
And why, when there is so much anguish about Sarajevo, is nothing ever said
about Belgrade? This is not to disregard the suffering of people in Sarajevo,
but simply to point out a double standard. The liberals are angered by the
Serbian assault on Sarajevo. Yet they are happy to contemplate the prostration
of Belgrade by Western sanctions. In the Serbian capital large numbers of
people are dying for lack of medicines and starving for lack of food. It
seems that inflicting suffering on innocent civilians can be for the best
when it is done by the West.
All in all, there seems to be little consistency and even less principle
involved in the liberal crusade for Bosnia. It makes you think that there
might be a hidden agenda here somewhere.
If we wanted to be cynical, I suppose we could conclude that the battle
between the Guardian and the Independent over Bosnia was the
broadsheet equivalent of the tabloid circulation war dressed up as a humanitarian
If it was a circulation war, the respective campaign managers could do with
a few tips from Kelvin McKenzie about what sells newspapers. The only people
who allowed themselves to be preached to by the Bosniamaniacs were probably
the converted. Who else would have read the same hand-wringing article for
the twentieth time?
The fact that Bosnia was seen as the best issue over which to fight a circulation
war suggests that there is something more at stake here than sales of newspapers.
The fact that some people at Channel 4 believed that viewers would stay
awake to listen to George Soros, currency speculator extraordinaire, pontificating
about the ethics of Western capitalism over Bosnia shows that somebody is
on a serious mission.
The fact that somebody at the Independent thought that sales would
be boosted by being a campaigning newspaper, and squashing 2000 signatures
on to a front page under the banner headline 'Sarajevo: action now!', suggests
that zealotry has vanquished commercial common sense.
The fact that Sarajevo has become a fashionable place to hang out for artists
and intellectuals like Susan Sontag indicates that liberals everywhere are
looking for a cause.
Bosniamania is a reaction to the contemporary angst of liberals about their
role in society. They have lost their bearings over the past decade. The
rollback of the postwar liberal consensus has been disorienting. Liberals
everywhere are desperately trying to find a new role for themselves in the
fast-changing post-Cold War world.
This explains why it has been the liberals who have tried to take the moral
high ground over Bosnia. They are the most outspoken critics of Western
inaction and the most vociferous supporters of intervention. We should note
that this trend is replicated across the Western world, from London to Bonn
and Paris to Washington. It is hard to find a liberal anywhere who is anti-interventionist
in the 1990s.
The liberal conscience has quickly come to terms with the realities of the
post-Cold War world. This is a world in which the right is in the ascendant
and the left is in retreat. A world in which the balance has shifted in
favour of the West and against the third world and the East. In which the
idea that the Western powers know what is best for the rest of the globe
is the received wisdom.
Far from questioning this point of view, the liberals are often the most
forceful exponents of it. They have found a new role for themselves as moral
propagandists for imperialism. Their mission in life today is to dress up
imperial meddling in the affairs of other nations as a moral crusade.
By justifying intervention in humanitarian terms, the new liberal crusaders
have become foot soldiers for the moral rearmament of imperialism. Regardless
of whether or not governments heed their calls for action, the liberals
have helped to enhance the moral status of the West as the force for peace
and civilisation around the globe.
Most difficult to stomach from the liberals is their presumption that they
are on the side of right - and that doing the right thing means demanding
Western intervention in Bosnia. Nothing could be further from the truth
Those calling for Western intervention seem blind to the fact that the West
has been intervening in Yugoslavia from the start. Indeed the fact is that
there was no war in Yugoslavia until the West stuck its nose in.
As we have argued consistently in Living Marxism, the people of the
Balkans are the victims of a new round of Great Power politics. From Germany
pushing Slovenia and Croatia to secede, to America leading the campaign
for the recognition of Bosnia, the manoeuvres of rival Western powers led
to the break-up of Yugoslavia and the outbreak of armed conflict. Their
self-interested diplomacy has created an almighty mess in the Balkans. And
Western diplomacy did not simply start the war, it has kept it going and
made it worse. Take one important example.
On 18 March 1992, before the war really started in Bosnia, the Serb, Croat
and Muslim leaders all signed an agreement brokered by the European Community
The Muslims got a good deal. They got 44 per cent of the land in Bosnia,
and only 18 per cent of their people would have been living outside of Muslim
provinces. The Serbs fared worse. They got 44 per cent of the land, but
50 per cent of their people would have been outside of these territories.
The Croats got the worst deal. They got 12 per cent of the land and 59 per
cent of their people would have remained outside of Croatian provinces.
On 25 March 1992, however, the Muslim SDA party in Sarajevo repudiated the
agreement, saying it could not agree to the partition of Bosnia. The Lisbon
agreement had defined Bosnia and Herzegovina as a loose confederation of
three constituent units under a sovereign state. But Muslim leader Alija
Izetbegovic insisted on a unitary Bosnia-Herzegovina under his presidency.
Within weeks Bosnia had been recognised by the Western powers and the war
for control of territory began in earnest. Some 17 months and many thousands
of Muslim, Serb and Croat lives later, it looks like the Muslims are going
to end up with a few bantustans in a partitioned Bosnia.
Who is to blame for this? Is it the Serbs? Is it the Croats? Is it the Muslims?
In fact, the West is to blame. It seems that the Muslims were persuaded
by Western diplomats, and the Americans in particular, to oppose partition
and hold out for a unitary Bosnian state. In other words, the West dangled
a carrot in front of the Muslims and effectively encouraged them to commit
political and military suicide.
It is clear from this (and many similar examples) that the Western powers
never had the interests of the people of Bosnia at heart. They were playing
a cynical game in which the Americans were leading the campaign for an independent
Bosnia in order to assert their authority at the expense of the Europeans.
They were prepared to shaft the EC negotiators, undermine the Lisbon negotiations
and sacrifice the Muslims for the sake of their own prestige.
And this is the good West that the bloody liberals want to come to the rescue
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 59, September 1993