Johnstone on the Balkan Wars



Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Wester

n Delusions

Review Press, 2002) is essential reading for anybody who wants to
understand the causes, effects, and rights and wrongs of the Balkan
wars of the past dozen years. The book should be priority reading
for leftists, many of whom have been carried along by a NATO-power
party line and propaganda barrage, believing that this was one case
where Western intervention was well-intentioned and had beneficial
results. An inference from this misconception, by “cruise missile
leftists” and others, is that imperialism can be constructive
and its power projections must be evaluated on their merits, case
by case.

is a pleasure to watch Johnstone dismantle the claims and expose
the methods of David Rieff, a literary and media favoriate, as well
as Roy Gutman, John Burns, and David Rohde, three reporters whose
close adherence to the party line in Bosnia was rewarded with the
Pulitzer prize—all fueling the “humanitarian bombing”
bandwagon. While critics of the party line risk being dismissed
as apologists for the Serbs, even the most fervent partisan of an
idealized “Bosnia” and campaigner for NATO military intervention,
like Rieff, or the novice journalist Rohde, who wrote on Srebrenica
in a semi-fictional mode, with U.S. intelligence guidance, have
never had to fear being criticized as apologists for the Muslims
or NATO.

widespread acceptance of the official connections, open advocacy,
and spectacular bias displayed by these authors rested in part on
the usual media and intellectual community subservience to official
policy positions, but it was also a result of the rapid and thoroughgoing
demonization of the Serbs as the “new Nazis” or “last
of the Communists.” Given that NATO was good, combatting evil,
close relationships with officials was not seen as involving any
conflict of interest or compromise with objectivity; they were all
on the same “team”—a phalanx seeking justice.

the other hand, any attempt to counter the official/media team’s
claims and supposed evidence was quickly seen as apologetics. This
is hardly new. In each U.S. war critics of U.S. policy are charged
with being apologists for the demonized enemy—Ho Chi Minh and
communism; Pol Pot; Saddam Hussein; Bin Laden, etc. The demonization
of Milosevic was in accord with longstanding practice, and the charge
of apologist for challenging the official line on the demon was
inevitable for a forceful challenger. What is perhaps exceptional
has been the extensive acceptance of the party line among people
supposedly on the left, with, among others, Christopher Hitchens,
Ian Williams, and the editors of the


in its grip.

In These Times

rejected first-hand reporting from Kosovo
by Johnstone, their longtime European editor, when it diverged from
the line of their more recent correspondent, Paul Hockenos, whose
connections with the establishment include a stint as the media
officer for the OSCE occupying powers in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina,
and an affiliation with the American Academy in Berlin, whose chair
and co-chair are Richard Holbrooke and Henry Kissinger.  What
makes the double standard in treatment of Johnstone and the “journalists
of attachment” especially laughable is that Johnstone is a
serious investigative journalist, very knowledgeable about Balkan
history and politics, whose work in

Fools’ Crusade

a standard in cool examination of issues that is several grades
higher than that in Rieff, Gutman, Rohde, Burns (or Ignatieff, Hitchens,
Williams, and Hockenos). On issue after issue she discusses both
the evidence and counter-evidence, weighs them, gives them a historical
and political context, and comes to an assessment, which is sometimes
that the verifiable evidence doesn’t support a clear conclusion.

example, Johnstone discusses the work of Nasir Oric, a man not featured
by Rieff, the media, or the Tribunal. Arkan is a more familiar name—a
Serb paramilitary leader, eventually indicted by the Tribunal. Nasir
Oric was a Bosnian Muslim officer operating out of Srebrenica, from
which “safe haven” Oric ventured out to attack nearby
Serb villages, burning homes and killing over 1,000 Serbs between
May 1992 and January 1994. Oric even invited Western reporters to
his apartment to see his “war trophies”: videocassettes
showing cut-off Serb heads, burnt houses, and piles of corpses.

thought that Srebrenica was a “safe haven” only for civilians
and that it could hardly be a UN cover for Bosnian Muslim military
operations? You were misinformed (Johnstone, 110). You hadn’t
heard of the 1992 pushing out of Serbs from Srebrenica and the multiyear
attacks on nearby Serb towns and massacres that preceded the Srebrenica
massacre? That is because it has been an absolute rule of Rieff
et al./media reporting on the Bosnian conflict to present evidence
of Serb violence in vacuo, suppressing evidence of prior violence
against Serbs, thereby falsely suggesting that Serbs were never
responding, but only initiating violence (this applies to Vukovar,
Mostar, Gorazde, and many other towns). It also justifies the claim
that Serb actions, supposedly never motivated by a desire for revenge,
are genocidal in intent.

hadn’t heard of Nasir Oric and can’t understand why he
has never been indicted by the Tribunal for doing the same sort
of thing as Arkan, but perhaps on a somewhat larger scale. It is
not puzzling at all if you realize that the “phalanx”
I mentioned above, which includes Rieff et al., the media, and the
Tribunal, also includes the NATO powers and is serving their ends,
which did not include justice.

provides many examples of how the phalanx twisted facts for political
ends, including an extensive and compelling analysis of the various
non-proofs of “systematic rape” as Serb policy (1978-1990).
But the choicest morsel showing how the propaganda system works
was the Nazi-style “death camp” with its picture of the
“thin man” Fikret Alic behind barbed wire. As Johnstone
notes, the Bosnian Muslims and Croatians also had prison camps during
the Bosnian wars, but Karadzic, the “indicted war criminal,”
was not as smart as they were—he allowed the Western media
to visit his camps.

is now well established as truth, if not permitted to surface in
the mainstream media, that: (1) the thin man was not behind barbed
wire—the barbed wire was around a small unused compound from
which the photographers from Britain’s Independent Television
Network took their pictures; (2) he was not even in a prison camp,
let alone a death camp, but was in transit through a refugee center,
on his way to exile in Scandinavia; (3) the thinness of Fikret Alic
was not typical of people in the camp, but was highlighted to fit
the “Auschwitz” image.

“in August 1992, the ‘thin man behind barbed wire’
photos made the tour of the front pages of virtually every tabloid
newspaper in the Western world and appeared on the cover of




, and other mass circulation magazines.” The
U.S. proposal for a war crimes tribunal followed in the same month
with widespread claims that the “thin man” photo proved
Serb genocidal intent. This was only one of many frauds based on
disinformation, but it was a major one, helping make the Serbs-as-Nazis
a given for the phalanx and much of the Western public.

Milosevic Started It All


to the party line of NATO and the phalanx has been the theme that
Milosevic is the demon who started it all by his nationalist quest
for a “Greater Serbia” and his (and Serbia’s) view
that non-Serbs “had no place in their country, and even no
right to live” (Clinton). According to David Rieff, Milosevic
“had quite correctly been described by U.S. officials…as
the architect of the catastrophe,” and Tim Judah referred to
Milosevic’s responsibility for wars in “Slovenia, Croatia,
Bosnia, Kosovo: four wars since 1991 and the result of these terrible
conflicts, which began with the slogan ‘All Serbs in One State’
is the cruelest irony.” On its face this perspective seems
simple-minded and is even referred to by a more sophisticated analyst
than Rieff or Judah, Lenard Cohen, a bit sardonically, as the “paradise
lost/loathsome leaders perspective” on history. Johnstone’s
book destroys this party line by a careful examination of the dynamics
of the conflict observable in the actions and interests of all the
parties involved.

her enlightening chapter on Germany, Johnstone describes its hostility
to Serbia and contacts with Croatian emigre groups long before the
arrival of Milosevic. Germany had attacked Serbia during World War
I and then again under the Nazis; whereas the Croatians and Kosovo
Albanians had been German allies. Germany under the Nazis had regularly
used the gambit of siding with “ethnic minorities” as
a means of weakening rival or target states and with the death of
the Soviet Union and the end of Western support of a unified and
independent Yugoslavia, and German reunification, Germany renewed
that gambit as it aimed to consolidate its power in Eastern Europe.
Germany encouraged the unilateral secession of Slovenia and Croatia
and pressured its Maastricht allies to go along with supporting
this secession, although it was unnegotiated and in violation of
international law.

the same time as the Europeans encouraged these secessions, and
the United States threatened Yugoslavia if it tried to maintain
its borders by use of its army, the NATO alliance failed to deal
with the threat to the stranded minorities in the seceding territories.
The EU-appointed Badinter commission announced in November 1991
that Yugoslavia was “in a process of dissolution,” which
helped accelerate the dissolution; and by giving recognition to
the artificial boundaries of the “Republics,” while refusing
to consider the demands of the large groups within those Republics
that wanted to stay in Yugoslavia, Badinter provided an ideal formula
for producing ethnic warfare. This was not Milosevic causing trouble,
it was the Germans and other NATO powers who encouraged dissolution
without offering any constructive solution to minority demands.

obvious bias against the Serbs, and encouragement to the national
groups opposed to the Serbs, also maximized the threat to peace,
as it made the Serbs justly suspicious of NATO intentions and encouraged
the other groups to resist a negotiated settlement and provoke the
Serbs into actions that would increase NATO intervention on their
behalf. This was dramatically evident in Bosnia, where the European
powers arranged for an independence vote in 1992, despite the fact
that the Bosnia-Herzegovina constitution required that such a vote
be taken only upon agreement among the republic’s three “constituent
peoples” (Muslims, Croats, and Serbs). The Bosnian Serbs boycotted
this election, and the creation of this artificial and badly divided
state assured war and ethnic cleansing. This again was a catastrophic
decision made by the NATO powers, not Milosevic.

describes the brutal historical background of Bosnia-Herzegovina
(and Croatia), which had been the scene of massive inter-group crimes
during World War II. She also demonstrates that Bosnia was no multi-ethnic
paradise upset by Serb violence, in the myth perpetrated by Rieff
et al. and the NATO media. Johnstone points out that even as early
as December 1990, in elections in Bosnia the nationalist parties
won easily, capturing 90 percent of the votes, suggesting something
other than a non-nationalistic society. She also provides solid
evidence that Alija Izetbegovic, the Muslim leader of Bosnia in
the war years, was a committed believer in an Islamic—not a
multi-ethnic—state, and a person who regarded Turkey as too
advanced and modernist, preferring Pakistan as his Islamic model.
The thousands of Mujahidden fighters, including al Qaeda militants,
that he welcomed to fight for his cause and the massive aid given
him by Saudi Arabia were not supplied in the cause of multi-ethnicity.

shows that with U.S. aid and encouragement Izetbegovic fought any
settlement that would result in autonomy for the major national
groups. He, like the KLA, realized that he could pursue a maximalist
strategy by getting the more-than-willing United States to support
him both diplomatically and, increasingly, by military means. Milosevic,
and to a lesser extent the Bosnian Serbs, were repeatedly willing
to sign compromise agreements, but Izetbegovic repeatedly refused,
with U.S. support—most importantly, in the case of the Lisbon
Accord of March 1992, which was signed by all three parties, but
from which Izetbegovic withdrew, on U.S. advice. Milosevic also
supported the Owen-Vance plan of 1992, vetoed by the Bosnian Serbs,
to Milosevic’s disgust. This diplomatic history is well documented
in Lord David Owen’s memoir,

Balkan Odyssey

, which is
why this Britisher’s work is not well regarded by the party

detailed account of Croatia stresses the genocidal behavior of the
Croats toward the Serbs in World War II; the long-standing backing
of the nationalist movement in Croatia by Germany, Austria, and
the Vatican; the importance of the Croatian lobby in the United
States and elsewhere in mobilizing support for their breakaway from
Yugoslavia; and Croatia’s skilled propaganda efforts, helped
along by their employment of public relations firm Ruder Finn. “News”
about Croatia and its victimization by Serbia flowed from Zagreb
and Ruder Finn. Quite independently of Milosevic the Croatian nationalists,
led by Franjo Tudjman from 1990, were clearly aiming at a “Greater
Croatia” that would include a part of Bosnia, as well as the
Serb-inhabited Krajina area. As convincingly argued by Johnstone,
it was a masterpiece of effective propaganda that Croatia’s
war in Bosnia and expulsion of a quarter million Serbs from Krajina
(with active U.S. assistance) was portrayed in the West not as part
of a quest for a Greater Croatia, but as a resistance to Milosevic’s
striving for a Greater Serbia.

to Clinton and mainstream commentary, Milosevic’s drive for
a Greater Serbia and nationalism was demonstrated by his inflammatory
nationalistic speeches of 1987 and 1989. This is a perfect illustration
of the profound role of disinformation in the demonization process.
The two famous speeches denounce nationalism: Milosevic actually
said, “Yugoslavia is a multinational community, and it can
survive only on condition of full equality of all nations that live
in it.” Nothing in the two speeches contradicts this sentiment.

dispelling the “myth” of Milosevic, Johnstone hardly puts
him on a pedestal. He was an opportunistic politician, “whose
‘ambiguity’ allowed him to win elections, but not to unite
the Serbs.” Milosevic gained popularity by condemning both
Serbian nationalism and communist bureaucracy and by promising economic
reforms in line with the demands of the Western financial community.
In Johnstone’s view, Milosevic can be regarded as a criminal
“if using criminals to do dirty tasks makes him a criminal,”
but on this count he was “no more [guilty] (or rather less)
than the late President Tudjman of Croatia or President Alija Izetbegovic
of Bosnia, widely regarded as a saint.” He was less a nationalist
than Tudjman and Izetbegovic, and claims that he had “dehumanizing
beliefs” and an “eliminationist project” are taken
out of the whole cloth.

alleged pursuit of a Greater Serbia was also a misreading of his
actual policies, which were, first, to prevent the disintegration
of Yugoslavia and, second, as that disintegration occurred, to protect
the Serb minorities in the new states and allow them either to remain
in Yugoslavia or obtain autonomy in the new rump states. He was
considered by the Bosnian Serbs and Krajina victims of Operation
Storm to be a sell-out, eager to bargain away their interests in
exchange for a possible lifting of sanctions on Yugoslavia. He did
support the Bosnian Serbs, sporadically, but it is rarely mentioned
that the NATO powers and Saudia Arabia and al Qaeda were supporting
the Bosnian Muslims (and Croatia was supporting its allies in Bosnia).

Milosevic was guilty of pursuing a Greater Serbia by trying to prevent
the dissolution of Yugoslavia and feebly seeking to give stranded
and threatened Serb populations protection. His “war”
against Slovenia—one of those “terrible conflicts”
Tim Judah attributes to Milosevic—was a half-hearted ten-day
effort to prevent an illegal secession of that Republic, quickly
terminated with minimal (and mainly Yugoslav army) casualties. Meanwhile,
Tudjman, quite openly seeking a Greater Croatia, and Izetbegovic,
trying to leverage U.S. and other NATO hostility to Yugoslavia into
a means of compelling unwanted Greater Muslim rule in Bosnia, were
just victims of the bad man.

same is true of the Kosovo struggle. There is no question but that
Milosevic’s crackdown in 1989 was brutal and that police and
army actions against the KLA in later years were sometimes ruthless,
but the phalanx has ignored a number of key facts. One is that Kosovo
was largely run by Albanians before 1989 and the first target of
the 1989 crackdown was the old bureaucracy run by Albanian communists.
Second, under their rule it was Serbs who were discriminated against
and driven out of Kosovo. In the 1980s and earlier, Kosovo Albanian
nationalists were openly engaging in “ethnic cleansing”
in the interests of a homogenous Albanian state. In the 1990s the
movement aimed not for reform, but for an exit from Yugoslavia.
The movement’s leaders were also more openly interested in
a “Greater Albania.” As in the case of the Izetbegovic
faction of the Bosnian Muslims, the KLA soon saw that by provocation
and effective propaganda it would be possible to get NATO to serve
as its military arm.

describes the Yugoslav efforts to compromise and give the Albanians
greater autonomy and she notes the complete failure of the NATO
powers to seek any kind of mediated solution (including a division
of the Kosovo territory). The war engineered by the KLA and United
States then ensued, with disastrous results. In Kosovo it produced
great destruction, an immense flight of refugees, with thousands
of casualties and a fresh injection of hatred on all sides that
contradicted the alleged NATO aim of producing a genuine multi-ethnic
community. This was followed by a massive ethnic cleansing of Serbs,
Roma, Turks, and Jews by the NATO-supported KLA, and Kosovo was
left “without a legal system, ruled by illegal structures of
the Kosovo Liberation Army and very often by competing mafias”
(quoting Jiri Dienstbier, UN human rights rapporteur in Kosovo).
Under NATO auspices, and helped along by leaders of Albania, a new
advance was made in the aim of a “Greater Albania” in
Macedonia and possibly elsewhere. Finally, Serbia was very badly
damaged by the war, reduced to penury and dependency, conflict ridden,
and with a sham democracy in place.

has a devastating account of the work of the International Criminal
Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY), showing its political origin,
purpose, and service, as well as its violation of all Western judicial
norms (including the use of “indictments” to condemn and
ostracize without trial). Among many other points featured is the
fact that the Tribunal has only sought to establish responsibility
at the top for Serbs, never for Croatian or Bosnian Muslim leaders.
Johnstone also notes the unwillingness to indict any NATO personnel
or officials for readily documented war crimes. She also points
out that the indictment of Milosevic on May 27, 1999, based on unverified
information provided by U.S. intelligence one day earlier, was needed
by NATO to cover over its intensifying bombing of Serbian civilian
sites, in straightforward violation of international law. As Clinton
said, “The indictment confirms that our war is just,”
but it more clearly confirmed that the Tribunal was a political,
not a judicial institution.

contends that the United States was a participant in the Balkan
wars for a number of reasons, including the desire to maintain its
role as leader of NATO and to help provide NATO with a function
on its 50th anniversary year (celebrated in the midst of the 78-day
bombing war in April 1999); if Germany and others were going to
intervene in Yugoslavia, the United States would have to enter and
play its role and incidentally show that in the use of force it
was still champion. The United States was also using its Bosnian
intervention to demonstrate its willingness to aid Muslims, contradicting
its image as anti-Muslim and solidifying its relationship with Turkey
and other Muslim countries helping in the Bosnian war. It was also
positioning itself for further advances in the region with a major
military base in Kosovo and new clients in an area of increasing
interest with links to the Caspian basin. The humanitarian motive
was contradicted by inherent implausibility and by the nature and
inhumanitarian results of the U.S. and NATO intervention.

the United States did well from its intervention, but the people
of the area did poorly. The policies of it and its European allies
were primary causes of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the failure
to manage any split peaceably. Their intervention was not “too
late,” but early, destructive, and well designed to encourage
the ethnic cleansing that followed. Subsequently, they failed to
mediate the conflict in Kosovo and collaborated with the KLA in
producing a highly destructive war, followed by an occupation in
which real ethnic cleansing took place, with NATO acquiesence and
even cooperation. Bosnia and Kosovo are under colonial occupation.
The remnant Yugoslavia, once a vibrant and multi-ethnic state, is
poor, crowded with refugees, dependent on a hostile West, conflict-ridden,
and rudderless. The Balkans are neither stable nor free; their future
as NATO clients does not look promising.

Johnstone has written this story in a readable, scholarly, and convincing
way that I have been able to summarize all to briefly here. It is
an important book, especially for a left that has been confused
by the outpourings of a very powerful propaganda system.

S. Herman is an economist, author, and media analyst. A more detailed
and footnoted version of this review article may be seen at: