In response to:

The Missed Chance in Bosnia from the February 29, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

Michael Ignatieff’s essay “The Missed Chance in Bosnia” [NYR, February 29], in which he derides the Clinton administration and those whom he calls “pro-Bosnian Americans” for frustrating David Owen’s efforts to bring peace to the Balkans, is startling and mean-spirited. Ignatieff’s account of events in the Balkans is highly debatable—he might have noted that the only peace plan that brought a halt to the genocide was preceded by a NATO bombing campaign of the sort that Owen and the Europeans were hoping to avoid—and owes much to an uncritical acceptance of much material from Owen’s book.

It is the moral analysis of the conflict that most seems to offend Ignatieff, like Owen. He notes with approval Owen’s rejection of American ideas of right and wrong in the war, writing that “the conflict was not a morality play about blameless Muslim victims and evil Serb aggressors; it was a war in which all sides could be criticized.”

Two paragraphs later, however, Ignatieff suddenly overcomes his aversion to morality plays and claims that “it is difficult to think of a recent conflict in which there was such moral unanimity in face of evil and so little determination to do anything about it.” And where does he find this evil, where is his moral sense offended? In Krajina. For “the strategy that culminated at Dayton came at a price, including a moral one: Tudjman was given the green light to cleanse Croatia of most of its Serbs.” It was there that the West lost its honor. Not in Sarajevo, not in Gorazde, not in Srebrenica, not with the two million Muslims driven from their homes.

The Black Book of Bosnia, which I edited, and which Ignatieff dismisses in favor of Owen’s approach to the war, is perfectly straightforward in acknowledging and condemning the Croatian crimes in Krajina; and yet Ignatieff is obtuse to suggest that those crimes diminish the gravity of the great crime against Bosnia, or that the crime against Bosnia was not, morally and politically, the main event.

But Ignatieff’s most saddening argument is that the Bosnian Muslims, as a matter of policy, shelled their own villages, their own hospitals, their own women and children. “In 1992 and 1993 at least,” Ignatieff writes, the Bosnians “knew their chief asset was the suffering of Sarajevo…. As the siege continued, it provided the Bosnian government with a propaganda weapon in its campaign to have the US adopt a ‘lift and strike’ policy…. The Bosnians grew steadily more adept in exploiting their status as victims.” These are remarkable words: the suffering a “chief asset,” the siege a “propaganda weapon.”

But there is more. Ignatieff concludes that it is the “pro-Bosnian Americans” who are hobbled by moral confusions: “It seems morally odd, in fact, to suppose that a victim must remain blameless in order to continue to deserve assistance.” But it is Ignatieff who equates victimhood with saintliness. The fact that there are no good guys in the world does not mean that there are no bad guys. And if some Bosnians provoked some Serbs, surely this does not mean that the misery of hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of Serbian aggression deserves to be reduced to “propaganda.”

It is one thing to argue, from the standpoint of Realpolitik, that neither the United States nor any Western country had a compelling national interest to defend in Bosnia. (It is an argument without merit, but that is for another day.) It is quite another thing to claim that the victims of the Bosnian war—overwhelmingly Muslim, overwhelmingly civilian, overwhelmingly women and children—are victims of their own obstinacy, of their own claim to a life as a nation.

Ignatieff poorly characterizes the other side in this debate as “pro-Bosnian Americans.” They are, rather, anti-genocide Americans, who are therefore pro-Bosnian. There are also, of course, anti-genocide Europeans. I count myself among them, as no doubt Ignatieff does, too. And yet he wishes to distinguish himself from the pro-Bosnians. But the Balkan war was not “a war in which all sides can be criticized.” It was a war in which some sides may be criticized more than others, and for nothing less than genocide. Ignatieff on Bosnia is like the historian of the First World War whom Clemenceau could not imagine, the one who says that Belgium overran Germany. The Bosnians, it turns out, overran themselves.

Nader Mousavizadeh
The New Republic
Washington, D.C.

Michael Ignatieff replies:

Nader Mousavizadeh is a good friend of mine, and so his letter comes as a shock and a disappointment. He has misinterpreted both the spirit and the letter of my review of Owen. The point I was making still strikes me as uncontestable: if peace was possible in 1995, it was possible in 1993. Vance-Owen was no less ambiguous and unsatisfactory than Dayton, but a firm American commitment to Vance-Owen in January 1993, backed by threat of airstrikes, would have forced Pale to sign and would have spared the Bosnian people three horrible years of war. None of this ought to be controversial, but it breaks two taboos in much current American thinking on the subject: it speaks well of Owen’s intentions, if not his results, and it fails to cast the Europeans as worthless appeasers. Needless to say, I remain unrepentant about this, because historical understanding of the Balkan catastrophe is ill-served by these clichés.
The third taboo is of course that I have reported Owen’s criticisms of the Bosnian Muslims. To do so is apparently to imply that they got what they deserved, that they “overran themselves,” that their behavior was morally equivalent to the Serbs’. There is not a syllable in my article which justifies such interpretations. I happen to have seen the effects of Serbian ethnic cleansing with my own eyes. I do not stand in need of lectures about the form of intellectual solidarity which is owed to victims of Serbian crimes. Everything I have ever published on the subject of Bosnia, including my review of Owen’s book, has made my interpretation of events perfectly plain: the Bosnian Serbs, instigated and armed from Serbia proper, subverted an internationally recognized state in the name of an odious ideal of ethnic supremacy. For five years, everything I have written on Bosnia has been intended to offer critical support for the Bosnian cause. I see no reason, however, why solidarity with the Bosnian Muslims’ legitimate defense of their lives and their state should oblige me to ignore evidence that a desperate people sometimes resorted to desperate measures. I am no better placed than Mr. Mousavizadeh to sift the truth in this evidence, but I see no good reason why considering it carefully in a review should expose me to the moral scorn of a friend.

This Issue

April 18, 1996