Iraq is not Bosnia

The title of this entry rather sounds like stating the obvious, but of course Iraq and Bosnia have something in common, namely a recent or fairly recent western intervention. David Aaronovitch, in yesterday’s Times, names the fall of Srebrenica as the turning point in his change of attitudes, from being “as ardent a peacenik as you could find” to supporting western intervention, a position he has recently supported with regard to Iraq:

But Srebrenica was the moment when our responsibility for all this simply could not be denied. The UN was there, in the form of Dutch soldiers supposedly protecting an enclave. Our cameras were there as Ratko Mladic swanned into the invaded town and smilingly reassured Bosnian women that everything would be dealt with. In front of our eyes, just about, with our full knowledge, thousands were taken to European fields - just as they had been 50 years earlier - and murdered en masse. It was the most shaming moment of my life. We had let it happen again.

For one thing, Srebrenica was not the second time Europe had stood by and let a genocide happen: the time before (unless you count Rwanda, which he obviously does not, although there was much less that could be done there) took place while a war aimed at occupying the power which was in the process of carrying it out was being waged. It’s not a fair comparison. I recall the events leading up to Srebrenica, and the whole world knew what was going on in Bosnia for three years before that. We knew about the starving men in the prison camps, and about the rape camps, as early as 1992. The international community did everything it could to avoid any decisive action for three years, and as Johann Hari pointed out on Monday in the Independent, actually prevented the Bosnian government from defending itself by means of an arms embargo. As a result of watching from the sidelines, it knew full well what could happen if Srebrenica fell.

Aaronovitch notes that the same arguments were used to oppose intervention in Kosovo as in Bosnia:

There were the relativists questioning why we should intervene here, when we hadn’t in Burma, Tibet or Zimbabwe. There were the lawyers arguing that military action without the imprimatur of the United Nations might be illegal. There were the anti-Americans, who suggested that the motivation for military action was some hitherto unsuspected strategic or economic interest. There was Pinter saying that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were the real criminals, not Slobodan Milosevic.

The reader will of course notice that similar arguments were deployed to oppose war in Iraq and, for that matter, Afghanistan, but he claims that he “sees the road from Srebrenica to Iraq”, but comparisons between the two are not justified. In Bosnia a genocide was in progress in front of the eyes of the world, and the world was crying out for intervention to “stop the war”. (Funny how the same slogan is now anti-“intervention”, isn’t it?) In Iraq a genocide, if one were ever going to happen, had been prevented years before by the Kurdish rebels who controlled most of their part of the country.

And there are other major differences. Former Yugoslavia, unlike Iraq, was not a far-off land of which we knew little; it was part of central Europe, adjacent to two western European countries, with a culture not all that far removed from our own. There were not the terrorist elements that might make operations in Bosnia as difficult as they have been in Iraq, or who might threaten civilians at home, but one reason commonly cited for not intervening was that it would lead to a protracted occupation. The argument that we did not intervene in a country like Zimbabwe, with an ongoing man-made disaster, and that this was incompatible with the sort of “internationalism” which advocates invading countries ostensibly to remove oppressive régimes, is a wholly valid one in my opinion. And of course, there would have been no question of invading Afghanistan or Iraq if it had not been for 9/11. They could quite easily have taken place, and gained the support of the same sections of the left that support them now, without Srebrenica.

Aaronovitch employs a lot of the same smears and clichés characteristic of the pro-war lobby: the appeasement reference and the suggestion that Srebrenica divided “the pacifists, anti-imperialists and anti-Americans from the anti-fascists and the internationalists”, as if opponents of any war he and his friends support are just blindly pacifistic or anti-American and do not have humanitarian or realistic grounds for their position (for example, the use of radioactive munitions, the tendency to bomb innocent targets because of false intelligence and/or incompetence, the idea that a country which has never cared much for democracy abroad before cannot possibly be honest when they talk about it now, the fact that the invasion might not be a walkover and if it was, the forces that appeared to melt into the background might reappear and strike afterwards, the fact that we might be there for several years). I accept that some who supported the invasions of Iraq did so for entirely genuine reasons, but the pro-war left looks only at the organisers of opposition to war and not at the mass of ordinary people who joined. To them, it’s just the Socialist Workers and the Muslim Brotherhood (regardless of the fact that the removal of Saddam Hussain has allowed fundamentalists of various stripes to reassert themselves in Iraq).

I was not a Muslim at the time of the war and massacres in Bosnia, so while I supported the actions in Bosnia and opposed them in Afghanistan and Iraq, one might argue that I did so from a different point of view. But I find it entirely consistent that one might support an intervention meant to stop a clearly genocidal civil war yet not subscribe to a culture of adventurism like that which he, and others, now embrace on spurious humanitarian grounds. If it was Srebrenica that got it into some people’s heads that “inaction can be as toxic and murderous as action” and that intervention is sometimes necessary, what will it take to show some of them where to draw the line?

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