(This appeared originally at
The Lessons of Yugoslavia
by Louis Proyect
David Gibbs, First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia(Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, forthcoming, June 2009).
As a rule of thumb, there is an inverse relationship between the success of American foreign policy adventures and the amount of scholarly critiques they generate. When they fail, as they did in Vietnam and Iraq, a mass market will be created for books like David Halberstam’s The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era or Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco. But when they succeed, publishers will not rush to the door of a scholar who questions such victories, especially if the main criterion of questioning is the impact on the lives of those whose lands were attacked.
Perhaps the most obvious recent example of this is the wars in Yugoslavia, which have generated very little in the way of serious analysis except from Diana Johnstone or Edward Herman. As a measure of their isolation, both have been attacked as “holocaust revisionists” for making essentially the same kinds of points that have been made with respect to Iraq.
Thus, it is of some importance that David Gibbs, a respected professor of history and political science at the University of Arizona, has weighed in on the Balkan wars through the publication of First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. Using his background in the two disciplines, Gibbs has written one of the few chronicles of the wars in Yugoslavia designed simply to tell the truth about what happened. Since so many mainstream accounts are content to recycle propaganda, it is no small accomplishment to present the facts without fear or favor. With a twenty-five page bibliography, First Do No Harm is a substantive contribution to the scholarly literature, one that will have to be engaged with whatever your perspective on the Balkan wars.
Just as importantly, Gibbs has provided one of the few book-length analyses of the political economy of the wars’ origins. With the exception of Sean Gervasi’s “Why Is NATO in Yugoslavia?” a paper delivered to a conference in Prague in 1996, there have been very few attempts to understand the implosion of Yugoslavia except in terms of a “great man” theory of history, in which an Evil Slobodan Milosevic gets blamed for everything that went wrong. In that paper, Gervasi raised the question:
Why are the Western powers pressing for the expansion of NATO? Why is NATO being renewed and extended when the “Soviet threat” has disappeared? There is clearly much more to it than we have so far been told. The enforcement of a precarious peace in Bosnia is only the immediate reason for sending NATO forces into the Balkans.
Gervasi died only six months after this paper was delivered, so he never really had a chance to give a fully elaborated, book-length treatment on U.S. ambitions clashing with one of the few remaining socialist strongholds in Eastern Europe. In describing American foreign policy as a “Great Game,” not that much different from imperial ventures in the past, Gervasi dared to go against the liberal consensus.
David Gibbs’s study answers the questions first raised in Gervasi’s article, while contributing a new explanation that might appear controversial to those who regard inter-imperialist rivalries as ancient history. In general, even among Marxists, including me, there is a tendency to regard the First and Second World Wars as confirmations of Lenin’s writings on imperialism but to look at the post-Second World War period as fundamentally different. While there were obviously clashing interests between the United States and Europe or Japan over this or that trade agreement or foreign policy dispute, the consensus view tended to overlap with either “globalization” theories that posited a disappearance of the nation-state or a view that most nation-states were content to operate as subhegemons in the U.S. orbit.
For Gibbs, the key to understanding the trajectory of the Balkan wars was rivalry over what was considered a ripe plum. Germany had its own imperial interests and was actually the first capitalist power to begin the process of tearing apart a social system that had proven quite viable until economic contradictions began to make it vulnerable to outside powers in the 1970s. In chapter four, titled, appropriately enough, “Germany Drops a Match,” Gibbs reveals the extent of German support for Croatian and Slovenian secessions:
German support for the secessionists is noted by several other sources. French Air Force general Pierre M. Gallois asserts that Germany began supplying arms to Croatia, including antitank and antiaircraft rockets, in early 1991 — before the war began. Off the record, US officials also acknowledged German intervention. An investigative article in the New Yorker cites an anonymous US diplomat who alleged that German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher “was encouraging the Croats to leave the federation and declare independence.” It is difficult to fully assess this allegation, given the anonymity of the source. However, the New Yorker allegation is supported by the memoirs of US ambassador Warren Zimmermann, which note “Genscher’s tenacious decision to rush the independence of Slovenia and Croatia” (emphasis added).
Although the United States and Germany shared hostility toward Milosevic, who was perceived as a Titoist holdover standing in the way of converting the Yugoslav economy into one more favorable to Western economic ambitions, they by no means saw their own interests as coinciding. Like dogs fighting over a bone, the United States sought to push its rivals aside and viewed NATO in particular as a means toward that end. Sharing Gervasi’s emphasis on the role of NATO, Gibbs makes a strong case for seeing this military alliance as a bid to enhance the US hegemonic power at the expense of what became known as “Old Europe” in the early stages of the war in Iraq.
As a latecomer to the new areas for investment in the former Titoist republics, the United States understood the need for armed might, arguably the sine qua non for its continuing role as a hegemonic power in a period of economic decline. As Thomas Friedman once put it, “the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15.” While it was clearly beyond the bounds of U.S. hegemony to impose its will directly on Yugoslavia as it has now attempted in Iraq, it saw NATO as a useful surrogate. Indeed, the pretext for a full-scale NATO intervention was the slaughter of Muslim men at Srebrenica, an event that, horrible as it was, should not have provided an excuse for even greater bloodletting. Under the rubric of “Operation Deliberate Force,” U.S. power was put on full display as Gibbs relates:
Deliberate Force was technically a multinational NATO campaign, but it was conceived and conducted largely by the United States. Shortly before the strikes were launched, US officials met with their European counterparts and, in essence, demanded their support. According to Chollet, who interviewed many key figures: “The Americans would go to explain what they were doing, not ask for permission. The message would be ‘part invitation, part ultimatum.’” Though European leaders resented this US diktat, they reluctantly went along with the plan. After the Srebrenica massacre, the Europeans were under pressure to take action, and they did not wish to appear obstructionist. NATO member states thus supported Operation Deliberate Force.
Gibbs fully intended First Do No Harm as a critique of both successful interventions such as the one that took place in Yugoslavia and the one that still lurches unsteadily in Iraq. Despite the perception (albeit growing dimmer day by day) that Obama is anxious to pull out of Iraq, it should have been clear to everybody committed to world peace that his opposition to war was based on pragmatism rather than principle. Even during the period when he was perceived as a courageous opponent of an unpopular war, Obama maintained that he was not opposed to all wars, only those that were “dumb” or “rash.”
Therefore, it is a cause for great worry that Obama has retained the services of a number of foreign policy operatives who do not believe that NATO’s wars in the Balkans were “dumb” or “rash,” especially journalist Samantha Powers who became persona non grata with the Obama team during the primaries when she blurted out that his plans for withdrawal were only a “best case scenario.” She was subsequently reinstated, apparently because Obama shared her cynical attitude all along, despite his dovish reputation.
It is essential for those committed to world peace to become familiar with the sorry history of so-called humanitarian intervention in Yugoslavia, since the same characters who orchestrated American strategy in the period are now in the driver’s seat. Not only do we face escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we are likely to hear the same kinds of “human rights” rhetoric that accompanied the Balkan wars. This is not to speak of Darfur, a region that Powers has likened repeatedly to Yugoslavia as a candidate for a NATO-style rescue.
Gibbs indicates what the movement must be prepared for in his conclusion:
[T]he Iraq war has gone badly indeed, and the humanitarian effects of this particular intervention must be regarded as negative. In this context, some recall the earlier interventions in Yugoslavia with nostalgia. To state the matter simply, Yugoslavia is remembered as the “good war” — which achieved genuinely humanitarian outcomes — and it thus offers a welcome contrast with the Iraq fiasco. The Balkan nostalgia also results from electoral politics: Democratic politicians are drawing attention to the “successful” US bombing campaigns in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina as examples of how intervention should be undertaken. By emphasizing the positive aspects of these campaigns, Democrats are trying to show that they too are capable of using military force (with the implied additional claim that they can do so more effectively, more competently, and more humanely than their Republican opponents). But the benign image of the Balkan interventions extends well beyond Democratic circles, and it is bipartisan to a significant degree. The main purpose of this book has been to debunk this benign image, and to argue that it relies on a series of myths.