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Book Review

Holbrooke claims he saved Bosnia from the Serbs, and from Islam

Iqbal Siddiqui

TO END A WAR by Richard Holbrooke. Published by Random House, New York, NY, US, 1998. pp:408. Price: $27.95.

In March 1991, as Yugoslavia was being pulled apart by the insatiable demands of its Serbian and Croat nationalists, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian president Franjo Tudjman - supposedly implaccable foes - met secretly at a hunting-lodge at Karadjordjevo, formerly one of Tito’s favourite retreats. As the two nationalist leaders strolled together through the lodge’s serene gardens, they discussed and agreed a pact which would lead to massive bloodshed and suffering in the region over the next few years: a pact for the extermination of Yugoslavia’s Muslims and the partition between their States of the country’s Muslim republic, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

This elemental truth about the Bosnian war is all too easy to forget in view of the murky politicking of subsequent years. The years of bloody and desperate conflict were followed by a ‘peace deal’ at Dayton in December 1995 which many Bosnians and other Muslims have come to see as a sell-out on the part of the Izzetbegovic government; and the years since Dayton have been characterised by disillusion and disappointment. But the basic reality of the Bosnian war is that the Serbs and Croats attempted the total genocide of the Slavic Muslims and were foiled.

The contribution of the global Muslim Ummah to Bosnia’s survival was immense. At a time when the west deliberately stood back to allow the Serbs and Croats to complete their task, the moral and material support which Muslims provided to their Bosnian brethren was a major factor in their survival. It both enabled the Bosnians to survive the early months of the conflict, when their position was most vulnerable, and it forced the west to change their policy of non-intervention.

Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy on Bosnia, who largely controlled US policy towards Bosnia, and imposed the Dayton accords on all parties, demonstrates this point clearly in his new account of the episode, when he reproduces a memo he wrote to the State Department in January 1993, suggesting that the US should change its policy of not arming the Bosnians. In it, he writes:

‘...I would therefore recommend consideration of something which I know will cause many people heartburn: that we allow covert arms supply to the Bosnian Muslims, so that Bosnia’s outside support no longer comes solely from the Islamic nations.’

Speaking at the Oorganisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) summit in Tehran last year, Alija Izzetbegovic angered many Muslims by disparaging their contribution to Bosnia’s struggle. This anger,

entirely justified and understandable, also reflected a wider Muslim disappointment at developments in Bosnia, both in terms of its internal politics and in its dealings with other Muslim countries, movements and peoples.

Bosnia has not become the Islamic State Muslims all around the world hoped it would be; and nor has the Bosnian State repaid Muslims by becoming a part of the Islamic movement, let alone a leader. But at least the Muslims of Bosnia survive as the largest Muslim community in Europe, with the potential to be a major and significant part of a future Islamic civilization.

This should be regarded as victory enough for the time being. Izzetbegovic went very quickly from being a hero to a villain; from the leader of the Bosnian Muslims’ heroic resistance to the signatory of their betrayal and author of their subsequent troubles. And it is certainly true that in many respects his performance has been less than impressive. But speaking at Dayton on November 21, 1995, immediately after initialling the Dayton settlement, he put the Bosnians’ position in perspective: ‘[This] is not a just peace,’ he said, ‘but it is more just than continuing the war... in the world as it is, a better peace could have been obtained.’

‘In the world as it is;’ this is the key phrase. The fact is that power speaks in the world and Muslims are without power. Neither Muslim States nor the global Islamic movement could have imposed the Dayton settlement on Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. The Dayton settlement was imposed by the Americans because it served their interest to end the war, and they had the power and the leverage to force compliance with their interest. For the Bosnians, the idea of continuing to fight in the hope of a fairer outcome was a pipedream once America made clear that they would not support such a fight.

Indeed, as Holbrooke’s account amply demonstrates, the opposite was true: the Americans made clear that any attempt to fight on would result in US retribution against the Bosnians which would have cost them not only the possibility of future successes, but even the military gains which they had made in the last months of the war. Izzetbegovic is no saint - far from it - but it is difficult, reading Holbrooke’s book, not to sympathise with the position he found himself in.

Holbrooke’s book has been variously greeted in the west. Some have hailed it as a fine inside account of Clinton’s greatest foreign policy triumph, others (more accurately) as a self-serving reflection of Holbrooke’s arrogance and abrasiveness. For Muslim readers, however, the main sentiment must be sadness - sadness that the matter of the survival of a Muslim community faced with genocide should be determined not by the righteous power of the global Islamic movement but by such hypocritical, manipulative and self-serving politicking as Holbrooke represents and portrays in his book.

Holbrooke’s contempt for Izzetbegovic in particular, and the Muslims in general, is painful to read. Despite repeated pious condemnations of Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman, when it comes down to business in Dayton, Holbrooke makes no bones about whom he prefers working with. Izzetbegovic’s desire for justice and the best for the Muslims is presented as greed, while Milosevic’s reluctant willingness to give up a tiny part of his ill-gotten gains is regarded as reasonable and magnanimous.

Izzetbegovic’s agonising over decisions which mean life and death for Muslims is presented as vacillating indecisiveness, while Milosevic’s eagerness to have his genocidal victories legitimised is regarded as co-operative and helpful. Understandably perhaps, Holbrooke found it easier to relate to the aggressors than the victims.

The Muslims of Bosnia survive to fight another day - as they will undoubtedly have to - not only because of the support of the global Muslim Ummah, but also despite our weakness. The fact that men such as Holbrooke should be the arbiters of international issues concerning Muslim peoples is a reflection of our impotence, and of how far the Islamic movement has to go before we can really exercise power in this world. And without the righteous exercise of Islamic power, issues such as Bosnia, Palestine, Kashmir, Kosova and so many others will never be satisfactorily resolved.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 18

Rajab 26, 14191998-11-16

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