Making Peace with the Guilty: The Truth About Bosnia

"English persons, therefore, of humanitarian and reformist disposition constantly went out to the Balkan Peninsula to see who was in fact ill-treating whom, and, being by the very nature of their perfectionist faith unable to accept the horrid hypothesis that everybody was ill-treating everybody else, all came back with a pet Balkan people established in their hearts as suffering and innocent, eternally the massacree and never the massacrer." -- Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, 1938.

Rebecca West loved the peoples of the Balkans, but she is not the only traveler to return from there with some measure of cynicism. For more than two years, I have found myself increasingly consumed and frustrated by events in the former Yugoslavia. I have traveled to the region on several occasions and have had the advantage of hearing the personal views of young men and women in Croatia and Macedonia assigned to the American forces, the U.N. Protection Force (UNPROFOR), and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The views I share here are the product of seeing this war up close, almost continuously, in all its ugliness. These views differ from much of the conventional wisdom in Washington, which is stunted by a limited understanding of current events as well as a tragic ignorance or disregard of history. Most damaging of all, U.S. actions in the Balkans have been at sharp variance with stated U.S. policy.

The linchpin of the U.S. approach has been the underinformed notion that this is a war of good versus evil, of aggressor against aggrieved. From that premise the United States has supported U.N. and NATO resolutions couched in seemingly neutral terms--for example, to protect peacekeepers--and then has turned them around to punish one side and attempt to affect the course of the war. It has supported the creation of safe areas and demanded their protection even when they have been used by one warring faction to mount attacks against another. It has called for a negotiated resolution of the conflict even as it has labeled as war criminals those with whom it would negotiate. It has pushed for more humanitarian aid even as it became clear that this was subsidizing conflict and protecting the warring factions from the natural consequences of continuing the fighting. It has supported the legitimacy of a leadership that has become increasingly ethnocentric in its makeup, single-party in its rule, and manipulative in its diplomacy.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis