The little most Americans know about Bosnia is that it was the scene of murderous orgies and ethnic cleansing during the 1990s. There is far more to the land where I was born, of course, but at least this simplistic view is accurate — which is more than can be said for the revisionist history of the war now being peddled by some of those who helped bring it to an end.
Democratic presidential candidate and former first lady Hillary Clinton, as is well known by now, “misremembered” coming under sniper fire in Bosnia in 1996, after the war had already ended. Less attention, however, has been paid to a far more pernicious reinterpretation of events by the man who brokered the Dayton Peace Accords.
In a Washington Post opinion article last month, Richard Holbrooke argued that, “Without Dayton, Al Qaeda would probably have planned the September 11 attacks from Bosnia, not Afghanistan.” This statement is unfounded and careless — and what’s worse, it is a resort to stereotypes to rationalize past and current policy and moral failures.
Such a revision of history does an injustice to both the Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, who suffered during the war and the American Jews who were so instrumental in bringing our tragedy to the world’s attention.
While mujahideen undoubtedly drifted into Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war, I never saw any indication of an Al Qaeda presence. Bosnians and Herzegovinians, in particular Bosniaks, would not have allowed the establishment of a base for targeting Western interests.
Bosniaks have long seen themselves as members of the Western family. Like Jews, Bosniaks do not see any contradiction between their European identity and the religious beliefs that distinguish them from their Christian neighbors.
To the contrary, those who defended Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war perceived themselves as custodians of the shared values of pluralism and multiculturalism. That is why our leaders appealed to the United States for support, and that is why we gratefully welcomed the engagement of the American Jewish community.
With Holbrooke leading the attempt to reconstruct history through the lens of the war on terrorism, it is worth recalling just how engaged the American Jewish community was. I traveled all across America during those tragic years in an effort to rally support for my beleaguered country, and time and again the vision of a pluralistic, multicultural Bosnia was embraced at synagogues, yeshivas and JCCs.
On campuses around the country, the Bosnian and Herzegovinan cause became common ground for Jewish and Muslim students, who advocated together for confronting the perpetrators of genocide. The precedent set during the 1990s is playing out again today, in the overwhelming public outcry against the genocide in Darfur.
Motivated by the vow of “never again,” the American Jewish community was in no small measure responsible for getting Washington engaged in Bosnia. When the United States finally led NATO to confront the genocide and ethnic cleansing, the American Jewish community was justly given much of the credit.
Now, however, both the intervention itself and the motivations behind it are being called into question. This is more than just a question of rewriting the historical record: Holbrooke’s suggestion that Bosnia would likely have become a safe haven for Al Qaeda can only be seen as a slur by Bosniaks, and in general by citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Indeed, if Holbrooke’s assertion is taken at face value, the objective of intervening in Bosnia was not to prevent further genocide or to defend shared values, but rather to put Muslims in check. However it was intended, such an explanation for American intervention in the Balkans paints Bosniaks — regardless of their specific ideological, cultural or ethnic identity — as a latent threat to Western values, as a people who can never be fully trusted their fellow Europeans.
And the reality is that today, the agreement that Holbrooke helped broker has cemented into place a feudalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina that has shattered whatever multiculturalism survived the war. Political authority is now apportioned by ethnicity. Bosnia now has a Jewish foreign minister, Sven Alkalaj, but he and the rest of the country’s small Jewish population are barred from running for president because they do not belong to one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s three officially recognized ethnicities, Bosniak, Serb and Croat.
To gauge the regressive effect of the Dayton Peace Accords, one need only note that Serbia has beaten Bosnia and Herzegovina to signing an association agreement with the European Union — even as Belgrade continues to ignore demands to hand over indicted war criminals and suffer spasms of unchecked nationalism. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s other neighbors, meanwhile, have moved much quicker toward integration into the community of Western nations — a rather ironic development, given that Western officials have effectively administered postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are perhaps at fault for their country’s lack of progress. But so, too, are those American and European leaders who have clung to the belief that the Dayton Peace Accords still bear fruit today. The peace agreement was a political and moral failure, and no amount of misguided efforts to write the war in Bosnia into the war on terrorism will change that.
Muhamed Sacirbey, a signatory to the Dayton Peace Accords, is a former Bosnian foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations.