From Bosnia to Ukraine: A Deeper, More Worrying Lesson

History is always complex, especially in Eastern Europe. One of our authors draws lessons from the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s to make a case for Western intervention in Ukraine. This interpretation is simplistic and misleading because there are many other lessons to draw from the 1990s Balkan conflict.
Bosnia and Ukraine

Bosnia and Herzegovina flag and © MMES Studio /

December 20, 2022 08:59 EDT

In an article Fair Observer published earlier this month, reflecting on the conundrum of Ukraine, John Feffer pertinently asks the question, “when will the rest of us learn the lessons of Bosnia?” Sensitive to the complexity of history, he wisely speaks of “lessons” in the plural. It nevertheless leaves us wondering why he chooses to draw only one lesson from Bosnia’s tragedy, which also happens to be the tragedy of the former nation known as Yugoslavia, and beyond that, of Europe itself.

Feffer is absolutely right to notice a parallel between Bosnia and Ukraine today. But why stop at only one? Describing his reaction at that moment in history, Feffer recounts that he “roundly criticized the knee-jerk ‘pro-Serbian’ analyses of some leftists who parroted the propaganda of strongman Slobodan Milošević’s government just as naïve leftists unwittingly follow Kremlin talking points on Ukraine today.”

Feffer makes no clear case to justify his characterization of leftists as naïve, nor does he explain why those same leftists “follow” rather than simply happen to share what he calls “Kremlin talking points.” His shortcut shouldn’t surprise us. That imagined connection has become a fixture of the pervasive “Russiagate culture” that has infected so much of US media since Donald Trump’s election in 2016. It relies on accepting a pseudo-logical rule that if two people provide the same analysis of any political situation, one must be echoing the other or, worse, be programmed by it. That kind of guilt by coincidental agreement and “associative xenophobia” are well-known symptoms of a deep-seated pathological trend towards binary thinking at the core of US culture. It systematically seeks to polarize every difference of opinion or point of view.

How It Took Six Years to Achieve the Victory of Polarization


An astute reader, curious about logic and semantics, might even ask what it really means to “unwittingly follow.” If you don’t know you’re following someone, can it really be called following? In evoking the “naïve leftists,” Feffer himself seems to be following the often-cited idea of “useful idiots,” a phrase traditionally attributed to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. In the preceding sentence, I used the verb “to be following” in the strictly chronological sense. It indicates that one event occurred later in time (Lenin’s phrase came before Feffer’s evocation of it). It does not necessarily imply that the second event depended on, was inspired by or even connected to the initial event for its formulation. Propaganda often exploits this ambiguity of the verb follow that confuses its chronological and causal sense.

Comparing different lessons

Feffer’s article clearly explains the lesson he claims to have learned from the history of Bosnia. But other observers, not necessarily “naïve leftists,” have taken away very different lessons. It might also be instructive to consider these when attempting to decipher the contemporary situation in Ukraine.

The best place to start would be the letter Sir Alfred Sherman, an adviser to Margaret Thatcher, sent to the UK Prime Minister. This is how he summed up the Bosnian war for Mrs Thatcher:

“The war in Bosnia was America’s war in every sense of the word. The US administration helped start it, kept it going, and prevented its early end. Indeed all the indications are that it intends to continue the war in the near future, as soon as its Moslem proteges are fully armed and trained. How it did so is common knowledge. Why it did so, and the implications for American defense and foreign policy generally remain to be elucidated.”

Feffer could have used the opportunity to fulfill Sherman’s wish and elucidate American policy then and now. But that is one of the lessons Feffer prefers to leave to others, perhaps to naïve leftists who appear, paradoxically, to be “following” the right-wing Alfred Sherman’s talking points.

25 Years On, The Dayton Peace Agreement Is a Ticking Time Bomb


Then there’s the analysis of Sean Gervasi, one of John F Kennedy’s economic advisers, who wrote a book with the title, NATO in the Balkans. In it he explains the fundamental logic of the entire Yugoslavian drama.

These powers carefully planned, prepared and assisted the secessions which broke Yugoslavia apart. And they did almost everything in their power to expand and prolong the civil wars which began in Croatia and then continued in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They were involved behind the scenes at every stage of the crisis. Foreign intervention was designed to create precisely the conflicts which the Western powers decried. For they also conveniently served as an excuse for overt intervention once civil wars were under way. Such ideas are, of course, anathema in Western countries. That is only because the public in the West has been systematically misinformed by war propaganda. It accepted almost from the beginning the version of events promulgated by governments and disseminated through the mass media.

Can any open-minded reader of these lines today not see possible parallels with the situation in Ukraine? This might be worth debating, but it appears that there aren’t many people in the West today curious enough to publicly engage in such a debate. Gervasi’s comment about the role of the mass media is echoed by contemporary commentators. Critics such as former New York Times journalist Patrick Lawrence or the former diplomat, Chas Freeman. Medea Benjamin and Nicolas Davies quoted the latter in their recent book on the Ukraine war: “This war in Ukraine is the most intense information war humanity has ever seen. There are so many lies flying about that it’s totally impossible to perceive the truth.”

In another paper presented in 1996 with the title “Why Is NATO In Yugoslavia?” Gervasi wrote: “By any standards, the sending of a large Western military force into Central and Eastern Europe is a remarkable enterprise, even in the fluid situation created by the supposed end of the Cold War.” So why did this happen? Gervasi explains that “the sending of NATO troops into the Balkans is the result of enormous pressure for the general extension of NATO eastwards.”

What can Bosnia’s fate really tell us about Ukraine?

Might any of Sherman’s or Gervasi’s remarks have any bearing upon the events in Ukraine? Not for John Feffer. Perhaps he considers those two men from the past examples of naïve rightists (Sherman) and leftists (Gervasi) bent on following Kremlin talking points. Since he is interested in “lessons,” does Feffer even acknowledge that the issues they raise merit analysis and discussion that may be applied to the situation in Ukraine today? Apparently not. There are US State Department talking points he prefers to follow.

Will Bosnia and Herzegovina Ever Rise Above Its Ethnic Divisions?


In 2015, investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed stood out as someone who had taken the trouble to process the testimony of Sherman and Gervais. He synthesized it in these words: “The most important lesson from Yugoslavia is not only that all NATO nations lied in the most totalitarian manner, used false flags, fabrications and extremist Mujahideen mercenaries there. The most important lesson is that the War in Yugoslavia made NATO and the Western nations into a single completely cynical totalitarian info- and war machine.”

Feffer would be right to signal that such a judgment, made in the year following the February 2014 Maidan revolt that ousted an elected president, could only please the Kremlin. But does that mean Ahmed was “following” the Kremlin? Award-winning British author and journalist, Jonathan Cook describes Ahmed as “that rare breed of journalist who finds stories everyone else either misses or chooses to overlook; he regularly joins up the dots in a global system of corporate pillage.” In other words, not the kind of journalist people inside the Beltway are likely to “follow.” They prefer to follow the New York Times, always attentive to themes defined by the US security state.

But even the NYT had this to say back in 1993:

Almost a year and a half ago, the United States opposed a partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina that had been agreed to by leaders of the republic’s Serbs, Croats and Muslims. The idea was to stave off a civil war.

Now, tens of thousands of deaths later, the United States is urging the leaders of the three Bosnian factions to accept a partition agreement similar to the one Washington opposed in 1992.

Can anyone fail to notice a parallel here with Ukraine? It was a Ukrainian news service, Ukrainska Pravda, that revealed in April UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s strict instructions to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy not to negotiate a peace deal with the Russians. Will the deal that is eventually signed to end the war two or three years down the line — following tens of thousands more deaths — be a carbon copy of the one Johnson rejected?

No one knows the answer to that question, just as we don’t know whether such a dramatic situation, if forced to continue, may not descend into nuclear war, well before any negotiation begins. The fact that decisions are made in Washington DC means we will have to wait. Sometimes for decades, as we did in Afghanistan. The George W Bush administration could have accepted in 2001 the offer of the Taliban government to cooperate in arresting Osama Bin Laden as a response to 9/11. It didn’t because it saw the attacks on New York and Washington not as a crime to be solved but as a pretext for overthrowing the Afghan government. Instead, 20 years of war conducted to spread the truths NATO believes in ended with total victory for the Taliban, and in thoroughly degraded conditions. 

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Complicated Puzzle


Bosnia’s political troubles today, which John Feffer accurately describes, may, as he concludes, be the result of a bad peace agreement, but the two years of additional conflict caused by US Ambassador Zimmerman’s refusal to consider a peace agreement certainly contributed to the hopelessness of the current situation. Harvard Law School summarized the reality of that episode in a case study with the title, “Conflict Resolution: Lessons from the Dayton Peace Process.” The author of that study makes the point that, whereas at the beginning of the war, 20% of Bosnians had “ethnically mixed parents” and “as few as 17 percent of Bosnians considered themselves religious,” the unnecessarily prolonged war had long-lasting deleterious effects. The case analysis concludes with this devastating observation: “fueled by propaganda, the Bosnian War reconstructed BiH’s identity groups.” It is that identity conflict that explains the dire state of contemporary Bosnian politics that Feffer accurately describes.

The Minsk accords were officially meant to find some way of attenuating the cultural divergences between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russian speakers. They aime at fostering conditions of mutual tolerance by granting autonomy to the Donbas. We now know, thanks to the confession of Angela Merkel, that despite sponsoring those accords, Germany and France had no intention of applying them. They were designed to gain time for a NATO buildup in Ukraine. The result: eight years of sporadic civil war degenerated into a full-fledged war initiated by Russia. So, yes, we all need to follow Feffer’s lead and think about when the rest of us might learn the lessons of Bosnia. And after doing that perhaps also apply them to Ukraine. The debate is open. Let’s start by going after all the facts, not just the ones that are convenient for anyone’s argument.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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