Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

September Books 5) Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia, by Brendan Simms

This book, written in 2000 and revised in 2001, is an excellent polemic against the awfulness of British policy on Bosnia for most of the duration of the 1992-95 war. Simms describes with vicious accuracy the unwillingness of the Major government to intervene in the conflict, and its success in blocking other international actors from doing so. He convincingly points the finger at three senior figures - Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary for most of the war; David Owen, the  EU's mediator; and General Sir Michael Rose, the UN commander in 1994-95 - as particularly culpable in fostering an intellectual and political climate where using the troops to change the political situation on the ground became unthinkable. The damage caused to Britain's credibility as a serious international player had not been reversed (certainly not by Iraq and Afghanistan), and the Bosnians remain certain that the international community will at some point betray them again.

For all that his case is good and fundamentally in line with my own views, Simms goes over the top on occasion. In the introduction to the paperback edition, he acknowledges being too kind to the Croats and too tough on Paddy Ashdown. I think he is also too kind to the Americans, particularly the Pentagon which on my understanding resisted using the largest military force in the world to actually fight until far too late; too uncritical of the Bosnian government; and too harsh to Misha Glenny, whose commentary has always been rooted in empathy for all sides, even those who may not be flavour of the month. He is also simply wrong to see the development of the EU's security capabilities as a dark and sinister conspiracy, and I note the irony that Graham Messervy-Whiting, who Simms consistently praises for his sane (but ignored) security advice to David Owen, was actually the first commander of the EU's rather virtual army. However Simms also performs useful services in skewering a couple of the pernicious myths about Bosnia: that the Germans killed off the 1991 process by recognising Slovenia and Croatia (it was already dead, and the Germans recognised the fait accompli with great reluctance), and that the Vance-Owen Peace Plan was killed off by the Americans rather than by the Bosnian Serbs (a myth which rather mystifyingly is peddled, despite the clear facts of the historical record, by none other than David Owen).

Those are minor points against the big background question of why John Major's government was so crap, and why there was so little questioning of it at the time. Simms rightly excoriates the performance of parliament, the media, and the intellectual community in failing to expose the inactivity and aggressive indolence of official policy. I was not observing Bosnia closely in those days, but it's actually a coherent pattern with Northern Ireland policy under Sir Patrick Mayhew during the same time period: do nothing in particular, and hope nobody notices. The British under Major and Mayhew were woefully unprepared for the IRA ceasefire in 1994, and the peace process ran into the sand until Labour came to power. There was a general air of uselessness about the Major government which the latter years of Labour probably exceeded, but for a shorter time.

Major's government was equally unprepared for the shift of international mood in 1995 on Bosnia which compelled intervention at last; but to be fair to the troops, under the new leadership of General Rupert Smith, they played their part in ending the war and keeping the peace. It should be pointed out that eighteen British soldiers lost their lives in the line of duty during the 1992-95 period of policing humanitarian aid but looking away from the politics; since 1995 I don't think there has been a single British combat fatality in Bosnia. These days, post-Iraq and Afghanistan, the pendulum has probably swung against intervention in the next crisis wherever it may erupt. It's worth remembering that the case for intervention in Bosnia was far stronger, both morally and legally, than the case for intervention in Iraq, and that the international community as a whole and Britain in particular got it wrong in the early 1990s; Simms' arguments will need to be dusted off when the next time comes.
Tags: bookblog 2010, rereads, world: bosnia

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