Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Bosnia, Revisited ... And Getting Facts Straight

With the anniversary of the Dayton Accords and with the newest rage being to compare Bosnia and Iraq [full disclosure: not that I object to that, I did so myself several months back for a piece in the Examiner], the historian in me rises up at how easily people play hard and loose with the facts (or just accept someone else's spin).

A random example: one blogger referred to Bosnia as a "primarily Muslim state." That's flat out wrong. Bosnia is primarily nominally Christian in the sense that Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs together form an absolute majority (and using religion as an identifier can be tricky given that most are good secular Europeans regardless of their ancestral faith). Bosnia is "Muslim" in the sense that the Bosnian Muslims form a plurality in the population, traditionally were the majority in the major cities, and because Bosnia was the only South Slav region where indigenous Slavs converted to Islam en masse yet retained their Slavic language and culture (as opposed to being Turkified). Bosnia certainly cannot be classed as a Muslim country in the way that Iraq or Indonesia or Egypt is. And so to try and draw analogies (Bosnia is a Muslim country so its experience MUST be applicable to other countries of the Muslim world) is perilous.

Jackson Diehl's Washington Post column is another good example of trying to fit square pegs into round holes. The overall point I agree with--the need for patience, the need to build institutions, etc. But in his eagerness to make comparisons he goes a bit overboard. He equates Bosnia's Serbs with Iraq's Sunnis--perhaps in his desire to paint both with the brush of genocidal villainy--but the more logical comparison from the point of view of actual politics would be the Sunnis of Iraq with Bosnia's Muslims--both the "statist" nationality trying to rule over two other groups that did not accept their legitimacy to speak for the country as a whole. The Bosnian Serbs wanted not to dominate Bosnia but to take control of what they deemed Serbian land, expel non-Serbs to create facts on the ground, and leave the rest to be independent or be absorbed or dominated by Croatia (essentially the American plan in creating the Bosniak-Croat Federation in Washington in 1994)--they have had the least interest in Bosnia as Bosnia--much in the same way that many Kurds aren't really interested in Iraq south of Kirkuk or what happens in Baghdad. And of course the democracy crowd wants to forget that the nationalists who plunged Bosnia into civil war, including, I'm afraid, war criminal Radovan Karadzic--were ELECTED in elections in 1990 deemed to be "free and fair." It may be cute to call Karadzic and Mladic "insurgents" but again, if we fail to ignore how premature democratization in Bosnia helped to unleash civil strife, we learn the wrong lesson.

Many have been asking for it and now they may soon get it. There are reports now circulating that president Bush plans to pull out around 60000 troops in Iraq during 2006. There has been vigorous debate from long tenured and well respected congressman in Washington, this past week, who are demanding a withdrawal plan, or at least a timetable, for the reduction of American troops in Iraq. Bush has conceded to these individuals by stating that he will consider troop reductions for the coming years. However, do not become overly excited just yet. What is not being widely reported is that Bush is tempering his statements by placing caveats for the circumstances that will allow the reductions to occur. Before the reductions can begin Bush wants to see a continuous reduction in violence throughout all of the Iraqi provinces, he also wants a well developed and trained Iraqi security force in place, and lastly he wants the new Iraqi government firmly in position with a strong control of the country. Given the recent happenings in the country these goals appear to be very lofty. I believe if we had the true picture of how daily life really is in Iraq we could be more supportive, or pessimistic, regarding this news. Many of us only get our knowledge of the situation through second hand news sources, and many news agencies now put their political spin on the report they file. One thing we must always remember is that these brave soldiers do not wear an elephant or a donkey on their sleeve, they wear an American flag, and each time you debate their fate you must remember you are discussing someone’s mother, brother, sister, or father, not your next political candidate. I for one would never wish to reduce our forces to a level where the ones there are overburdened or under protected. However, I feel that what we set out to do we have done and it is time to have Iraq stand up on its own two feet and let the Iraqi citizens take control of their own country. I will take the comments at face value and be very happy for our brave soldiers who are proudly and efficiently carrying out their assigned missions regardless of the opinions people have about the Iraq post-war issue. I hope the same Americans who have been vigilant in calling for a troop reduction are calling for this reduction because it is the right thing to do at this time and not because it can sway a few votes here or there.
There are many individuals voting on this subject in a poll on
Raymond B
We have all heard the numbers but do we really understand why? Why is President Bush’s approval rating so low? I took a walking poll of individuals I encountered at the mall. I came up with a variety of reasons why his approval is so low. On the question of the economy I asked two questions, I began by stating, “The economy appears to be strong but many claim they are having a hard time finding employment why do you feel the job market appears so downtrodden? A very common response was ‘President Bush’. The second question asked was, “where do you do most of your holiday shopping?” A very common answer was Wal-Mart. Many times the same person offered up both answers, this states the confusion I have with people correlating a bad job market to President Bush’s approval rating. President Bush does not force us to buy products made outside of America we do it because we want the cheapest item, isn’t this the same reason why despise outsourcers, we feel betrayed?
The next question was, “How do you feel about the specter of a large heating bill this winter?” I also asked, “Who is to blame?” Most individuals stated that they expected their heating bill to double and they again blamed President Bush, many said it was an effort to make his friends rich. However, after speaking with professionals in the energy business I have learned that the cost of heating oil has risen very little and has not gone through the roof as expected. I also have learned that it’s the commodity traders who really set the price for oil, not our President. Again Bush takes a hit where one is not necessarily warranted. There are other issues such as the Iraq War, the Social Security debacle, and the scars left form a brutal re-election campaign. These issues contribute to the Bush popularity poll, and rightly so. However, you should educate and understand the man and his policies before you blindly profess your hate and mistrust of the man.
The few people I talked to expressed this ideal to me very quickly, they were frustrated by their own situation and they lashed out at the person most visible. However, upon reflection they should check their own closet, is it filled with ‘Made in America’ items or is it filled with the cheapest priced item they could find. When the facts are revealed we may find a very low approval rating for American consumers as well as the president. You may disagree with him, you may not like him. However, you should be as fair to him as you are to yourself.
Raymond B

I didn’t read Diehl’s comparison of Serbs and Sunnis as hinged on genocidal villainy, but rather as an example of a minority/plurality attempting to impose its will on other groups that was circumvented in its aims by an intervention. The comparison certainly lacks an historical perspective and may place too much emphasis the group that was in power when the intervention occurred in framing the political dynamics of Bosnia today, but one can understand the temptation or even the need to make that comparison from the standpoint of the party intervening.

If I’m reading you correctly, your comparison of Kurds to Serbs (which I’d like to ponder a while before I let take root), is based on the goals of the groups (the establishment of an independent enclave). I take it then that you see as a matter of “actual politics” as opposed to “logic” that the goals of the groups are more relevant for drawing lessons from comparisons of the interventions in Iraq and Bosnia. If I’m even remotely in the ballpark here, then I wonder if you could expand more on the implications for US policy of the Kurd-Serbian comparison.

Since we’re on the subject of goals, I’m also curious to hear your thoughts on what gave rise to the different goals of statism versus independence as you have characterized them among the different groups. In particular, Bosnian Serbs have Serbia and Bosnian Croats have Croatia as natural allies. However, Bosnian Muslims are without a natural state ally and, in this sense are in a similar position to the Kurds in Iraq. Yet Iraqi Kurds appear to be more willing to push for independence (to create a Kurd state with which Kurdish enclaves in other countries like Turkey and Iran can align?) rather than statism. In contrast, Bosnian Muslims press for statism rather than independence.
I think the most germaine part of Nichlas' comparison is of the Sunnis with the Bosnian muslims. Both are minority groups who wielded power over majority groups previously, but who are effectively neutered as a group in a democracy as long as voting continues along ethnic group divisions. This ugly past of ethnic power struggle poisons democracy and the prospect of a united Iraq in the future.

I think the argument contained within Nicholas' post is an important antidote to the idea that democracy and purple fingers will be a panacea for the ills of Iraq. The Sunnis certainly know that they cannot outvote the Shiites, thus fuelling the insurgency. The Shiites, in turn, have the power to crush the Sunnis with impunity. Democracy or not, this looks dangerously like the set-up for death-squads and ethnic cleansing.

There was a very worrying article in the WaPo in which Shiite forces call for more "leeway" in dealing with insurgents. And perhaps it's true that this extra "leeway" is what is needed to break the back of the insurgency -- but make no mistake -- it will mean brutal state-sponsored terror for the Sunnis. An ironic end for an American invasion that seeked to free the Iraqis from the brutal state-sponsored terror of Saddam.
Thanks, anodyne and battlepanda, for your comments.

I think that a great deal depends on whether a group expects outside support or leverage versus having to cut a deal "at home." Sunni predominance in Iraq for the last eight decades rested on overt support from the British, the Americans, and the Arab world in general.

What will be interesting to see is whether, in the aftermath of the French riots, the EU continues to support Bosnian Muslim predominance in order to make the case that the EU is about to accept a "Muslim" state, especially if Turkey's accession process gets derailed.

The Kurds now, I think, are where the Serbs were circa 1840. The principality of Serbia then was an autonomous region of the Ottoman Empire yet had aspirations to eventually unite all Serbs into one state. I think for many Kurds autonomy in Iraq is likewise a first step.

Finally, on the points about ethnic politics. What I find frustrating here in Washington is how we fail to recognize how often ethnic politics in other parts of the world are not simply features of "generations of historical memory" or reflecting backwardness and ignorance, but are day to day survival mechanisms in places where states are weak, where the idea that services are provided to all citizens is not often put into practice, and where people want the security of a community beyond the extended family but don't feel that the "state" serves that function. It takes time for the state or for non-commmunal institutions to gain the levels of trust needed for people to move beyond ethnic politics--and even in the United States ethnic politics continue to play a role.

I take your point on ascendancy of ethnic politics in the vacuum of a weak or inattentive state. I also understand your separate point that outside support or leverage was necessary for minority Sunnis in Iraq to maintain power in state a configuration and, similarly, for the survival/success of the Kurdish independence movement. I started to lose you when you put the two ideas together. I don’t know much about the Turkish political considerations during the move toward Serbian independence on the Balkans in 1840, or the extent of any overt Russian support/leverage that was involved. It was my apparently mistaken impression that the move toward Serbian independence in the region was more of an internally driven phenomenon that occurred in the context of weakened and distracted Ottoman Empire and did not entail significant outside support. Which is a long-winded way of saying there are a few too many comparisons and too much history floating around for my too linear and uninformed mind to handle. Maybe I would do better if we started at a point we seem to agree on and work our way out. You said:

“The Kurds now, I think, are where the Serbs were circa 1840. The principality of Serbia then was an autonomous region of the Ottoman Empire yet had aspirations to eventually unite all Serbs into one state. I think for many Kurds autonomy in Iraq is likewise a first step.”

This is my general lay of the land. Kurds are ethnically closer to Iranians than Arabs, more Sunni than Shi’ite, and have received outside support from the West while fighting for independence in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran. That is, there are some natural wedges that may be advantageous as well as problematic for US interests in the region. There have been some internal divisions among the Kurds, but one gets the sense that these differences are being subordinated at the moment to the greater goal of Kurdish independence.

My questions are; who in Washington, as a matter of policy, was pushing for the establishment of a modern state of Kurdistan (whose boundaries would eventually go beyond Iraq) and viewed the invasion of the Iraq as the first step in the process? If there was no identifiable proponent of the idea before the war, has anyone taken up the notion subsequently? If there are proponents of the idea, do they view the problems Kurdish independence would create in Turkish and Iranian politics as advantageous for both the US and the EU, or primarily advantageous to the US at the expense of the EU?

Perhaps you can also comment on how reported cooperation between Israel and Kurdish movements in Syria and Iraq plays into this potential scheme if at all, and the apparent propensity for Kurds to view constitutional democracy (whatever that means) favorably as the Serbians did in 1840.
Sorry for the late response--don't know if you are still checking.

Officially, no one is pushing for Kurdish independence in DC, but remember that in 1999 very few supported independence for Kosovo either. RIght now substantial autonomy is the game plan. But remember that in so many of the political settlements--the peace deal in Southern Sudan, for one--the option is left open for separation at a later date.

I think some here hope for a kind of compromise solution: an independent Kurdistan in Iraq so the Kurds "get a state" but no changes of borders with regard to Turkey--sort of like a Hungarian state that doesn't encompass the entire Hungarian "nation."
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