Fatal Fallacies

The misleading ideas behind our Bosnia policies


Fall 1994 marked the defeat not only of the Democratic Party in Congress but of two central ideas—or clusters of ideas—that have animated it since the early 1970s. Those ideas lost not just a popularity contest in America but, far more tragically, a reality test in Bosnia.

The first cluster contains those ideas that treat people as mere components of ethnic, racial, or cultural groups. In domestic politics, this cluster produces ethnic quotas, racial gerrymandering, and escalating claims of victimhood; its basic tool is aggregation—lumping diverse individuals into groups, to be analyzed or stigmatized as such. It denies both the reality and the validity of intermarriage, cultural borrowing, assimilation, and, ultimately, individual character. Its adherents exist on both left and right, but only the Democratic Party promotes it explicitly.

In contemporary America, we call this cluster "multiculturalism," a misleading name that disguises balkanization as pluralism. Explicit multiculturalism is wildly unpopular, as numerous Democrats can testify. Yet our very language defines it as the fundamental characteristic of the Balkans. A Balkan country, a Balkan war, has little chance to be understood as anything other than a conflict among morally equivalent tribes.

And when Bosnia's advocates in the United States tried to whip up support for a major military intervention, they deployed the ultimate rhetorical weapon. They called Serb attacks on Bosnian Muslims "genocide." In December 1992, Elie Wiesel visited lame-duck Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger to ask that the United States do something to oppose the Serbs' "ethnic cleansing" campaigns. "Within minutes," reports U.S. News, "the two men were engaged in an intense discussion of the definition of genocide."

And rightly so. Crying genocide was a mistake. It not only triggered skepticism, it equated the Bosnian cause with the preservation of a race rather than resistance to aggression. Those who cried genocide forgot what is actually important, and terrifying, in all such atrocities: not the death of a race but the deaths of human beings—parents ripped from their children, peaceful lives invaded, torture and starvation. Atrocities happen person by person, even when they happen on a mass scale. And rare is the atrocity campaign that approaches genuine genocide—hunting a group to extinction. That doesn't make atrocities any less terrible.

With its emphasis on race, "genocide" is always a dangerous concept. But it was particularly misleading when invoked on behalf of Bosnia. If a broader cultural crime has been committed there, it is not the murder of a race but the murder of a cosmopolitan culture that stood against the division of people into groups. Ethnicity is fluid in Sarajevo, intermarriage common, religion comfortable. When Middle Eastern Muslims came to make common cause with their fellows in Bosnia, they found them insufficiently insular.

Yet Americans, a hybrid people, have been told that the Bosnian conflict is an ancient—and, by implication, inevitable—struggle between clans. In his syndicated column, Pat Buchanan reveled in the conflict as a reassertion of tribal loyalties, the future of us all. A more conventional military analysis, based not on dueling racial groups but on rival governments vying for territory, would have served us better. Military conflict and political struggle, not ethnic ideology, are at the heart of Bosnia's woes.

By emphasizing that Bosnia faced a military problem, such an analysis, perhaps, would have weakened the attraction of the second cluster of discredited ideas. This group includes such beliefs as "violence doesn't solve problems," "weapons cause violence," and, in the most extreme form, "violence is always wrong." Conversely, it contains the idea that "communication, not confrontation, is the way to peace." At any price.

In America, accepting these ideas defines a politician as an "Old Democrat," though not one Harry Truman or George Meany would recognize—this time line starts in 1972. Jimmy Carter, who still occasionally dresses up as secretary of state, subscribes to the entire cluster, presumably out of religious conviction. Bill Clinton, who isn't known for conviction, sometimes subscribes to some of it.

In domestic policy, these ideas show up primarily in calls for banning guns and, less frequently nowadays, for counseling rather than incarcerating violent criminals. In mid-1993, they were the subtext of the campaign against television violence. The attorney general, crusading congressmen, and activist groups wanted to Carterize television.

In the United States, such crusades are minor diversions, important primarily for the ideas they reveal. On the ground, as they say, in Bosnia, those ideas have consequences.

One consequence is that the United States has chosen sides in the Bosnian conflict. We have consistently, persistently, and despite all words to the contrary, backed the expansionist Serbs. Kowtowing to our European allies, who are utterly in thrall to anti-violence dogma, we have ruthlessly denied the people of Bosnia the arms they need to defend themselves. All in the name of peace, of "ending the violence" through ongoing negotiations.

The negotiations are futile. The arms embargo has made the cost of aggression negligible, the benefits of a truce to the Serbs nearly nonexistent. When one side has both territorial ambitions and an overwhelming military advantage, the result is inevitable: continuing war until the stronger side wins. What incentive is there to make peace?

That the United Nations has installed hostage forces, in hopes of preserving an unstable status quo, is no excuse for supporting the embargo. U.N. "peacekeepers" keep the peace only when both sides actually want it, as in the Sinai, and choose to bind themselves to it. Plopped down in the middle of an ongoing war, the "peacekeepers" presence as handy hostages only aids the aggressor.

Enforcing an arms embargo against besieged people is a moral outrage. It is also the logical extension of the belief that violence springs from weapons, rather than from evil intentions, and that self-defense is as morally suspect as aggression. Those who say the United States has no vital interests in Bosnia are right; its cause is too distant, and the cost too high, to justify invasion. But make no mistake, the United States has intervened in Bosnia. And, increasingly, it looks as though we picked the winners.