Barbarians at the Gate : ...

Misha Glenny reported the Yugoslav War as Central European correspondent for the BBC. He is the author of "The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War" (Penguin) and "Unity or Death: The Sacred Curse of Balkan Nationalism, 1804-Present," due next year from Viking

The violent disintegration of Yugoslavia has traumatized the lives of all the "outsiders"--journalists and diplomats alike--who were intimately acquainted with this devastating process. This is not to compare our trivial (and mostly psychological) wounds to the grievous injuries suffered by the millions of civilians who were the direct target of military assaults during the conflict nor to those of the many more millions whose lives have been disrupted, probably beyond repair.

But reading the short account of Warren Zimmermann's memoirs of his time as U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia in the critical period from 1989 to 1992, I recognized a tormented subtext of guilt and anguish that we outsiders will carry as a stigma for the rest of our lives.

Zimmermann was the only senior diplomat who risked the ire of his political superiors (including, as he points out in a revealing passage, Bob Dole) to warn policymakers of impending catastrophe in Yugoslavia. Unlike so many international officials, he was deeply concerned about what might happen to the 24 million Yugoslavs who lived in this country in the event of war. "Origins of a Catastrophe" is written with great elegance and displays a humanity rare in diplomatic memoirs.

His book concentrates on those politicians and intellectuals, indeed the bulk of the Slovene, Croat and Serb elite, who were determined to consolidate their own power whatever the cost. In particular, he examines two men--Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and his Croatian counterpart, Franjo Tudjman.

Assessing the relative awfulness of the Croatian and Serbian regimes, a friend from Zagreb recently remarked, "Tudjman is a Hitler and Milosevic is a Mussolini." He was not making a direct comparison. He meant that Tudjman is genuinely convinced by all the nationalist guff he spouts and that he really does hate Muslims. Milosevic, on the other hand, believes not a word of the Serb nationalist mythology that he unleashed on the Balkans and he hates everyone--Croats, Muslims and, most important for him, Serbs as well.

The ambassador had understood this before the war broke out in Yugoslavia. He illustrates this with fascinating, if flesh-crawling, descriptions of his encounters with these two ghoulish creatures. Their callous contempt for their fellow citizens is matched only by an ability to twist and turn in the pursuit of power.

The Serbian nationalism that Milosevic whipped up was mere cynical manipulation. But it could succeed only if it provoked equally intransigent secessionist movements in Slovenia and Croatia. By the time the Yugoslav tragedy really penetrated the public domain in the United States, the war was already raging in Bosnia, where Bosnian Serb forces were perpetrating the most unspeakable crimes against Muslim civilians.

Zimmermann provides an important service by spelling out that this greatest atrocity among many in this war was predicated on a complicated constitutional crisis for which the Serbs were not solely to blame. Indeed, he is adamant not just about the co-responsibility of the Croats but also about the Slovenes, who were determined to secede from Yugoslavia regardless of the violence that this may have provoked elsewhere in a disintegrating state.

Zimmermann notes that ironically by far the most reasonable leaders in Yugoslavia were the presidents of Bosnia and Macedonia. But surely there is no irony. These two republics owed their stable existence to Yugoslavia and could champion its dissolution only if bent on suicide.

The Zimmermann enigma lies in the relationship between the Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic, and American policy. The Bush administration was against the German decision to recognize Slovenia and Croatia because it feared this would spark the war in Bosnia. (It is here that I spotted the only factual error in his book: It was not the European community that recognized the two in December 1991, it was the Germans who needed another month to cajole the other 11 countries.)

One of the trump cards of the anti-recognition lobby was Izetbegovic's declared opposition to recognition. Indeed, both Zimmermann and the German ambassador in Belgrade, who understood the folly of this step, briefed Izetbegovic specifically before he traveled to Bonn to urge German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher against recognition. "Unaccountably," Zimmermann tells us, "Izetbegovic failed to raise the issue. The omission can only have led Genscher to assume that he had a green light from Izetbegovic for recognition."

Why did Izetbegovic fail to raise the issue? The ambassador must have asked him. If he did, he does not reveal the answer here. This is a matter of crucial importance in terms of the constitutional and diplomatic history of the war. Did Izetbegovic really believe that the West would come to Bosnia's aid if war were to break out there in the wake of Croatian recognition? If so, he made a criminal error.

In this unsolved enigma is wrapped the greatest tragedy of the Yugoslav wars, the conflict between Muslims and Serbs. These two peoples are closely intertwined culturally and necessarily interdependent--much more so than the Croats are with either the Muslims or the Serbs.

What happened in the period from July 1991 to January 1992 in the various contacts, both clandestine and open, between Izetbegovic and Milosevic?

This is not a pedantic bone-chewing exercise. It is the very kernel of the immediate causes of war in Bosnia. While it is safe to assume that Milosevic was making unreasonable demands on the Sarajevo leadership, there is also evidence that Izetbegovic was behaving duplicitously. I was hoping for some answers to this in Zimmermann's book but they were not there.

One place I know I will not find any of the answers is in Michael A. Sells' "The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia," which reduces the entire conflict to Serbian religious fanaticism (the Croats also play a dishonorable supporting role). The author takes out a flimsy insurance policy to guard against accusations of being anti-Serb. He points out that his mother's family is Serbian American and that he knew a few cases of good Serbs helping Muslims during the Bosnian war. But this cannot disguise his preposterous caricature of 19th century history, which, he implies, has stained Serb genes with a propensity toward genocidal behavior.

At one point he writes, "Bosnian Muslims are also objects of a dehumanizing discourse about Balkan peoples which portrays Bosnians as Balkan tribal haters outside the realm of reason and civilization." This is a completely valid assertion. Yet Sells spends so much of the book portraying Serbs as Balkan tribal haters outside the realm of reason and civilization that it rather undermines his argument.

Religious fanaticism, which would seem to haunt Sells in his dreams, is the product of unscrupulous elites who use it as a cloak during times of constitutional crisis for the simple purpose of grabbing territory. This is what the Serb and Croat leadership did when they both decided to crush the noble project of a multiethnic state in the Balkans. Zimmermann understands this. Sells, alas, does not.

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