Anyone wanting insight into Canadian elite-think could do worse than reading yesterday’s Op-Ed in the National Post by James Bissett, Canada’s ambassador to Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Aptly headlined Scapegoat, R.I.P., the article is a frankly revisionist account of the policies and character of Slobodan Milosevic.
He has been described as the "Butcher of the Balkans." He is accused of masterminding four wars, of committing genocide and ethnic cleansing. These charges have been repeated so many times that they have become part of received wisdom. Yet the facts tell a different story.
Just so we’re clear: Bissett believes that Milosevic was not a butcher, did not mastermind four wars (how many then? three? two? none?), did not commit genocide, and — most incredibly — did not engage in ethnic cleansing.
So just who is to blame for the Yugoslav catastrophe? Why, the Slovenians, of course:
But it was not the Serbians and "Slobo" who started the wars in Yugoslavia. The fighting started because Slovenia, then a Yugoslav republic, declared unilateral independence and used force to seize customs posts along the Austrian border.
One wonders why Louise Arbour was wasting so much time persecuting Milosevic when she ought to have been congratulating him for exercising such admirable restraint — as Bissett boasts of doing. Arbour would have spent her time more productively prosecuting those awful Slovenians for engaging in the horrific practice of (gasp!) seizing custom posts — by "force," no less!!
Now this might seem to be a rather extreme view of the conflict, to put it charitably. But in fact, it perfectly encapsulates the position taken by many in Canada’s political, military, and media elite. In brief, the view was this: Milosevic and his Serbian allies in Bosnia and Kosovo might have committed "excesses," but all sides were equally to blame.
The classic formulation was spelled out by Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, former Chief of Staff of the United Nations Protection Force in Yugoslavia. In his book, Peacekeeper, MacKenzie highlights this quote on the back cover:
If I could convince both sides to stop killing their own people for CNN, perhaps we could have a ceasefire.
This was not just a throwaway line. According to a famous article in the New Republic, MacKenzie was the anonymous source for a widely-publicized London Independent story claiming that Bosnian Muslims were bombing themselves. (MacKenzie himself later backed off the claim.)
This, of course, is the ultimate endpoint for anyone who has ever complained about "media bias" against Milosevic and the Serbs. It is never really about denouncing the war crimes committed by all sides in the Yugoslavia conflict — an admirable position passionately embraced by anyone of principle. But blithely asserting that "both sides did it," and all are equally to blame, is a travesty of history. And it inevitably leads to trivializing Milosevic’s crimes and blaming the victims.