Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo

Observing events in what was Yugoslavia over the last several years, I could not help but think of the Holocaust. In the 1940s, U.S. officials claimed they didn't know and then that they couldn't act. Both positions were false. Today, the echoes of that policy continue to reverberate in the State Department and White House as Roger Cohen documents in his new book, Hearts Grown Brutal.

Cohen, who reported on the Balkans for The New York Times, not only provides a damning critique of the specific U.S. policy in Bosnia, but also illustrates how America has failed to demonstrate any world leadership. The crux of the issue is stated in the preface: "For years, Bush and then the Clinton administrations displayed moral cowardice, tolerating a European genocide and attempting to cloak their failure in ghastly circumlocutions about supposedly intractable Balkan hatreds. The United States deferred to a Europe too fragmented to be effective, preached from afar, or took refuge in the necessity of a "multilateral approach" — a policy leading to lowest-common-denominator politics and confusion." He goes on to observe that when U.S. troops finally were deployed in 1995 — and remain today — "the irrevocable damage had been done."

The carnage in Bosnia forced American policymakers to face their hypocrisy. For all the grand pronouncements in foreign policy speeches about the U.S. commitment to freedom, democracy and morality, the fact is that economics and strategic interests are what truly determine American policy. As many a U.S. politician said during debates on what to do about Yugoslavia, no vital interests were at stake. We knew the Serbs had constructed concentration camps and were massacring Bosnian Muslims, but we didn't care.

Perhaps the most honest assessment came from Lawrence Eagleburger, a former ambassador to Yugoslavia who was acting Secretary of State at the time news of the concentration camps was disclosed in the press. "The costs of correcting this moral disaster," Eagleburger told Cohen, "were greater than we were prepared to pay." I remember seeing Eagleburger on all the news shows during his tenure making the argument that military intervention would be useless. We learned later, of course, when we did use force, it could make a difference.

Cohen also reminds us of candidate Bill Clinton's then courageous stand on Bosnia. He called for immediate action to stop the slaughter. "If the horror of the Holocaust taught us anything, it is the high cost of remaining silent and paralyzed in the face of genocide," he said in August 1992. President Clinton adopted Eagleburger's view that the cost of silence was not too high.

To justify their inaction, Cohen says, U.S. officials first covered up what they knew about the genocide and then, when the information became public, changed strategy and attempted to equate the actions of the Serbs and Muslims. By arguing that this was actually an ancient blood feud, akin to the Hatfields and McCoys, the Bush and Clinton teams created the impression that nothing could or should be done. The reality, Cohen insists, was that no moral equivalence existed between the parties. This was a clear case of Serb genocide against the Muslims of Bosnia.

It was not until November 1995, after the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed, that deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott explained that Bosnia was important to the United States because it threatened European stability and suggested the real risks were from inaction "in the face of atrocities like mass rapes, concentration camps, massacres, and forced deportations." Cohen notes that if Bush or Clinton had made this case three or four years earlier to justify the introduction of American troops, the genocide could have been prevented.

It should come as no surprise to Cohen that he proved too quick with his praise. After finishing his book, the Serbs renewed their genocidal approach to foreign policy, applying it now against the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, while Talbott and his colleagues resumed their silence.

In addition to laying bare the failures of U.S. policy in the Balkans, Cohen does an excellent job of explaining the complex history of the region and the events as they unfolded in the 1990s. My only criticism of the book is that he wrote it somewhat schizophrenically, apparently unsure whether to write it as a historian or a journalist. Instead, he combined the approaches. By adding the stories of different families he tried to make the suffering of the individuals more concrete, but I found the vignettes uninteresting and distracting. If he had committed himself to telling stories like these, the book might have been more emotionally powerful, but I found the history compelling enough to stand on its own.

Beyond the comparisons to the Holocaust, which Cohen rightly acknowledges are by no means meant to equate the events, one of the lessons of the story is that diplomacy cannot solve problems that are not political. This should not be news, but Americans want logical resolutions to disputes that are not always based on rational differences. In conflicts like those in the Balkans, religion, history, and psychology also play key roles in the disputes and cannot be easily overcome by political arrangements. The persistent inability of policymakers to grasp this reality has been a major reason for the foreign policy failures of recent years.