Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 13, 2016

David Gibbs on Srebrenica

Filed under: Yugoslavia — louisproyect @ 11:24 pm

David Gibbs

In the latest issue of Class, Race and Corporate Power, a scholarly and eclectically leftist open access journal launched by Ronald Cox in 2013, there is an article by David Gibbs titled How the Srebrenica Massacre Redefined US Foreign Policy that generated some interesting feedback from a wide range of scholars, including Kees van der Pijl. Gibbs responds to his interlocutors here.

When I first heard about these exchanges, I fully expected an angry attack from  people such as Marko Atilla Hoare who wrongly accused Gibbs of being a genocide denier in an underhanded campaign that was the subject of a 2011 post on this blog. As it turns out, the commentary was civil and thoughtful even when it took a position at odds with the article.

In essence Gibbs argues that the killing of 8,000 Muslim residents of Srebrenica was certainly a war crime but not a genocide, an analysis I agree with. In general, I find Gibbs’s scholarship on the Balkan Wars to be informed, cogent and well-researched as I indicated in a 2009 review of his First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. Indeed at the time I was taking the Serb side to such a degree that some of Gibbs’s more critical statements about Milosevic got me hot under the collar. While I would not disown anything I wrote about the Balkan Wars, I certainly would be much more open to the arguments of the other side. Specifically, I had a tendency to demonize the Muslims because of the presence of foreign fighters. For me, fighting against the Russians in Afghanistan was prima facie evidence of being on the side of the Devil. But if there is anything I have learned from five years of writing about Syria, it is the need to avoid Islamophobic demagogy of the sort found in both electronic and print media from a cast of thousands.

Gibbs’s article is very much reading in its entirety but one passage really made me realize once again how the truth is the first casualty in war:

The idea that genocide was occurring seems to have originated with the issue of Serb-run detention centers in Bosnia, which housed Muslim and Croat prisoners, where major atrocities and abuses undoubtedly occurred. Beginning in 1992, the Bosnian government promoted the idea that these detention centers were Nazi-style extermination camps, similar to Auschwitz or Treblinka. New York’s Newsday helped publicize the idea of Serb extermination camps. In reality, the detention camp atrocities had been deliberately exaggerated by the Bosnian government, and President Izetbegović confessed this exaggeration shortly before his death, in a 2003 interview with former French official Bernard Kouchner. This confession was later reported in Kouchner’s memoirs:

Kouchner: You claimed the existence in Bosnia of “extermination camps.” You repeated this journalists… [Kouchner then notes he visited one of the main camps.] Conditions there were terrible but there was no systematic extermination. Did you know this?

Izetbegović: Yes, I thought the claims would help trigger a bombing campaign by the Western powers… I tried but my claims were false. There were no extermination camps in Bosnia, even though conditions were terrible. [emphasis added]

This exchange resonated with me especially since the anti-Baathist town of Madaya is now literally being starved into submission. Stephen Lendman, a supporter of the dictatorship in Damascus, writes that Syrian rebels are killing any of the townspeople trying to escape–a totally fabricated business not even cropping up on RT.com. While I would be the last person to describe what is happening in Syria as genocidal, I do know mass murder when I see it. I also know that things have reached a grievous state on the left when people speaking in its name can simply make things up to defend their support for the Syrian dictatorship that uses the same “anti-al Qaeda” rhetoric I used from time to time in the late 1990s.

With respect both to Lendman’s yellow journalism and Izetbegović’s cynical use of the big lie, the left has to draw a line over the need for journalistic integrity. It is a slippery slope from bending (or breaking) the truth and becoming a hired gun for any state pursuing a narrow path of self-aggrandizement as the sorry history of the USSR would indicate. When people like Lendman (and those with a much more elevated status such as Slavoj Zizek) can so easily write lies, we are in trouble.

Let me turn to some comments made by Jean Bricmont, the Belgian physicist who collaborated with Alan Sokal in a book that basically expands on the famous Sokal hoax. One of Bricmont’s other avocations besides trashing postmodernism is promoting the reputation of dictators who are regarded as enemies of the West, a stance that I was far too accommodating to in my pro-Serb phase. Bricmont complains that Gibbs cedes far too much to the other side of the debate, an error in his eyes that objectively suits the needs of the imperialist war-machine. He writes:

As Gibbs points out, the Srebrenica myth has been a standard pretext for justifying US attacks against one country after another. It was used against Serbia to detach the province of Kosovo, where a huge US military base was immediately installed. It was cited to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was used in Libya to kill the country’s leader and destroy the country. It is currently being used to justify efforts to overthrow the government of Syria.

The idea that the USA is trying to overthrow the government of Syria is widely accepted on the left, probably even by Ronald Cox and David Gibbs. However, the truth is that Obama never had George W. Bush “regime change” ambitions.

In fact there was zero interest in a large-scale intervention in Syria in either civilian or military quarters. All this is documented in a NY Times article from October 22nd 2013, written when the alarums over a looming war with Syria were at their loudest, that stated “from the beginning, Mr. Obama made it clear to his aides that he did not envision an American military intervention, even as public calls mounted that year for a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from bombings.” The article stressed the role of White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough, who had frequently clashed with the hawkish Samantha Power. In contrast to Power and others with a more overtly “humanitarian intervention” perspective, McDonough “who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria.” In other words, the White House policy was and is allowing the Baathists and the rebels to exhaust each other in an endless war, just as was White House policy during the Iran-Iraq conflict.

In conclusion let me say a word or two about how I went through an attitude adjustment that led me to break with the “anti-imperialist” mindset of people like Jean Bricmont. During the war in Kosovo, I was contacted by a 1960s radical named Jared Israel who had been a leader of the Progressive Labor Party wing of SDS called the Worker Student Alliance. After years of inactivity, Israel had been stirred into partisan journalism on behalf of Milosevic. For obvious reasons, Israel saw me as a kindred spirit and sought my advice on how to spread the word.

I suggested that he start a website (these were the days before the blog had been invented) to promote his views. The fruit of that suggestion was something called the Emperor’s Clothes that had the same relationship to the Serb cause that CounterPunch or Global Research have to the Baathists today. What Jared Israel and people like Mike Whitney had in common was a visceral Islamophobia that was actually a counterpart to what Christopher Hitchens was writing in 2004 except on behalf of the Kremlin rather than the White House.

Not long after the war in Kosovo wound down, Jared Israel took up a new cause—the war on the Chechens who he regarded as a jihadist threat to the peace-loving and diversity-minded Russian people. When I heard this nonsense, I began to rethink my positions immediately since I regarded Putin as a malevolent figure dedicated to enriching himself and his cronies no matter who got in the way—Russian reporters or people living in Grozny being bombed into oblivion.

I felt vindicated in my course redirection when about a year later, Jared Israel’s Islamophobia went full-tilt boogie. He became an ardent Zionist and began writing for ultraright Israeli newspapers since it was obvious to him that the Muslims wanted to exterminate the Jews. To my knowledge, Jared Israel has since retired from political life—a benefit to himself and to the rest of humanity to say the least.


  1. Ever read “Yugoslavia Dismembered” by Catherine Samary? If not, I recommend it. Ironically enough it was published by Monthly Review (20 years ago), long before the days of MRZine.


    Comment by jschulman — January 13, 2016 @ 11:42 pm

  2. I did read it and found it useful but I still regard Gbbs’s book as the best on the subject.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 13, 2016 @ 11:46 pm

  3. Fascinating turns of the screw.

    I’ve said this before here but it’s worth repeating. From the outset of the 90’s Clinton lead NATO bombing campaign against Serbia there was an incredible McNeil-Lehrer News Hour episode wherein McNeil asked his guest, a CIA agent they labelled an “Analyst”, what exactly the Pentagon’s motive for bombing Serbia really was — as McNeil admitted he was confused by the logic of the White House press briefings full of humanitarian rhetoric that didn’t ring true.

    “Our primary mission in Yugoslavia” said the CIA Analyst, “is to eliminate the last vestiges of command economy on the Continent.” I looked over at my mother who turned to look at me and said “Ma did you hear that?” “The Pentagon just admitted it’s bombing Serbia in order to drive the last nail in the coffin of the Russian Revolution!” She nodded “Yes, it’s the last gasp, the death rattle, of the Cold War.”

    So it was essentially, according to the CIA, a NAFTA deal for the Balkans ratified by Cruise Missiles.

    Popular Culture has Christopher Hitchens turning toward the Right with Dubya Bush. In reality it was under Clinton.

    When the Kremlin took down the Soviet flag and re-hung the Czarist flag old socialist revolutionary Sam Marcy wrote an article in his party’s organ that class conscious workers ought to view Yeltsin & the Russian Government as neo-Czarists, with contempt & disdain, as class enemies who liquidated both the baby and the bathwater for a pittance to the masses and enrichment for the few.

    When the razing of Grozny commenced he wrote that it was the most under reported International War Crime in his lifetime, some 9 decades. Before his death Marcy acknowledged in writing that Putin was a degenerate gangster capitalist mass murderer who history would judge with loathing & scorn, residing forever in the same Hall of Shame as Hitler.

    Ironically (or sadly) I’ve been unable to reproduce any of these Marcy articles defending Chechnya & denouncing Putin from the WWP archives. By contrast I’m able to find plenty of articles and videos that are pro-Russia, and since the sole dictator there has been Putin for almost 2 decades, any pro-Russian article is defacto sucking the dick of Putin. How disgusting.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 14, 2016 @ 1:12 am

  4. I should add this link:
    : http://fair.org/extra-online-articles/death-camps-and-desert-storm-frame-bosnia-coverage/ entitled: “Death Camps and Desert Storm Frame Bosnia Coverage”
    to denote an epochal sea change in history, a virtual paradigm shift, whereby Orwell came alive a decade later than predicted, wherein guys like Gore Vidal, Louis Proyect, Glenn Greenwald, Doug Henwood and Chris Hedges have to devote virtually every waking moment to keeping reality in check.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 14, 2016 @ 1:32 am

  5. “When the razing of Grozny commenced he wrote that it was the most under reported International War Crime in his lifetime, some 9 decades. Before his death Marcy acknowledged in writing that Putin was a degenerate gangster capitalist mass murderer who history would judge with loathing & scorn, residing forever in the same Hall of Shame as Hitler.”

    Yes, the silence over the brutalization of the Chechens was appalling. One of the few who spoke up was Tony Wood, who wrote a passionate New Left Review article about it in 2004, placing Yeltsin’s and Putin’s actions within the historic context of Chechen resistance to Russian imperialism since the mid-1850s.

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 14, 2016 @ 3:52 am

  6. Opposing religious extremists fighting for mullahs, khans and a reactionary old social order by throwing acid in school teacher faces is now “Islamophobia”?

    Orwell must be spinning in his grave.

    Comment by Dave — January 14, 2016 @ 1:34 pm

  7. My understanding is that the Clinton administration was rather reluctant to get involved in the wars of the former Yugoslavia. Clinton wanted Europe to deal with it — “it” being instability — itself. The reluctance wasn’t out of any noble motives of course. And Clinton surely expected Milosevic to give up far more quickly than he actually did.

    “Our primary mission in Yugoslavia”…is to eliminate the last vestiges of command economy on the Continent.” Eh? What command economy? Titoist Yugoslavia — which no longer existed anyway — was “market socialist.” Not much in the way of so-called central planning. It had fewer price controls than many Western European countries! This CIA guy doesn’t sound too bright.

    Comment by jschulman — January 14, 2016 @ 4:10 pm

  8. While they were no doubt headed for neo-liberal reforms anyway there were evidently still enough “vestiges” of central planning and monopoly on foreign trade that the Pentagon apparently chose to smash instead of let crumble under their own weight.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 14, 2016 @ 6:35 pm

  9. Having spent the Balkan wars steering a delicate line between the rival trends on the left (and elsewhere) of Serbophilia and Bosnomania, readily accepting that the massacre at Srebrenica was a serious war crime (but not genocide) and without apologising for or minimising war crimes by the other sides in the conflict, I now steer a delicate line between apologists for Ba’athism in Syria and the romantics who continue to see some sort of progressive revolution under way against the Syrian regime. And I get booted from each side now, just as I did then. With all the abuse coming from both sides then and now, perhaps I’ve been getting it right all the time.

    Comment by Dr Paul — January 14, 2016 @ 10:17 pm

  10. the romantics who continue to see some sort of progressive revolution under way against the Syrian regime

    You mean people like David Graeber?

    Comment by louisproyect — January 14, 2016 @ 10:19 pm

  11. In response to jschulman, comment 8: You are mistaken that “the Clinton administration was rather reluctant to get involved” in the Yugoslav wars. This is one of the many myths that have emerged.

    In reality, the Clinton administration was deeply involved from January 1993, when US officials used their clout to undermine the EU-UN joint efforts to negotiate an early end to the Bosnia war; US officials continued their undermining activities for the next two and a half years. David Owen who led the EU mediation team discussed the longstanding US efforts to undermine his work in his memoirs and also in testimony during the Milosevic trial.

    These matters are discussed in my article, http://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1063&context=classracecorporatepower.

    David N. Gibbs
    University of Arizona

    Comment by David N. Gibbs — January 14, 2016 @ 11:26 pm

  12. @David: Do you accept the CIA analyst’s explanation regarding the motive? Look forward to reading your book BTW; you may have already answered this question there.

    Comment by guccimane — January 15, 2016 @ 12:15 am

  13. There are some aspects to Baer’s account (from the CIA) that seem questionable to me. However he is surely correct that anti-communism was one US (and also German) motive. Yes, central planning was not really part of the Yugoslav experience by the time of breakup. However, the Yugoslav system was socialist to some degree, and had been highly successful at an earlier period. So breaking apart this socialist entity was one motive; another was to take sides against the Serbs, whose population had voted for the communist party, now renamed the Socialist Party, the one headed by Milosevic. Yes, Milosevic was a scoundrel but that was not the reason for the US/German opposition to him. More on this in the book.

    Comment by David N. Gibbs — January 15, 2016 @ 7:44 am

  14. Louis, thanks for the personal insights, and your description on how you reached them. About the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), I recall reading that the Reagan Administration gave Saddam Hussein data on Iranian troop positions, data which had been collected by US spy satellites. Saddam was able to focus his gas attacks on massed Iranian troops (e.g., in trenches, this war was very WW1-style). The US purpose here was to thwart Iranian advancement (and certainly victory), and let the two sides exhaust each other, as you said. My impression/memory of this is that the overall US policy was “containment” of Iran. During these same years the Reagan Administration made secret deals with Iran to help extract hostages in Lebanon, and to illegally arm the Contras in Nicaragua (Iran-Contra Scandal). I guess that if the Reaganites (Casey, Rumsfeld) had not seen the usefulness of Iran (for dealing with Hezbollah, for gun-running supplies for Central American anti-socialists) they wouldn’t have been so “balanced” about limiting their “help” to Saddam (when he was losing) and not squeezing too hard in “containing” Iran. However, all this is from my memory at the time (1980s news accounts of US spy satellite data shared with Iraq, and Saddam’s gas attacks against “human wave” charges of Iranian conscript-troops chained together; this last being the Iranian equivalent of Stalin’s NKVD “retreat-proofing” stationed behind frontline Russian troops). I’ve not researched it (the 1980s Iran-Iraq “balance” by the U.S.).

    Comment by Manuel García, Jr. — January 15, 2016 @ 6:09 pm

  15. @Manuel Veering off topic, but could you point to the relevant documentation on the issue of “barrier troops” by the Iranians? The Red Army is most famous for this practice, although its scale and importance is commonly exaggerated in many accounts. Could be a useful addition to the wiki “Barrier troops”, which singles out the Red Army as the only important example.

    Comment by mlinchits — January 15, 2016 @ 7:57 pm

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