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First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, by David N. Gibbs
Reviewed by Josip Glaurdic, University of Cambridge, UK
International Affairs, Vol. 86, Issue 2 (March, 2010) 555-56

The West's policies in former Yugoslavia have been criticized in many quarters, but nowhere as vociferously as on the political left. A number of books committed to leftist ideals -- most notably Michael Parenti's To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia (Verso, 2000) and Diana Johnstone's Fool's Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions (Pluto, 2003) -- have provided strongly worded, yet deeply flawed, alternative narratives of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the West's interventions. David Gibbs's book is the newest and most sophisticated addition to this burgeoning literature. In spite of its impressive academic veneer of extensive notes and lengthy bibliography, First Do No Harm suffers from the same shortcomings as its predecessors. It is selective in its treatment of sources; it distorts the record of events; and it demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of former Yugoslavia, partly stemming from the author's inability to read sources in the South Slavic languages.

Gibbs's motivation is to expose how Balkan interventions were used to perpetuate US militarism after the Cold War. His aim is to challenge the humanitarian interventionists and their claims that the West became involved in Yugoslavia reluctantly and without real power interests. In his view, it was the West's intervention that actually tore the troubled federation apart in the first place. According to Gibbs, Yugoslavia's economy was destroyed by the International Monetary Fund's measures during the 1980s, the death knell being Germany's encouragement of the republics of Slovenia and Croatia to secede. What followed thereafter was a series of messy, ill-advised and biased interventions, which satisfied real power interests of important western players, but left the region ravaged. In Gibbs's view, Washington -- as the principal architect of the post-Cold War order and the West's policies in Yugoslavia -- based its actions on four strategic goals: strengthening America's worldwide dominance; finding a new role for NATO; dissuading the European Community/European Union from pursuing independent foreign and security policies; and satisfying the US military-industrial complex.

This line of reasoning might not be original, but Gibbs gives it some freshness by wrapping it into an argument on America's post-Cold War pursuit of hegemony. His chapter on 'US predominance and the logic of interventionism' manages to challenge some dominant opinions on Clintonian multilateralism and America's relations with the European Union. Once Gibbs abandons his ideological forte and takes on the events in former Yugoslavia, however, his book collapses and reads as little more than a collection of the conspiracy theories so popular in Milosevic's Serbia.

The problem lies not only in Gibbs's claims that the West was hostile towards Milosevic because of his anti-capitalism; or that Croatia's then President Franjo Tudjman had neo-Nazi sympathies; or that Bosnia's then President Alija Izetbegovic was an Islamic extremist (whose support for multiculturalism was apparently suspect because during the Second World War, as a 15- to 19-year-old youth, he merely 'lived in areas of Bosnia that were controlled by the pro-German Ustasa movement, essentially a Nazi puppet state', pp. 11415); or that Germany favoured Croatia on account of sympathies for the Second World War liaisons between the Croatian Ustase and Nazi Germany. The author supports these and similarly dubious claims with spurious, distorted or already discredited evidence -- or with no evidence at all. In his discussion of the role of Germany in Yugoslavia's dissolution, Gibbs repeatedly promises 'new evidence' which will prove that the German government not only encouraged Slovenia's and Croatia's independence, but also helped initiate the war. However, this 'new evidence' is nothing more than a February 1994 report produced by the Washington NGO International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA) and a September 1994 Jane's Intelligence Review article, which to a large extent recycles the ISSA claims of Germany helping Croatia set up its intelligence services. These were questionable allegations, for which the two publications provided no proof; more importantly, they were made 16 years ago. How they constitute new (and credible) evidence of Germany helping initiate the Yugoslav wars, Gibbs fails to explain.

Another example concerns Gibbs's repeated use of the March 1994 'Report on the historical background of the civil war in the Former Yugoslavia' by Professor Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni's UN Commission of Experts. The problem is: there was no March 1994 report by the Bassiouni Commission. The report which Gibbs refers to was drafted by the Milwaukee lawyer and vice-president of the Serbian Unity Congress David Erne, who printed it on UN stationery and distributed it to the press. This propaganda piece, extolling for example Radovan Karadzic as a respected poet-dissident, was never an official UN report.  The real Bassiouni report was published in May 1994. On more than 3,000 pages it outlined the crimes committed in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially in the Serb campaigns of summary executions, mass rapes and concentration camps. This report and its findings are not even mentioned by Gibbs.

Such shortcomings are the trademarks of First Do No Harm. Gibbs repeatedly claims to be setting the historical record straight, but does so only in order to create a smokescreen for his distortions. He, for example, makes no mention of the Belgrade-instigated 1990 mutiny of the Krajina Serbs and, as a result, we are led to believe Croatia was to blame for the 19912 war. He downplays what the Bosnian Serbs were doing in 1991 -- arming and creating para-state structures -- and, as a result, we are led to believe that 'there is no evidence that the Serbs were bent on war' in Bosnia in March 1992. Or, in his discussion of the Second World War in Yugoslavia, he only mentions the communist partisans and the Croat Ustase collaborationists (who are repeatedly portrayed as the forefathers of contemporary Croatia), but there is no mention of the Serb collaborationist Chetniks. Surely it is possible to write a book with a leftist critique of the West's policies in the Balkans without such glaring omissions and distortions. Unfortunately, such a book still has to be written.

See also Response to David Gibbs' "Was Kosovo the Good War?" By Roger Lippman, August 28, 2009


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