The spirit of Europe lives or dies in Sarajevo

As the West lurches towards a new policy on Bosnia, Bernard-Henri Levy, one of France's leading intellectuals, hails its late conversion
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The Independent Online
Bernard-Henri Levy

has fought a passionate campaign in France for the Bosnian cause. He helped to forge the "Europe Begins at Sarajevo" movement, comprising some of the country's most prominent intellectuals, to fight the last European elections. In the run-up to the recent presidential election, Levy flirted with Balladur but then backed the Socialist Lionel Jospin. Levy first came to public notice in the mid-Seventies when, as one of the nouveaux philosophes, he challenged the French left's lingering sympathies for the Soviet bloc. The first of his many books, The Barbarity in the Human Face, firmly established him on the intellectual scene. He is a well-known figure in France, one of a new breed of academics who are also regular performers on television.

Finally, the mood has changed. France, and now Britain, seem to have crossed a Rubicon. For those, like me, who have been praying for such a change for three years - for those who dreamt that Europe might rediscover the path of honour - this is a gigantic event. It is something almost beyond hope, something beyond cynicism, something which should be neither dismissed nor minimised. There remain, however, fundamental questions, burning questions - sometimes awkward questions - which this lurch towards a new policy should not obscure.

1 Why now? Why so late? Why such reluctance to utter the words which, once uttered, impose their own conclusions? There has been talk of "cowardice" and "abdication of responsibility". We are told we dread "war, a wider conflagration". There are jibes about "the spirit of Munich", comparisons between our present leaders and Daladier and Chamberlain, bending before Hitler. There is some truth to such talk.

But can we really be expected to believe that the armies of Nato genuinely fear Mr Karadzic? What historian of the future will give credence to the supposed fright of this military colossus, constructed to defy the mighty Red Army? Karadzic is not Hitler. No one could sincerely believe that this little bandit chief threatens world peace, as Hitler did. No. It can only be that this strange passivity, which has held our military in its spell for three years, has another explanation, simpler, but more terrible: Westerners, in the deepest recesses of their being, have wanted the Serbs to win.

Oh, no doubt, we find their methods a trifle brutal. Barbarous. Disagreeable. But the Balkans are a notoriously dangerous and difficult place; the powder- keg of Europe; a fountain-head of inexhaustible conflicts; someone is needed to hold the ring and keep the antagonistic communities apart. Such are the cliches which for decades have served in place of serious policy.

Axiom Number One: The Balkans are the black hole of Europe, its sea of storms, its eternal bone of contention. Axiom Number Two: this region of everlasting chaos has achieved peace only under the tutelage of a conqueror or policeman, first the Ottomans, then the Habsburgs, finally the Communists and Titoists. Conclusion: the overheated Balkans, heir to the pernicious fevers of so-called tribalism, need a new master and that master must be the Serbs.

Such thinking is now exposed not simply as criminal, but as idiotic. But from Paris to London to New York I have met scores of politicians dealing with the Bosnian question and I have no doubt that this was, however dimly, their way of thinking. The Serbs were doing dirty work but it was necessary work. Ethnic cleansing was odious; but at least it was calling into being homogeneous, and therefore stable, nations. The West might be conniving at infamy but at least it was in the solemn knowledge that history was being helped along its appointed course; a painful but necessary birth was being induced.

2 What is the cost of non-intervention in Bosnia? We have been endlessly lectured for the past three years on the cost of an intervention which would never actually happen. I believe the time has come to count the cost, the concrete cost, of the policy of non-intervention, in other words of acquiescence, by the West. This cost we know only too well. It amounts to the destruction of a country; two million refugees in camps or in exile; the collapse of our system of collective security; the discrediting of the UN; the establishment of the principle that might is right; and the risk of establishing in the heart of Europe a Muslim state (which the Bosnian Muslims did not want and which, if it drifts one day into fundamentalism, would be our very own creature).

And this is not to speak of something of which we rarely speak: something which strikes to the heart of Britain and France, the implications for the French inner suburbs and the British inner cities of this interminable acceptance of horror in Bosnia. For decades we have delivered a lecture to the Muslims who live in these areas: "Become more secular; integrate; become good Europeans; accept the democratic model we have offered you. In return you will have equality, rights, prosperity, brotherhood." In the face of events in Bosnia, they could - and can still - only reply: "There existed Muslims in Europe who were to your taste. They did not wear beards or chadors. They were secular and moderate, democratic, even liberal. Far from opening your arms to them, it took you three years to offer them your hand."

If there is a change in the wind today, good! If finally we plan to redeem ourselves, rejoice! But what ammunition, in the meantime, for the fundamentalists of all stripes. What power to the elbow of those who ceaselessly say to Europe's Muslims: "Europe is your enemy. Don't fall into their trap. They don't want anything to do with you." This is the weapon we have given them. This will be - this is already - the most perverse consequence of our refusal to change policy for so long.

3 What are the reasons for our bending now, perhaps even our U-turn? Personalities played a part, starting with that of Jacques Chirac. There was also the weight of public opinion, especially in Britain. There were, of course, the pictures of UN soldiers, chained, taken hostage, murdered, which finally opened our eyes to the nature of Serb terrorism. All these elements had some effect. But there was another factor, of which we rarely speak, but it seems to me to have been the most decisive of all: the tenacity of the Bosnians themselves.

Everything was done to persuade them to give up. We refused to defend them. We prevented them from defending themselves. They were denounced for each attempt to escape from their appointed role as model victims. They were threatened with General Winter: "What? You are insisting on running the risk of another winter of war? It would be so convenient if you signed the bottom of this document and you could take possession of your little Gaza Strips."

They were blackmailed with the withholding of humanitarian aid. "Our compassion is not infinite; our resources are not limitless; what would you say if this winter we grew bored and cut off the supplies which have sustained you for years somewhere between life and death?" We menaced them, for lack of anything else, with the horror of media blackout and oblivion. "That's the way it is. We're pulling the plug. We're wiping you off our screens. You can wriggle all you like. You can be as stubborn as you like. Our viewers will have zapped to another channel. They will have turned you off."

In short, so great was our desire not to make peace but to have some peace, that we resorted to almost any method to force these people to give way. In the past few months we saw the bizarre and obscene spectacle of the West taking the side of the poor, ordinary Bosnians. They had been taken hostage by their leaders, bitter-enders to a man; all they really wanted was a chance to embrace "peace".

But then, what a shock. No, what a scandal! This people gasping for breath, these shadows we wished to forget, these military, political, televisual has-beens, these people desperate to accept any arrangement made for them, had the bad taste to refuse to surrender. Alone against everyone, scorning all threats, they preferred to risk dying on their feet than to accept the certainty of living on their knees. What can explain - what are the qualities which feed - such stubbornness? That is another story. But it is clear that it was the heroic, the almost insane, determination of the Bosnians which scrambled the calculations of our realpoliticians and forced them to consider doing something at last.

4 What should be done and how far should we go? There is clearly no need - despite the claims of irresponsible, panic-sowing politicians - to declare war on Serbia. Karadzic is not a head of state, he is a third- rate gang leader. He is an outlaw who has destroyed a sovereign state and wages not a civil war but a war on civilians. In other words, there is no international law - quite the contrary - preventing us from ridding ourselves of him.

Nor is there any need - despite the scaremongering claims of Messrs Mitterrand and Major - to send 100,000 or 200,000 troops to Sarajevo. The Bosnians have soldiers. They have an infantry more numerous and more battle-hardened than that of the Bosnian Serbs. Our direct military role should be confined to protecting the enclaves (Bihac, Gorazde, Sarajevo) which, under international law, constitute UN territory.

What else should we do? The options have been the same from the outset. We should mount air strikes sufficiently powerful to force the Pale leadership to reconsider (something which no serious expert has declared impractical). Or, failing anything else, if we recoil from such an escalation of the conflict, we should give the Bosnians the means to liberate their own country.

Opponents of a lifting of the arms embargo argue that this would amount to "piling war upon war, stoking up the conflict, compounding the suffering of an already sorely stricken civilian population". But, differences in scale apart, are these not the same arguments that were used in 1942 by those who would have dissuaded the British from parachuting arms to the Free French? By the same argument, it was right to abandon the Warsaw ghetto; it was quite wrong to send arms to Spain in 1936. One should never - absolutely never - aid the terrified victim and help him to his feet, for fear of annoying the executioner.

5 What is at stake, finally, in this war? Why is this change of policy by European governments so vital? I accept that history never repeats itself. But I see no way, short of coining a new word, of avoiding the term neo-fascist or post-fascist when describing Serb militias who build concentration camps, who practice ethnic cleansing and deny fellow men the right to share the same soil unless they conform to some imagined ideal of "ethnic purity".

I also know that there is no example in history of a purely saintly or exemplary people. The Bosnian army has, during this conflict, committed abuses and crimes of its own (though not worse than those committed by combatants in other conflicts, such as the terrible actions of the Republicans in Spain in the early months of an otherwise just war).

How can one refuse to accept that Bosnia, before it became a country, was, and remains, an idea, or, if you prefer, a culture? Its message was: "You can be a Serb, a Croat, a Jew, a Muslim, you can belong to different 'ethnic groups' or 'nationalities' and yet belong for centuries to a successful community"? On the Serb side, you see behaviour, a culture, which precisely mirrors the values which Europe rebuilt itself to fight against after1945. On the Bosnian side you see the values and the actions on which the modern Europe aspires to build. (It is not sufficiently known that a considerable minority of Serbs and Croats remain in Sarajevo and all the other towns obstinately called Muslim by the press).

This is why this war is our war. And this is why our involvement must not, from now on, be restricted to protection of our own UN troops or the defence of beleaguered enclaves. We must go beyond this. We must bring down Karadzic and rid Bosnia - including the Serb people of Bosnia - of a psychopathic terrorist who defies the most elementary tenets of democratic civilisation.

Perhaps we should also reconsider the very principles of the partition plans concocted by Vance and Owen. We should turn them on their head so that they no longer divide "religions" or "regions", still less "races" and "ethnic groups". They should instead divide an anti-fascist Bosnia from a neo-fascist Bosnia. It is time to take sides. It is time to break once and for all with an approach which consisted of placing victims back- to-back with their executioners. It is Europe, and its very spirit, which will die or endure in Sarajevo.