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For the Bosniaks, the U.S. Ideal Is in Ruins

September 19, 2004|Lara J. Nettelfield and Sarah Wagner | Lara J. Nettelfield, a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University, and Sarah Wagner, a PhD candidate in anthropology at Harvard University, are Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellows in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — In a bookstore here, one book lines its window shelves: Bill Clinton's "My Life." It is a testament to Sarajevans' enduring admiration for the former American president. But, increasingly, the nostalgia here for Clinton symbolizes something more: the idea of an America now lost.

The shift in perceptions of the United States is particularly acute among Bosnia's Muslim population, who are officially known as Bosniaks and represent nearly half the country's population. Many of Bosnia's citizens, including Bosniaks, credit U.S. leadership under Clinton with ending the 3 1/2 -year war. In the post-conflict period, the United States represented an ideal of democracy worth pursuing. Now, in the wake of the American reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks and, later, the war in Iraq, Bosniaks' respect and admiration for the U.S. has gradually turned into distrust and disillusionment.

The community previously regarded the United States as a force for human rights and democratization. The Bosniaks represented a potential bridge connecting the U.S., Europe and the Islamic world. Today, even though the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development still top the list of foreign donors in Bosnia, U.S. effectiveness in supporting democracy is diminished. One Bosniak recently quipped, "The only thing they [the Americans] have to teach us is English!" The United States crops up everywhere in discussion, but the tone is markedly darker than in Bosnia's immediate postwar years.

It's not always easy for American scholars to function in such an atmosphere. When we talked to victims of war crimes about justice and accountability, they often questioned our authority to broach the topic, and distrust of American motives was a common theme in our conversations. A case manager visiting a family to confirm the identification of a missing person from the Srebrenica massacre explained why the victim was missing clothing. Sometimes it was lost in flight; in other instances, the Bosnian Serb army forced their captives to strip. For one man present, the idea of partly clothed Bosniak prisoners conjured up images of Abu Ghraib. "What a shameful thing it was that the Americans did to the Iraqi prisoners," he said. The spectrum of violence for people well versed in recognizing brutality now included the misconduct of U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Taken alone, the man's comments, though unsettling, were not alarming. But we heard similar sentiments expressed in hundreds of conversations with Bosnians across the country. The Bush administration's unilateralist approach to foreign policy and the charges of prisoner mistreatment by U.S. personnel at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Afghanistan and Iraq have undermined U.S. credibility in Bosnia. Worse, Abu Ghraib has significantly eroded America's moral authority on human rights and democracy in groups that trusted its leadership. A recent poll of Bosnian attitudes toward four international actors in the country -- the European Union, the Office of the High Representative, NATO and the U.S. -- ranked the U.S. as the least favored.

The ebb and flow of international politics has intersected with Bosnia's post-conflict transition in other ways that have damaged the U.S. image in the country. The Bosnian government's decision to extradite six Algerians suspected of ties to Al Qaeda to Guantanamo Bay heightened Muslim disillusionment with the U.S. The extraditions were carried out over the objections of Bosnia's human rights court, which fed suspicions that the U.S. was less interested in promoting the rule of law in Bosnia than in protecting its security interests.

The government's decision to sign an agreement with the Bush administration exempting American military and other personnel from prosecution by the International Criminal Court further aggravated Bosnian frustration with the U.S. The implicit message of the exemption -- that justice does not extend to everyone -- undercuts the claim of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague that justice knows no ethnicity or nationality. More recently, to the dismay of Bosniaks and other Bosnians, the government has decided to send troops to Iraq.

At a recent gathering in Sarajevo, a Srebrenica widow encountered the American commander of NATO troops in Bosnia, Maj. Gen. Virgil L. Packett. She told him that if she were to catch indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic (something Packett's forces have failed to do), she would detain him for a few days before handing him over to officials in The Hague. During that time, she said she would "treat [Karadzic] like the Americans treat the Iraqi prisoners." Although this woman was merely venting her frustration, her explicit critique of American misconduct is by no means rare.

Yet it may not be too late to change the hearts and minds of Bosniaks, and more generally Bosnians. Packett should respond to the families of the victims of Karadzic and former Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic by saying that the U.S. will levy the political will and military force to land them in The Hague before NATO forces hand peacekeeping duties over to the European Union at the end of the year. Also, the U.S. should hold accountable those responsible for prisoner abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, all the way up the chain of command. In addition, the U.S. would be well served to foster a more nuanced understanding of Islamic communities among its policymakers. Finally, for the U.S. to regain its credibility and moral standing in Bosnia, it will require leadership by example and not by threat. Surely, the United States can offer Bosnia more than English lessons.

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