January 25, 2000

King of the
Court Historians

The current issue of the New York Review of Books carries an essay by Timothy Garton Ash entitled "Anarchy and Madness in the Balkans." It is always fascinating to observe the manufacture of history. Our rulers want a certain story told. For this they hire Court historians, whom they then reward handsomely. They are showered with grants, prizes, trips abroad, fellowships, prestigious appointments. Limousines pick them up and drop them off at their 5-star hotels. The Court historians get to mingle with men of power and assure themselves that they too are men of power. There is today no better exemplar of the Court historian than Timothy Garton Ash, Fellow of St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Several times a year in the august pages of the New York Review of Books he weighs in with lengthy essays on Europe—past, present and future. Though he does little more than summarize the conventional wisdom on any subject, every one of his writings carries an aura of importance. He repeatedly refers to past essays and past books, which are themselves collections of past essays. His mind rarely wanders from the reservation. He makes sure never to ask a question that might shake our assumptions about the good intentions of our masters.

He combines platitudes with a glib prose style. To this he adds an air of learning (though obviously of a rather superficial kind) and a corny sense of humor. He travels widely but always sees the same thing. This is because he only talks to the people he feels he needs to talk to—people very much like himself. They are invariably the officially sanctioned "liberals" of any country. They see him a mile off and immediately regale him with oodles of standard Anglo-Saxon liberal pieties. They are not fools. They know the power of the New York Review of Books. If you want a fellowship in some American university or think tank or would like to be considered for a Ford Foundation grant, or just want to get invited to a conference somewhere then Garton Ash is the man to see.

The Garton Ash version of history is very simple. The fall of Communism in Europe had one purpose only: to bring to power a bunch of liberal pro-Western intellectuals like himself. They are anti-nationalist, anti-religious, anti-Russian and subscribe to all the latest Western intellectual fads. They talk earnestly about "free markets" and "democracy." They welcome with open arms Western investment as well as US Government agencies like US AID, NED, IRI, NDI and so on. When they are on top, Garton Ash rejoices. When they are out, he laments. If there is a strange country somewhere that chooses not to be ruled by a Havels or a Michniks Garton Ash will turn on it with fury.

It is no surprise then that Serbia is not Garton Ash’s cup of tea. Nor is it surprising to find that he strongly supported last year’s bombing campaign. To be sure, he had reservations. But—and this too is no surprise—his objections were all to do with there being no "ground troops." In his latest offering, Garton Ash reveals his predilections by consistently preferring the Albanian spelling "Kosova" to the more usual Kosovo. He begins by complacently announcing that "It’s now entirely clear that the NATO intervention has decisively resolved, in favor of the Albanians, a Serb-Albanian struggle for control of this territory that goes back at least 120 years. This was neither the stated nor the real intention of Western policymakers… Although most Serbs don’t believe it, the representatives of the so-called international community are genuine and even passionate in their desire to see a future for the Serbs in Kosova." This is standard Garton Ash guff—lots of questionable judgments, each of which is extraordinarily flattering to our rulers. Has the struggle for Kosovo really been resolved "decisively" in favor of the Albanians? Since Serbia is much stronger than Kosovo and Albania combined, the only way the Albanians can hold on to Kosovo is if NATO stays there for ever. Will NATO stay there for ever? Perhaps, but I would not put any money on it.

As for the "stated" or the "real" intentions of our leaders, Garton Ash has to be kidding. In 1995 the United States launched a bombing campaign to coincide with a massive Croatian offensive that drove out 250,000 Serbs from Krajina. The Clinton Administration knew exactly what it was doing when it thus aided and abetted the worst case of "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans. The US has known all along that the Kosovo Albanians had only one project in mind: to turn Kosovo into an Albanian state. For the United States to intervene so fiercely on behalf of the Albanians and then to turn around and express astonishment that, as a result, Kosovo is now an "Albanian" state—well, that just begs credulity. No doubt future generations will read Garton Ash’s nonsense and come to the appropriate conclusions about "naïve" Americans, policies "paved with good intentions" and "international protectorates" in the Balkans that nobody had ever sought. As for evidence of NATO’s passion for ensuring that Serbs go on living in Kosovo, one need look no further than Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon’s statement delivered just prior to the arrival of NATO troops in Pristina: "The fact of the matter is that I don’t think Kosovo is going to be a very happy place for Serbs… As Kosovar Albanians flow back in, our assumption is that many Serbs will leave Kosovo."

As is to be expected, Garton Ash uses one kind of language when he refers to Albanians and quite another when he refers to Serbs. Albanian crimes are described as "reverse ethnic cleansing" or "revenge killings." (That Serb atrocities might themselves have been a response to earlier Albanian atrocities and could therefore more properly be described as "reverse ethnic cleansing" never gets into the pages of "official history.") Of KLA leader Hashim Thaci Garton Ash writes: "Well-informed senior Western sources…claim to have firm evidence that Thaci has been directly involved in KLA racketeering and strong-arm tactics." That’s telling them! Even the New York Times has written that Thaci is almost certainly responsible for the murder of his political rivals. Garton Ash makes a great show of lamenting the ethnic separation that characterizes Kosovo today. Yet it often seems as if his only regret is that there are still some Serbs left in Kosovo. He talks of areas where "Serbs still rule the roost." He sneers that in Belgrade "the state press and television make propaganda out of the suffering of Serbs at the hands of vengeful Kosovars…. Generally, the bombing has reinforced the Serbs’ already highly developed sense of national victimhood." Again, he never asks himself if there is not a lot of truth behind this "propaganda," if the Serbs were not indeed victims—set upon by the greatest military force in the world.

It is no surprise either that when he visits Belgrade he does not bother to interview any member of the Government, let alone anyone close to Slobodan Milosevic. He does not interview anyone from Voiclav Seselj’s Radical party. Such people are not worth listening to. He spends his time hanging out with the same crowd of losers that Western journalists have been hanging out with for years: Vuk Draskovic, Zoran Djindjic, Dragoslav Avramovic. Garton Ash quotes an opposition leader who tells him "ordinary Serbs… respect power, and the bombing was nothing if not a crude lesson in power." (Who does not respect power, by the way? Only the mentally unbalanced.) And then he chuckles to himself: "The same Belgrade intellectuals who one minute berate me for the sins of Western policy are, the next minute, privately asking me for a letter of recommendation or other assistance in getting to the West." It does not occur to him that for the Serbs the West that smashes them is also the only West there is. What are they expected to do? Commit collective suicide?

Garton Ash’s prose is so full of fatuous judgments that it is hard to select one for particular foolishness. This one is as "good" as any: "The 1980s ended with the fall of Honecker, Husak, and Ceausescu. It would have been wonderful to end the 1990s with the fall of Milosevic….Two major opinion polls, the NDI one and another commissioned by the local Centre for Policy Studies, show a large majority of respondents blaming him for the country’s woes and wanting him to go before the end of his term. There is much anecdotal evidence of the regime crumbling: border guards congratulating opposition figures on their television appearances, and so on." First, Milosevic is in power because he has won election after election. Therefore, he does not have anything in common with Honecker and the others. Second, why would anyone take seriously an opinion poll commissioned by the NDI? The National Democratic Institute is financed by the US Government. I really love the line about the "border guards congratulating opposition figures." Where did Garton Ash get this information from? Doubtless, from the "opposition figures" themselves—a reliable source obviously.

Garton Ash concludes his essay with some trite observations: "Yet I come away from this journey feeling, more than ever, the futile folly of it. It’s not as if these nations want to live in quite different ways in their different houses. What you find in each individual, small, battered, impoverished part of the Balkans are people—especially young people—looking at exactly the same Western advertisements, worshipping the same Western pop stars and fashion models, watching the same Western films and television shows, yearning for the same Western way of life. This is true in Serbia, despite the anti-Western sentiments, just as much as in Kosova, where the West is liberator-king." This is the usual pap people peddle when they seek to persuade us that everyone the world over is the same, want the same goods, and the same benign US Government lording it over them. Corporations eager to sell their products bleat the same message day and night. The truth, of course, is that people are very different. Serbs do not become Americans because they watch "Friends" any more than Syrians become Germans because they pick up German TV by satellite. People may wear jeans and still want no part of the contemporary liberal world.

That is the whole purpose of "official history." It is written to persuade us that all is for the best in this the best of all liberal worlds, that we, one and all, are marching to the liberal world order.

Text-only printable version of this article

George Szamuely was born in Budapest, Hungary, educated in England, and has worked as an editorial writer for The Times (London), The Spectator (London), and the Times Literary Supplement (London). In America, he has been equally busy: as an associate at the Manhattan Institute, editor at Freedom House, film critic for Insight, research consultant at the Hudson Institute, and as a weekly columnist for the New York Press. Szamuely has contributed to innumerable publications including Commentary, American Spectator, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, National Interest, American Scholar, Orbis, Daily Telegraph, the Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Criterion. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Tuesday.

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