Zimmermann, Warren – Origins of a Catastrophe

Origins of a Catastrophe. Yugoslavia and its Destroyers. America’s Last Ambassador Tells What Happened and Why (New York: Time Books/Random House, 1996)

      In his introduction, America’s last ambassador to Yugoslavia says that he will tell the story of the “villains” who destroyed Yugoslavia those “nationalist leaders who coopted, intimidated, circumvented, or eliminated all opposition to their demagogic designs.” (vii) Instead, he weaves a disingenuous tale of anecdote and assertion that continually links Tudjman and Milosevic — the “Tweedledum and Tweedledee of destructive nationalism” — and inculpates them, as proponents of “communist” nationalism, for the slaughter that took place in the former Yugoslavia. (pp.40, 153). He exonerates the United States and NATO of all responsibility, noting that the mistakes he and his colleagues made “never seem(ed) like mistakes when we (made) them.”(viii) In effect, Zimmermann uses denial and demonology to preserve the myths of American innocence and Balkan perfidy. (p.142) In many ways, his is a classic example of what William Blanchard called “the cynical pretense of inadvertence,”(x) a tendency to self- deception that justifies unjustifiable actions by admitting their reality, but denying their significance and finding fault in the application of technique, not in its practitioners.

     Like Rebecca West, whose “beautifully written classic” he admires, Zimmermann approaches Yugoslavia as a tourist. Before 1991, rugs were a bargain and the atmosphere “enchanting.” (pp. 3-4, 9-10, 168) Yugoslavia “stood for civility and tolerance”and provided ex Soviet satellites a “model.” But it was “caught between the poles of Serbian and Croatian nationalist extremism,” so “dwarfs” could lead gullible masses “susceptible to ethnically based appeals” though “a landscape of monsters and midgets” into the slaughterhouse of ethnic cleansing. (pp.9-10, 42, 68-9, 78, 111) Zimmermann condemns the 1974 Constitution perhaps the most liberal in Yugoslavia’s sad history for having “stimulated nationalism.” (pp. 40-1) Zimmermann’s opinion of Yugoslavia’s leaders is low. (p.138) Kucan was “squat,” a “human AK-47 whose lack of responsibility triggered the crisis in 1991. (pp.30-32, 142) Janez Jansa was “ascetic” and “driven.”(p.144) Their party was an “extreme faction in a coalition that had itself won only 54 percent of the popular vote,” “provoked a war by stealth.” and then made a deal with Belgrade. (p.144-5)

     Sympathetic to Bosnians, Zimmermann was singularly unimpressed with their leaders. “Mild-mannered to a fault,” Izetbegovic, was overly deferential and perpetually anxious. Like Tudjman and Seselj, he was also a nationalist who had been “convicted of sowing ethnic hatred.” (pp.39, 114-115)


     Zimmermann disliked most Serbian leaders. Borislav Jovic was a “small man,” a “pit bull,” but better than Vojislav Seselj, a “psychopathic racist,” or Karadzic, a Serbian Himmler with a “friendly manner” who oversaw “the massacres in the Muslim villages.” (pp.97-9, 119, 175-6) The baby-faced Milosevic impressed Zimmermann with his “competent” English, forceful speech, “steady” eye contact, attentiveness, and “clubby” vices (small faults that would appeal to an Ivy Leaguer like Zimmermann). But despite his “cherubic” cheeks, the Serbian leader was a cold “master of media manipulation,” dominated by his “dark side” and vaguely “schizoid” — an opportunistic “bully on a grand scale,” but at least not an “ethnic exclusivist,” like Tudjman and Karadzic. (pp. 20-7)

     Yet Zimmermann’s book is essentially Serbo-centric. He was stationed in Belgrade, his driver was Serbian, and his circle of “Yugoslav” friends seems to have been largely Serbian. He was particularly fond of Serbian journalists Slobodan Pavlovic, “Borba’s first-rate DC correspondent”; the “western” Srdja Popovic, editor of Vreme, “the most distinguished” magazine in Yugoslavia; and Sasa Nenadovic of Politika (pp.18-19, 38, 108). His list of heroes and heroines included few Croats or Bosnians, but was replete with Serbians from Popovic and Vesna Pesic (a wise professor and peace activist) to Vuk Draskovic. (pp.105-6, 108)

     Zimmermann sees Serbs as a “normal people” — “a product of their history, as we all are.”(p.10) He depicts the Serbs as “heirs to a great medieval civilization” and the “only people I know who celebrate a defeat.”(pp.11-14) Like the U.S. media, he sees Croats and Bosnians as blindly following their leaders, while “many Serbs” opposed Milosevic. (p.108) He claims that “Serbs in Bosnia had an understandable grievance” in Bosnia, and feared a “Muslim-dominated” state. (p.196) He laments human rights violations in Kosovo, but he considers the region “the heartland of Serbian statehood and culture,” its Jerusalem, delivered to the Albanians by the 1974 constitution. (pp.8, 11-14, 130) So he criticizes both Albanians and Slovenes for shattering the League of Communists in 1990 by their rigid insistence on human rights in the region. (pp.54-6)

     Zimmermann implies that all South Slavs — not merely a handful of prewar politicians — wanted a Yugoslav state in 1918, and he insists that the JNA had “won” territory for the Slovenes in 1945. (pp.5-6, 28) So he did not think the Slovenes, as “an original party to the voluntary compact creating Yugoslavia,” had a right to leave and “bring a firestorm of violence down on the rest of Yugoslavia.”(p.146) He claimed that Yugoslavia’s constitution was first rewritten in 1991 by the Croats and Slovenes, even though he knows that the Serbians had earlier destroyed the constitution by their takeovers of Kosovo and Vojvodina. (p.70) Zimmermann had little use for most Croats. Budimir Loncar was “a canny Croatian veteran of the Tito era” with a “catlike tread” and a “feline smile.”(pp.15-16) Josip Manolic had links to the secret police, Gojko Susak (“a Darth- Vader-like individual”) to the Ustase, and Martin Spegelj to arms dealers. (pp.154, 181) Glavas was a Croatian Arkan.(p.152) Tudjman was intolerant, impulsive, and dim — an authoritarian “martinet” with the characteristics of “an inflexible schoolteacher” who could manage only “a nervous chuckle or a mirthless laugh.”(pp.71-5) Zimmermann chides Tudjman for ignoring his advice to apologize to the Serbs at Jasenovac, and he blames the war on the Croatian leader’s rejection of “any gesture that smacked of reconciliation, cooperation, or healing,” his “precipitate declaration of independence,” and his failure to “assure Croatia’s Serbian citizens that they would be safe in an independent Croatia.”(pp.71-7, 151-2)

     Zimmermann also dislikes Croatia “a republic of lackluster politicians” run by the “emigrant-financed HDZ.”(pp.44, 71-5) Listing firings, personal attacks, and an oath of loyalty, he concluded that in “Croatia, unlike Bosnia, Serbs were in fact being abused.” (pp.75, 139-40) By creating an army and defending itself from the JNA, Croatia had become a “national security state” with an armed force “larger than the armies of Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Portugal, Austria, or Sweden.” (pp.132,151, 154)

     Zimmermann uses the passive voice to describe the Serbian assault on Croatia, and ignores events before 1991, “a time of growing violence” in Croatia until 7 July, when “fighting broke out” in the Krajina, “a rebellion within a rebellion.” (pp.94-5,122, 148-9) Of course, he knows that the JNA and Milosevic had armed and incited the Serb “militants”there, but he focused on Tudjman’s efforts to “install Croatian police” as triggering the war. Yet he claims that it was “nearly impossible” to assign responsibility “for each instance of violence” in Croatia, because reports from Zagreb and Belgrade were diametrically opposed But “it didn’t matter,” becaus
e Tudjman and Milosevic wanted violence. (p.120)

     For Zimmermann, the war in Croatia was a tawdry affair, “a throwback to the ancient bandit tradition of the Balkans.” While the JNA “secured all areas in Croatia that had significant Serbian populations,” the “dregs of society…rose from the slime to become…national heroes, exalted by their respective propaganda machines.” (pp.160,152) Even-handed and fair — unlike the pro- Serbian UN commanders, Rose and MacKenzie — Zimmermann was careful to note that both Serbs and Croats suffered in Vukovar, and if the Serbs shelled Dubrovnik “both sides” “breached the rules of war.” (pp.154-8)

     Zimmermann disapproves of Croatia’s “blitzkrieg” in the Krajina, although it preceded NATO air strikes and effectively ended the war, because it was illegal and ruthless (pp.231-2), not comparable to the “master stroke” mounted in Bosnia by the JNA in 1992. (p.196) It says a good deal about Zimmermann that he criticized the JNA’s leaders, Veljko Kadijevic and Blagoje Adzic, but saw the Yugoslav army as a conflicted institution with a “proud” and “heroic military tradition that Croatians and Slovenes had tried to “humiliate” by adopting a “not very heroic tactic” of besieging the army in its barracks. (pp.85-9, 100-102, 142, 158- 60,186)

     Yet Zimmermann notes that the “Serbian strategy” in Croatia was repeated in Bosnia first the creation of Serbian “autonomous regions,” then the arming of local Serbs by the JNA, and finally JNA military action to “protect” the Serbs and secure their hold on towns throughout Croatia and Bosnia. (p.174) He also cites Izetbegovic on the Serbian strategy in Bosnia, “They’re creating a new situation by force, then they’re trying to negotiate on the basis of that situation.” (p.197) He even saw “a Croatian pattern emerging” in Bosnia. (p.198) But he ties none of this together, so his treatment of the war in Croatia is accusatory the Croats had it coming while his depiction of the war in Bosnia is sympathetic the Serbs were to blame. Zimmermann’s dislikes extend beyond Yugoslav leaders. He is not fond of intellectuals and their “crackpot” ideas, and censures Dobrisa Cosic for “a frequent failing of intellectuals” self-confident messianism. (pp.17, 93-4) He disliked TV, which, like Tito, was to blame for everything. (pp.120, 138) He dismissed EC monitors in 1991 as too “timid” and “pro-Croatian.” (pp.158-9) He disliked the CIA’s fatalist, 1990 report, and he was dismayed with ignorant US Congressmen, swayed by a “strong and active Croatian lobby” and oblivious to “the fate of the Serbian minority,” despite his efforts to convince them to pursue a “rational” policy. (pp.84,126-7, 130-1)

     Zimmermann also dislikes democratic elections that do not elect candidates he favors. He was particularly distressed at the lack of “curbs on the potentially nondemocratic behavior of those elected” in the 1990 elections, which swept nationalists to power. (pp.68, 130) In general, Zimmermann finds nationalism, self- determination, and sovereignty dangerous concepts. (pp.277-78) Not even “bestial crimes” justify secessions for Chechnyans or Kurds, because that would break up existing states. So Zimmermann insists that self-determination be allowed only when it “won’t adversely affect the interests of other states [sic] or peoples.” (p.278) He praises Spain, whose confederal system he confuses with democracy, the US, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, Austria, and Malaysia as models of ethnic “power- sharing.”.(p.240)

     Although he seemed to embrace sovereignty in his rejection of self-determination, Zimmermann dismisses it as “the last refuge of dictators.”(pp.238- 9) He ridicules Yugoslavia’s successor states as “unstable ministates”and advocates using human rights “more intrusively” to promote democracy, preferably by an “international enforcer” that can only be the United States, because we are a repository of virtue, owing to our optimistic striving toward the future and our ability to put the past behind us. (pp.4, 241-2, 229) Zimmermann does have heroes. Ante Markovic the most ineffectual of all Yugoslav politicians struck the ambassador as “admirable,” if “too liberal and Western” for his undeserving countrymen, who gave him high approval ratings, but hated his policies and dumped him in 1991. (pp.42-4, 66, 112- 113) He also liked Markovic’s economic adviser, Kilo Gligorov, “a wise old communist.”(p.116) Milovan Djilas impressed him as a saint, and Vuk Draskovic as “an electrifying speaker” whose comments were “perceptive and interesting.”(pp.104-105, 119, 171) Stipe Mesic and Janez Drnovsek were good tennis partners (pp.33, 123-4), and Vasil Tupurkovski and Ibrahim Rugova “came through the Yugoslav crisis with honor.”(pp.81, 126) Zimmermann even liked Croatia’s Chief of Staff, Antun Tus, “an outstanding officer with democratic views.”(p.141) In short, Zimmermann liked those “courtly, articulate, generous, and wise” Yugoslavs who represented “the best of the Central European tradition.” (p.33) Zimmermann insists that the U.S. made honest mistakes, but its goals were noble “unity, independence, and territorial integrity,” with “progress toward democracy” and “a straight line toward capitalism.” (pp.8, 51) But peace, unity, and democracy were merely instrumental the real goal was a “straight line toward capitalism.” Markovic’s economic reforms, not the man, counted, and Zimmermann favored “shock therapy” that would force the spoiled Yugoslavs to take that “straight line to capitalism.” (pp.17, 50-51) Unity and democracy were tactics to avoid violence during a tricky transition. What really counted was converting the dinar and finding “reasonable solutions short of war.” (pp.41-2, 46-9, 62, 64-5, 111) Washington was indifferent to the form a Yugoslav state might adopt (centralized or confederated), although it insisted that Serbia maintain control of Kosovo. (pp.64-5, 78-81).

     But Washington did not act, ostensibly because policymakers feared repeating the mistakes of Vietnam and Lebanon and were paralyzed by Powell’s cautious doctrine. (pp.214-215, 219) Instead, Americans talked. Bush twice told Markovic he wanted democracy and reforms, Zimmermann told Kadijevic not to use of force, and Eagleburger promoted “reconciliation,” as Washington took a “clear public line” blaming the JNA for events in Croatia and urging the JNA and Tudjman “to settle their differences.” (pp.164, 122-3) Baker’s mistake was not to “deal with the irascible and complex protagonists of the Yugoslav drama” before 21 June 1991. But only Izetbegovic and Gligorov were “sensible” then, and the American’s warnings to Milosevic in March 1992 were ineffectual. So, at worst, Baker was six months too late. (pp.133-7, 193)

     A year later, Washington informed Belgrade that it would only work for Serbia’s “political and economic isolation,” urged Karadzic to be democratic, and warned both Milosevic and Tudjman not to interfere in Bosnia. (pp.174-6, 194, 198) But Clinton lacked resolve, determination, and consistency, so Washington merely recalled Zimmermann after Serbia’s attack on Bosnia, a “modest” action, but “the right thing to do.”(pp.204, 223)

     While generally exonerating American diplomacy, Zimmermann condemns European diplomacy as “cynical theater, a pretense of useful activity…disguising a lack of will.” He thought the Germans rushed recognition and the EC encouraged partition, and he regretted the arms embargo in Bosnia. But he praises Cyrus Vance for his success in securing a cease-fire in Croatia, even though it benefitted the Serbs, and he thought the Vance-Owen plan “acceptable,” even though it gave 43% of Bosnia to the Serbs. He credits NATO with ending the war; and he effectively exonerates the West of all blame, because Yugoslavia’s “congenital effects” (it was a state, not a nation), its Orthodox and Catholic churches, its selfis
h Slovenes, insensitive Croats, greedy Serbs, ideologically rigid army, and nationalists condemned it to death. (pp.xii, 155, 161-2, 177, 181, 184, 189-90, 192, 209-212, 222, 231-3)

     Unhappy with Rose and MacKenzie for not condemning all sides for the atrocities they committed, Zimmermann admires Carrington’s defense of Serbian rights. (pp.161-2, 224) He considers humanitarian relief a “triumph,” especially since lifting the arms embargo and Western military intervention were not options. (pp.140, 219-20,225) He defends Eagleburger against charges of conflict of interest, and blames the Slovenes for misunderstanding him when he said that Washington could live with a fragmented Yugoslavia. (pp.5, 58, 219). He praises all Foreign Service Officers, especially Charles Redman, who created the Croat-Bosnian federation in 1994 (pp.49,165-6, 231).

     Zimmermann is a bit upset with Dayton, not because the Serbs in Bosnia, who made up 30% of the population, got 49% of the territory, but because Tudjman was the “big winner.” He saw the inequitable distribution of territory as a Western success, because the Serbs did not get the 64% they had demanded. (pp.232- 3) He claims, rather disingenuously, that sanctions on Serbia were intended to “Saddamize” Milosevic and serve as a bargaining chip at Dayton. (pp.213-4) Zimmermann’s views reflect his reading and his admiration for George Kennan, the father of containment. (p.53) His list of basic sources includes West’s travelogue; the journalistic, Serbo-centric account by Laura Silber and Allen Little (and its BBC adaptation); the book by the Serbian diplomat, Mihailo Crnobrnja; the tendentious work by Susan Woodward, one-time adviser to Akashi, dubbed the Mitsubishi Chetnik by the Bosnians; and the outdated and poorly researched study by Lenard J. Cohen. (pp.255-7) Zimmermann completed his memoirs at RAND, with help from Dennison Rusinow, whose writing is marked by sympathy for Serbia and hostility to Croatia, and David Calleo of Johns Hopkins. So this is not an insider’s memoir; it is a work by an insider whose circle has repeatedly rationalized the West’s failures, excused Serbian excesses, condemned Croat and Slovene actions, and preferred humanitarian aid to military action. Perhaps it is not surprising that so many people in Yugoslavia hated Zimmermann. What is surprising is that this made him proud. (p.110) JAMES SADKOVICH


1 William H. Blanchard, Aggression American Style (Santa Monica, CA: Goodyear Publishing Cpy., 1978), pp. x, 1-11, dubbed this tendency “aggression American style” and saw a trend toward the use of such methods of coercion and persuasion in Europe and the USSR.