Impunity: From Harry Truman to Richard Holbrooke – Edward Herman

Impunity: From Harry Truman to Richard Holbrooke

By Edward Herman
February 1, 2011

A sign on Harry Truman’s desk, which read “The buck stops here,” has been regularly invoked to showcase him as a model in accepting responsibility. But Harry Truman could avoid passing the buck because he was the President of the United States, for whom impunity starts here (my phrase). Thus, he could drop atomic bombs on two sizable Japanese cities, killing perhaps a quarter million civilians in two quick strokes, and never suffer the slightest threat of being brought to a war crimes tribunal. It is noteworthy that the total number of civilians killed in the Bosnian wars from 1992-1995 was approximately 39,199 (see Patrick Ball et al., “Bosnian Book of the Dead: Assessment of the Database, Research and Documentation Center, Sarajevo,” June, 2007), and the total civilian deaths in the Yugoslavia dismantlement wars would still fall far short of 100,000 even if we added in all the civilians killed in the Kosovo struggle. But dozens have been tried and imprisoned for the deaths in Bosnia and Kosovo, where those who do have impunity are able to wax indignant over civilian deaths and claim to be humanitarian interveners and instruments of justice. And they can lie almost without limit and get away with it, just as Truman lied in claiming that Hiroshima was a military base—chosen “because we wished in this first attack to avoid the killing of civilians,” said this notable mass killer of civilians.


Richard Holbrooke is in this great tradition of liars, hypocrites, and mass murderers who have impunity. It is amusing to watch the mainstream media, liberal pundits, and Barack Obama fawn over this “towering figure” in the wake of his death on December 13, 2010. A central claim of virtually all the accolades is that Holbrooke brought peace to Bosnia in engineering the Dayton Accord of November 1995. According to Roger Cohen, “nobody could end the Bosnian war” until our giant appeared on the scene (“The Unquiet American,” New York Times, December 16, 2010). His long-time State Department ally Strobe Talbott wrote that Holbrooke “epitomize[d] the very best of what a single American can do to improve a dangerous world,” and praised the “critical role he played in bringing a decade of fragile peace in the Balkans” (“Not A Quiet American,” Washington Post, December 15, 2010).


In fact, there would have been no Bosnian war at all if the EU and United States hadn’t violated the 1974 Constitution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and contradicted common sense by forcing the independence of Bosnia in 1992 without the constitutionally required approval of the three constituent “nations” (Croats, Serbs, Muslims), and then refused to allow the reluctant nations to withdraw (as they later supported by force and dictated the withdrawal of Kosovo from Serbia).

 The Lisbon Agreement of March 1992, approved by the EC and its chief negotiator Jose Cutileiro and signed by representatives of all three “nations,” would have prevented the civil war by a political settlement. But Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic, with U.S. encouragement, withdrew his approval, the first of a series of peace proposal rejections by the Bosnian Muslims with U.S. support. Thus it is a lie that “nobody could end the Bosnian war”—the fact is that the civil war was eminently preventable, but peace was not on the U.S. agenda in 1992 or until some years later.

 Like Cohen and Talbott, Frank Rich says that Holbrooke is “the diplomat who brought peace to the killing fields of Bosnia in the 1990s” (NYT, December 26, 2010), but if you bring peace to killing fields that you and your associates helped produce and fertilized are you properly called a peacemaker?

 Similarly, when Roger Cohen speaks of Holbrooke stepping in to halt the West’s “inaction,” this also is a misrepresentation of reality—the United States and EU powers were very active in preventing Lisbon and other accords from stopping the war till the time was ripe. And at that point, it was not Milosevic who needed to be bombed to come to Dayton. He was eager for a settlement that would end sanctions on Serbia. Rather, Milosevic needed to be bombed to placate Izetbegovic and his associates, who still hoped that the United States would fight harder to crush the Serbs and allow them to rule a united Bosnia. This is evident in Holbrooke’s memoir To End A War, where he acknowledges the foot-dragging by Izetbegovic and the Bosnian Muslim negotiators, and writes that it appeared the Bosnian Muslims were about to kill the Dayton Accords on the very last day, “unless Milosevic could save the negotiations”—something that a very cooperative Milosevic did. “People keep asking whether Milosevic is going to deliver on the peace agreement,” Holbrooke said at Dayton. “It’s impossible to answer that question right now. All we know is that he has delivered on everything…over the past four months.”


Holbrooke even describes President Bill Clinton’s first-ever meeting with Milosevic in Paris on December 14, 1995, the day of the official signing of Dayton. “I know this agreement would not have been possible without you,” Clinton told Milosevic. “You made Dayton possible.” But this, and other real world facts, didn’t prevent Holbrooke from declaring at the time of Milosevic’s death that “Milosevic started four wars. He lost them all. The biggest of them all was the one in Bosnia, where over 300,000 people died, two-and-a-half million homeless. And we bombed him in August and September of 1995. We should have done this much earlier.” These are the words of a bully and demagogue without a vestige of intellectual scruple.

 Holbrooke’s account of Milosevic’s death in prison was a stream of lies (“Rough justice is a fitting end for Milosevic,” Financial Times, March 13, 2006). He has Milosevic responsible for “300,000 deaths” after allegedly starting those four wars. Holbrooke wrote this well after two establishment studies (one funded by the ICTY, one by the Norwegian government) had placed the total dead on all sides during the Bosnian wars at about 100,000. He wrote this after even the New York Times’s Marlise Simons had quietly moved from the 250,000 propaganda figure to the hard-to-avoid establishment total of 100,000. But Holbrooke didn’t have to move; every institutionalized lie on the subject he could pass off without fear.

 Holbrooke can also write freely and with indignation about the terrible violence in Yugoslavia, allegedly all allocable to the demon, without anybody in the mainstream mentioning his own role in managing far more massive killings in Vietnam, Indonesia, East Timor, and Iraq.  U.S. direct and indirect (supportive) killing in these four cases would run to six or more million while Holbrooke was one of the management team, or 60 or more times the deaths in Yugoslavia blamed on the demon.

 The Yugoslav Tribunal developed the concept of a “joint criminal enterprise” for use in its pursuit of Serbs, which allowed any Serb official or military officer linked to deaths in the civil wars, who should have known about them and stopped them or refused to participate, to be liable as a criminal member of this joint criminal enterprise. On this logic Holbrooke would be a first-class member of the U.S. joint criminal enterprise in three or more separate theaters of action, and even on more traditional legal reasoning he might well be guilty of perjury as well as war crimes.

Holbrooke worked in the Vietnam War joint criminal enterprise for six years, and there is no record of his ever objecting to the high level B-52 bombing of peasant villages, use of napalm, cluster bombs, and dioxin-based chemicals that left hundreds of thousands maimed and vast numbers dead. On Yugoslav Tribunal principles he deserved a long prison term for this performance alone.

He was a high level official during the Carter administration and was point person for the Democrats in dealing with Indonesia. His role there was completely suppressed in the December 2010 accolades to the “towering figure.” He was in Indonesia at the height of the Indonesian killings in East Timor in the later 1970s, more killings incidentally than in all of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. During this killing wave the Carter administration continued to sell weapons to Indonesia, made no public or UN protest at Indonesian aggression-genocide, and maintained excellent relationships with the killers. In August 1977, when Holbrooke visited Indonesia in the midst of the East Timor holocaust, he praised Suharto for human rights improvements and for opening up East Timor to the West.

 When Allan Nairn challenged Holbrooke’s performance in East Timor and Indonesia after his speech at Brown University in 1997, Holbrooke admitted that he may have made a few mistakes: “If I made a mistake or two along the way, I’ll confront it when that goes—when that comes up. No one is error-free here. But…Indonesia was an important country and remains an important country. And the solution to the problem, as I said to an earlier question, does not, in my view, involve a complete arms cut-off” (“Democracy Now!,” January 28, 2008). Holbrooke told Congress on December 4, 1979 that the “welfare of the Timorese people is the major objective of our policy toward East Timor”—a blatant falsehood—and he gave Congress a highly favorable portrayal of the genocidal state. UN Security Council resolutions condemned Jakarta’s invasion and occupation, but the Carter-Holbrooke team provided Jakarta with advanced counter-insurgency aircraft, which the Indonesian military employed to bomb and napalm the East Timorese, as well as diplomatic protection and steady apologetics for its genocidal pacification program. No UN Security Council resolution was adopted regarding East Timor after April 22, 1976, through the rest of the Carter era, despite the escalated killings in the years after 1976. An Australian parliamentary report later described the period as one of “indiscriminate killing on a scale unprecedented in post-World War II history.”

 Also suppressed in the current accolades is Holbrooke’s excellent relationship and accord of views with his Bush era successor in Indonesia, Paul Wolfowitz. Holbrooke told an Italian audience back in 2000 that Wolfowitz’s “recent activities illustrate…the degree to which there are still common themes between the parties,” and that “Paul and I have been in frequent touch to make sure that we keep [East Timor] out of the presidential campaign, where it would do no good to American or Indonesian interests”—note his omission of East Timorese or “human rights” interests, as well as his antipathy to public democratic debate on foreign policy issues. Wolfowitz and Holbrooke clearly speak the same language, and we can understand why this collegial relationship is unmentioned in the accolades. (The quotes are from Tim Shorrock, “Paul Wolfowitz, Reagan’s Man in Indonesia, Is Back at the Pentagon,” Foreign Policy In Focus, February, 2001.)

 Holbrooke was a high level Clinton official during the years of the “sanctions of mass destruction” imposed on Iraq, causing as many as a million civilian deaths—”more than have been slain by all so-called weapons of mass destruction throughout history” (John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Sanctions of Mass Destruction,” Foreign Affairs, May-June 1999). It goes almost without saying that Holbrooke approved the UN Charter-violating invasion/occupation of Iraq in March 2003. It is extremely clear that for this towering figure the rule of law does not apply to the United States, just as democratic forms do not require domestic elites to provide information and allow debate on foreign policy matters for the unwashed masses at home.

In quite a number of the accolades to Holbrooke in December 2010 it is mentioned that some people feel that it was unjust that, while nominated, he failed to be awarded a Nobel Peace prize. This feeling is understandable. By an institutionalized misreading of the history of the Bosnian wars, the propaganda system makes him into a peacemaker, and that same well-oiled propaganda machine does not in any way criticize him for his participation in the invasion-pacification of Vietnam, the appeasement of Suharto’s genocide at home and his killing fields in East Timor, or the million-plus deaths from the sanctions of mass destruction in Iraq. So we may ask: if Kissinger and Obama can be Nobel Peace laureates, why not Richard Holbrooke, to keep the record crooked?

Edward S. Herman is an economist, media critic, and author of numerous articles and books. His latest (with David Peterson) is The Politics of Genocide.