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Welcome to the Balkan Propaganda Machine

Date of publication: 11/06/2012

David N. Gibbs, professor of history at the University of Arizona, author of "First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia" (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2009)

by David N. Gibbs

10 June 2012


Some of the most salient events of the past 20 years were the NATO interventions in the Balkans, notably in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999. These interventions were crucial in reviving the importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an organization that previously had been seen as a Cold War anachronism, destined to irrelevance. After the Balkan interventions, NATO gained a renewed sense of purpose and prestige. And these interventions gave a whole new rationale for U.S. military action, which is increasingly viewed as a humanitarian enterprise, aimed at stopping ethnic cleansing, atrocities, genocide, crimes against women, and the like. The Balkan interventions laid the political groundwork for later intervention, most recently in Libya.

The Balkan story has nevertheless been distorted in public discussion. Important facts have been suppressed, notably that Western intervention in Yugoslavia was a major cause of the country’s breakup and made possible all the wars that followed. Later rounds of intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo helped intensify the violence and increase the destruction, a point that is well documented even if little known. And contrary to popular belief, the Serbs were not the only ethnic group that contributed to Yugoslavia’s demise.

What I term the “Balkan propaganda machine” comprises academics, journalists, and bloggers who hold tenaciously to a simplified version of the Balkan wars as being caused almost entirely by Serbs; they view the later NATO interventions against the Serbs positively. For these activists, the Balkan conflict has become a great crusade, one that defies rational analysis. Any deviation from the prescribed narrative is considered an act of immorality, deserving of punishment. In addition, this crusade dovetails nicely with a neoconservative political agenda, which celebrates the Balkan interventions as historic achievements for US hegemony.

A key figure in this propaganda effort is Marko Attila Hoare, a reader in history at Kingston University in England and a purported Balkan specialist. His technique is intimidation, a predilection that is shared by a wider community of propagandists with whom he collaborates. Hoare openly boasts that writers who disagree with his positions are “like lambs to the slaughter” who will surely “sacrifice any reputations they might have.” He is not subtle.

My own encounter with Hoare arose from my book First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, published by Vanderbilt University Press in 2009. Clearly, Hoare did not like the book, which was critical of the interventions. On his website, Hoare soon launched a blistering attack against me titled “The Bizarre World of Genocide Denial.”

The characterization of me as a genocide denier was quickly picked up by others on the Internet. An anonymous posting to the Srebrenica Genocide Blog referred to me as “David N. Gibbs, genocide denier.” According to another posting, at the website of the Congress of North American Bosniaks: “Gibbs’ pernicious denial of genocide calls into question not only his academic credibility, but his very qualifications to hold tenure at a university at all. … [Gibbs] has made a deliberate misinterpretation of facts.” 

Yet another site, Balkan Witness, placed me on their long list of “war crimes deniers.” Several of these attacks prominently featured my photograph, presumably to ensure that their readers would recognize my face.

When I first saw Hoare’s attack, I was not unduly concerned, since it was written with such sensationalist language and key points used to sustain the attack were clearly false and easily provable as such. I wrote an extended response, in which I documented the falsity of Hoare’s claims, and expected this would end the matter. After all, a purveyor of obvious falsehoods would lose credibility — right? This turned out to be a naïve assumption in the irrational world of Internet chat rooms.

After I replied, Hoare began churning out new attacks against me. He made no serious effort to refute my evidence that his earlier attacks had been false; he simply created more extravagant falsehoods, often presented at great length. One of his reviews began by strongly implying that my book was the equivalent of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Nazi propaganda, along with an associated insinuation that I must be an anti-Semite. This was presented without a shred of evidence.

These incendiary references to anti-Semitism connect with the larger attack on me as a supposed genocide denier, and all this rhetoric serves to raise the emotionalism of the controversy — which is presumably Hoare’s overarching intention.

The insinuation that I am somehow an anti-Semite is ironic, given that I am a practicing Jew from a refugee background (my father was born in Berlin). I have no respect for Hoare’s manipulative use of the Holocaust to silence discussion on the Balkans, just as I have no respect for those who use the Holocaust to silence discussion on the Middle East.

In addition, Hoare repeatedly made claims about my writing that had no connection to anything I had actually written, and in several cases were the opposite of my stated views. What I present below about Hoare’s falsifications constitutes the proverbial tip of the iceberg. I could easily have provided more examples. Whether these resulted from incompetence or intentional deception is hard to say.

Particularly troubling was his repeated use of fake quotations from my work. The first example of fakery is a message that Hoare posted to an Internet discussion: “Your [Gibbs’] account of the background to the Srebrenica massacre presents the Muslims/Bosnian army as the ones principally guilty of the atrocities in the region, and of having ‘created the hatred’ there (pp. 153-154).”

Note that he attributes to me the phrase “created the hatred,” which is presented as a direct quote, with quotation marks. In reality, this phrase appears in none of my writings — not on the pages 153-154 that Hoare cites or anywhere else — and the essence of its meaning corresponds to nothing I have ever said. It is a fabrication.

At another point, Hoare attributes to me the phrase “creating the hatred,” again presented as a direct quote. The quote is once again a fabrication. And there is a third fake quote, which appears in the very title of one of Hoare’s attack reviews: “First Check Their Sources 2: The Myth that ‘Most of Bosnia Was Owned by the Serbs Before the War.’”

The first part of the title (“First Check Their Sources”) is a play on words from the title of my book, which is First Do No Harm. The embedded phrase in Hoare’s title (“Most of Bosnia Was Owned…”) is presented as a direct quote, with quotation marks. This quote is another fabrication, which falsifies both the literal wording of my book and also the substance of my stated views.

Over a period of two months, Hoare’s attacks against my work became voluminous. I found that Hoare could attack much faster than I could respond. He had a key advantage: whereas I felt a need to check the facts in my posts, Hoare seemed indifferent to whether his postings were true or false. He repeatedly contradicted himself. In the end, Hoare posted four extended attack reviews on his own website, totaling some 26 single-spaced pages when printed out. In addition, he followed up with numerous additional attacks on me in Internet chat rooms, which sparked yet further attacks by the anonymous posters who frequent such venues.

The tone became venomous, especially among the anonymous posters, some of whom clearly had emotional problems. Several of the posters reminded me of extremist figures I encounter in my home state, which I did not find reassuring. Attacks began appearing all over the Internet, each seeming to be more ludicrous than the last. A review of my book posted to BarnesAndNoble.com stated: “The author is a self-declared supporter of Serbia and Russia. … Gibbs’ friendship with KGB agent and The Guardian writer [name redacted] speak about the author.” In reality, I had never even heard of this person, whose name I have redacted to avoid repeating a slur.

The smears are having some effect. If one performs a Google search of my name, the various attack postings by Hoare and others are among the very first to emerge, and this has remained consistent over a period of many months. Thus, if anyone is interested in searching my work, “David N. Gibbs, genocide denier” is among the first hits.

This is not the first time that smear tactics have been used. If one peruses the various Balkan websites, one finds numerous attacks directed against large numbers of prominent academics, journalists, and public figures.

These smears are not just confined to the Internet. In 2005, The Guardian published an attack article on Noam Chomsky, which included a sensational allegation that Chomsky had denied that any massacre had occurred at Srebrenica. The Guardian’s main evidence was that Chomsky had referred to the Srebrenica massacre with quotation marks around the word “massacre.”

In reality, Chomsky had never used scare quotes to describe the Srebrenica massacre, and The Guardian’s allegation to the contrary was false (moreover, Chomsky had never denied that what happened at Srebrenica was a massacre). Because of this and other egregious flaws, The Guardian‘s editors retracted the article from their website and issued an apology. This episode proved a major embarrassment for the newspaper.

Hoare protested the editors’ decision to apologize, and he used extravagant language to make his points: the author of the Guardian attack on Chomsky had been “stabbed in the back” by the editors and subjected to “an unparalleled campaign of vilification.” In addition, Hoare insinuated that the editors were caving in to the “Milosevic lobby,” rather than responding to legitimate complaints about falsification. There was just one nagging problem: Hoare did not dispute that the article contained false information regarding Chomsky’s characterization of the Srebrenica massacre; instead, he dismissed the falsehood as “one small error of detail,” barely worthy of criticism.

This incident illustrates Hoare’s casual attitude regarding the importance of accuracy.  I have filed a complaint against Hoare with his home institution, Kingston University, requesting an apology for the multiple falsehoods in his attacks against me. Kingston’s dean of arts and social sciences, Martin McQuillan, perfunctorily acknowledged receiving my complaint over seven months ago. Apart from this, he has not responded to me.

Dean McQuillan’s failure to respond is curious. Repeatedly making up false statements and then declining to retract them — as Hoare has clearly done — seem like serious academic violations. Note that McQuillan has not denied my claims against Hoare, nor has he defended Hoare in any way; he has simply failed to respond.

Hoare probably feels protected by his association with a larger network of writers who share much of his perspective, especially among the Balkan diaspora in Britain and the U.S. Hoare is a former student of Yale professor Ivo Banac, who later became a minister in the Croatian government. He is also close to Josip Glaurdic, another former student of Banac and an up-and-coming figure among pro-Croatian academics. At various times, Hoare has been active in neoconservative political groups, notably the Henry Jackson Society, as well as the Bosnian Institute. The latter is directed by Hoare’s father (with his mother also listed on the Institute masthead as a consultant). Both organizations have been major sources of interventionist propaganda, influential on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition, Hoare has associated with academics at Oxford and Cambridge — partly through his parents’ Bosnian Institute network. His writing has appeared in David Horowitz’s FrontpageMag.com.

These connections no doubt give Hoare the confidence to undertake his attacks, which have been highly effective in intimidating free discussion.

Consider the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. The basic facts of the massacre — and that the Serb forces bear the overwhelming responsibility for perpetrating it — are widely acknowledged. However, there remains debate among legal specialists about whether this massacre should be classed as a genocide or a war crime, with no clear consensus on this question. By frivolously hurling the smear phrase “genocide denier” against critics, Hoare seeks to suppress this debate, in order to preserve a simplified version of the Srebrenica massacre and of the Balkan wars more generally.

And the circumstances that led to the massacre are considerably more complicated than is popularly believed. For example, there is little doubt that the Muslim government of Alija Izetbegović allowed Srebrenica to fall to Serb militias, as part of their policy of encouraging Serb atrocities and thus shocking the Western powers into intervening against the Serbs; in doing this, the government contributed to the massacre that followed. Yet these facts remain suppressed in public discussions of the Bosnia war, which typically celebrate the virtues of the Muslim government. Once again, the intimidation campaigns have obscured vital information.

In a sense, Hoare and his colleagues have no choice but to intimidate. They cannot sustain their claims about the Balkan wars through logical arguments, because the facts do not support their case. Hence, they resort to character assassinations, which serve to distract from the facts and debase public discussion.

The widespread use of character assassination to stifle discussion is not just confined to those who write on Yugoslavia. Indeed, this tactic has become standard practice among neoconservatives generally, a point recently emphasized by Harvard’s Stephen Walt: 

U.S. neoconservatives have long demonstrated [that] the best defense is sometimes a good offense. No influential political faction in America is more willing to engage in character assassination and combative politics than they are. … I’m talking about the tendency to accuse those with whom they disagree of being unpatriotic, morally bankrupt, anti-Semitic, or whatever. Their willingness to play hardball intimidates a lot of people, which in turn protects them from a full accounting for their past actions.

The Balkan propaganda machine fits perfectly into this overall pattern. And like the neocons described above, Hoare seems to view himself as above accountability, even for his use of false statements and fake quotations.

I assume Hoare will respond in his usual way, by launching ever more vitriolic attacks against me, along with renewed allegations of genocide denial, insinuations of anti-Semitism, and the like. But before doing this, he might want to explain all the falsehoods that have so marred his previous efforts, as specified in my letter to Kingston University. And perhaps the Kingston administrators can explain whether they have any standards at all with respect to academic fraud.

Centre for the Study of Interventionism