September 16, 2004

Revisionist History Watch

During long plane rides of late I've been digging into the IHT (I stopped reading it, in the main, once WaPo stories were dropped--what's the point if you read the New York Times daily online?). Anyway, I had a chance to stumble across this Mark Brzezinski and Eric Rosenbach piece there.

The main thesis? Bosnia was a model in post-conflict reconstruction--and the Bush Administration has bungled Iraq largely because it has not learned the lessons of the Bosnia experience:

In Bosnia, the Clinton administration led a collective effort with NATO and the Russians to rebuild a destroyed country that had suffered massive human-rights abuses. The legitimacy of that alliance was essential, but the allies' most important contribution was added "boots on the ground." The United States convinced allies that a high number of soldiers and specialized police forces would ensure success.

When 60,000 troops initially crossed the Sava River, the security environment in Bosnia quickly and dramatically improved. In contrast to the anarchy experienced by Iraqis, Bosnians saw soldiers on nearly every corner. For the first time in more than five years, their neighborhoods were safe. Equally important, the size of the force protected American soldiers, too.

The second key ingredient in Bosnia was the handling of former combatants. After entering the country, NATO commanders realized that to prevent violence among the former warring factions and militaries, control had to be exercised over them. The Stabilization Forces in Bosnia, or SFOR, required all soldiers to report to duty every day, and they paid them as well. Happy just to have a salary, most soldiers spent their time playing cards and drinking slivovitz in their barracks.

The root of the difference between the Bosnian and the Iraqi experiences is arrogant civilian leadership in the Pentagon. The lessons learned from peacekeeping in the Balkans were clear. The Bush administration's failure to follow them is inexcusable, and has directly resulted in unprecedented failures and unnecessary casualties in Iraq. [emphasis added]

Several quick points on all this. While I agree with the authors of this piece that we should never have disbanded the Iraqi Army as we did--and that we never had enough coalition forces on the ground to begin with--I can't let such a blatantly rosy, revisionistic take on the Bosnia experience go unchallenged.

Let's remember a few things, shall we?

1) The Clinton Administration didn't act in Bosnia until many tens of thousands of innocents had been slaughtered and millions displaced.

2) When he finally did act (via the indefagitable efforts of Dick Holbrooke at Dayton--rather than any noble instincts by distracted, 'pizza delivery' receiving POTUS), we found a nation (indeed, a region) deeply exhausted by a near half-decade of vicious fighting. What's my point? That many in the Balkans were well ready to put down their arms if only out of sheer exhaustion. Compare that to the state of Iraqi forces post the speedy, 3-week so-called 'catastrophic victory' blitzkrieg into Baghdad.

3) The U.S. led NATO force in Bosnia was not weighed down by historical grievances harbored against them by local forces. While Serbs distrusted Germans (historic protectors of the fascist Ustashe in Croatia), Croats the French and British (residual Etonian and Quai d'Orsay Serbophilia), and Bosniaks most Christian Europeans writ large--all of the factions, with the possible exception of particularly hard-line Bosnian Serbs, were pretty much O.K. with the Americans. After all, the U.S. hadn't really had a history of picking favorites in the region.

In Iraq, of course, given Gulf War One (Shi'a and Kurds feeling abandoned; Saddamite Sunnis suspicious), the U.S. was much more suspect. Not to mention general anti-American sentiment in the region resulting from our stolid support of Israel, almost as stolid support of the corrupt Gulf monarchies, and so on.

4) The ethnic mix (yes, believe it!) is likely more complex in Iraq than in Bosnia. In fact, the situation in Iraq is more akin to Kosovo than Bosnia. Why? Because, in Bosnia, all three warring factions were of the same ethnic background. The Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks were all South Slavs. It was only their religion that differentiated them, ie. Christian Orthodox Serbs, Roman Catholic Croats, and Bosniaks who had converted to Islam under the Ottoman yoke.

That's why many long-time Balkan observers view the Kosovar-Serb dispute as ultimately more difficult to resolve. Correctly, in my view (Albanian Kosovars are not South Slavs). And, lest we forget, Kurds are not Arabs. And the Shi'a and Sunni, while ethnically of the same stock--face a sectarian divide likely worse than those in the former Yugoslavia. Put simply, the ethnic/religious mix is more difficult in Iraq than it was in Bosnia.

So, er, let's not say if we had just teed up a NATO force (leaving aside that that was a non-starter in Berlin and Paris, of course) of sufficient size--and had simply kept the Iraqi Army extant--all would have been swell. And that the Clinton Administration has major lessons to bestow to the hapless Bushies on nation-building (see Haiti, Somalia, pre-96 Bosnia).

It's just not that simple.

Posted by Gregory at September 16, 2004 10:38 PM

Okay, now remind me of the last IED blast in the Balkans that cost a US soldier's life. Remind me of the last US casualty of any kind in that area. Remind me of which conservatives were in favor of intervention. And if we'd listened to the ones not in favor, how many more would have died before the situation was fixed?

The portion regarding the ethnic mix being more 'complex' in Iraq is sheer invention. I still remember my Greek friends roaring against the bombings of Belgrade. The Greeks. They weren't even involved, and yet somehow their memory of a 13th century slaughter was strong enough for them to feel kinship with the Serbs. That is complex.

Posted by: djangone at September 17, 2004 04:35 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

You're missing another important lesson from Bosnia the Bushies deliberately unlearned: they refused to hire senior people who had experience in the Balkans, because they considered them tainted by having done an intervention under Clinton's watch. In those experts' (like yourself and Gen. Bill Nash, etc.) stead? People in their 20s who had filed their CV at the Heritage Foundation. It's not those kids' fault. It's the Bushies' fault for hiring in such an ideological way.

The biggest lesson of course from post-war Bosnia is the right force size -- and for refusing to respect Shinseki's correct estimate of about 1 peacekeeper for 70 locals, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz should be fired.

Oh yeah, and Feith forgot to plan for any post-war chaos. Remember Kosovo? Apparently Feith's office didn't.

I could go on...


Posted by: Laura at September 17, 2004 05:05 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

djangone wrote "Remind me of which conservatives were in favor of intervention."

I'm not the best person to answer, since I "missed" a lot of the 1990's (I forbid myself to read newspapers, watch television, or listen to the radio during almost all of med school, and so I remained almost completely oblivious to world events between 1995 and 1999) but I believe Bob Dole was consistently in favor of more vigorous intervention on behalf of the Bosnian Muslims. I voted for Bill Clinton in 1996 (I allowed myself to read newspapers for two weeks prior to the election) -- but didn't Laura Rozen (I'm guessing that's her comment above) vote for Mr. Dole?

I used to enjoy reading William Safire's columns (somehow I don't anymore) and that particular conservative was an eloquent advocate of "lift and strike". I still remember the headline from one William Safire column from about 10 years ago: "The U.N. Hostages Out. Or Karadzic Dead."

How about The New Republic? That magazine was in favor of the interventions, I believe, and I consider that magazine to be conservative (because I like reading TNR, and I consider myself to be fairly conservative compared to most other Democrats). I remember reading pro-intervention columns by Fouad Ajami, for example.

I have no desire to defend the Bush Administration's neo-con "cakewalk crew", but didn't many of them support intervention in the Balkans?

Posted by: Arjun at September 17, 2004 02:47 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think B.D. is right about "historical grievances". When I saw the results from the USA Today poll of Iraqi sentiments in March 2004, I was struck by the huge difference between Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Kurds. U.S. popularity among Iraqi Arabs was very low, whereas U.S. popularity among Iraqi Kurds was very high. My guess is that some of this difference is due to the phenomenon Walter Russell Mead described a few months ago: widespread Arab resentment over a perceived lack of U.S. sympathy for the Palestinian Arabs.

Paradoxically, the same neo-conservatives who claim to be the most supportive of Arab democracy are frequently the harshest critics of the now-defunct road-map, which described a process that ideally would have led to a democratic Palestine.

Perhaps it's too late, but I wonder whether taking some steps to improve the lives of Palestinian Arabs (as Mr. Mead recommended) might help us in Iraq.

Posted by: Arjun at September 17, 2004 03:10 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

AUTHOR: Martin Adamson
DATE: 09/17/2004 12:14:34 PM
Great news from the Balkans! So, when exactly will the NATO force be leaving the country and will it be returned to being a normal, self-governing state?

Posted by: at October 26, 2004 03:32 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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