Balkan Apparitions and Syrian Mirages

Richard Cohen1 at the Washington Post has one point in his latest Op-Ed2: the United States, NATO, and UN should intervene in every civil war on the globe. His reason is that we didn’t learn our lesson from Bosnia and now we are a making a mistake by not intervening in Syria to assist the rebels. Essentially, Cohen states that NATO was able to stop the violence in Bosnia by bombing Serbian military positions and NATO could do the same in Syria. Pure unadulterated simplistic bullshit. Oh, he also admits that he was wrong in the early 90s when he first thought the US and NATO should not intervene in the Balkans.

Cohen loosely ties the idea of how the splintered ethnic and religious make-up of Bosnia is similar to the tribal and clan issues in Syria. Finally, Cohen argues that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should see the comparison and lessons because, as the First Lady, she had traveled to Bosnia.

This type of argument was heavily discussed in the post-Cold War 90s. The rise of nationalism when communism fell in numerous places caused consternation among policymakers. What sort of conflicts should the US and NATO intervene in was a standard question. UN forces had attempted relief efforts in Somali (disaster), Rwanda (disaster), and Bosnia (disaster). The US attempted to intervene on a very limited scope in Somali (disaster), and it wasn’t until December 1995 that the US and NATO truly committed to enforcing a poorly established peace in Bosnia following the Dayton Peace Accords.

Comparing Bosnia to Syria, however, is a bit too much.

– Syria is in the midst of civil war… Bosnia was not a just a civil war. First, unlike Syria in which no region has claimed independence, Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence in 1992 following the break-up (or the “Balkanization”) of the former Yugoslavia. The other nations to separate were Croatia and Slovenia. Serbia did in fact assist, aid, and supply troops to the Serbian nationalist forces in Bosnia. The conflict in Bosnia was more than a simple civil war, it was actually a real aggressive war fought between three nominally independent nations (Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia) and the individual minority groups within those nations. The conflict in Syria is not one about break away republics or nation-on-nation conflict, it is a true civil war.

Using the Bosnia example seems dated. I cannot fathom why Cohen feels determined to use Bosnia as an example of why the international community, and the US specifically, should intervene. NATO and European actions (bombing and aid) recently in Libya seems more applicable. Regionally, geographically, ethnically, and historically, Libya and Syria are far more related than Syria and Bosnia (regardless of the Islamic connection… Bosnian Muslims are as Islamic as I am). One might believe that the Libyan comparison is overused and Cohen feels a need to harken back over 15 years to identify a possible similarity. Yet this connection rings hollow considering the limited similarities.

– Syria has/had acquaintances, nobody loved Bosnia. Nobody, and I mean nobody gave a shit about Bosnia until CNN decided to invade every living room with “concentration camp” videos. Unfortunately, for Rwanda and the Tutsis… CNN ignored them. It wasn’t until the moral drum had been beat on to a deafening roar that NATO and the US decided to act. Russia objected on a limited level and eventually assisted with the NATO Implementation Force (IFOR) by providing a brigade of airborne troops. Consequences of intervening in Bosnia was limited to having to include the Russians in the peace enforcement operations and NATO establishing a reputation of intervening in murky and messy conflicts in a nation that was not a NATO member nation. Syria, on the other hand, is not a new break away nation, instead Syria is a nation with actual international relations and connections to other nations, such as Iran. Additionally, Syrian President Assad (the younger) actually had begun limited cooperation with the US and it’s war on terrorism. It wasn’t until the beginning of the Syrian uprising that the US began to examine its relationship with Syria.

Finally, there is a slippery slope in the world of conflict intervention. What conflict is worthy of US taxpayer’s attention and the potential loss of life of US military members? Is Cohen truly advocating a foreign policy that is reminiscent of the 90s when playing police officer was the biggest challenge the US faced? Other than mentioning bombing Syrian government forces, Cohen doesn’t provide a true course of action. Cohen just warns of making mistakes that resulted in the West dragging its feet in Balkans. That is an easy argument and could be used for any conflict on the planet. What nation or international organization is capable of intervening in every civil war? Today there are numerous civil wars being fought such as the Sa’dah Insurgency in Yemen, Somaili (fuck! still?), and Uganda. Libya yesterday, Syria tomorrow, Uganda next week?

An honest and reflective self-assessment might also reveal that Bosnians looked like Europeans (because they are) and Syrians look… well foreign. One could easily argue that this one of the reasons no one in the West really gave a shit about Rwanda… isn’t there always some sort of civil war or genocide going on somewhere in Africa? This last question actually might be a lot closer to the truth than a lot of us are willing to admit. Maybe the West has gotten tired of the whole Arab Spring thing. Libyan and Egyptian awakening aftermaths haven’t exactly turned out rosy (in Western democratic eyes). Single strong-man governments are now military juntas with limited elections… elections that have resulted in zealot Islamic parties winning big such as in Egypt. Public perception is important, and now the public may have bored of the Arab Spring… isn’t there always some great “democratic” awakening going on in the Middle East? Ultimately, US, NATO, and Western intervention is not determined in a vacuum, and biases do play a part in foreign policy.

I understand Cohen’s desire to do what he feels is right… is he going to admit he is wrong now in 15 years? Righting global wrongs are worth discussing. Lazy journalism with weak historical comparisons, however, do not assist in that discussion, instead they pollute the conversation with needless words. But, again I understand the feeling of righteousness when conflict is stopped and stabilization operations begin. I deployed to a Croatian muddy field on Christmas Day 1995 as an US Army 2nd Lieutenant in the 1st Armored Division. I crossed over the Sava River into Bosnia on January 2nd, 1996. I returned home to my military base in Germany on Thanksgiving Day 1996… to return to Bosnia in October 1997 and finally returning in March 1998. I understand the desire to something “right” but I also know that weak historical comparisons isn’t going to sway anyone, especially policymakers.

1. A journalist of questionable ethics, Google “Richard Cohen, Washington Post, sexual harassment.”

2. Richard Cohen, “From Sarajevo to Homs,” The Washington Post, April 3, 2012, p. A21.


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