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July 12, 2005

In Defense of Maximalism
Posted by Derek Chollet

Yesterday over 30,000 people gathered in a small hill village in eastern Bosnia to mourn over 8,000 people – mostly men and boys – who were slaughtered 10 years ago at Srebrenica.  Much has been written about this grim anniversary over the past few days – about the horror of the biggest war crime in Europe since the Holocaust; about the failures of the United Nations, Europe, and the United States; about the pathetic fact that, a decade after thousands of international peacekeepers poured into Bosnia (first led by NATO, and now the EU), the chief perpetrators of this and other genocidal acts – Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic – remain on the loose, even though we know where they are and have the power to apprehend them; and about how far Bosnia has come, but most important, how far that deeply troubled country still has to go.

But there’s another reason to remember Srebrenica: for what came next.  After years of dithering, letting the Europeans take lead and trying endlessly to reach consensus before taking any action, Srebrenica forced President Clinton and his team finally to decide to move decisively and launch a muscular, no-holds-barred American effort involving both diplomacy and military force to end the war, culminating in the November 1995 Dayton peace accords.  Their policy had a patina of allied involvement and buy-in, but in the end it was—do I dare say it?—unilateral, rejecting the UN and keeping allies at long-arms-length (and ticking them off in the process) so the United States could basically do what it wanted.

Yes, the Administration tried to work with others first (remember the Clinton mantra: try to work together if we can, go alone if we must), but it tried for too long – after all, it did not prevent Srebrenica.  And many Clinton officials (including Albright and Holbrooke) were calling for decisive, unilateral U.S. action for some time. 

The course the Clinton Administration belatedly chose fit within a well-established American diplomatic tradition: a policy that challenged the status quo and rejected incrementalism, reflecting an all-or-nothing approach that was driven less by concerns about niceties or allied consensus than by getting something done.

In a recent article in The National Interest (and in a New York Times oped making many of the same points), former Clinton Administration official Steve Sestanovich describes this as “maximalism,” making the point that this is the way the U.S. typically—and successfully--addresses big international problems.  It often makes people nervous, and always ruffles allied feathers, but it gets results.   “Had the most controversial American policies…been more thoroughly compromised,” Sestanovich writes, “had they, to be blunt, been diluted by the counsels of allies—they might easily have failed.”

This is not a wholesale endorsement of unilateralism--we are seeing everyday, in Iraq and elsewhere, the costs of going it alone.  But thinking about Srebrenica does serve as a reminder that when it comes to solving the world’s problems, a little American muscular unilateralism—maximalism—ain’t always a bad thing.


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Perhaps I'm misreading you, but this sounds like the formula is:

Democrats in power: maximalism good
Republicans in power: maxmilism bad

Jeff - An honest question, then. Do you actually see no difference between the situations in Bosnia and Iraq? Do you see no significant differences in how we wound up taking military action in Bosnia and the invasion of Iraq?

I'd call Afghanistan a comparable situation to Bosnia (taking the very different circumstances into account), but I can't make Iraq fit.

Do you actually see no difference between the situations in Bosnia and Iraq?

There are many differences between Bosnia and Iraq. However, the difference that Jeff points out seems to be the one most relevant to the current political situation.

As Jeff is no doubt aware, in Bosnia the Clinton administration ultimately decided to use force without UN approval, and the action was largely carried out by US forces with minimal support from our European allies. For this, he was hailed as a champion of the oppressed by many on the left.

Bush sends a largely US force into Iraq without UN approval to depose a despot more brutal than anyone in the balkans, and he's portrayed as a greedy, oil-grabbing imperialist.

Why is one lauded, and the other lambasted? From where I'm sitting, it looks like party affiliation is the most relevant factor.

One reason is because Clinton didn't say that the Serbs and Bosnians would come over here and kill us in our beds if we didn't go over there.


The essential point is someone has to lead. While there might have been some slight confusion about Bosnia and Kosovo the major set of facts were the Kosovo Air War was never going to be endorsed by the UN, NATO was never going to bother asking the UN, without the US leading the way there was not enough political consesus for Europe to do anything, without the US effective military operations would not have been possible (US flew 90+% of all offensive air sorties), and finally untill the threat of ground forces became a concrete reality the Air War alone was not enough.

However one views Iraq one important fact was that untill the US began staging ground forces to the region Saddam was just stalling but with the threat of ground troops he started caving in.

The point is that a significant percentage of time anything below a real threat to a regime's life, powerbase, and/or family will not result in a desired change. "Maxmilism" in this context is often the only thing with any chance to work. It can be done without the US leading but somebody has to do it- Australia in the case of East Timor as an example.

The idea that some international or regional body can itself take the lead on an issue is just silly. Many are still waiting for someone, or a few someones, to step up to the leadership table on Dafur...


I'm unconvinced. Stripped of considerations of party affiliation, I see an ongoing massacre in Bosnia and a noncooperative, complicit government.

In Iraq, Hussein (whatever his past crimes) was allowing weapons inspectors in, and was not (at that time) actively involved in any attempt at genocide. (Drat...I hate discussions that make it sound like I'm defending that man.)

Stripped of the alarmist rhetoric that many of us were even then saying was (at best) flawed, the rationale for invading Iraq at the time we did simply doesn't hold water. (I'd argue that when the importance of the conflict in Afghanistan is considered, turning our attention to Iraq at that time was tactically disastrous. News reports of renewed Taliban activity in Afghanistan suggest this as well.)

No matter how I look at it, I can't find the parallels. In addition, recent revelations of Bush Administration motives and aims (to return to partisan politics) suggests that there was little, if any, humanitarian motivation for our invasion of Iraq.

"Bush sends a largely US force into Iraq without UN approval to depose a despot more brutal than anyone in the balkans, and he's portrayed as a greedy, oil-grabbing imperialist."

I would say one significant difference was that in Bosnia, troops were used to force an end to a long, bloody war, while in Iraq force was intoduced to begin a long bloody war.

Personalizing these issues distorts the picture. It wasn't just about Milosevic - but millions of other people. If the former Yugoslavia had been a country where there was no war, it would have been ridiculous to bring war and destruction there to "remove a despot".

I would say one significant difference was that in Bosnia, troops were used to force an end to a long, bloody war, while in Iraq force was intoduced to begin a long bloody war.

Reasonable people can disagree on this.

While I am very skeptical of the '500,000 children died due to the sanctions' line, the effects of those sanctions on iraq's infrastructure are fairly well known. The reason those sanctions were in place was failure to adequately comply with the terms of the ceasefire, and Hussein's long track record of obstructing the inspectors and lying about what he did and didn't have are very well documented. After over a decade of that sort of thing, it was not unreasonable for anyone to conclude that 1) Saddam was hiding something, and 2) it would not be prudent to take his word on anything.

I don't really care if Saddam started cooperating in ernest after US troops started massing on his border. In my book, that's too little, too late- and making an example out of him will probably save us a few deployments down the road.

I agree with those who have commented that the only difference between what Clinton did and what Bush did seems to be which political party they belong to.

For those who argue that we started the war in Iraq, have you fogotten that the U.S. and its allies allowed a cease fire with Saddam for 12 years while he jerked the U.N. inspectors around? Remember the onus of proving he got rid of his WMD was on Saddam NOT on the U.N. That was part of the cease fire agreement. What makes anyone think that once the U.N. inspectors gave him a 'clean bill of health' on WMD that he would not start up his programs again?

Also remember Saddam invaded Iran, killing thousands; Saddam invaded Kuwait; Saddam invaded border villages and threatened Saudi Arabia; Saddam launched missiles at Israel. So who started the war again? The U.S.?

While I know many feel it is playing politics, I think it is not, after 9-11 ANY president that ignored Saddam's (or any other supporters of terrorism)continued transgressions would be guilty of dereliction of duty to protect the American people.

With Al Qaeda being chased out of Afghanistan, Saddam would have welcomed them to his country as other known terrorists have done. (The 'mastermind' behind the murderers of Leon Klinfhoffer was living freely in Baghdad) Saddam regularly paid the families of suicide bombers in Israel.

To those who make the claim that Saddam was secular and Osama Bin Laden was religious and therefore would not work together - remember Great Britain was Capitalist and the Soviet Union was Communist , yet they both put aside those differences to fight the Nazis. Oh, BTW, Saddam put 'Allah Akbar' on the Iraqi flag - God is Great! I guess he wasn't so secular after all; just willing to change his spots to stay in power.

As far as the argument that invading Iraq took us away from the goal in Afghanistan, I am unconvinced. If we allowed Saddam to stay in Power Al Qaeda could have/would have set up shop in a country whose government would have welcomed them. Instead they headed to the 'tribal' areas of Pakistan, where the Pakistani National government does NOT welcome them. The local tribal leaders might be a different story. But at least the local tribal leaders do not have the resources to help Al Qaeda build nuclear weapons!

We cannot, and should not, wait until some committee decides that U.S. military action is 'okay to use now' because usually by the time the U.N. gets around to approving military action it is too late. That's a sad fact. That is the whole point of why, not just sometimes, but most of the time the U.S. has to take FULL unilateral action.

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