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November 22, 2005

Bosnia's lessons for Iraq
Posted by Derek Chollet

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton accords that brought peace to Bosnia (my new book on the subject tells the story of how we got there).  In all the looking back about what Dayton meant for Bosnia and American foreign policy generally, and the looking forward about the future of the Balkans, one question looms: can any lessons be drawn from Bosnia to help in Iraq?

Here’s my take (a version of this was published in yesterday’s Financial Times):

Looking at the challenges America faces today in Iraq – a violent insurgency divided three ways ethnically and religiously, fueled by foreign fighters and regional powers supporting their clients; a terrorized civilian population; and an international community deeply divided about what to do – it is hard to imagine how the country can survive as a single state at peace, let alone become a stable democracy.

But we have faced similar problems before.  Ten years ago yesterday, after an intense twenty-one days of negotiations on the windy plains of an Air Force base outside Dayton, Ohio, the United States brought peace to Bosnia.  By ending Europe’s worst conflict since World War II, the Dayton Accords were a complicated solution to an equally complex problem: Bosnia was deeply divided with a bitter legacy of bloodshed, in which outside powers (Serbia and Croatia) had intervened to tear the country apart.  Stopping the war was President Bill Clinton’s first major foreign policy success, an accomplishment that reversed three years of frustration and failed policies toward a conflict that cost nearly 300,000 lives and almost tore the Atlantic Alliance apart.

When thinking about the lessons of Bosnia, most take heed for what not to do.  To many, the outbreak of Bosnia’s war is seen as the modern-day Munich, in which the failure to stop aggression early resulted in a genocide and metastasized into a much greater challenge.  Some believe that Dayton’s goal of creating a single, democratic, tolerant, multi-ethnic Bosnia was unrealistic and unwise to pursue – Clinton’s own CIA Director, John Deutch, today describes such ambitions as “fantastical.”  Others see the commitment to nation-building in Bosnia as outside the sphere of America’s vital interests and a misuse of its military resources – in fact, this was the view of President George W. Bush and many of his top advisers during the 2000 presidential campaign.   

Yet when it comes to today’s debate over what to do in Iraq, the lessons of the U.S. effort to end the Bosnia war also point a way forward – especially when it comes to how it can try to broaden the investment of others in Iraq’s success.

The first lesson is that a lasting peace is only possible with the support of the regional countries.  Before Dayton, there were over thirty ceasefires inside Bosnia, but the war could not be settled without regional buy-in and commitments by outsiders – Serbia and Croatia -- to stop fueling the conflict.  For the American negotiators, this was hardly appealing.  It meant dealing with some unsavory characters, especially Serbia’s President Slobodan Milosevic (who today is behind bars in The Hague for war crimes) and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman (who died before he could get there).  The U.S. wielded influence by deploying a wide array of diplomatic carrots and sticks – including the promise of lifting of economic sanctions, the possibility of military cooperation, or further punishment and international isolation – to get the outside powers to deal. 

What this means for Iraq is that the U.S. needs to find ways to bring the key regional players – especially Iran -- into the process to create a positive outcome, including non-interference in Iraq’s political evolution.  There are hints that the Bush Administration realizes this fact by authorizing its Ambassador to Iraq to reach out tentatively to Tehran, but it must intensify this effort.

In addition to seeking a regional agreement, Dayton succeeded because the U.S. established a mechanism to include its allies in the diplomatic effort – a “Contact Group” of five countries and the European Union that helped bolster the process with international backing.  Then, as now, working with allies could be frustrating for American negotiators, but their involvement proved indispensable – especially because they needed to play a leading role in implementing any settlement.  Nothing like this exists today for Iraq.  With the international community still so deeply divided, creating such a regular mechanism for consultations and debate about Iraq would give other countries a stake in its success.      

Finally, perhaps Bosnia’s most fundamental lesson is the importance of American patience and persistence.  In 1995 the U.S. military went into Bosnia with a deadline; fearing casualties and doubting the American people’s resolve, the Clinton administration promised that the U.S. would get out within a year.  Yet it stayed for almost ten, leaving only last year after turning the mission over the Europeans. 

The U.S. left because Bosnia was succeeding, not failing.  This was not like the disgraced American pullout from Saigon in 1975 or the humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon in 1984.  It was a triumph of the right kinds of policies – including those that fostered greater regional buy-in and allied support.  Getting there was not easy in Bosnia, and it will be far harder in Iraq.  But with America’s patience wearing thin – and over 2000 American soldiers already dead – it is time the Bush team tried.         


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Thanks for the great post.

- Derek,

the key for me is this sentence: "The first lesson is that a lasting peace is only possible with the support of the regional countries."

will not happen, as you note, w/o bushco sitting down at to a table with people they wouldn't give legitimacy to on a good day, much less while they're 'building' atomic weaponry...

even supposing that the WH would sit down with these folk, as E.L. Doctorow has noted the President "is a figure of such moral vacancy" as to undoubtedly make it impossible for those folk to take anything other than his treats of annihilation seriously.

such are not how peace accords are fashioned.

You make great points, permit me to extend them a bit. For both the frontline states and a "friends of" group, you make the same prescription: coordinate in the pursuit of common objectives. Isn't that exactly what we need across the entire spectrum of security policy challenges? That's how I read Haass' integration strategy, and it's the key to getting anything done in the UN.

Wow. Democracy Arsenal is the last place I expected to encounter an advocate of Realist diplomacy.

When I read "the U.S. needs to find ways to bring the key regional players – especially Iran -- into the process to create a positive outcome," I recalled George Silver’s famous 1599 allegory against the Italian School of sword play.

There was a cunning Doctor at his first going to sea, being doubtful that he should be sea sick, an old woman perceiving the same, said unto him: "Sir, I pray, be of good comfort, I will teach you a trick to avoid that doubt. Here is a fine pebble stone, if you please to accept it, take it with you, and when you are on ship board, put it in your mouth, and as long you shall keep the same in your mouth, upon my credit you shall never vomit." The Doctor believed her, and took it thankfully at her hands, and when he was at sea, he began to be sick, whereupon he presently put the stone in his mouth, & there kept it so long as he possibly could, but through his extreme sickness the stone with vomit was cast out of his mouth. Then presently he remembered how the woman had mocked him, and yet her words were true.

Even so a Spaniard having his rapier point put by, may receive a blow on the head, or a cut over the face, hand or arm or a thrust in the body or face, and yet his Spanish fight perfect, so long as he can keep straight the point of his rapier against the face or body of his adversary, which is as easy in that manner of fight to be done, as it was for the Doctor in the extremity of his vomit to keep the stone in his mouth.

Likewise, so long as we gain the support of Iran and Syria — for establishing a most probably hostile nation on their borders — then we could more easily achieve a political victory in Iraq. Our chances of accomplishing this feat are as impossible as the Doctor holding the stone. The suggestion is so far from possibility that it verges on the fantastic.

The US Department of State, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Country Reports on Terrorism 2004 describes Iran as "the most active sponsor of terrorism."

Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2004. Its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Ministry of Intelligence and Security were involved in the planning and support of terrorist acts and continued to exhort a variety of groups to use terrorism in pursuit of their goals.

Iran continued to be unwilling to bring to justice senior al-Qa’ida members it detained in 2003. Iran has refused to identify publicly these senior members in its custody on “security grounds.” Iran has also resisted numerous calls to transfer custody of its al-Qa’ida detainees to their countries of origin or third countries for interrogation and/or trial. Iranian judiciary officials claimed to have tried and convicted some Iranian supporters of al-Qa’ida during 2004, but refused to provide details. Iran also continued to fail to control the activities of some al Qa’ida members who fled to Iran following the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan...

Iran pursued a variety of policies in Iraq during 2004, some of which appeared to be inconsistent with Iran’s stated objectives regarding stability in Iraq as well as those of the Iraqi Interim Government (IIG) and the Coalition. Senior IIG officials have publicly expressed concern over Iranian interference in Iraq, and there were reports that Iran provided funding, safe transit, and arms to insurgent elements, including Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces.

Iran and Syria have been engaged in an undeclared, low-intensity war against the US for a decade. They are actively undermining US vital interests in Iraq. It is very unlikely that either party’s interests will change anytime soon, negotiations or not.

Besides, persuading an Islamist regime to act on the behalf of US interests, or even to stand by while the US pursues its own interests, is nothing less than as fools errand.

Derek, I would add something to your observations about the lessons of Dayton for Iraq.

In addition to involving the other countries in the region, it is necessary to involve the three major warring parties themselves. We must recognize that elections, constitution-writing and purple fingers aside, there is no way that the current Iraqi government can deliver peace to Iraq, any more than the Serbian government could have delivered peace in the former Yugoslavia. Nor do I believe it can ever subdue the Sunni Arab population militarily, so to deliver by force what it cannot achieve by politics.

The government in Baghdad is a fundamentally a creature of the US occupation, and the province of the established Kurdish and Shiite powers, and is thus a combattant in the conflict - not a neutral party. Assemblies such as the just-concluded conference in Cairo seem to me to provide a more constructive, timely and efficient means of working toward a settlement than working within the framework of the established and broken political process. What we are talking about at this point is a deal for dividing up power and settling the borders of the natural territorial spheres of control that have emerged in Iraq. All three major parties must participate in hammering out such a deal - and they should begin now, before the accelerating civil conflict reaches the point of no return.

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