How the unedifying ‘lessons of Iraq’ reappraisals obscure the war’s real lessons

By | March 23, 2023

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes:

During the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign, Democratic Party candidate Bill Clinton distinguished himself from the Republican incumbent George H. W. Bush with regard to Bosnia by supporting a “lift and strike” policy. Armed with weapons from the old Yugoslav Army, Bosnian Serbs were on a rampage, and a United Nations embargo was preventing Muslim Bosniaks from being able to defend themselves, even as the Bush administration looked on. Clinton’s proposal would lift the arms blockade and strike the Bosnian Serb supply lines.

Soon after taking office, however, Clinton changed his mind. He was no longer keen to act in Bosnia. The catalyst was a recently published book by Robert D. Kaplan. In “Balkan Ghosts,” the travel writer had advanced the thesis that the Yugoslav conflict was rooted in “ancient hatreds,” and the recent conflagration was an atavistic return to bloodshed. The Clintons — both Bill and Hillary — were persuaded. A year later, during the siege of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, when a Bosnian Serb mortar killed and maimed over 200 civilians in a marketplace, Clinton pronounced: “Until those folks get tired of killing each other over there, bad things will continue to happen.”

Things changed eventually. After the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, and facing an internal revolt, Clinton finally yielded and launched airstrikes to halt Bosnian Serb atrocities. Later, in 1999, Clinton also led a NATO intervention in Kosovo to prevent mass slaughter. The decade ended with many speaking about a new approach to foreign policy that centered on human rights. Clinton’s allies in Britain launched their own “ethical foreign policy.” When George W. Bush came to office in 2001, even he had abandoned his father’s realism and signed on to the emerging consensus. “Not on my watch,” he wrote in the margins of an excerpt from Samantha Power’s book “‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide” condemning the Clinton administration’s inaction on Rwanda.

And yet, when a new Democratic president was confronted with a similar situation two decades after the atrocities in Bosnia, he reverted to old tropes. Bolstered by direct Russian military intervention, forces loyal to Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad were on the march again in the mid-2010s: rebel defenses were crumbling; sieges in Aleppo, Madaya and Eastern Ghouta had been tightened; the Russian air force was systematically targeting hospitals. In response, then-President Barack Obama struck a fatalistic note. The man who had begun his presidency with an idealistic speech in Cairo declared in 2016 that the Middle East’s problems were irresolvable because they are “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” Robert D. Kaplan’s ghost was still haunting the White House. [Continue reading…]