The Shame of Srebrenica

The massacre shaped the thinking of a generation of U.S. foreign-policy makers like me. And it still looms over our choices, from Iraq to Libya to Syria.

<> on July 10, 2011 in Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
<> on July 10, 2011 in Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Twenty years ago, in July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces killed nearly 8,000 innocent Muslim civilians in Srebrenica, a small valley town in eastern Bosnia. This massacre — the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II, one that occurred while U.N. peacekeepers stood by fecklessly and NATO refused to intervene — shamed the international community, and its lessons still loom over the debate about U.S. military intervention today.

Srebrenica became a brutal symbol of the price of inaction. Had the United States and its allies intervened sooner, the tragedy could have been prevented. As a stunningly self-critical 1999 report by then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan concluded, “The cardinal lesson of Srebrenica is that a deliberate and systematic attempt to terrorize, expel or murder an entire people must be met decisively with all necessary means.”

Like the failure to act in order to prevent the Rwandan genocide the year before in 1994, Srebrenica was a stain on America’s power and reputation. It also exposed the limits of the international system to forge collective action, even in the face of genocide. But it galvanized the United States to intervene in Bosnia, launching airstrikes and negotiations that led to the 1995 Dayton Accords. Once America acted through a combination of force and diplomacy, it ended a war and renewed U.S. leadership. The lesson seemed clear: The United States should never again stand by idly in the face of evil.

This bitter legacy directly influenced the post-9/11 debate about whether to invade Iraq in 2003. The painful memory of Srebrenica is one of the reasons President George W. Bush’s administration received support for going to war against Iraq from many liberal internationalists (myself included) who saw confronting Saddam Hussein as necessary, at least in part, due to the “responsibility to protect.” From a strategic and humanitarian perspective, the case to intervene in Iraq seemed even stronger than the case with the Balkans. Saddam had already proved his willingness to massacre civilians (the slaughter of Kurds in the 1980s and Shiites after the 1991 Gulf War offering the most brutal examples), and his military was a far greater threat than that posed by Bosnian Serbs. And so, the argument went, the United States needed to stand firm and not hide behind dithering allies or a weak U.N., as it had in Bosnia in 1995. As George Packer observed in 2002, Bosnia had turned many liberals into hawks.

So in March 2003 the United States did in Iraq what many believed it waited too long to do in Bosnia (and did not do at all in Rwanda): It used force to prevent a dictator from further terrorizing innocents — a risk that seemed worth taking to protect our common interests and uphold our values.

Yet the disaster that unfolded in Iraq taught a competing lesson. Intervening in such conflicts can unleash havoc that the United States is neither prepared nor willing to handle, and we should be very careful where and when we use force. Iraq’s legacy was another “never again”: that America should not occupy countries without a clear sense of what it wants to achieve and what costs it is willing to endure.

In very significant ways, the lessons of the Balkans and Iraq then shaped the thinking of President Barack Obama’s administration about the 2011 intervention in Libya. There was an impulse to act decisively to stop a looming humanitarian catastrophe. For those of us serving in the White House at the time, we worried about the threat Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces posed to hundreds of thousands of civilians, which we described as a “Srebrenica on steroids.” But we also had deep concerns about what would come next if we intervened and the very real possibility of enveloping the United States into a protracted conflict like Iraq.

The decision to intervene created deep divisions within Obama’s national security team, and it was a rare instance when his two heavyweight advisors — then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates — ended up on opposite sides, with the secretary of state urging quick action and the secretary of defense deeply skeptical. The president tried to bridge these differences, judging that while the United States needed to act decisively to end the threat against civilians, it would be up to the Libyan people to decide their own future while the United States maintained a “light footprint.” He sought to apply the lessons of both Srebrenica and Iraq, threading the needle between taking urgent action to save lives and preventing the United States from getting sucked into another morass.

The Libya intervention prevented a massacre and helped bring down a dictator, and for a moment it appeared to offer a more hopeful lesson: The United States could divide the labor with its allies and use military power to save lives at minimal cost and risk. Yet from the perspective of today, when so much of Libya suffers from insecurity and chaos, no one takes pride with what that country has become. Obama believes that things would have been worse had the United States not intervened, but has expressed regrets about what has happened in Libya since Qaddafi’s demise. The president has said that Libya taught him something that “still has ramifications to this day.” When considering using force elsewhere, he asks, “do we have an answer [for] the day after?”

The combined experiences of Bosnia, Iraq, and Libya infuse the debate over what to do about Syria, yet the lessons are often difficult to reconcile. That conflict is a cruel combination of all these — with thousands of innocents slaughtered, a ruthless dictator, extremists, refugees, and weapons of mass destruction — and no easy answers. As we sat in the Situation Room debating what the United States should do, the presence of these historical ghosts was palpable. After all, most of us had forged our careers in the intense policy battles of these previous interventions. Their contradictions shaped the difficult policy compromise that defines U.S. policy toward Syria today.

My former White House colleague Philip Gordon recently summarized the dilemmas of intervention this way: In Iraq, the United States intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly conflict whose consequences America will grapple with for a generation. In terms of Libya, the United States intervened but did not occupy, and the result is chaotic instability. And in Syria, the United States has neither intervened nor occupied, and the result has been catastrophic for the Syrian people and regional stability. Yet to complete (and further complicate) the picture, one cannot underemphasize the importance of Bosnia, where U.S. dithering failed to prevent a genocide, but its belated intervention ended a war.

So as world leaders gather this weekend in Srebrenica to mourn this anniversary and honor the victims, it is also a moment to recall the costs of inaction and the good that can come when the United States takes risks and asserts leadership. But we must also remember how easy it is for the United States to lose its way. America has the power to act, but the challenge is how it should do so while heeding the lessons of the past. Alas, history does not provide a shortcut.

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Derek Chollet served in the Obama administration for six years in senior positions at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, most recently as the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Currently the executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, his books include The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (co-written with James Goldgeier), and The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World (co-edited with Samantha Power). A native Nebraskan, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his family. Chollet is a co-editor of Shadow Government. Twitter: @derekchollet