Opinion writer December 12, 2011

We are coming up on bad times. Nationalism is surging throughout Europe. In the Arab world, spring is suddenly winter and the sects, the tribes, the clans, the religious, the very religious and the military are taking a step back, eyeing one another for the coming rumble. Now comes a strong and wholly gripping film by Angelina Jolie about the 1990s’ ugly war in Bosnia. I do not know if it’s about what has passed or what is coming. I fear the latter.

The film is called “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” and it’s something of a pity that it does not star Jolie but was instead directed and written by her. (Those who think pretty equals dumb will be sorely disappointed by this movie.) The actors speak only Serbo-Croatian (with English subtitles), and the movie stars local actors. The audience for this movie hardly exists.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post. View Archive

And yet it is only partially about Bosnians. It is also about us, we Americans who are in every scene, occasionally mentioned or quoted but hovering always, stage right or stage left, as Bosnian women are raped, kept as slaves and then raped again. The young and the pretty, a moment earlier the most fortunate of women, suddenly run out of luck. The crooked finger of the rapist beckons.

The men are hardly spared. About 8,000 Bosnian Muslim males of all ages were massacred at Srebrenica. This was done not in the 1940s by Germans, but in 1995 by Serbs, witnessed on the spot and confirmed miles up by spy satellites — telltale trenches, pools of men suddenly gone — and most of us did . . . nothing.

So there I am, stage left, if you will, having been to Bosnia and the Pentagon, and convinced as a result that this is a war to be avoided. And there, stage right, if you will, is the first Bush administration, composed of foreign policy realists, and James Baker, the secretary of state, who makes a cameo: “We got no dog in this fight,” he is quoted as saying. Women are being raped and men are being slaughtered and most of us go about our business. We were — we remain — accomplices by omission.

The atrocities of the Bosnian war were not revealed — shockingly, surprisingly and all of that — with the cease-fire. They were known at the time. But there were news reports, allegations that were denied, of course. The victims had no names and no faces and did not have lovers or children, as they do in Jolie’s movie, and were not rousted from their homes at gunpoint and sifted by sex for another’s pleasure or for death. They were treated as foreign policy challenges, topics for pro/con TV debates about the role of the United States, the United Nations, the residue of World War II, the inevitable consequence of the collapse of communism and wars without exit strategies: Do Not Enter, No Way Out.

Jolie’s film is unavoidably one-sided. The Bosnian Serbs are the heavies, but the implosion of Yugoslavia was a complex event. Serbs were evil, but the Muslims and the Croats had blood on their hands as well. Movies cannot be about truth, because truth is complex and perplexing and — dammit — changes over time. But as in life, the Serbian commander, a fictional representation of the real Ratko Mladic, is the chief villain of this film. Mladic commanded at Srebrenica. He gets his cinematic due.

In September 1995, NATO finally bombed the war to an end and within a couple of tough months Richard Holbrookeforged a peace agreement. It turned out that the United States, along with NATO, could make a difference — and with relatively little effort. No boots went on the ground. The operation was conducted from the sky.

We cannot be the world’s policeman, I know. Still, the world needs a policeman and who can it be if not the United States? We have to pick our moments, but where we can intervene, as we did successfully in Libya, we must — not alone, surely not alone, but in concert with others. Where you can do something, you must do something.

Some bad days are coming. Maybe history doesn’t repeat itself, but human nature does. Contracting economies mean expanding hatreds. This is no time to mindlessly cut the Pentagon budget. This is no time to turn inward. Angelina Jolie made her movie to express frustration with the international community’s apathy and incompetence in Bosnia. She has succeeded. We did have a dog in that fight — not self-interest, but self-respect.

cohenr@washpost.com