Bosnian journalist Srecko Latal agreed that there were points of similarity between Syria and Bosnia but was also struck by the differences. He is wary about talk of a “Srebrenica moment” in U.S. policy toward Syria, in the sense of a humanitarian crisis large and embarrassing enough to force a decisive U.S. response, as happened in Bosnia in summer 1995 after the massacres of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces.
“There are no simple answers,” said Latal, who lived through the 31
2-year siege of Sarajevo. “You can’t copy a solution that was applied to Bosnia and paste it someplace else.”
The contrasting points of views from two survivors of the first great conflict of the post-Cold War era outline the contours of the foreign policy debate triggered by the mounting violence in Syria. The gruesome television images, culminating in the pictures of coffins of dozens of young children in Houla, have stirred plenty of moral outrage but failed to generate any clear consensus on what should be done to punish and deter the perpetrators.
Only weeks after announcing a government-wide“genocide prevention” initiative, President Obama finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being compared unfavorably to his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, who was widely criticized for his tardy response in Bosnia.
Clinton sought to keep the United States out of the Bosnian imbroglio — until he was shamed into action by the killings of Muslim prisoners in Srebrenica and the continued shelling of Sarajevo.
Combined with a ground offensive by Croat and Muslim forces, a U.S.-led bombing campaign succeeded in breaking the back of the Bosnian Serb army in September 1995, paving the way for the Dayton peace pact two months later. The settlement confirmed the division of Bosnia into rival Serbian and Muslim-Croat statelets but put an end to a war that claimed 100,000 lives and drove more than a million people from their homes.
“Say what you will about Clinton, but he eventually sent Tomahawks and cruise missiles,” Suljagic said. “The present crowd is drafting memos.”
‘Awareness without action’
The contrast between the two Democratic presidents is made more stark by the fact that the Obama genocide prevention initiative is being shaped by staffers who were profoundly affected by the spectacle of Western inaction in Bosnia and Rwanda. The key figure here is Obama adviser Samantha Power, who worked in Bosnia as a journalist in 1995 at the time of the Srebrenica massacre and wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Problem from Hell,” now regarded as a seminal work in the rapidly expanding field of mass atrocity studies.