The Bosnian Example for Iraq

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, November 21, 2005

Ten years ago today the leaders of three hostile ethnic and religious communities in a war-ravaged land reluctantly agreed -- thanks to overwhelming U.S. military and political pressure -- to stop fighting and live together under their country's first-ever democratic government. The Dayton accords, which created a fragile confederation and ended Bosnia's civil war, have been successful enough to earn two days of high-level ceremonies in Washington, including a gala luncheon tomorrow at the State Department hosted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It's hard to avoid the comparison between the country deemed a quagmire in the 1990s and the one where the United States is bogged down today.

Start with the U.S. and other NATO troops who began arriving in Bosnia shortly before Christmas 1995. There were 60,000 of them at first in a country of 4 million, or more than twice as many per capita as now are deployed in Iraq. Ten years later they are still there -- the American contingent left only a year ago. All sides agree they will have to stay on for years to come, since Bosnia's police and army forces are still not ready to take over full responsibility for security. Billions have meanwhile been spent on reconstruction, under the supervision of a Western proconsul with the power to overrule the Bosnian government.

Despite all those years of heavy-handed occupation, the Western forces have never captured Bosnia's foremost insurgents. Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who together oversaw the deliberate murder of thousands of civilians, are still at large. Serb leaders in Bosnia only now are beginning to show some willingness to renounce the poisonous nationalism that caused the war. The current Bosnian Serb president, Dragan Cavic, reportedly has promised to call for Karadzic to surrender during this week's events in Washington.

Like Iraq's Sunnis, the Bosnian Serbs were forced to abandon a regime of genocide and domination by a punishing U.S. military campaign. Unlike Iraqis, however, the Bosnians were subjected to an equally forceful American diplomatic offensive. Their leaders, along with those of neighboring Serbia and Croatia, were sequestered at a military base in Dayton, Ohio, and browbeaten for 21 days by an international tag team led by one of the toughest and most capable U.S. diplomats, Richard Holbrooke.

Even then, the best that could be achieved was a deeply flawed plan for federalism that allowed the creation of Serb and Muslim-Croat ministates united by the weakest of national governments. There was a three-member rotating presidency, 14 ministries of education and 15 police agencies. The Serb statelet, at first, was little more than an appendage of its neighbor Serbia, then still an adversary of the West.

This week's events are in part an effort to fix Bosnia's constitution, after a decade-long timeout. The Serbs, who have resisted most, have been energetically worked over by both the Bush administration and the European Union; Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, the department's third-highest official, has devoted a large slice of his time to it since the beginning of this year. Burns hopes the Serbs and other Bosnians arriving in Washington today will announce their acceptance in principle of constitutional reforms, including abolition of the tripartite presidency. By April, it is hoped, the Bosnian parliament will ratify amendments that could finally open the way to an effective national government, foreign investment and the prospect of eventual integration into the European Union.

So, in summary: Bosnia has had proportionately more Western troops than Iraq and more money for reconstruction. It has had aggressive high-level diplomacy by a unified transatlantic coalition, backed by both Democratic and Republican administrations in Washington. It has been given 10 years by those governments, which have repeatedly resisted the temptation to pull their troops out. Even so, it is only now that a new generation of Bosnian leaders is willing to consider the political compromises necessary to stabilize their country without foreign forces or high commissioners.

They will arrive in a Washington where, one month after the ratification of a similarly imperfect constitution in Iraq, Democrats are calling for a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops, and where even the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Warner, is hinting that Iraqis have 180 days to pull their country together. They will lunch at a State Department that has delegated the daunting work of forging an Iraqi compromise to its ambassador in Baghdad, with next to no help from the president or U.S. allies and no power to sequester anyone on a military base. The Bosnians will have a chance to hear both Democrats and Republicans talk, not about how to succeed in the latest American intervention but about how the other party is lying about it.

Perhaps they will conclude that their tiny Balkan country is far more important to the United States and its security than Iraq. That, anyway, is what the record shows.


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