Washington For 11 days in late August and early September in 1995, U.S. and NATO air power defended Bosnian Muslims, who were being attacked by Bosnian Serbs, who were supported by Serbian Serbs. This was merely the overture to something much more ambitious — a grand concert of nation-building that began when the Dayton agreement reached in December of that year calmed the Balkan furies of revanchism and revenge, for a while.
But agreements, like flowers, last while they last, and today’s fraying of Bosnia is not the fault of Richard Holbrooke, whose skill and tenacity produced the Dayton peace. Or perhaps the Dayton pause. Holbrooke, whose diplomatic career began in Vietnam, continues in the Obama administration, where his portfolio is Afghanistan and Pakistan. As the president contemplates an ambitious mission in the former, as a prophylactic measure to stabilize the latter, he should read “The Death of Dayton: How to Stop Bosnia From Falling Apart,” in Foreign Affairs.
Political scientists Patrice C. McMahon and Jon Western note that Bosnia was “once the poster child for international reconstruction efforts” and was considered “proof that under the right conditions the international community could successfully rebuild conflict-ridden countries.” Now, however, Bosnia “stands on the brink of collapse.”
Between 1996 and 2007, Bosnia received $14 billion in international aid from 17 foreign governments, 18 U.N. agencies, 27 intergovernmental organizations and approximately 200 nongovernmental organizations, plus the presence of 60,000 troops from 36 countries. It was, McMahon and Western say, “arguably the most extensive and innovative democratization experiment in history.” On a per capita basis, reconstruction of Bosnia — population, fewer than 4 million — “made the post-World War II rebuilding of Germany and Japan look modest.” The $14 billion was $300 per Bosnian per year. Since 2002, international donors have pledged $65 per Afghan per year.
Today, the centrifugal forces of the rival ethnic nationalisms of Bosnia’s Muslims, Croats and Serbs have, McMahon and Western say, stalled reform and the economy — unemployment is 27 percent, 25 percent of Bosnians live in poverty, and the public sector, with a ludicrous 160 ministers, swallows almost half the GDP. International organizations, suffering Balkan fatigue and eager to declare “mission accomplished,’’ are withdrawing, leaving Muslims isolated and vulnerable, and, as Bosnia is, McMahon and Western say, “drifting toward chaos.”
William Hague, shadow foreign secretary for Britain’s Conservative Party, which probably will be in power a year from now, in July endorsed the view that “Bosnia is on the edge again.” McMahon and Western warn: “Unless checked, the current trends toward fragmentation will almost certainly lead to a resumption of violence.” And history suggests that what happens in Bosnia does not stay in Bosnia.
“With factions from all three ethnic groups now challenging the Dayton structure,” McMahon and Western are emphatic: “First, a strong U.S. commitment is necessary.” But this is not a propitious moment to propose that, with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq — and North Korea, etc. — on Washington’s mind. So this question is apposite: If Bosnia — situated in placid and prosperous Europe; recipient of abundant aid and attention from the United States, the European Union, NATO and the U.N.— is so resistant to nation-building, what are sensible expectations for a similar project in remote, mountainous, tribal Afghanistan?
“It is human to hate,” the late Samuel Huntington wrote. Communities, like individuals, crave clear identities, which sometimes are built on foundations of shared dislikes. This is true of the communities within Bosnia, and Afghanistan.
In 1915, the young Walter Lippmann said: Considering that the East Side of Manhattan is a mystery to the West Side, “the business of arranging the world to the satisfaction of the people in it may be seen in something like its true proportions.” Lippmann later joined Woodrow Wilson’s post-World War I attempt to rearrange the world, which suddenly included Yugoslavia, of which Bosnia was a piece.
“I don’t want any of this onward-and-upward stuff,” said the aged Oliver Wendell Holmes to the young Lippmann. “You young men seem to think that if you sit on the world long enough you will hatch something out. But you’re wrong.” Holmes, who had been wounded at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, still the bloodiest day in American history, knew from experience that force can accomplish large things, such as the defeat of secession. But Holmes also knew there are limits.