An American intervention gone partly right

April 27, 2012

SARAJEVO – Seventeen years and $17 billion later, Bosnia is at peace today, but it is stillborn.

After an international intervention nearly two decades long, Bosnia offers lessons for American officials as they wrestle with continuing violence in Syria, volatile post-Arab Spring transitions and leaving behind a relatively stable Afghanistan. Stopping the killing here proved easier than expected. But halting corruption, sparking economic growth and curbing poisonous local political dynamics has proved vastly more difficult.

Today, the economy is stalled, with half of business activity generated by state-owned companies and unemployment hovering at 25 percent. The country is divided between a Serb entity whose leader talks openly of secession and a Muslim-Croat federation with worrying rifts of its own. And corruption is endemic among senior government officials on all sides.

There are successes. One, surprisingly, is security. In an outcome few expected, fighting has not erupted here since the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord ended a brutal three-year conflict. Predictions that 20,000 American troops who deployed as peacekeepers would be caught in a “quagmire” proved untrue. U.S. forces departed in 2006 without a single American soldier being killed by hostile fire.

One lesson that emerges here is timing, according to Bosnians, Americans and Europeans. If the world is going to intervene in a conflict, the earlier, they say, the better. Bosnia today shows that the longer the fighting drags on, the more tortuous the postwar peace.

On a daily basis, Muslims, Serbs and Croats interact and exchange polite greetings here, but they live separate lives. Across the country, the 100,000 killed during the war haunt the living. Admonitions to turn the other cheek are well and good, but there is little reconciliation.

Exhaustive but slow-moving international war-crimes trials have created a detailed historical record of the atrocities carried out here. But Serb, Croat and Muslim nationalists all see themselves as victims and reject responsibility for war crimes committed by their own community. Future generations, one hopes, may be more accepting.

The second lesson is that without reliable local allies implementing reforms is virtually impossible. International efforts to promote more moderate political parties have failed here. Nationalist Serb, Croat and Muslim parties have won elections, consolidated power and resisted change. Foreign powers have found that they cannot control local political dynamics. Bosnians call the state of politics today “war by other means,” with nationalists continuing their struggles through words, not bullets.

“It’s difficult for outsiders to rearrange the political chairs inside these countries,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a retired senior American diplomat who worked on the Balkans for the Clinton and Bush administrations. “It’s going to be up to local people to do that.”

Today, only 600 European soldiers keep the peace. Milorad Dodik, the current leader of the Bosnian Serbs, uses veto powers and the convoluted government structure created as a compromise in Dayton to block efforts to strengthen the central government. Repeated Western efforts to update the country’s postwar constitution have failed. Foreign diplomats now hope that the carrot of European Union and NATO membership will turn voters against hardliners.

A third and final lesson focuses on civilian aid. When it comes to postwar reconstruction efforts, less is more. The United States and Europe tried to quickly create virtually every aspect of a new Bosnian state: a new army, police force, economy, infrastructure and education system.

The $1.65 billion American civilian aid effort was too broad and too focused on immediate results, according to Westerners and Bosnians. (Ninety percent of the U.S. money spent here – roughly $15 billion – covered the cost of the American troop deployment.) Foreign aid programs followed a predictable but perverse pattern. Donors demanded quick results. Aid officials, in turn, designed projects that met American political needs in Washington, not Bosnian needs on the ground.

Bosnians who have helped implement foreign aid programs argue that picking a handful of projects, establishing limited goals and consistently funding them for long periods is more effective than a rushed, scattershot approach.

Some initiatives fared well. An integrated national army has been created following a massive American training effort. Some well-staffed American police training and judicial reform programs were effective. The establishment of a new national currency gave the country’s economy initial stability. And one simple step – car license plates with no indication of where the driver resides in the country – greatly increased freedom of movement. In general, the more long-term the aid effort, the more successful it was.

Every nation, conflict and era is different, of course. New, unpredictable events shred pristine theories of international relations. But Bosnia’s story offers the lesson that foreign interventions can stop the killing, but not control the peace.

One Western diplomat pointed out that Dodik, the Serb nationalist, was initially hailed as a moderate by the international community. Today, he is seen by Western diplomats as the single largest impediment to unifying the country.

“Like Karzai in Afghanistan, he started out as a great popular leader,” said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, “and things went sour.”

Over the last 20 years, I covered Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia. Each society is vastly different, but all three have experienced U.S.-led interventions. Iraq and Afghanistan – and the 6,400 American soldiers who have perished there and the $1.2 trillion spent – rightly cloud American views of intervention today. But not all U.S. efforts abroad have been debacles.

In the end, Bosnia is a partial success. It is not the sweeping failure that American isolationists contend. Nor is it the sweeping success that backers of humanitarian intervention hoped. An imperfect peace, though, is better than the carnage that the people of Bosnia endured.

PHOTO: 11,541 red chairs are pictured along Titova Street in Sarajevo as the city marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian war, April 6, 2012. The Balkan country still deeply divided, power shared among Serbs, Croats and Muslims in a single state ruled by ethnic quotas and united by the weakest of central governments. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic


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“Today, the economy is stalled, with half of business activity generated by state-owned companies and unemployment hovering at 25 percent. ” In other words, just like Spain. Why the outrage?

Posted by amateurediteur | Report as abusive

It seems clear to me that modern politics and the true success of a country and its citizens are basically incompatible. Comprimises and sacrifices must be made by all. When it’s not, you have just what this story highlights.

Posted by boon2247 | Report as abusive

The main point that I take away from this article is that while the intervention didn’t lift the country into a golden age on gilded wings, it accomplished the most important goal: it stopped the killing. Whenever I read about some justification for the foot dragging and lack of action in Syria, it is usually accompanied by political reasoning, which is no excuse. Bosnia is proof that even if the solution is not a perfect one, no morally responsible party who has the ability to act should stand by and watch ten thousand people be systematically slaughtered, no matter the geopolitical consequences of intervening.

Posted by smanchwhich | Report as abusive

Perfect is the enemy of good enough. Many people are alive today who otherwise would have been slaughtered long ago. The situation is not perfect, but it is better because of the effort of the United States.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

With all due respect Mr. Rhode, it is not our burden to intervene. Especially when the best we can do is ‘partially right’ in the eyes of the most friendly of nations. It is not our burden, and never has been. Doesn’t one wonder what his life would be like today if the U.S. had not intervened and had not got things done ‘partially right’ over the last 80 years?!

Posted by SeaWa | Report as abusive

How outrageous, Rohde was among the dozens of American journalists that for 7 years reported “300,000 deaths in Bosnia”… suddenly he now admits that it was 97,200 on all sides? A figure I used in numerous articles I wrote over the past decade by simply referring to daily victim counts in news reports from various international outlets on a daily basis. That is basic research but Rohde proved that it was too easy to repeat the lies of his colleagues. What Rodhe has proven is that unresearched journalism laced with hate speech wins Pulitzers. He and Roy Gutman are birds of a feather.

But he is not alone, President Bill Clinton in his last inaugural address raised the total victim count to “350,000 killed in Bosnia.” That was pure propaganda and the State Department knew full well that this was a lie, but it was the driving forced to bombing Serbia, a bombing that did over $60 billion in infrastructure damage to Serbia.

The United States of America illegally bombed 200 Serbian schools, 11 Serbian churches, 60 bridges, 7 nursing homes and 5 hospitals in addition to destroying the manufacturing base that put over 60% of the population out of work. The Americans even bombed 12 Serbian cemeteries, why? Perhaps to erase the true ethnic history of those territories?

America also bombed the oil storage facilities on the banks of the Danube River polluting that river for a thousand miles through 7 countries. Depleted uranium bombs have left in their wake an increase of birth defects that amount to a 3,000% increase since 1990 and cancer rates that have tripled in the past decade. This does not include the hideous deaths caused by the illegal use of cluster bombs that were dropped on civilian populations including next to a Serbian hospital that killed 11 people including two pregnant women. We even bombed moving trains and deliberately aimed our hostility on civilian populations as David Rohde managed to look the other way ignoring these war crimes against humanity.

Sarajevo hardly needs Rohde’s “wisdom” or his 20/20 “Victor’s hindsight,” especially since the United States did $60 billion in damage to Serbia and has not lifted a finger to rebuild that country. It took ten years before Wesley Clarke released the maps of where he dropped those illegal cluster bombs as thousand remain on Serbian territory that are unexploded and have been killing and dismembering more victims. What a moron!

Rohde’s shameful journalism was bias and irresponsible. He should have gone to Sarajevo to apologize to the Serbs who he demonized at every opportunity.

Posted by gmbooks | Report as abusive

Thank you for your insights David Rohde. While the violence was terminated most likely because of early and effective intervention by the Clinton administration and NATO, we have also likely been unable to engender a viable economy in Bosnia I would think largely for the same reasons the US has been unable to generate a sustainable economy at home. It would require planning, and a “planned economy” has become a buzzword for a “socialist economy”, regardless of the planning or strategies employed. A world without a vision has become the byword for the last 20 years. I would also think the malaise will continue until the World (in a figurative sense) “unexpectedly” explodes.

Posted by StevenMitchell1 | Report as abusive

Great article. It’s never easy knowing when to get involved in a fight.

What would the world be like today if the US never got involved in WWII?

Posted by Andrew_Eggers | Report as abusive

I’m extremely annoyed that the locals have the nerve to criticize our gift of $1.65 billion. Why was it our responsibility to create a golden utopia for this region? We were not allies. We had nothing to do with their strife. If anyone from the Balkans is reading this, you’re welcome.

Posted by Texas_BlueBlood | Report as abusive

Texas_BlueBlood, I would argue that our responsibility for this region began in June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and was reaffirmed by our participation in WW 2 and the Cold War.

Our country has shed the blood and treasure of generations to provide for a peaceful Europe. The wars in the former Yugoslavia of the 90s threatened this peace. Once again, the feckless European countries were unable to intervene effectively. Had we let the situation continue, history proves that another epic disaster could have evolved, thus throwing away all that our parent’s, grandparent’s, and great-grandparent’s generations had sacrificed to achieve.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive


As someone who lived in constant fear for my life as a 19 year-old corporal in the US army stationed in Bosnia in the 90s, I can tell you that I am disgusted that anyone would have the nerve to criticize one tiny element of our contribution toward ending their nightmare. If only 1/10th of the horrific stories the locals told us are true, the nazis would have a lot to learn from the local mass murderers. I’ll say it again, you’re welcome.

Posted by Texas_BlueBlood | Report as abusive

Texas_Blueblood, read the May 3 comment by gmbooks.

You are a typical US soldier or veteran, thinking the the survivors of those killed should be grateful to the killers. NATO intervention may have saved lives overall, but NATO certainly did major destruction of both lives and property. It is clear that NATO forces were unwilling to risk their own lives to any real extant, but willing to kill far more.

Posted by RPfromRC | Report as abusive

It was shameful cowardice on the part of the West and the White House that it took 400 days of murder and maiming to move them to help the Bosnians .. now the Syrians are suffering because of the cowardice ..

I have been to Syria .. I never met a better kinder people .. they deserve more than cowardly empty words from the White House and Europe ..

Posted by Loeber | Report as abusive

Helping Bosnia. Wow! Beginning with the collapse of Yugoslavia, the US has made the usual policy choice of aligning itself with Muslim separatists. Copying the tactic used in Afghanistan, the US and its allies worked with Islamic fundamentalists by training and arming mujahedeen fighters in their “resistance struggle” against the Serbs. THAT was SO smart. In doing so, the West opened the door for radical Islam to enter Europe. Bosnia is currently a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalist activity and the “independent” nation of Kosovo is a failing state home to domestic and international terrorist groups. Helping, really!

Posted by LeahLee | Report as abusive

I don’t understand why is US blamed here. When natives are not able to develop their own nation, and require outside help, this is what happens. Did you expect US to arrive, pour in valuable billions, repair the nation to make it as progressive as any other self-reliant nation and leave?

No foreign nation would help for charity. So stop complaining and work towards nation building.

Posted by Vibes | Report as abusive

17 years isn’t much historical distance to be drawing conclusions of success or failure from.

Posted by Purp | Report as abusive