The Lessons of the Wrong Wars

Why is it that, in most cases, when people try to apply the lessons of history they tend to employ the wrong lessons? For the past two years the world has stood on the sidelines as the Syrians slaughter each other, with the primary culprit being the Assad regime. Just this past week, when the preponderance of evidence has shown that the Syrians crossed the red line that President Obama set out (i.e. the use of chemical weapons on their own people), commentators – usually liberal ones – have cried out: “Do not act precipitously.”…“Remember the lessons of Iraq”…“We cannot become bogged down in another war in the Middle East”, or “We have just fought two problematic wars and the lesson we should learn is ‘do not get involved.’” All fine remarks, yet, all completely irrelevant. Yes, Syria is in the Middle East. True, Syria is racked by sectarian violence, the same madness into which Iraq devolved. However, there the similarities end.

First of all, the United States did not intervene in Iraq because it was killing its own people. If that was the U.S. motivation for acting it would have done so when Saddam massacred the Shiites of the south. However, the U.S. shamefully stood by and let that massacre happen. The United States invaded Iraq for other reasons; reasons that I need not go into here. The resulting ethnic violence in Iraq was an unintended byproduct of the American intervention, not the cause for U.S. intervention.

To create a policy and plan of action for Syria today, the United States and the West should not be studying the lessons of their last two wars, (i.e. Iraq and Afghanistan). The correct lesson for the U.S. and the West to examine is the early war in the Balkans. There, for month after month, the United States and the rest of the West stood by and let the killing continue. Neither President Bush, nor Clinton, wanted to get involved. The first case of genocide since the Holocaust was taking place in Europe on live TV. The world stood on the side and watched, until it finally decided to intervene and end the killing.

Looking at the history of the events that led to U.S. intervention in Bosnia proves instructive when trying to evaluate events in Syria today. Various media outlets quickly reported the genocide that had begun in Bosnia. In August 1992, Helsinki Watch issued a report in which it stated that there was “prima facie evidence that genocide is taking place”. Though believing that genocide was occurring, Helsinki Watch was unwilling to recommend that any military action be taken against the genocide. They stated:

It is beyond the competence of the Helsinki Watch to determine all the steps that may be required to prevent and suppress the crimes of genocide. It may be necessary for the United Nations to employ military force to that end. It is not the province of Helsinki Watch to determine whether such force is required Helsinki Watch believes that it is the responsibility of the Security Council to address this question.

The first response of the U.S. on the massacre in Bosnia was a statement made on April 14, 1992 by Secretary of State Baker, condemning the use of force and urging the European Community to issue a joint protest, threatening the economic and political isolation of Serbia. At that point, nothing was done to tighten the economic sanctions against Serbia. see (What the World has Done for Bosnia)

Baker’s mild response did not come from a lack of knowledge. The Serbian actions were being carefully recorded. In a confidential memo written within the State Department the actions in Bosnia were noted as a:

clear pattern of use of force, intimidations, and provocations to violence aimed at forcibly partitioning (Bosnia) and effecting large forced transfers of population… The clear intent of Serbian use of force is to displace non Serbs from mixed areas where Serbs are a minority to consolidate Bosnian Serb claims to some 60% of Bosnian territory in a manner which would create a ‘Serbian’ Bosnia.

Matters continued to worsen in Bosnia. Word began to seep out that the Serbs were creating concentration camps for Bosnians. The imagery of concentration camps, once again, in the Europe began to impact on the American consciousness. Lower level State Department officials began to lobby for some sort of intervention. However, senior officials in the Bush administration remained indifferent to the events, believing as Secretary of State Baker stated that we do not have a “dog in this fight”.

As evidence continued to mount of atrocities being committed in the camps set up by the Serbs, the administration was forced to speak out– if only in a limited fashion. On August 6, 1992, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger issued a statement “that reports of atrocities at detention centers in Bosnia and Herzegovina were “profoundly disturbing” and called for a war-crimes investigation. See: State Dep’t. Ask War Crime Inquiry

One American official, speaking on condition of anonymity said:

We are at the point now where there may well be greater danger in not taking risks than in taking risks, and I think the President may have to roll the dice if things don’t improve. What kind of a new world order will we have if we let this set the standard for other ethnic struggles — war, hunger, suffering, maybe atrocities, and the rest of the world standing by, supposedly powerless?

The images of suffering from Bosnia were introduced into the Presidential election campaign that was taking place in 1992. Candidate Clinton began to criticize the Bush administration’s lack of action. Clinton was cautious. However, he did not want foreign affairs issues dominating his campaign, (which he was running largely on a domestic issues platform.) Clinton stated:

I want us to be focused on problems of people at home. I’m worried about kids being killed on the streets here at home. I think we’ll have more people killed in America today than there are killed in Yugoslavia, or what used to be Yugoslavia probably. But I think that we cannot afford to ignore what appears to be a deliberate, systematic extermination of human beings based on their ethnic origin. The United Nations was set up to stop things like that, and we ought to stop it.

As photographic evidence from Bosnia became worse, the pressure for the U.S. to do something increased. In August 1992, the first images of the Serb camps began to reach the West. The reaction was strong. TIME Magazine wrote:

The shock of recognition is acute. Skeletal figures behind barbed wire. Murdered babies in a bus. Two and a half million people driven from their homes in an orgy of ‘ethnic cleansing.’ Detention camps maybe even concentration camps. Surely these pictures and stories come from another time — the Dark Ages, the Thirty Years’ War, Hitler’s heyday…. The ghastly images in newspapers and on television screens last week also conjured up another discomfiting memory: the world sitting by, eager for peace at any price, as Adolf Hitler marched into Austria, carved up Czechoslovakia! For months, leaders in Europe and the U.S. have been wringing their hands over the human tragedy in the Balkans, yet have shied away from facing the hard choices that any effort to stop the killing would entail.

Anthony Lewis in the New York Times began to compare President Bush with Neville Chamberlain and described what was happening in one report:

The men were taken from the village at gunpoint and forced into freight cars. As many as 180 were jammed, standing, into boxcars measuring 39 by 6 feet. They were kept that way for three days, without water or food, as the train moved slowly across the countryside. Nazis transporting Jews in 1942? No, Serbs transporting Muslim Bosnians in 1992: one glimpse of the worst racial and religious bestiality Europe has known since World War II.

When Bill Clinton called for meaningful action to stop the Serbian atrocities, the Bush campaign denounced him as “reckless.” Marlin Fitzwater, President Bush’s spokesman, said: “Governor Clinton was ‘unaware of the political complications in Yugoslavia’.” That Fitzwater phrase reminded me of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain explaining why Britons should not care about Nazi designs on Czechoslovakia in 1938. It was, Chamberlain said, “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”

The imagery and the criticism of President Bush, including an op-ed piece by Margaret Thatcher calling for action, finally forced President Bush to speak out. At a White House ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal Bush stated:

The world cannot shed its horror at the prospect of concentration camps… The shocking brutality of genocide in World War II, in those concentration camps, is burning memories for all of us, and that can’t happen again. And we will not rest until the international community has gained access to any and all detention camps. (NYTl)

At this point, pressure was increased for some sort of intervention. The Bush administration supported an increase in UN observers, but categorically refused any U.S. troop participation in the endeavor.

The State Department officer responsible for Yugoslavia became the first of a number of State Department officials who resigned in protest of the lack of US action. He stated: “What’s going on in Bosnia is genocide, and the U.S. had a moral obligation to stop it,” George D. Kenney, said in a telephone interview.

The Administration is not dealing seriously with the Yugoslav crisis. The things we’ve tried up to now have not worked and we need to try some different approaches. (NYT)

Jewish organizations, and even Israeli Prime Minister Rabin, (then visiting Washington,) spoke out against what was happening in Bosnia. Rabin compared the situation in Bosnia to the Holocaust and demanded action.

The military became an active participant in the debate. The U.S. military leadership claimed that any attempt to intervene would require hundreds of thousands of troops. The specter of Vietnam was introduced to dampen support for any use of the military to stop Serb actions. General Colin Powell, Chairmen of the Joint Chief of Staffs, wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

There has been a spate of commentary recently over the use of American military force to deal with the vexing problems of an untidy post-cold war world. The military has been criticized for being too reluctant to use force. In a recent editorial, for example, The New York Times suggested that the military has a ‘no can do’ attitude and asked whether America is getting a fair return on its defense investment.

Powell went on to describe recent successful military actions that US military had done, and then presented the case that any action in Bosnia would be very difficult.

The U.S. government was careful never to call what was going on in Yugoslavia ‘genocide,’ even though it met all the requirements for genocide. For, if it was genocide, international law mandated that all nations – including the US – be forced to take action.

As the Bush Administrations reached the end of its term of office, Secretary of State Eagleburger finally ‘called it what it was’ when he stated at a conference on the Balkans:

We know that crimes against humanity have occurred, and we know when and where they occurred. We know, moreover, which forces committed those crimes, and under whose command they operated. And we know, finally, who the political leaders are and to whom those military commanders were – and still are – responsible. (NYT)

In January 1993, Bill Clinton became the new President, and a new team took over the direction of American foreign policy. Richard Holbrooke returned from Bosnia and presented a lengthy report to the Clinton Administration describing the situation and calling for action. Holbrooke wrote, “if I don’t make [my] views known to the new team, I will not have done enough to help the desperate people we have just seen, but if I push my views, I will appear too aggressive. I feel trapped.”

The initial statements of the Clinton administration seemed more aggressive than those of the Bush administration. On February 15th, Secretary of State Warren Christopher announced the new U.S. policy. Warren stated:

We cannot ignore the human toll. Serbian ‘ethnic cleansing’ has been pursued through mass murders, systematic beatings and rapes of Muslims and others, prolonged shelling of innocents in Sarajevo and elsewhere, forced displacement of entire villages, inhumane treatment of prisoners in detention camps, and the blockading of relief to sick and starving civilians. Atrocities have been committed by other parties as well. Our conscience revolts at the idea of passively accepting such brutality.

At the opening ceremony for the US Holocaust Museum, Nobel laureate Eli Wiesel interrupted his prepared remarks, turned to President Clinton and said:

And Mr. President, I cannot not not tell you something. I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since what I have seen. As a Jew I am saying that. We must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country. (NYT Does the World Still recognize a Holocaust)

President Clinton was quick to state that the Holocaust was a singular event and could not be compared to any event that was taking place at the moment in Europe. Wiesel continued to put pressure on the administration to take action. On April 23, 1993 Elie Weisel spoke at the State Department in front of a packed audience calling for the U.S. to take action in Bosnia. Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations European Affairs Subcommittee, called for much tougher steps to counter Serbian aggression in Bosnia, including lifting the arms embargo on the Muslims. Representative Frank McCloskey accused the U.S. and its allies of sending a “message to the people of Bosnia . . . to stay where you are and reach some compromise with the thugs who are slaughtering you and raping you and starving you.”

Democrats and supporters of the administration raised these indictments and pleas. Despite their (and others’) increasing pressure to intervene, the Clinton administration began to say it was not just the Serbs who were responsible, but the Muslims, as well. At one point, President Clinton stated: “the killing would not end until both sides became tired of killing each other.”

On May 1st 1993, the administration advanced a new position. It would push for a plan that was called ‘lift and strike’. The new plan called for lifting the arms embargo against the Muslims, and threatening air strikes against the Serbs – unless they accepted a ceasefire. The U.S. administration then tried to sell the plan to the Europeans. Secretary of State Warren Christopher flew to Europe.

The European allies were not willing to agree to the plan. Christopher returned to Washington and reported that the only way to get the Europeans to agree would be to use raw power to force the issue. No one in the Administration supported this approach. As one official noted:

Pressuring the Europeans to support lift and strike would have made the US solely responsible for Bosnia, if we would have bet the ranch said to the Europeans that this threatened a fundamental breach in out relations we might have forced the Europeans to kicking and screaming but this would have made it an American problem.

The Clinton administration was not willing to singlehandedly take on the Bosnian problem. On the day that Christopher returned to Washington, noted historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled: How to think about Bosnia. In it, Schlesinger warned that Korea and Vietnam had undermined the domestic plans of Presidents Truman and Johnson and that intervention in Bosnia could have a similar effect on Clinton’s domestic plan. In the end, what I would call “The CNN Effect” overwhelmed the administration. The constant killings shown – almost live – on CNN forced the administration to take action.

On August 28, 1995, a shell landed in the Sarajevo Market killing 37 and wounded 88. Holbrooke recommended beginning to bomb the Serbs. This time everyone was on board. On August 30th the bombing began. NATO bombed for three weeks, launching 3,400 sorties. With the power of the military behind him, Holbrooke was able to force the Serbs to agree to a ceasefire. That ceasefire was followed by the Dayton Peace Conference, where the United States, represented by Holbrooke, was able to work out a peace agreement that ended the war and the slaughter in Bosnia.

Does all of this sound familiar? While the situations in Bosnia and Syria are not identical, they are clearly similar. The only difference, this time, is that the west has a strategic interest in seeing Iran’s proxy (i.e. the Assad regime) defeated. This interest goes beyond any humanitarian issues. The U.S. can once again bring about an end to a slaughter, by employing its air and sea forces. For reasons that are not clear, American generals have warned that Syria possesses formidable air defenses.

The Israelis have repeatedly shown how false those claim are. The U.S. will have no greater difficulty neutralizing the Syrian air defenses than it had in neutralizing the Iraqi defenses. The U.S. can impose a no-fly zone on Syria in a moment, and cut it off from its continued supply of arms. Will the Iranians or the Russians be happy? No. However, will they take action? The answer to that question is also– No. Will U.S. intervention bring an immediate end to the bloodshed? Probably not. However, American intervention will go a long way to hastening the fall of Hafez Assad – a man who has now slaughtered upward of 70,000 of his own people. Despite the fact that the world has been careful not to use the word ‘genocide,’ that is exactly the policy Assad has been implementing. Appropriate action must be taken.

It’s easy to say: “Never Again.” We as Jews shout it – NEVER AGAIN. We believe that the establishment of the State of Israel protects us from ultimate harm. Americans embrace the cry of “Never Again.” Most of the world truly believes that after the Holocaust genocide would not take place again. Yet it did. Genocide took place in Cambodia. Genocide happened in Rwanda, and then in Bosnia. The atrocities were out of sight in Cambodia and Americans were war weary from the Vietnam War. So no one took action in Rwanda. We turned our faces away until it was too late. Finally, in Bosnia the West took action, after avoiding intervening for the longest time. How much longer can the world look the other way as the slaughter continues in Syria? A long list of reasons can be given to explain why the United States, Western Europe – and yes, even Israel – should not intervene in Syria. However, none of these explanations can morally justify not taking action. “Never Again” means taking action – even when it is inconvenient – and, yes, maybe even against your national interests.

History holds many lessons. Our challenge is choosing the lessons that shed the most light on our current challenges and conflicts. In the case of Syria now, history pleads with us to take the same actions taken in Bosnia and bring an end to this war, and ultimately, to the Assad regime

About the Author
Marc Schulman is the editor of -- the largest history web site. He is the author a series of Multimedia History Apps as well as a recent biography of JFK. He holds a BA and MA from Columbia University, and currently lives in Tel Aviv. He is also a regular contributor to Newsweek authoring the Tel Aviv Diary. He is the publisher of an economic news App about Israel called DigitOne