By refusing to intervene more decisively in Syria, President Barack Obama claimed to have finally broken with the “Washington playbook” – his term for the foreign policy establishment’s faith in the efficacy of military force. Refusing to follow the playbook is at once source of pride for the president and a source of ongoing outrage for critics across the political spectrum.
However, looking back to the 1990s, it seems Obama is actually hewing fairly closely to the playbook that ultimately led Washington to intervene in Yugoslavia’s civil war. This is not a playbook that demands immediate military intervention, but one that has Washington spending several years desperately trying to avoid it, while still investing just enough diplomatically and rhetorically to make the eventual use of force inevitable.
In the Balkans, it took four years from the time Serb and Croat forces first began fighting in 1991 to the start of the NATO air campaign that finally brought an uneasy end to the fighting. During this period, two successive presidential administrations sought to keep America out of a conflict where they saw little public support or strategic rationale for getting involved. In a differently configured but not dissimilar political climate, many isolationist voters insisted that the United States should not serve as the world’s policeman, while internationalist realists like Secretary of State James Baker famously declared of the conflict, “We do not have a dog in this fight.” Thus when the Yugoslav civil war broke out, foreign policy hands in the George H.W. Bush administration were focused on Russia, while those concerned with domestic policy worried about how the public would respond to such minor reversals as the capture of an American pilot.
What’s more, as in Syria today, none of the sides in Yugoslavia’s civil war were terribly sympathetic to American observers. In retrospect, Slobodan Milosevic’s murderousness is the defining evil of the conflict, but for observers at the time, the unrepentant fascist nostalgia of Croatian President Franjo Tuđman was also hard to ignore. Indeed, while the subsequent trials of Serbian war criminals have dominated the headlines and popular imagination, a number of Croatian commanders were convicted for committing acts of genocide as well.
In both Yugoslavia and Syria, policymakers have also used history to justify non-intervention, describing conflicts as age-old or timeless to suggest there was little America could do to resolve them. Travel writer Robert Kaplan famously caught President Bill Clinton’s ear with his argument that the war in Yugoslavia was driven by “ancient passions and intractable hatreds” just as Obama, in his 2016 State of the Union address, gave voice to the cliché of “millennia–old” sectarian differences tearing apart the Middle East.
Despite all this, simply ignoring the conflict in Yugoslavia proved impossible. Whatever the moral repercussions, Clinton paid no political price for ignoring the Rwandan genocide as it occurred. And as Obama himself seems to have hinted at, when a series of civil wars wracked the Congo over the past two decades, Washington ignored them so successfully there was barely any discussion of the fact they were being ignored. But Yugoslavia, like Syria, though seemingly unimportant in and of itself, proved to be too close to parts of the world that Washington cared about. As a result, the horror of the humanitarian crisis became and remained a major news story, while the conflict also threatened to destabilize regions of greater political importance.
Seeing no public appetite or strategic imperative for intervention, both Bush and Clinton nonetheless faced pressure to do something as evidenced emerged of concentration camps and systematic ethnic cleansing. The result was a series of incomplete and ineffectual measures aimed at dealing with the crisis, or at least mitigating its effects, at minimal cost. As documented by Samantha Power, the academic and activist who has since become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, both administrations initially sought to downplay the evidence of these atrocities. When this proved impossible, empty threats emerged as the most plausible response. In the final weeks of his presidency, Bush issued the “Christmas Warning” to Milosevic, threatening unilateral intervention over potential crimes in Kosovo without addressing the more pressing concerns elsewhere.
After defeating Bush in 1992, Bill Clinton quickly found himself operating out of the same foreign policy playbook as his erstwhile opponent. If anything, the incoming Clinton administration, having just won a campaign focused on domestic issues and lacking the foreign policy experience of the Bush team, had even more reason to resist intervention. As a result, Washington continued to support steps that raised the conflicts stakes for America’s reputation without actually resolving it.
Initially, the international community imposed an arms embargo on both sides of the conflict, but it quickly became clear that this only benefitted the better-armed Serbian forces at the expense of their Croatian and Bosnians rivals. Faced with the consequences of this policy, but unable to muster the political will to change it, this created a situation where Washington was willing, and even grateful, to turn a blind eye toward its allies (and in the case of Iran, its enemies) covertly providing arms to those fighting the Serbs. Simultaneously, Washington also backed a program to train Croatian forces in a slow but ultimately successful effort to increase military pressure against Milosevic. The United Nations and the European Community also tried to negotiate a series of peace plans in 1992, 1993, and 1994, as well as accompanying ceasefires that proved equally short-lived. In 1992, the U.N. Protection Force was introduced, drawn from European countries and given the task of securing designated safe zones. As in Syria, America’s unwillingness to act often created tension with its regional allies as well: Some in Washington hoped that the Europeans would step up and resolve the crisis on their own, while even those European leaders eager to take action felt they were undermined by a lack of support from Washington.
While Washington, Europe, and the United Nations searched for a low-cost solution, Milosevic, in turn, made a concerted effort to demonstrate how ineffectual their limited interventions were. Serbian behavior seemed calculated to flaunt the world’s weakness. By repeatedly violating ceasefires, attacking safe zones, and attacking U.N. forces, Milosevic exposed the unwillingness of the international community to take more decisive action. Even by 1994, when NATO began limited airstrikes, Milosevic used the U.N. troops already on the ground as hostages and human shields to curtail the scope and effectiveness of these missions. In continuing to shell the city of Sarejevo and attacking the protected city of Gorazde, Serbian forces continued to test the limits of NATO and the United Nations.
In the end, it was this defiance, as much as the more immediate strategic and humanitarian stakes, that pushed Clinton to direct U.S. forces to decisively intervene. In 1995, Serbian forces seized the city of Srebrenica, capturing a number of U.N. peacekeepers assigned to protect it and murdering over 7,000 of the city’s male inhabitants. It was a tragedy, but for the United States and the Clinton administration, it was also a humiliation. At the domestic level, it “revealed the President of the United States as either passive or politically impotent.” As told by David Halberstam, the turning point in the U.S. road to intervention came when Clinton, “infuriated by images of U.S. helplessness that had been shown on network television,” declared that: “Bosnia was doing immense damage to the United States all over the world,” and “America was being made to look weak.” Bosnia, Clinton concluded, was a “symbol of U.S. foreign policy” and the impression that Washington had been “played” by the Serbs for years was “killing the U.S. position of strength in the world.”
The result was an intensive NATO bombing campaign between August and September of 1995 which opened the way for the Dayton accords and the uneasy peace which followed. Yet even Dayton was only the first step in a longer saga that played out over a decade. Having survived his first confrontation with America, Milosevic subsequently gambled on his ability to successfully carry out a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in response to a rebellion in 1998. This time, the response was faster and more forceful, with American planes striking not only Serbian forces in the field but government targets in Belgrade as well. This was not the direct cause of Milosevic’s fall from power, but it played a role in the uprising that ended with him standing trial for war crimes in the Hague.
In Washington today, there is the same sense of mounting humiliation that prompted the 1995 intervention against Milosevic. In defying redlines and ceasefire agreements while launching merciless, high profile attacks against civilians, Assad too appears to have “played” the White House in a way it is obviously loathe to admit. The question looking forward is whether the many differences between Yugoslavia in the 1990s and Syria today will lead to a different outcome. Most notably, Russia’s direct involvement in Syria has dramatically heightened the stakes of intervention, leading to an increased fear of escalation but also, among others, an increased conviction that this is bigger than just Syria. Similarly, the clear threat posed by ISIL has led some to conclude we have an added interest in toppling Assad, while making others more inclined to see his continued rule as a bulwark against terrorism. Finally, Syria’s civil war has now gone on for longer than Yugoslavia’s, with a considerably higher death toll. Yet, at the same time, the fact that the mass killing has not taken the form of genocide has given it less traction in America’s moral imagination.
Amidst all these factors, it remains to be seen whether Aleppo will prove to be Syria’s Srebrenica. But if the next president, concluding that the perception of American weakness has reached an unacceptable level, decides to strike Assad, history, for better or worse, will have repeated itself.
Nick Danforth is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He completed a PhD in Turkish History at Georgetown University and has written widely on Middle Eastern politics.
Image: Dept of Defense