Richard Cohen reminds us that his references to interventions in the Balkans are completely unreliable:
The more apt comparison is the 78-day NATO bombing campaign in 1995 that ended the bloodshed in Bosnia — and cost not a single American life.
I’m not sure why someone so predisposed to military interventionism and endless Balkan references as Cohen is can’t get basic facts about the Balkan interventions right. The 78-day bombing campaign was in 1999 in Kosovo, and NATO intervention in Bosnia was a much more complicated and prolonged affair than Cohen describes. If Cohen can’t even be bothered to get simple details about past interventions right, it’s safe to say that there’s not much reason to trust his judgment about new ones. The truth is that Cohen cites the Balkan interventions because these are accepted as “good” interventions that “worked,” and they are the only recent examples an American liberal interventionist has available to him to support an argument for yet another unnecessary war. Syria doesn’t have much in common with the interventions in Bosnia or Kosovo, but Cohen keeps insisting that it does because these are the only examples that even remotely support the idea that the U.S. can successfully intervene in foreign conflicts where it has nothing at stake.
It is somewhat fruitless to compare Syria to other conflicts in order to support or oppose intervention, but one thing that we do know with some certainty is that it does not compare very well with Bosnia or Kosovo. In the Bosnian case, Serb forces were beaten on the ground by Croatian and Bosnian offensives that did most of the work that Cohen wrongly ascribes to NATO action. Nothing of the sort is available in the Syrian case, and Cohen would be the first to reject the idea that he’s proposing a ground war. In the Kosovo case, NATO sought a fairly limited goal of removing Serb forces from one part of the country rather than overthrowing the government and installing rebel forces in its place. In 1999, Russia was ultimately cooperative in getting Milosevic to yield, and even assuming that it had the means to do so Moscow is anything but cooperative in getting Assad to do the same. Serbia was mostly isolated and the closest thing to a patron that it had was weak and in no position to provide much support, but Syria is not so isolated nor lacking in patronage. In short, what “worked” in the Balkans in ’90s isn’t likely to “work” today in Syria, and it’s silly to keep pretending that it would.
Cohen ends on the most bizarre note of all:
The weary recitation of all these ethnicities suggests a colonial-era mentality: those bloody people and their bloody behavior.
If one wanted to fling accusations of having a “colonial-era mentality,” it might be better-suited to someone who seems to think that all that is needed to resolve complex foreign conflicts is for Western military forces to drop a few bombs and tell the locals to get in line. What Cohen calls the “weary recitation of all these ethnicities” is what others might describe as trying to gain a minimal understanding of the country in question. Cohen might remember that having some grasp of sectarian and ethnic differences is valuable when proposing to overthrow a foreign government in a multi-ethnic, religiously diverse country. The point here isn’t that “Syria is Iraq,” but that so many Iraq hawks remain oblivious to these realities of the societies that they so arrogantly assume that the U.S. can and should reorder.