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Applying Lessons from the Bosnian War Where They Don’t Apply

Richard Cohen compares debates over Bosnia and Syria: Once again we are being told that arming the opposition would exacerbate the killing. “We” are being told this about arming the Syrian opposition because it happens to be true. Even so, this sentence shows why comparing Bosnia and Syria is not very useful. The argument in […]

Richard Cohen compares debates over Bosnia and Syria:

Once again we are being told that arming the opposition would exacerbate the killing.

“We” are being told this about arming the Syrian opposition because it happens to be true. Even so, this sentence shows why comparing Bosnia and Syria is not very useful. The argument in the early ’90s wasn’t over arming an insurgency against a regime, but whether the arms embargo should be lifted on Bosnia and whether the U.S. should lend support to the Croatians and Bosnians against the Serbs. Advocates of lifting the arms embargo held that it put the Bosnian Muslims and their newly-recognized state at a disadvantage in the war (since all other parties to the conflict were able to be supplied in violation of the embargo), and for various reasons they wanted the U.S. to support the Bosnian government to one degree or another. The situation in Bosnia is significantly different from the one in Syria today. There is nothing available in the region that would be comparable to the Bosnian-Croatian offensive that helped bring the Bosnian War to a close.

Cohen ignores all of this, and repeats one of the convenient myths of one of the “good” intervention:

Clinton ultimately reversed course and NATO bombed. It worked; the killing ended.

Sometimes when I read descriptions of intervention in Bosnia, I get the impression that the person making them is mixing up what he thinks happened in Kosovo with what he thinks happened in Bosnia, because it is usually Kosovo that is portrayed as nothing more than a simple matter of bombing another state into submission. Even Kosovo was not so straightforward, and the intervention in Bosnia was even less so. I bring this up because it is a consistent bad habit of liberal interventionists to oversimplify previous “good” interventions in order to make a new intervention seem much less dangerous and risky than it is. If some bombing was all that it took to end the conflict in Bosnia, Cohen seems to be implying, could Syria be that much harder?

Cohen’s column doesn’t mention any of the most recent developments regarding Syria. There is some small sign of diplomatic progress that might bring the fighting to a temporary halt. Assad has accepted an April 10 cease-fire deadline, which is supposed to be followed by the withdrawal of heavy weapons and soldiers from cities. That isn’t much, and it is likely that the regime won’t honor the cease-fire or the cease-fire won’t hold for very long, but it is remarkable that Cohen doesn’t mention any of this even by way of dismissing it. At this point, a cease-fire is the best immediate result for all parties, but it is even more important for the Syrian opposition and the Syrian civilian population as a whole. While Bosnian War nostalgics have been clamoring for some way to intensify the conflict with weapons shipments or air strikes, they have been ignoring that a halt to the fighting is much better for most Syrians than Western contributions to worsening their civil war.

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