If you journey to a town, entering through a valley into a warren of backstreets, your view of the location is very different than if you had taken the mountain road, approaching the town with a vista that enabled you to see its entirety, stretched out along a river, covering the expanse of a valley and wandering up its hillsides. In short, sometimes, even if the end point is the same, it is the approach that matters.
This was what I thought as I read James Stavridis’ essay on lessons from the Balkans for Syria’s endgame. Some of his policy takeaways are salient: following a conflict as bloody and destructive as the one Syria is experiencing, anything like recovery and stability will require decades of work. Key to ending the war is to find the right negotiators and realize that no side will get everything they want—ending this war will be the work of compromise.
But other parts resonated with memories of how similarly misguided approaches intensified the violence in Bosnia. These may be questions of approach, but they are important. In this category, I highlight Stavridis’ embrace of Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan. The book is not brilliant, at least not in policy terms. In fact, it marks a retreat from policy, a submission to social relations as forces of nature that cannot be impacted; a narrative of the world unraveling into chaos. Laura Rozen, a journalist who covers the former Yugoslavia extensively, extracts a demonstrative excerpt from Kaplan’s book, its heated overwriting, lack of nuance and love of drama:
“Here [in the Balkans] men have been isolated by poverty and ethnic rivalry, dooming them to hate,” Kaplan writes of his search for history, as he travels south from prosperous European Austria to disintegrating prewar Yugoslavia. “Here politics has been reduced to a level of near anarchy. What does the earth look like in the places where people commit atrocities? Is there a bad smell, a genius loci, something about the landscape that might incriminate?”
However, Rozen points out, the volume largely ignored Bosnia in its tour of the Balkans, and the equally powerful Balkan history of coexistence, which was particularly marked in the Bosnian experience–a detail? Perhaps, but these details, she writes, mattered:
It mattered that members of a cosmopolitan civilization that lived and breathed and supported multiethnicity — a population largely ignored in the book — were being forced from their homes and murdered by those fighting for fascist, ethnically “pure” states carved out through genocide. And the fact that those decent, civilized people were mostly absent from Kaplan’s portrait of the Balkans outraged those who couldn’t stand to watch them being slaughtered by thugs.
Kaplan says, “If I knew what would happen, I would have been clearer in bringing out those points,” Kaplan says. “I did add a more blunt preface to later editions, that says this is only a travel book.”
But caveats aside, Kaplan’s narative erases the choices individuals made that determined the path of the war. War is never inevitable, and, what is more, globally, armed conflict was on significant decline until very recently. Arguably, two narratives helped revive war in the post-Cold War context, humanitarian intervention, renamed R2P, and the Global War on Terror. Together, they polished the reputation of war, provided a model and issued an invitation for others to join. Nonetheless, the world is not heading down a path of ancient violence reawakening to consume entire peoples–to the extent that path is visible in certain places, it is a sidetrail, marked by violent upheavals (like overthrowing governments), outrageously poor governance deemed acceptable by allies until the very last moment, and the provision of materiel.
So how does a travel narrative arguing that forces beyond human rationality (i.e., beyond history, politics and policy) are driving violence become transformed into a lauded policy position for ethnic partition, applicable to multiple contexts? There are so many ways to tear this apart, that I thought it would even be ridiculous to expect to see it ever again. That is the wonder of foreign policy debates in the US—no idea is ever too bad to die. These policy proposals just lurk and are trotted out at the next crisis masquerading as fresh perspective, untainted by all the harm in their wake.
What Bosnia needed, and what it arguably still lacks, is a coherent political governance system with a central government empowered to run the country. It is systematically blocked from this through the Dayton Peace Agreement, which was good, in that it ended the war, but a very bad grounds on which to build a country. Why? Because it was a built on the premise of ancient ethnic hatreds; the ‘best’ system, this perspective argues, is one that assumes ethnicity must be hard wired into elections and sub-state systems. Why would anyone be surprised that the result is entrenched ethnic political parties more concerned with self-perpetuation than governing? These are not the only parties, there have been valiant efforts by Bosnians to re-claim a functional political space, and I hope over the long-run that they triumph.
Ethnic partition sounds like a realist’s proposal—they just cannot live together, so let’s try to make separation as painless and viable as is possible. Right? Here is the thing, in Bosnia, the promise of partition fueled violence; I would not be alone to argue that it did so from day one of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, when a clear, unified international position confirming the political borders instead of the “ethnic borders” as the basis for the new states would have helped. And there is strong scholarly consensus that this is precisely what happened during the 1993 schism between the Bosniaks and Croats, which was made possible by deep antagonisms and brought on full force in response to the map that accompanied the Vance-Owen Peace Plan. Tell people they get to keep that they ‘cleanse’ and control, and it should be no surprise that they will double their efforts, with disastrous consequences for civilians.
In any case, Bosnia isn’t Syria. In Bosnia there was a government, yes, newly established and, yes, not the ideal government for some of its people—but there was a government that could have been supported. In this case, separatist insurgents backed by neighboring Serbia committed genocide to claim land for themselves. In Syria, it is the government who initiated brutal assaults against civilians. This choice has without any question changed its acceptability. But overthrowing a government, even an extremely bad one, is not the same task as supporting a decent one. As in Libya, a moment of vulnerability, created by the Syrian government itself with its reprehensible response to civilian protests, was seized upon by western states and regional actors alike to pursue regime change. The feeding frenzy of violence has involved arms and funds from Gulf states; the direct involvement of the US, Iran, Russia (and occasionally the Gulf states when they’re not busy bombing elsewhere); and the rise of the IS, one of the most unpalatable non-state actors ever to raise its head.
How on earth can you move from here to an endgame? I agree with Stavridis on several points: International engagement will be key—but only if one views international engagement within the parameters of reality, that is, the challenge is not merely to exert more engagement, but to change the engagement already underway. Throw your weight behind the State Department effort–which will take time–by expending considerable resources to: a. bring our ‘allies’ into line behind a peace plan, c. make compromises with the key people who are not our allies, and c. stop the ridiculous expenditure of US military force in Syria. For all the money, weapons and lives involved in the ‘military solution’ it is well past time to recognize that there is no military solution. This is not to say that military action is irrelevant. As diplomacy helps forge a possible endgame, military action in service of that plan may be valuable–I don’t know what the plan will be; but without ‘service,’ we’re just shooting diplomacy in the foot and risking even worse potential outcomes.
It is time to finally and fully exorcise the Balkan ghost that mistakes politics for the winds of nature. History sets the stage, but at the end of the day, the lesson from Bosnia is that the conditions of war or peace and functional or dysfunctional states, are the products of decisions made by key leaders within the political systems they create, or that are created for them. When international actors lend their weight to one side or another, they are also taking action; it is important to take the action that has the best chance of reducing violence.