On Syria & Serbia: Some Thoughts on US Interventions

There’s something—or a few things—I’ve been wanting to say for a while about US interventions abroad.  But because I was already headed to the US Open when things took a turn for the worse in Syria, I didn’t say them because it seemed odd to intermingle tweets about tennis with thoughts on foreign policy.  Since things have slowed down a bit in New York, though, I’ve collected a few thoughts.  Really, they’re questions and concerns.

If you’ve been following the debates over what the US should or shouldn’t do in Syria, you may have noticed that “Kosovo” keeps getting invoked.  Given that, it seemed worthwhile to share this handful of pieces, most of which explicitly compare the intervention in “Kosovo” with plans for similar action in Syria.  I put “Kosovo” in quotation marks to emphasize one thing only: the fact that NATO’s 1999 intervention in the Balkans is known by an inaccurate shorthand.  The target of the bombings was not strictly the (still-disputed) territory of Kosovo, but Serbia itself—then the largest republic of what remained of Yugoslavia.  While I understand the need for a convenient abbreviation for common use, this inaccuracy also irks me because I think it obscures the actual—which is to say, broader—effects of that military action.

I have several motivations for sharing these articles.  First, I’m a fan of information— seeking, considering, and disseminating it.  Second, I think it’s useful to have a historical perspective when considering political decisions, perhaps especially military ones.  Over the past two and a half decades, the US & its NATO allies have been involved in any number of conflicts across the globe.  To my mind, the degree to which the interventions in the Balkans shaped subsequent foreign policy (in Iraq, especially) has been insufficiently explored and understood by the general public.  So, particularly when trying to figure out what we could or should do in Syria, it seems useful to go back and look at other interventions that were also presented to the public as “strategic” or “limited” in scope.  Questions we might ask include: What went right?  What went wrong?  How similar are these two situations?  What are the key differences?  What can we learn from our previous actions?  What are the short- and long-term aims of the current or proposed mission?  And, perhaps most importantly, what happened in those other places we intervened after the military action was (supposedly) successfully concluded?  (Americans over a certain age remember George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” celebration—and how laughable it seemed weeks, months, and years later, when our troops were still fighting in Iraq.)

Third (and related to the last question above), even though I have no idea what anyone should do about Syria, I am very, very skeptical of claims that Operation Allied Force is the “gold standard” for interventions, humanitarian or otherwise, as one of these articles states.  Or, if it is the gold standard, I think that should worry all of us.  The reason I feel this way is quite simple (and doesn’t have anything to do with, say, the legality of that operation): it’s been fourteen years since NATO intervened in the former Yugoslavia and the situation in Kosovo remains both unresolved and fairly dire, politically and economically.

Bottom line: these conflicts don’t end when we stop bombing or when headlines about them cease appearing above the fold in the New York Times.  We simply have to think long-term, no matter how painful or seemingly unbearable the short-term suffering is.  And we (meaning the US and its allies) have to learn something not only from “Kosovo” but also from Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  Years—even decades—later, none of these places is a model of stability, despite our best efforts.  Could they have been worse without our military involvement?  Perhaps.  Might they have been better?  We can’t know.

I’ve tried to present a range of views here, from Clinton administration insiders to academic specialists on the region, from Buzzfeed to Foreign Policy magazine.  Those who follow me on Twitter or know me personally are likely aware of both my ties to Serbia and my commitment to reasoned analysis.  While I can’t claim to be neutral, I do try to be fair.  The pieces below are presented in chronological order, with the oldest (from 2008, when Kosovo declared independence) first.  If anyone has a recommendation, I’d gratefully add more articles to the list.

“Welcome to Kosovo, the Next Failed State?” (Washington Post Op-Ed)

“NATO Strikes Over Kosovo Continue to Divide, 10 Years On” (DW)

“The Folly of Protection” (Foreign Affairs)

“Kosovo Offers United States a Roadmap for Syria” (Washington Post editorial)

“Five Inconvenient Truths about Kosovo” (TransConflict)

“Is Syria Anything Like Kosovo?” (Foreign Policy)

“Syria Is Not Kosovo, Balkan Veterans Say” (Buzzfeed)

“Wesley Clark: Syria vs. Kosovo” (USA Today)

“Kosovo is the Model For U.S. War With Syria, Forget about. . . Iraq” (PolicyMic)

“Intervention Lessons from Kosovo for Syria” (Huffington Post)

“Syria Is Not Kosovo” (New York Times Op-Ed)

Those with more time or interest in the subject might check out an essay collection such as Reflections on the Balkan Wars: Ten Years After the Break-up of Yugoslavia.