With many wondering what will follow the power vacuum left in Libya by the ouster of Muammar el-Qaddafi, the contemporary debate over humanitarian intervention that began in Bosnia is ascendant. As New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently wrote:

It will be two decades next year since the outbreak of the Bosnian war – and since the debate on interventionism began to rage, becoming one of the most acrimonious moral questions of our times. Now Libya, a successful Western intervention, will be placed on the scales.

Like Cohen, who covered the Bosnian war, many interventionists see in Bosnia the merits of humanitarian intervention and hope for Libya. “Yes, Nation-Building Can Work! And There’s a Model Out There for Libya!” exclaims a recent headline in The New Republic (TNR). Gerald Knaus, author of the TNR piece, has been writing a lot of op-eds and sitting for a lot of interviews lately to promote his new book, Can Intervention Work? Co-written with British MP and The Places In Between author Rory Stewart, the book challenges much of the conventional wisdom about intervention and argues that the 1995 Bosnian intervention succeeded because it ended a horrific war and fostered 15 years of peace. It also suggests that peace has held because local leaders were as pivotal as international actors in post-conflict state-building efforts.

But was Bosnia a successful, model intervention? In terms of ending a war, yes. Foreign military and diplomatic action came late, but NATO bombing, sanctions and international peace talks halted a three-year conflict that looked intractable until the final hours of the 1995 Dayton negotiations, a period the late Richard Holbrooke recounts masterfully in To End a War. But if we accept that intervention almost always includes a state building component, Bosnia is also a reminder of its limits.

For a little background, the Dayton Peace Accords created two-semi independent entities in Bosnia: The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (RS). While each entity has governing bodies, there is also a central government, and presidential power is shared between representatives of each ethnic group. On the international side, the Office of High Representative was created to implement Dayton’s civilian aspects.

This power sharing was supposed to help the Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs live and govern in peace, but it has so decentralized power that Bosnia is in perpetual political gridlock. As I write this, the country hasn’t had a central government for nearly a year because infighting has seized the gears of governance, and an EU envoy is in Sarajevo encouraging leaders to reach a compromise so citizens can “have an ordinary life.” Meanwhile, RS leader Milorad Dodik continues to threaten to hold a referendum on secession, the economy is abysmal and, according to Freedom House’s 2011 “Nations in Transit” report, primary schools are de facto segregated.

Far from a healthy multi-ethnic state, “Bosnia is like a person being torn apart by multiple personalities,” a World Bank official with regional expertise told me this summer. The International Crisis Group is also alarmed: “Bosnia faces its worst crisis since the war,” reads the first sentence of a May report. “State institutions are under attack by all sides; violence is probably not imminent but is a near prospect if this continues.”

While acknowledging some of these problems without (in many cases) directly confronting them, Knaus and Stewart counter the Bosnia pessimists: “… to argue that a mission that brought fifteen years of peace with no U.S. casualties falls in the same category of “failure” as Iraq is not a claim based on empirical weighing of the evidence.”

They’re correct. They’re also correct that Bosnia shows how the international community can effectively intervene to end humanitarian crises. But it’s in the other key to intervention – state-building – where Bosnia is less convincing. Let’s assume the authors are right that Bosnian leaders were pivotal in state formation, and that this helped consolidate peace. (This argument is dubious given the massive international aid Bosnia received: “On a per capita basis, the reconstruction of Bosnia … made the post-World War II rebuilding of Germany and Japan look modest,” Patrice C. McMahon and Jon Western wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2009.) That’s hardly satisfying when by most accounts those same leaders are creating one of the most dysfunctional states in Europe.

In any case, it’s on the-what-comes-next question of intervention where Bosnia is weak. And that’s what people are rightly concerned about with Libya now.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

S. Adam Cardais

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Email: adam.cardais@tol.org.

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