BRIDGING Six Lessons from Bosnia
Before Air Force One touched down, I approached National Security Advisor Berger, telling him that President Clinton was enthusiastic about integrating more information “from the ground” into our foreign policy. My hope was that Sandy would not only feel obliged to act but also be persuaded that we needed to expand our fundamental approach to foreign policy.
Standing with me in the aisle, Berger nodded and muttered a noncommittal response. I was disappointed; but his lack of interest was understandable, if not excusable. He was, after all, preoccupied with hunting down the then little-known Osama bin Laden, monitoring North Korea’s nuclear program, and urging the creation of a Palestinian state. No one would argue that the National Security Advisor should ignore those priorities. But those were discrete topics, and I was remarking on the process by which we were addressing them.
In the coming years, more crises would emerge—particularly Iraq, the war that has devoured the resources of the United States, obliterating other significant foreign policy objectives while curtailing vital domestic programs. The tragedy of Iraq clinched the case for recasting our security paradigm. As we look for the structural flaws that allowed that debacle, we find a gulf between distant policymakers and the people on the scene: Iraqi politicians, Coalition soldiers patrolling the streets, and everyday citizens. Their worlds are separated by a dangerous conceptual void.
In conflicts throughout the world, six lessons from Bosnia, distinct but interrelated, form a bridge between these spheres:
- Test truisms
- Question stereotypes
- Find out-of-power allies
- Appreciate domestic dynamics
- Find fault
- Embrace responsibility
None of these by itself would have been sufficient, but together they might well have prevented or stopped the Balkan war. Likewise, none by itself can solve any current security problem, but together they can transform the making of foreign policy.
1. Test Truisms
When Condoleezza Rice explicitly invoked soft power in the US’s new approach to Iran, it seemed to signal that attraction and persuasion were being added (or restored) to the political toolkit of the west. But as the crisis in Lebanon demonstrates, when conflict erupts into zero-sum violence, it takes a different kind of courage to persist with these new tools over the familiar hard-power options…. Given that the issue which has most damaged Blair’s leadership has been his use of hard power in Iraq, might soft power be a concept worth developing and championing?—INDRA ADNAN, “Men, Step Aside: Tackling Terrorism is Women’s Work,” Guardian
A truism is an obvious assumption, so self-evidently valid that it hardly bears consideration. But what seems self-evident still needs outside review. For example, the concept of “soft power” was coined by the political analyst Joseph Nye as an alternative to the truism that led to a US foreign policy defined by swagger and threat—the view that military might is the foundation of peace. Instead, Nye proposes that the United States focus on “the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals. It differs from hard power, the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will.”1
Nye’s formulation is not only creative, it also provides a practical, fresh approach. In the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s well-worn adage, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” At least two drawbacks come from having only hammers and seeing only nails. The first is ironic: Hard power is so expensive that policymakers sometimes are too reluctant to deploy it. Thus a challenge may be left unmet, only to grow into a crisis. Second, when conflicts are reduced to black and white, evil met by force, they will be addressed inadequately. Soft power requires a more nuanced understanding of the social and psychological aspects of the adversary. It involves new tools that make our responses more efficient and more effective.
In Banja Luka, de facto capital of Republika Srpska, a Bosnian Serb refugee unloads her history as the Blessed Virgin watches over her. But as she and five other displaced women poured out their stories, none mentioned religious faith. Like thousands of everyday Bosnians I met over the years, they didn’t echo the words of a few radical clerics that this was a religious war. In fact, in my experience—aside from demonstrations where religious slogans are used to buttress political cries—faith is almost never the fundamental reason for war. The “fault” is not a line, but the clash theory itself.
Concepts of hard and soft power refer to ways of forestalling or addressing active conflict. Other popular foreign policy truisms, however, start with the subterranean reasons why conflict erupts. But though unsubstantiated formulations may help organize our thinking, they are not sufficient to predict or explain the complexity of actual conflicts. When accepted through incautious secondhand analysis, they easily take on the patina of inevitability.
As a case in point, Samuel Huntington’s motif of a perilous collision of “civilizations” (discussed in section 3) exemplifies at least four weaknesses of truisms: they can be self-fulfilling, have a paradoxical effect, betray bias, and miss other important factors.
The first weakness is that assumptions can create the very reality they purport to describe. Huntington adopted the idea of a clash of civilizations from Bernard Lewis, who coined the term in 1990 when he warned of an approaching confrontation with Islam. After Huntington’s 1997 book had become a foreign policy phenomenon, Lewis was invited by the strategist Karl Rove to the George W. Bush White House to brief administration leaders. Indeed, Lewis has been called “perhaps the most significant intellectual influence behind the invasion of Iraq.”2
Earlier Huntington works were negatively synergistic with Lewis’s idea. In The Soldier and the State, Huntington observes that while “actual personalities, institutions, and beliefs do not fit into neat logical categories,” such constructions “are necessary if man is to think profitably about the real world in which he lives and to derive from it lessons for broader application and use.”3 He goes on to generalize in his best-known work, arguing that Americans must reinforce their Western identity ever more insistently in a civilization-divided world. Unsurprisingly, just as it was the favorite book of the Croat separatist President Tuđman, The Clash of Civilizations has been described as “the top reference for all Islamist militants, thrilled by the cultural rift that gives credence to their confrontational ideology.”4 The assumption of conflict in Huntington’s truism “brings grist to their mill: the two civilizations are incompatible.”5 Even declaring that a clash exists fueled those who would make it so.
That thought was frequently on my mind in the 1990s, as anxiety over Islamic fundamentalism spread across Europe. In a cause célèbre, schoolgirls in France were expelled because they wore headscarves. Rather than quelling tensions, that denial of religious rights fed more Islamic fervor. Similarly, since September 11, the US restriction on visas for students and scholars from countries deemed dangerous has been handled by the Department of Homeland Security rather than the State Department. As a result, it took eighteen months for a feminist writer in Tehran to obtain clearance to attend Harvard University’s prestigiousNieman program for journalists. Likewise, in June 2008, the highly publicized Israeli refusal to let seven students leave Gaza to accept Fulbright fellowships in the United States drew international dismay. “Face-to-face exchanges have proven to be the single most effective means of engaging foreign publics while broadening dialogue between US citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad,” according to the fellowship announcement that Fulbright used for years.6 But reason was inadequate to overcome the truism-induced fear.
Building on the first, but at a higher level, the second danger of Hunting-ton’s truism is that the clash model plus a hard power modus operandi may cause political leaders to pull back from, rather than engage with, despots. Overly wary of provoking an entire civilization, the policymaker may fail to form high-level bonds that could prevent the very conflict feared. In fact, the question of whether to sit down with a “bad guy” was hotly debated in the 2008 presidential race. Senator Barack Obama insisted that he would “engage in aggressive personal diplomacy” with Iran and Cuba, consistent with his belief that openness to “the other” is preferable to isolation.7 Senator John McCain, a hawk, attacked the Obama statement, calling it naive.
McCain is not alone. Many American policymakers find it distasteful to engage diplomatically with unsavory leaders. Opening a dialogue with such characters may be seen as capitulation or, worse, indifference to evil. Better to do nothing. But this strict rule itself may be naive, rather than strong. When abuses are soaring and deaths mounting, we must create opportunities to intervene. Policymakers must steel themselves for the simple job of talking. Only in rare cases, such as genocide, is military action warranted. Otherwise, we need to draw from other arsenals—such as diplomatic and economic action.
A third reason truisms are unreliable is that sweeping pronouncements may betray personal, institutional, or national bias. Although Huntington himself is careful to acknowledge the violence of non-Muslim cross-cultural conflicts, he refers repeatedly to Muslims’ fighting among themselves and having “bloody borders,” and he downplays the intergroup violence and warmongering applicable to Western Christianity’s crusades, inquisitions, wars, and witch hunts.
Bernard Lewis is more obvious in expressing what seems to be a personal distaste for Islam. During his acceptance speech for the 2007 Irving Kristol Award—which honors “individuals who have made extraordinary intellectual or practical contributions to improved government policy, social welfare, or political understanding”8—he framed migration and terrorism as the latest forms of the “cosmic struggle for world domination between the two main faiths—Christianity and Islam.”9 That struggle, he said, could not be circumvented with constructive engagement. Beyond highlighting Islamic violence, Lewis also excused aggression carried out by what he regards as the other side in this perpetual conflict. Though claiming not to justify atrocities, he expressed shock that Pope John Paul II apologized for the crusades, which he dismissed as a proportional response to the Islamic jihad against Europe.
Fourth and finally, models that purport to explain reality with universal application are usually incomplete, ignoring the unique tangle of factors contributing to any one conflict. For example, the clash proposition understates the influence of an individual whose personal character may lead a country into prosperity or ruin.
The clash theory focuses on violence, allowing policymakers to ignore injustices within, between, and among nations. It fails to account for the resulting resentment and socioeconomic deprivation, which, left to simmer long enough, are politicized and recast as cultural. The instability of government or civil society infrastructure may cause a political implosion. State interests also play a role, as when poor nations become the battleground of greater powers fighting over natural resources or strategic position. During the cold war, the world was pocked with countries like Afghanistan, Angola, and Cuba, where the United States and Soviet Union engaged in proxy wars between not only national interests but also ideological models.
A small stone in the global political mosaic, the former Yugoslavia was just one more setting in which these four weakness of the clash truism played out. First, it is true that, until near the end of the war, a cultural divide was indeed evident: Serbian and Croat aggressors were on the same (Judeo-Christian) side of the hypothetical fault line as the American and European observers. But labeling these divides a “clash of civilizations” only exacerbated the problem, making it more difficult for parties to cross the lines, as if they were betraying their own side.
The second weakness, discussed above—the reluctance of political leaders to confront each other because they fear so much is at stake—was evident in President Carter’s admonition to President Clinton not to get involved in a “religious war” that was bigger than our foreign policy apparatus could handle. The possibility that the conflict in Bosnia was a struggle between two civilizations made intervention seem like a lost cause.
And third, bias. Sitting in an audience with European military officers, I was amazed to hear British General Michael Rose—who was commander of the UN troops in Bosnia in 1994 and who was subsequently knighted—say: “For people in the Balkans, to speak is to lie. The local politicians don’t give a damn about the people. They’re all scoundrels.” It seemed hardly coincidental that for more than three years Western policymakers failed to stop the genocide against the Muslim population. Had they been a Christian minority…
The fourth weakness of truisms, oversimplification, was blatant. Many other factors permitted the unchecked aggression, beginning with Western leaders, who feared domestic political consequences if their countries lost troops on Balkan soil. But inside Yugoslavia, poor leadership was probably the most important contributor neglected in the clash analysis. The country was distressed but not splitting apart before Milošević took advantage of the chaos brought on by the implosion of Communism. In his 1989 speech at the Kosovo battlefield, he was able to excite his Serb base, warning that their disunity was making them inferior. As Roger Cohen put it: “Milošević and the ideologues of his Serbian revolution took their people back to the womb of their unreason. A place where defeat was victory, death a kingdom of heaven, suicide redemption, suffering vindication, and exile a homeland.” This nationalism gave Serbs the “solace of a glorious past and their mirage of a glorious future.”10
In times of such social strife, identity conflicts can spiral. As the opportunistic Milošević dredged up old nationalism, religious differences seemed to prove the clash of civilizations argument. In Vienna, we were wedged between Vaclav Havel, the underground playwright released from prison to become president of Czechoslovakia, and the calamitous Milošević, both of whom rose during uncertain political and economic times to lead socialist countries with comparable industrial development, education levels, cultural heritages, and natural resources. One led his country into stability that could weather a political split. The other led his country into violent disintegration and ruin.
Some political leaders now are trying to undo the damage caused by truisms. Jorge Sampaio is, as one observer puts it, “trying to defuse the mine laid 12 years ago by Samuel Huntington.”11 Sampaio is the UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations (AoC), launched in 2005 by Spain and Turkey under the auspices of the UN. After the attacks of September 11, UN leaders wondered what it would take to prevent a world war of civilizations. The resulting AoC was charged with improving interreligious and cross-cultural understanding and cooperation.
More than eighty countries have joined the alliance, along with international organizations such as UNESCO and the Arab League (the United States is only an observer). One AoC project aims to produce movies with realistic portrayals of religious and cultural minorities instead of simplistic stereotypes. According to Sampaio, “far too often we hear statements from politicians and media people that only exacerbate the situation.”12
Repeating a truism does not make it true; building a foreign policy on a foundation of faulty assumptions does not make it sound. The Iraq fiasco came about in part because policymakers started with hard power presumptions and never looked back. Dangerous tension with Iran has continued because leaders shut down creative problem solving. In these and all cases, we must have the rigor to stop and question the framework of our perceptions.
2. Question Stereotypes
During the Vietnam War it was reported that cynical US lawyers working in that country had coined the phrase “the mere gook rule” to describe the very lenient treatment given US military personnel who killed Vietnamese civilians…. the Vietnamese were voiceless in the United States and their pain and material and human losses were politically irrelevant and largely unreported here.—EDWARD s. HERMAN, Beyond Hypocrisy: Decoding the News in an Age of Propaganda
The number of US soldiers killed in Vietnam—some fifty-eight thousand—is well known in America. But that small Southeast Asian country lost more than a million soldiers and two million civilians out of a population of twenty-two million, more than 14 percent of the population. It’s easy to understand why we created a psychological buffer like the stereotypic “mere gook” to keep those appalling losses at bay.
Strictly speaking, stereotyping is neutral; the word denotes having beliefs about the characteristics of a group, but not necessarily all its individuals. Indeed, without stereotypes, we would struggle to deal with complex collectives. But the practice can degenerate into a prejudice that demeans and diminishes others.
According to researchers, this corruption commonly happens through the exaggeration of differences, even in the face of clear similarities. Moreover, members of the “in group” often assume that these distortions are true without testing them. And as they can be willing to attribute an individual’s negative action to the entire “out group,” they likewise can forget that a collective characteristic may not be true of an individual.13
Even among the most offensive aspects of stereotyping, some, but not all, are linked to intergroup violence. Beliefs about a group’s competence (or lack thereof) influence only that group’s status, potentially resulting in economic—but not physical—harm. But beliefs about their beneficence (or lack thereof) predict the degree of conflict that can erupt between groups. That is, assumptions about a group’s warmth, morality, malevolence, likability, and so on are the “social emotions” that determine intergroup behavior.
In This Was Not Our War: Bosnian Women Reclaiming the Peace, I described Fahrija Ganić (wife of Ejup Ganić, a “Muslim extremist,” according to the CIA). Fahrija fled rebel Serbs with her daughter Emina just before the total blockade of Sarajevo. Despite the trauma of life as a refugee, a few months after her return, Emina drove me into Republika Srpska to visit a Bosnian Serb, Nada Rakovic, whose flight from Croat paramilitaries I was documenting. Scenes like these, with everyday people uniting across expectations, reinforced the insanity of war.
Perhaps the most pernicious quality of a prejudice is that it is normative—“caught not taught,” as it spreads from those who hold it to become a common and acceptable belief.14 In addition, the farther out the observer, the simpler—and more simply wrong—a stereotype may be, because it cannot be tested with immediate contact.
As we notice ourselves attributing characteristics and predicting actions, whether in close proximity or, more dangerously, from a distance, we must pause. Policymakers must resist the pressure of foregone conclusions and have no personal stake in the answers that data provide.
Such a careful perspective is notably absent in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where stereotypes pass from one generation to the next. Repeatedly, Palestinians and Jewish Israeli young people admit to me that they have never met someone from “the other side.” Even within Jerusalem, such dramatic divides exist. Visiting the city, I found this almost incredible, until I remembered the segregation of Dallas, Texas. Growing up there in the 1950s, I never once played with a black or Hispanic child, even though there were no walls separating our neighborhoods. Similarly, most Israeli children have never played with a Palestinian, and many parents are convinced that the other parents either unquestioningly support illegal settlements or suicide bombers.
It takes more than unbiased information to educate across the lines. It takes innovative approaches to expose such entrenched beliefs. More than five hundred heartbroken families in the Parents Circle, headquartered in a suburb of Tel Aviv, are tackling misperceptions headon. In high schools and community groups, facilitators who run their Family Forum recount their losses—members of their immediate families—then explain why they are determined not to perpetuate a cycle of revenge. Through their stories, they demonstrate to the students the power of transformation: from suspicion and vengeance to healing and reconciliation.15 The group has radio broadcasts twice a week, across Israel and Palestine, and nineteen thousand people listen online. They conduct dialogues among Israeli and Palestinian university students in Jerusalem.
After her sister (a public health consultant educated at Harvard) was stabbed on a street in Jerusalem, Nadwa Sarandah grew more hostile toward Israelis. She relented only after a visit from Yitzhak Frankenthal, the orthodox Jewish founder of the Parents Circle, who apologized to her for Naila’s murder and for the occupation’s cruelty. Sarandah responded: “I thought if an orthodox Jew, an Israeli, can reach out to a Palestinian, then maybe there is hope.” Building on that hope, the group established a hot line called “Hello Shalom/Hello Salaam.” More than one million calls between Israelis and Palestinians have been made. In one case, a right-wing settler and a Palestinian began by exchanging abuses; they ended up exchanging phone numbers.
Given the human propensity to demonize those who have caused us pain, we must be wary of sweeping statements that justify our policies. After intelligence briefings on Bosnia in which I was warned of the “Muslim extremists” President Alija Izetbegović and wartime Vice President Ejup Ganić, I received a “Merry Christmas/Happy New Millennium” fax from Izetbegović’s foreign advisor, Mirza Hajric, with a champagne bottle popping its cork. Hardly the motif of Muslim intolerance. Meanwhile, Ganić is consistently denied a US visa, despite his being known by the State Department as one of the most moderate of all the participants at the Dayton peace talks.
These group-based stereotypes were embedded in the writing of Robert Kaplan, whose Balkan Ghosts was so influential on Vice President Gore: “Here [in the Balkans] men have been isolated by poverty and ethnic rivalry, dooming them to hate.”16 Many Yugoslavs and Balkan advocates disapproved of Kaplan’s method of collecting evidence and presenting impressions rather than analysis. The author later asserted that he had not intended to paint a full picture of the disintegrating country; instead, he had aimed only to show that Yugoslavs were still haunted by old rivalries. But as he focused on these “ghosts” at the expense of contrary examples like intermarriage, he failed to convey the mingling of heritages that was characteristic of Bosnia. Whole segments of the population—those who lived in harmony with their different brethren—were absent from his portrayal. Kaplan later recognized the problem. “If I knew what would happen, I would have been clearer in bringing out those points,” he admitted. “I did add a more blunt preface to later editions, that says this is only a travel book.”17
With so much focus on the extraordinarily bad, some people were, thankfully, reporting on the extraordinarily good. Svetlana Broz, the cardiologist and granddaughter of Josip Broz (Marshall Tito) mentioned in section 5, collected and preserved in her book Good People in an Evil Time hundreds of accounts of just and generous citizens throughout Bosnia who defied hatred and division.
But voices like Svetlana Broz’s were muted in the halls of power, in part because they did not fit the prevailing stereotypes. Instead, the salient assertions in the United States were along the lines of those I recorded in my journal, this one from a trusted advisor to President Clinton.
He: “The only solution for Bosnia is division. Split it up between Croatia and Serbia.”
SH: “No one across the Atlantic would suggest ethnic segregation in Los Angeles after the race riots—and Yugoslavs were integrated much more than Americans.”
He: “You can’t compare the two. The Bosnians all wear gray or black hats.”
SH: “Where is that different? In the United States?”
He: “At least we don’t cut each other’s throats.”
SH: “Let’s talk about inner-city Chicago, or Watts. We have neighborhoods where neither of us would let our children go, day or night.” He: “Yes, but that’s because of gangs.”
SH: “The war in Bosnia was fought mostly by militarized gangs.”
He: “But the higher-ups were behind them.”
SH: “And people like you and me tolerate U.S. gangs.”
He: “Because we don’t know what to do about them.”
SH: “The people in Bosnia don’t know what to do about the violence in their society either.”
He: “They’re a violent people, divided by extremists who will never live together.”
The conversation ended where it began. There was no acknowledgment of violent pressures coming from outside, or of internal resources for peace that might be mobilized and supported. The presidential advisor was blinded by poorly informed preconceptions about Balkan history, mistakes he further applied to the contemporary situation. In fact, the last time one group of Yugoslavs fought another, Germany was storming across the borders of France, committing war crimes more heinous than those of the Bosnian conflict. Moreover, World War II was only the most recent in centuries of fighting between Germany and France. But by 1993, with stabilizing structures like the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the EU, an outbreak of violence between the two countries was unthinkable. Similarly, Tito had created scores of measures to unify the republics of the South Slavs, so it should have been just as unlikely for Yugoslav republics to go to war with each other. Why did pundits not think of Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia the way they did the French and Germans?
The British historian Noel Malcolm concluded:
The biggest obstacle to all understanding of the conflict is the assumption that what has happened in that country is the product—natural, spontaneous and at the same time necessary—of forces lying within Bosnia’s own internal history. That is the myth which was carefully propagated by those who caused the conflict, who wanted the world to believe that what they and their gunmen were doing was done not by them, but by impersonal and inevitable historical forces beyond anyone’s control.18
Part of the myth was the formidable cunning and reach of Slobodan Milošević. But perhaps he was just a bully, who was actually stoppable. Such myths waste resources and destroy lives. They are powerful, shaping even the independent media whose charge it is to expose them. Thus, generalized assumptions are best questioned before the force of money spent and deaths tallied makes unprejudiced analysis seem heretical or—more damning—unpatriotic.
The war in Vietnam might have been shorter and less deadly had policymakers in Washington recognized the Vietnamese people as equals in ability and value. And the many bungled attempts to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians might have been fewer with earnest inquiry into each community. In short, the careful policymaker recognizes stereotypical assumptions, sets aside bias, and looks for alternatives to the “obvious” course of action.
3. Find Out-of-Power Allies
Nearly every American I saw in Kabul was hidden behind high walls or racing through the streets in armored convoys…. When we retreat behind body armor and concrete barriers, it becomes impossible to understand the society we claim to defend. If we emphasize “force protection” above all else, we will never develop the cultural understanding, relationships and intelligence we need to win.—NATHANIEL FICK, “Fight Less, Win More,” Washington Post
That sentiment, written by an American Marine in Afghanistan, is not isolated. Some units took an apposite approach. According to Captain Mario Renna, an Italian soldier in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force to Afghanistan, “in my opinion things are going quite well here because our patrols, our men are spending a lot of time on the ground.” An English-speaking shopkeeper echoes the sentiment: “I think security is much better when the Italian soldiers come here and do their patrols on the streets.”19
Holed up behind piles of sand bags, we cannot find allies to advance our mission. Instead, we need to be in their homes—and not because we just kicked in their doors. Nor do we find these valuable partners in the corridors of the Pentagon or State Department. In fact, the farther decision makers are from the field, the less likely we are to recognize those who could line up behind our mission.
Despite that wisdom, in general, the hotter the conflict, the less political reporting there is from the field—and the less seriously such accounts are treated. Granted, accuracy drops as information travels over the miles. Eyewitness statements are translated and retold, details are lost; meanwhile, the situation on the ground changes. But even with those limitations, the most insightful data about the dynamics in the war zone come from those closest to the situation.
Still, military and foreign policy establishments tend to keep the ultimate management of a conflict in the hands of high-ranking officers and officials back at headquarters. Those at the top of the chain of command understandably want to stay in control of what is likely to be one of the most pressing situations on their plates. Those experts may be influenced by their extensive experience in prior conflicts elsewhere, during which they may have had much more on-the-ground contact. With higher-level responsibility in a more rarified administrative position, they may be cut off from untapped resources such as women, indigenous groups, the poor, young, old, displaced, or disabled. But these portions of the population may hold the key to sustainable peace.
In every conflict there are groups on the margins who, if brought in, change the chemistry of the process. These allies generally produce a more sustainable peace, since they have important insights; they may become spoilers if excluded; and they can help sell the agreement back in their communities. I’ve worked in sixty countries to elevate women into leadership positions, but the principle of inclusion is the same for minority groups, youth, and others who have no place at the table.
“Inclusive security”20° requires that all stakeholders be fully involved in peace processes, whether before, during, or after a conflict. My experience for three decades has emphasized the importance of women, who more often than not are the primary peace promoters. Yet as a group, they have been dismissed as pitiable victims rather than acknowledged as tough survivors, leaders, or experts. Quite apart from the fairness argument (women constitute more than half a postwar popula-tion and thus should have a vital voice), the concept of inclusive security is driven by efficiency: women bring essential tools, perspectives, and spheres of influence that policymakers cannot afford to overlook.
At all levels—from grass-roots organizers to domestic and international leaders—women cross divides, heal fissures, create communities, and contribute in myriad other ways to conflict resolution. Even as they craft peace agreements, women provide the very style by which accord can be reached: they tend to be more cooperative, better equipped to stabilize regions in conflict. As a group, they have an aptitude for influencing change in the manner described above as “soft power,” increasingly important in the ongoing fight against terrorism.
It is not only women’s formal education and training that equips them for key roles. As they head up NGOS, popular protests, electoral referendums, data gathering, and other citizen-empowering movements, women have a wealth of grass-roots experience. That local credibility helps secure the buy in of those affected by the conflict, as the women sell the peace agreement to the community. Their influence is in part because, compared to men, they are more invested in stopping the violence, due to their roles as family caregivers. And they have a broader definition of security than men generally use, including issues such as safe food and clean water. As one woman said to me: “What does it matter to me if my daughter is killed by a bullet or starves to death?”
Although concurrent, the 1991–96 peace talks in Guatemala contain important contrasts to the Bosnian experience. Those negotiations ended thirty-six years of war that resulted in more than one hundred thousand deaths and two hundred thousand “disappearances” among a population of fewer than eleven million.21 When dissidents overthrew a military dictator in 1944, a sequence of conflicts was set off in which leftist insurgents clashed with an army backed by the United States, which was concerned about a Communist rise to power. As military governments and corruption prevailed, rebel groups—some allied with Cuba—joined together as the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity.
Although the country’s democratic institutions were introduced in the 1980s, the transition was rocky and marked by economic crisis and continuing corruption. But by the early 1990s, a congressionally appointed president began to support a peace process with UN involvement.
Negotiation team member Luz Mendez, part of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, was for years the only woman among thirty participants int the talks. Despite the imbalance, the presence of just one woman made a significant difference. When Mendez returned from the UN Conference on Women in Beijing, Guatemalan women’s rights groups asked her to represent their interests. Embracing that responsibility, she fought to add to the peace agreement measures ensuring gender equality in a society in which women had been denied the right even to inherit property. Knowing that their daughters’ economic futures were at stake, Guatemalan women were even more highly invested in the accord’s implementation, helping ensure its success. Stability in this state came about through a process that brought all the stakeholders together not only across political and economic lines, but also across the gender divide.
Similarly, most women leaders in Bosnia were virtually unknown to the international community. Toward the end of the war, an American shuttle diplomacy team led by Richard Holbrooke came in and out of Yugoslavia. Even though the fighting was in Bosnia, they spent every night in Belgrade or Zagreb—not Sarajevo. During the few hours they were in Bosnia, the team had no meaningful contact with everyday citizens. When Holbrooke’s team drew up the guest list for the Dayton negotiations, they failed to consult with grass-roots organizers. Instead, the United States invited to the peace table those who had waged the war. Those who had waged the peace were excluded. Based on my observations in scores of other conflicts, I believe a gender-balanced group would have devised and insisted on concrete mechanisms for the admirable but unenforceable “freedom of movement” protections.
Even in the primary vehicle for transitional justice, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, women have been instrumental at every stage. Women’s groups have located and prepared key witnesses as well as collected essential evidence. And because they saw atrocities that men did not, such as rape and mass murder, women’s testimony has been critical at many trials. These contributions extend to procedural levels as well; female judges have required greater witness protection and evidentiary precision than previously found in international processes.22
Ignoring strong allies among more than half of the population was only one way blinders hindered our progress in Bosnia. If we had asked religious leaders for input, we would have heard opinions confirming that parts of the Dayton plan were ill advised. Cardinal Vinko Puljić, for example, spoke of the “unjust division of the country.” The two-entity system adopted in Dayton was “a terrible invention” that “cannot work,” he said. “Divide the country and then pretend it is one nation? This is deeply illogical.”23
Ultimately, it was a grass-roots group on the margins of Washington’s attention that brought down Milošević. His ouster was attempted by international might but accomplished by a student movement called Otpor! (resistance!). In 1999, Serbs were clashing with the Kosovar Liberation Army. When Milošević refused to sign an agreement including Kosovar autonomy, NATO threatened military action, which led to a $1 billion bombing campaign. I supported military intervention, believing it necessary to prevent another genocide. But that action, hailed by Kosovars, became the Serbian regime’s justification to suppress internal opposition. And many Serbs who otherwise would have supported the West felt betrayed.
Looking back, I believe I was wrong. For a fraction of the human or monetary cost, the international community might have supported strikers, broadcasters, and underground publishers. What bombing alone could not accomplish, Otpor’s nonviolent action did. Given that Milošević controlled the army, policy, and media, the students had limited tools to use against him; they resorted to whistles, tin pans, and flowers. Inspiring others to join the resistance, the students forced the leader to call an early election. Results were unfavorable, yet Milošević refused to stand aside.
Crowds poured into the streets, waving baby rattles in ridicule. The young people used satire and humor on T-shirts, graffiti, and nearly two million stickers that read “he’s finished.” A general strike was declared 2 October 2000, with roads blockaded, classes boycotted, and a rally of 250,000. Three days later, in the “bulldozer revolution,” striking miners led heavy equipment, trucks, buses, and cars into the capital, as the police stood by.24 Protesters stormed the Parliament building. On 7 October, Vojislav Koštunica assumed the presidency.
Because negotiated agreements struck by international hosts and warlords are not designed to reflect the demands of out-of-power allies, implementation is difficult if not impossible. Moreover, negotiations generally are framed to be about stopping war rather than building peace. Given this perspective, community leaders who are not killers are invisible to the organizers. Unsurprisingly, half of all peace agreements fail, and others must be held together at the important cost of a longterm international presence.
In addition to the foreign policy limitations inherent in blanketing theories and too-easy stereotypes, we suffer from culturally reinforced blindness to those without formal power but with enormous informal sway. The result is untapped resources.
Aiming for the absence of war is not enough; policymakers must strive for sustainable peace. But lasting stability requires broad input. A Marine in Afghanistan recognized the danger of isolation and advocated finding allies who, though unexpected, were best informed about peacebuilding opportunities. And in Guatemala, a leader of an oppressed minority pushed that country’s new constitution in a progressive direction.
Likewise, the answers to some of our greatest security conundrums lie in places we have been overlooking. To find them, we need to create farther-reaching mechanisms to identify actors who can prevent or stop conflict, so that those peace builders can be supported and supportive.
4. Appreciate Domestic Dynamics
If you want to investigate Colombia’s violence, you need to go to the rural regions and jungles and see the context of poverty and lack of access to education, and a dearth of other opportunities—within which the violence, mixed with a variety of criminal activities, has proliferated. In many regions, the children have more access to guns than to a toy or a book.—MARIA CRISTINA CABALLERO, interview with the author, 2005
Colombia’s impact on its neighbors, and now on the world, is intrinsically tied to spontaneous and organized violence within the state. It is impossible to respond with helpful foreign policy without a grasp of the domestic strife that forms the backdrop of the conflict. The bloody decade of 1948 to 1958, which took nearly two hundred thousand lives, was only an early twist in a spiral of hopelessness, violence, and drugs that escalated during the 1990s, becoming one of the most important pre-September 11 challenges of US foreign policy. Burdened by widespread poverty and the need for land reform, Colombia has been entrenched in violence for more than forty years. Some 88 percent of sixty thousand deaths since 1985 have been domestic civilian casualties. Yet the conflict can be called transnational, since addressing the illegal narcotic trade spawned by the war now costs other countries billions of dollars. The controversial Plan Colombia has emphasized military equipment and training rather than focusing on root causes of the problem.
Decisions to sign a trade agreement, go to war, or engage in any of countless other international actions are stronger if we enter the halls of foreign policy through the chambers of domestic policy. Yet professionals devoted to foreign affairs are more likely to be at home with the broader sweeps of current history, from which they can extrapolate relevant findings to any of a number of countries in a region. However intelligent and experienced they are, they may not perceive social mechanics and dynamics—the how and why of internal chaos measured in judicial corruption, jobs lost, homelessness, sinking property values, high inflation, and inaccessible healthcare.
But for understandable reasons, members of the international community usually do not devote themselves to on-the-ground issues. Even with their strong commitment to public service, the most senior career diplomats usually have not spent their weekends volunteering with NGOS at home or abroad. Thus, they often lack an intuitive feel for individual and popular needs—the very needs that may drive a political shift or fuel a conflict.
Instead, the diplomats have spent the majority of their professional years moving from country to country. In addition to dealing with the resulting stress on their families, they create a tight community among their expatriate colleagues: after all, they share alma maters, reading lists, and overseas assignments. Unfortunately, every year one third of these colleagues rotate out. Similarly, their interlocutors in the military or foreign ministries are constantly rotating outside their own countries. All these factors conspire to leave international players little time or incentive to drill down into complex domestic concerns of the host country.
The Foreign Service culture does not value or reward local expertise. Instead, analysts trained in political and economic “cones” who rotate through brief (three-month to two-year) assignments in a war zone are regarded as experts on the conflict, even though they may have come from a posting in another part of the world. Meanwhile, host-country “foreign service nationals,” who may have worked in an embassy or NGO for decades, are often treated as second class, excluded from meetings where overarching direction is set.
The one area of international work that might base its activity on the domestic scene is intelligence operations. Spies may have an on-the-street system to gather data; however, they usually are instructed to conceal from nonintelligence colleagues their dealings with locals. Although they must feel free to withhold “sources and methods,” they may use a tight interpretation of that freedom to justify not sharing their data. The result is a mystique: the rest of an overseas mission has no way to judge whether the information gathered by intelligence officers or the conclusions reached by analysts are grounded in trustworthy conversations and intercepted communications or simply based on assumptions.
The groups that are, in fact, most in touch with the domestic situation are NGOS. As a new diplomat, when I asked a group of fellow ambassadors how they were dealing with such organizations, they responded with a plan for “damage control.” In other words, they saw these groups as adversaries. And so the insights of the NGO community—whether recording human rights abuses, exposing corruption, or setting up refugee camps—have been welcomed only rarely by officials, although starved budgets are now forcing diplomats to glean information and support where they formerly had not.
Political upheaval, especially, must be entered at the local level.
Civilian-based crisis management can be engaged during all phases, from prevention to postconflict stabilization. The Finnish minister of defense, admittedly representing a country with security options constrained by geography and history, called on these “enhanced peacekeeping operations” to encompass a range of efforts, from observing elections and monitoring human rights to providing humanitarian aid and policing support.25 Along these lines, during the 1990s the European Civilian Peace Corps put together a Balkan Peace Team, the first transnational civil society endeavor to promote local efforts toward peace. Subsequently, in 1998, the German government institutionalized a Civil Peace Service (Ziviler Friedensdienst, or ZFD). Conceived of by a consortium of peace and development organizations, the ZFD deploys “peace consultants” to help local partners address medium- and low-level conflict resolution methods often overlooked by high-level diplomacy—such as establishing a dialogue between adversaries and creating civil- society structures.
In a similar vein, in 2008 the Norwegian government inspired and funded the UN’s new Standby Team of Mediation Experts. On call to join peace envoys in the field, the group’s six high-level specialists manage complex negotiation issues that can bring peace talks to a standstill. Coaxing the talks back into motion means enabling all sides to describe their needs and then find ways to meet them. That, in turn, requires uncovering domestic dynamics behind the stalled issues. For example, writing a constitution might depend on a grasp of tribal leadership structures. Advancing justice might benefit from knowledge of indigenous practices for reconciliation. Helping former combatants reintegrate into civilian life might require ingenuity grounded in local custom. The first Standby Team deployment exemplified this need for broad domestic understanding: at the request of the formal negotiating team, the experts were sent to Kenya during the 2008 political crisis to assist with constitutional development and security sector reform—two classic deal breakers.
The international community has a long way to go toward ensuring that civilian peacekeeping components are well planned and readily available. While operations with tens of thousands of soldiers can be organized quickly, for example during the Kosovo crisis, providing a few thousand police officers there has been nearly impossible. But unlike soldiers, police are in the community. And it is at the community level that peace must take root.
Foreign policy that takes account of domestic policy confronts the questions of whom to heed and how to respond. But making assumptions about a conflict without giving thought to local dynamics can lead to the inaccurate conclusions on which bad policy is based. Russia is a case in point. While that vast country is not experiencing widespread internal unrest, ongoing conflict in one of the republics is a telling blot. Since the beginning of the first Chechen war in 1994, when the Russian military intervened to stop secession, extrajudicial civilian executions have soared. Few suspected perpetrators have been tried, although the European Court of Human Rights has found Russia guilty of serious violations, including the use of disproportionate military force and civilian targeting. The way Russian leaders dealt with Chechnya (a harbinger of their undemocratic tendencies) and the troubling complacency among the Russian people could have been a signal to the international community, as it made decisions about relationships with the Russian state.
The beginning of the second Chechen war in 1999 provided the occasion for Vladimir Putin’s rise to power. Then the deputy prime minister, Putin had been little known prior to his August appointment, but his uncompromising approach to the resurgent conflict was impressive to President Yeltsin as well as immensely popular among a people starved for law and order. Moreover, widespread domestic prejudice against people from the Caucasus fed into fears of terrorism and unrest. These factors catapulted him ahead of his opponents and into the prime minister position.
One of Putin’s most outspoken critics was the journalist Anna Polit-kovskaia, who from the beginning of the Chechen wars ventured into the thick of the conflict. For years, she investigated and exposed human rights abuses, nearly alone in her mission. She was close to publishing yet another article detailing Russian military wrongs in Chechnya when, on 7 October 2006, she was shot at pointblank range outside her Moscow apartment.
Nearly a year later, Russian prosecutors finally made the first arrests related to her murder, accusing a Chechen-led gang and Russian security officers. Authorities refused to cite motives but alleged, nonsensically, that only those living outside Russia could have been interested in her death.26 The reporter’s friends were unconvinced. The director of Human Rights Watch believes “there can be no question but that Polit-kovskaia was killed in retribution for her work.”27
In 2003, Chechnya adopted a new constitution and declared itself part of Russia, effectively cooling the conflict. But Putin’s tough image at home had been established. Despite their country’s slide back toward tyranny, Russians, by and large, seem willing to live with the state’s control of the news media—shutting down independent stations, banning unfavorable coverage, and harassing uncooperative journalists. In mid-2007, then-President Putin enjoyed an approval rating higher than that of any other world leader, at 81 percent.28
For international policymakers or activists trying to effect change in Russia, it is crucial to understand that these ratings are real and that they matter. After the turmoil of the Yeltsin years, Russian citizens craved stability. Under Putin, the economy improved, along with education, social services, and security; but the population opted for these advances at the expense of intellectual freedom.
Similarly, a grass-roots view of domestic dynamics in Yugoslavia would have revealed what was and was not real about that conflict. Many foreign policy analysts failed to recognize that “ethnic hatred” was only a smokescreen for conniving politicians. The real issues were economic stress and political uncertainty caused by Tito’s poor succession planning. Although alarming for all groups, this instability was most threatening to the Serbs, who feared losing the privilege they had enjoyed during Tito’s long rule. They were thus highly motivated to support leaders promising to restore that system. Yet few international actors took the time to see the Yugoslav disintegration from the perspective of those living through it.
Following the war, the same limitations plagued international efforts. Within days of the new peace, the dread expressed to me by Foreign Minister Muhamed Saćirbey about a flood of international “helpers” was substantiated. A wave of mostly Western Europeans and Americans crashed onto the scene as wealthy nations attempting to be responsible global citizens sent money, goods, volunteers, coordinators, and trainers. Although flawed, these aid organizations did the best they could with policies and procedures developed over dozens of years of crisis work, but local groups could have delivered the aid while also developing leadership and widespread citizen participation. In addition, the new arrivals seemed oblivious to the messages they were sending with their high salaries, expense accounts, and new vehicles—as well as their two-class standard that rewarded heroic Bosnian professionals with less salary and less respect. Outsiders wondered, often aloud and rudely, about the ingratitude of “locals.”
Even when Milošević was arrested on 20 March 2001, and eventually extradited to stand trial at The Hague, outsiders did not fully appreciate the Bosnian domestic situation. Although that legal process had long been awaited, the remote trial disempowered the local population, who otherwise might have experienced greater healing. Civilians harmed by the conflict were not in the courtroom to hear their representatives testify to the injury they all had experienced. Without a community-by-community process in which citizens could express their reservations, voice their agreement, or otherwise respond to the distant developments, much of the reconciliatory potential of the ICTY was unrealized.29
Listening to those at the grass-roots level, a policymaker gains a very different perspective on needs, challenges, and opportunities. Here, rural people from eastern Bosnia who have lost their homes and sources of livelihood bear out the reports of what happened during the conflict.
Every solution is a problem. Every intervention is imperfect. But costs and flaws can be mitigated. Our policies toward Colombia’s massive drug trade must emerge from a familiarity with the internal social-justice issues to which it is linked. Our responses to Russia’s harsh practices must be based on a grasp of the local desires that brought strongmen to power. Clearly, decisions about if, when, or how war—and peace, for that matter—should be waged should be based on domestic dynamics, since distant power brokers often miss the earliest signs of conflict, ignore the most effective peace advocates on the scene, and stunt the postconflict growth of fledgling local institutions. Even when that is complicated by ongoing violence, a surer approach would be engaging in extensive consultation with the real experts: the wide array of people on the ground.
Our foreign policy is first, and ultimately, someone else’s domestic policy.
5. Find Fault
Forty years ago, a young man awoke, and he found himself an orphan in an orphaned world. What have I learned in the last 40 years—small things. I learned the perils of language and those of silence. I learned that in extreme situations when human lives and dignity are at stake, neutrality is a sin. It helps the killers not the victims…. I have learned the danger of indifference, the crime of indifference. For the opposite of love, I have learned, is not hate but indifference. Jews were killed by the enemy but betrayed by their so-called allies who found political reasons to justify their indifference or passivity.—ELIE WIESEL, on receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, 19 April 1985
For two decades, the United States watched the rise of Hitler in Germany. His language became progressively extreme, his prejudice less masked. He was no wolf in sheep’s clothing, pouncing in surprise attack. Instead, as Hitler ascended to power, silence among those watching allowed ordinary Germans to accept the authority of the state and cast their increasingly hate-filled actions as normal.
In an unholy alliance, those who lack the courage to stand up to evil find themselves, by omission, on the side of that evil. But cowardice is not the only barrier to action. As we mature as individuals or as a society, we learn tolerance; ironically, it is those most tolerant who may tolerate wrong.
Reluctance to find fault in others is understandable: we know that none of us gets it right all the time. Blame can seem too blunt an instrument, too unmeasured a reaction. We pride ourselves on being fair, and blame, we may mistakenly assume, is the opposite of fairness. So in our efforts to be enlightened, open, and self-critical, we are tempted to declare ourselves “neutral.”
But neutrality and fairness are not interchangeable. Neutrality means not taking sides; fairness, although it includes impartiality, requires justice. The international community often stumbles over this distinction, as if afraid to take a stand. That fear at best is grounded in the intent to maintain credibility. At worst, however, neutrality is grounded in aversion to risk, a spineless or heartless nonresponse to crisis.
At other times, the international community gets it right. The apartheid system in South Africa was brought down largely because outsiders took organized action against it. That action required a stance, not just an opinion. Even before the formal apartheid system was instituted in 1948, the South African treatment of Indian citizens drew criticism from the inaugural gathering of the new United Nations. Unfortunately, through the 1950s, although the subject was again on the UN’s agenda, the consensus was that apartheid was essentially a domestic concern and therefore not a proper target of international action.
The Sharpeville massacre in 1960 increased the urgency of the debate. After police opened fire on five thousand peaceful protestors, shooting many in the back as they fled and killing sixty-nine, the UN Security Council issued a demand for reform. Although that demand was ignored, momentum was building. Less than a year later, South Africa was forced to withdraw from the British Commonwealth after it became clear that other member states would not support its continued presence. The UN General Assembly, too, became involved, passing resolutions condemning apartheid policies. Motions to take stronger action often were blocked by South Africa’s largest trading partners—France, Britain, and the United States. But even they ended arms trade with South Africa after a UN Security Council Resolution called for such action. By the late 1970s, the arms embargo was no longer optional; a decade later, trade sanctions were in place, and governments and corporations were divesting from the regime.
Of course the South African story of violence was not one-sided. After Sharpeville, the African National Congress (ANC) abandoned its reliance on nonviolent resistance. Its new military wing was called Um-khonto we Sizwe (MK), meaning “spear of the nation.” With Nelson Mandela at its head, MK focused its early attacks on government facilities. (In 1962, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment for these activities.) But MK targets expanded in the next two decades to government and military-industrial properties. Once civilians at these targets began to die, Western countries joined the South African government in classifying the ANC as a terrorist organization.
Strong geopolitical forces influenced the domestic situation. The Soviets supported the ANC, and once again—to use an African expression—as the elephants fought, the grass was trampled. The US mission of fighting Communism trumped our concern for justice and human rights. With the implosion of Soviet Communism, however, the South African regime could be judged on its own merits. On 9 November 1989, East Germans climbed through openings in the Berlin Wall; On 11 February 1990, Mandela walked out of prison. Now the United States joined most of the West, pulling its support from the ruling National Party, which slowly and reluctantly began opening up the apartheid system.
After nearly five decades, international action against the oppressive South African government brought down an unjust system. The actions were not vigorous enough to achieve immediate results, but they showed that a bold and rare decision to take sides can make a difference. Fairness trumped neutrality.
In Bosnia, too, fairness meant acknowledging overwhelming (although not exclusive) guilt on one side. Like it or not, the postwar situation forced a choice: neutrality could trump fairness, or fairness could trump neutrality. After the Dayton Accords, the word on many policymakers’ lips was “evenhandedness,” which could have applied to either principle. Interpretation was left to the individual. Most international officials I met in Bosnia chose neutrality over fairness, and they had their reasons. For one thing, not assigning guilt where it belonged meant that action was not required. More charitably, however, getting at the truth was fraught with difficulty; and in many cases, there was no single truth to be discovered.
Were “the Serbs” to blame for war in the Balkans? Not exactly. Individual leaders who were Serbs led atrocious political and military actions, but so did some leaders who were Croat and Bosniak, or of mixed lineage. In all these cases, many regular citizens were complicit, not having the conviction or courage to stand up for what was right. Nor was the international community blameless. But acknowledgment of our own shortcomings neither mitigated Serb culpability nor absolved us from the responsibility to act. Whatever the reasons, by distributing blame evenly, we made a mockery of human rights.
With their anti-Bosniak bias, the CIA and other intelligence agencies bore heavy responsibility for US reluctance to take sides. When I complained to George Tenet, the CIA’s deputy director, and later to Director John Deutsch, each insisted I was wrong. It was only after I had moved to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government that my concerns about their preconceptions were confirmed. At a small dinner in Cambridge, soon after Deutsch had left Langley and returned to MIT, a retired Clinton cabinet member asked his opinion of the Balkans. Deutsch was so plain-spoken that I wrote down his response in my journal. “The only future for Bosnia is partition,” he said. “Those people will never live together.”
I was taken aback. But why should I have been? Even while President Clinton was putting his weight behind integration, every CIA report I saw took the reader one more step toward segregation, if not disintegration. Perhaps it was significant that Deutsch had moved to the CIA from his position as deputy secretary of defense; CIA analysis matched the military misinformation in a viral feedback loop. Decisions such as not to break up the siege of Sarajevo were being made in Washington, where they were colored by an agency’s biased mind-set—counter to the State Department personnel who were putting their lives on the line.
UN inaction was disastrous and disgraceful. Within that system, Kofi Annan, while Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, tried addressing two genocides—in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia—and failed at both.
There are no disinterested parties when it comes to justice.30 Those who turn their backs, saying they refuse to take a stand, are, in fact, standing for impunity. The Holocaust took the lives of between eleven and seventeen million victims because a sophisticated international community would not recognize basic malevolence. In the same way, black South Africans suffered for years longer than they might have, had there been robust international intervention. Remaining neutral in the face of evil is de facto complicity.
6. Embrace Responsibility
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.—MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 16 April 1963
On the evening of 4 May 1961, an interracial group of students trained in nonviolence met at a Chinese restaurant in Washington, D.C. The next morning, these “Freedom Riders” were heading south to challenge Jim Crow laws, born in the reconstruction era and mandating “separate but equal” status for blacks and whites. On the road, the young people ate together at segregated lunch counters and used “white” and “colored” facilities interchangeably—rights affirmed in a 1960 Supreme Court decision.
They met their first angry mob in South Carolina. There and elsewhere, when white supremacists beat them, local police often refused to help. Then on Mother’s Day, ten days after setting out, the Freedom Riders entered Anniston, Alabama. At the station, a waiting crowd slashed their tires. The students drove on, but as the tires flattened and the bus was forced to pull over, they were surrounded. When someone from the crowd threw a firebomb, the students tried to escape the burning bus, but the mob held the doors shut, hoping to burn them alive.
The bus’s gas tank exploded, forcing the crowd back and allowing the riders to escape—only to be beaten. An undercover highway patrolman riding with them fired warning shots into the air, saving them from almost certain death. Later that day, the Freedom Riders were beaten again in Birmingham. But they accepted these ordeals as the cost of their responsibility to stop injustice wherever they found it.
Exactly four decades later, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty published a landmark report titled “The Responsibility to Protect.” A response to rising intrastate violence, the concept—for some, the doctrine—set forth a moral imperative: states have responsibilities toward their populations, but the international community has the responsibility to step in when states ignore harm to, or turn against, their own citizens.
Some fretted that such a transnational responsibility would erode state sovereignty and be abused by powerful outsiders—a new imperialism. They also feared it justified military intervention in violation of longstanding international law. Others saw an inherent, prior responsibility to warn about, prevent, and respond to violence against any people, using diplomatic and other pressure. The doctrine, its framers hoped, would provide a stronger legal framework for international intervention when a state is allowing or perpetrating atrocities.
Most UN member states sided with the hopeful. By consensus, at the UN World Summit of 2005, they affirmed the new principle allowing intervention. Less than a year later, the UN Security Council deepened the commitment by passing a resolution with provisions that set forth the responsibility of not only states but the international community to protect citizens. From that day forward, the responsibility would be shared. No longer could an unscrupulous despot deny outsiders the right to step in to put a stop to unjustifiable suffering.
It is easy to forget that those in the highest decision-making positions need to be concerned about far-reaching implications of intervening on foreign soil. Representing the Clinton administration, my fellow diplomats and I had to be particularly sensitive to internal pressures on the administration: overhaul of the national welfare system, failing healthcare reform, and disastrous midterm elections were consuming the attention of the White House. Meanwhile, in addition to the ongoing Balkan war, a similar story was breaking on another continent. But Kigali had never hosted the Olympics, and its dark-skinned people were divided by confusing names like Hutu and Tutsi.
Americans were not feeling particularly sympathetic about the conflicts in Africa after October 1993, when the world watched CNN’S footage of eighteen dead US Marines being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. Trouble in Rwanda seemed like more of the same, and a good place for Americans not to be.
The size of Maryland, that country was extremely poor, had no significant exports, and was wracked with seemingly intractable conflict. More than two decades prior to the 1994 mass killing, more than a million of the Belgian-favored and better educated Tutsis had fled to neighboring Uganda, where they lived as refugees from vengeful Hutu extremists. This was the background of violence against which the Hutu majority (90 percent of Rwanda’s population) decided to rid the country of Tutsis once and for all.
For close observers, the subsequent genocide was no surprise. On 11 January 1994, UN General Roméo Dallaire sent an urgent fax to headquarters in New York, where Kofi Annan was director of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The fax was titled “Request for Protection for Informant.” The informant, no sympathizer of the Tutsis but opposed to the killing of innocents, had been charged with organizing a plot involving forty-eight commandos and a government minister to kill opposition leaders, thus provoking a civil war. He also described how Hutus were registering Tutsis—a step toward an efficient extermination of the “cockroaches.”31
Kofi Annan, favored by the United States to succeed Boutros BoutrosGhali as UN Secretary General, rejected the suggestion of a raid to seize massive caches of weapons, maintaining that was beyond the scope of a peacekeeping operation.
Three months later, thirty thousand Tutsis and Hutu moderates were slaughtered over two days. Within a hundred days, those numbers grew to some eight hundred thousand, with virtually no protection from the international community. General Dallaire repeatedly and courageously put himself in harm’s way, but he and his 450 troops were surrounded by carnage they were unable to stop.
The consensus of other countries seemed to be that intervention was not worth the risk. The killing was exhausting to the killers, as neighbors hacked at bodies with machetes or hoes. Victims with money paid to be killed with a bullet. Many gathered at churches for refuge, but the protection was a ruse, primarily for the purpose of collecting the victims into convenient groups. At their most “efficient” pace, Hutus were killing at nearly three times the rate achieved during the Holocaust.
In May, the UN started discussions about sending in 5,500 troops. But the Clinton administration called for a smaller force. Three weeks later, Secretary General Boutros-Ghali reported to the Security Council: “We have failed in our response to the agony of Rwanda, and thus we have acquiesced in the continued loss of human lives…. There can be little doubt [that the killing] constitutes genocide.” Clinton’s ambassador to Rwanda, David Rawson, objected: “As a responsible government, you don’t just go around hollering ‘genocide.’”33
When President Clinton came to Kigali four years later, he said: “All over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.”34 “Did not fully appreciate” or did not see it as their responsibility?
Before, during, and after the war in Bosnia, officials with enormous power were denying their responsibility for the destruction happening within their spheres of influence. The most callous shrugged their shoulders at the inevitability of war. Others wrung their hands but did not, or could not, accept their part in allowing the carnage to occur, fighting to continue, and injustice to be written into a permanent political structure.
Jealousies among key players may have diluted their sense of responsibility. Many in the US leadership seemed relieved when allies protested that Americans were playing too strong a role. US officials were concerned that this backwater maelstrom could threaten a close relationship between the West and a democratic Russia—a major foreign policy objective.
Throughout the debates over intervention, language had to be tweaked to fit the low level of response that influential people were willing to risk. To protect policymakers from being dragged into action, euphemisms were used to describe the war. “Genocide,” for example, would invoke the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, requiring international intervention.35 But “ethnic cleansing” could be used to describe how paramilitary thugs were forcing fathers to mutilate their sons, murdering mothers in front of their children, and driving families from their homes by the hundreds of thousands.
“Cleansing.” “Ethnic cleansing.” The words had a salubrious timbre, a promise of a clean result. The words also implied, although no one said it, that mixed communities were ethnically dirty. Still, for whatever reason, “ethnic cleansing” was a label that policymakers could live with. International journalists, too, picked up the term as a gentle shorthand for atrocities.
Then came Dayton. In his memoir, former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Richard Holbrooke explains: “While some people criticized us for trying to do too much at Dayton, my main regret is that we did not attempt more.”36 He devotes only one page to flaws in the agreement: creating a divided army, allowing the Serb-controlled portion of the country to be called Republika Srpska, ending the bombing too early, relying on a weak international police task force, creating a weak Office of the High Representative, and agreeing to arbitrary deadlines for international troop withdrawal. The list makes good sense, and Holbrooke shows courage in laying out the weaknesses of the peace talks he negotiated. Still, while “Milošević could dance circles around some of the world’s most senior diplomats and statesmen,”37 Holbrooke does not assume personal responsibility for the flaws he lists. More than a decade later, his report card on Bosnia again gives high marks to the Dayton Peace Agreement, instead attributing failures to Balkan political problems and lack of international follow-up.38
Even after the world finally insisted that the carnage had to end, it was difficult to convert words to actions. Regret may cause a perpetrator to atone for sins, but shame is another matter. Their shame over Srebrenica was so intense that UN representatives seemed to lapse into denial, failing to recognize the necessity of housing and jobs for the survivors, even as a report accepting significant responsibility was being drafted in UN headquarters in New York.
The same split could be seen on the ground. Sector commanders differed in how to interpret their mandate. During the next few years, IFOR troops assigned to different parts of the country assumed quite different levels of responsibility for the Bosnians around them.
US military commanders came into the country with an explicit directive not to lose any troops. That, and the military’s desire to avoid failure, meant that preventing “mission creep” became the goal. “Security” was applied to their own forces, rather than addressing causes of destabilization such as hunger, fear, and hopelessness. Most of the ten thousand American soldiers were thus confined to their barracks, sealed off from a country desperate for help. When I visited a US-run IFOR field camp near Brčko, the officers were proud to tell me they brought in a few members of the community from time to time to talk. But in general, soldiers in battle gear ventured into the surrounding farmland for only brief reconnaissance missions. I saw no normalized interaction between the troops and the people they had been sent to protect. Interpreted narrowly, the protector had no responsibility to know the protected.
The thirteen thousand British in the northwest were much more involved in helping rebuild communities—physically reconstructing towns, getting supplies to schools, and interacting with citizens. In contrast, the French, with another ten thousand troops, oversaw the southeast sector, including Sarajevo and its airport. High-level US officials, including President Clinton, repeatedly accused them of sheltering the indicted war criminal Radovan Karadžić, foiling efforts of the war crimes tribunal to bring him to justice.
Because they had to be interpreted, mandates often became more than guidelines—they became shields behind which players could avoid responsibility. For example, the French decision not to allow others to pursue indicted war criminals in their sector was a barrier to justice. And the refusal of some international commanders to interpret their mandates as apprehending war criminals sent a message of impunity throughout Bosnia. Such decisions had real and tragic consequences for those who subsequently lost their homes, limbs, or family members at the hands of thugs emboldened by military inaction.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said it well: “The real culprits in this long list of executions, assassinations, drownings, burnings, massacres and atrocities… are not… the Balkan people…. The real culprits are those who by interest or inclination, declaring that war is inevitable, end by making it so, asserting that they are powerless to prevent it.”39 That was the endowment’s assessment in 1914.
Among the ten thousand US troops who entered Bosnia, these at Camp McGovern, near the contested hot spot of Brčko, had one another’s safety on their minds—and rightly so. It’s not clear, however, that top ranks passed down with the same urgency goals other than “force protection.”
As countries across the globe wrestle with the question of where their responsibility begins or ends, we find no simple answer. After a conflict, it is easy to point fingers at aggressors, but when it comes to assigning responsibility for intercession, policymakers have the same tendencies that we have in our personal lives—to point elsewhere.
Part of our reluctance to assume responsibility is because conflict situations are cloudy at best, notwithstanding public officials’ attempts to lay out to the citizenry a clear case for military intervention. Arguments are almost always cast in bold terms of the acting nation’s interest—even if the expressed mission is as nonsensical as going after a terrorist who is actually in another country.
But progressive foreign policy must be informed, if not motivated, by empathy. How to make people care is another question, one that Bill Clinton faced as he laid out the humanitarian case, then sent troops into Bosnia with support from less than half of the US population.40 Perhaps our problem as Americans is that we are on the whole too comfortable. Just as African Americans are among the least prosperous but also the most generous people in our country,41 emptying their purses into the church collection plate and donating 25 percent more of their discretionary income than wealthier whites, Rwandans were the first in the African Union to send troops to protect victims in Darfur in 2004. When asked why they stepped up so readily, Rwandan officials answered that they understood at a visceral level the desperation of being alone in the world as citizens are tortured, raped, and slaughtered.
In addition to national interest and empathy, a driving force for foreign policymaking must be a moral understanding befitting countries with twenty-first-century concepts of human rights and obligations. Post-World War II Secretary of State George Marshall stands apart as a leader able to stir the conscience of a tired United States, inspiring us to share our resources beyond wartime, to cement the peace. He understood that the truest security requires an integration of duty with privilege. Following his lead, surely we who live in comfort can spend a small portion of our treasure—and even our talent—to save a disproportionate number of others.
Those of us who decry the military buildup in the United States in particular can take comfort that the “responsibility to protect” does not necessarily require a more aggressive foreign policy. Harking back to the first lesson, an active, innovative, and early “soft power” offensive can transform the environment in which strongmen arise or hate-mongering groups grow. Extensive diplomatic efforts can often mitigate a danger, but it may be throngs with whistles and rattles who bring down a dictator. Likewise, if half of the Greens in Europe who opposed our military intervention had marched on Belgrade years earlier, perhaps two hundred would have been killed. Instead, two hundred thousand died. Only when such efforts fail can blunt, undiscriminating hard power be the best option.
Ultimately, the question of responsibility leads to the rather trivial question: Are we Americans the world’s police? The serious answer is an awesome, collective yes. In a virtual sense, we are part of a force made up of scores of nations with the mandate to protect. We can regard this as a burden, or we can accept it as a privilege. But from either stance, the lesson of Bosnia is that we must not shirk that responsibility.