Srebrenica and The Price of Not Making War

On the occasion of the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, I thought it worthwhile to re-run a diary I wrote in July 2005 on the tenth anniversary of Srebrenica. It remains a signal lesson in the danger of returning to the era when “nation building” and “peacekeeping” were considered not as supplements to war aims but as ends in themselves.

There is peace, and there is war. Srebrenica is a reminder that there is no halfway between the two. The Wall Street Journal remembered Srebrenica, on the tenth anniversary of the 1995 massacre:

Ten years ago today, Bosnian Serb forces under the command of General Ratko Mladic entered the Bosnian Muslim town of Srebrenica, then being defended by Dutch peacekeepers. General Mladic made three demands: that the townsmen surrender their weapons; that all males between the ages of 12 and 77 be separated out for “questioning”; and that the rest of the population be expelled to Muslim areas. Within two days, 23,000 women and children had been deported. Another 5,000 Muslim men and boys who had taken refuge on a nearby Dutch base were also delivered to the Mladic forces.

As we now know, most of the people surrendered by the Dutch to the Serbs were slaughtered, as were more than 2,000 others, bringing the estimated tally of the Srebrenica massacre to 7,200. Yet the scale of the atrocity alone is not why we remember it. We remember because the men of Srebrenica were betrayed by their ostensible protectors, and that carries some lessons for today.


It was . . . unclear whether the U.N. soldiers in safe areas were actually authorized to use force to defend the people in their care. Worst of all, the price Muslims paid for U.N. protection was to abandon their weapons, which they did within a week of the safe areas’ creation.


. . . Europeans alternated between half-measures and attempts at negotiation with the Serbs, even as they exposed thousands of their own soldiers to risk in futile operations. When Margaret Thatcher, by then a former prime minister, called Serb atrocities “evil” and said “humanitarian aid is not enough,” her views were dismissed by British Defense Minister Malcolm Rifkind as “emotional nonsense.”

It’s easy enough to mock the UN and the Europeans for failing to live up to even the limited mission objectives they set for themselves. But the real problem at Srebrenica was a problem I’ve written about before: deploying troops without identifying an enemy and taking sides against that enemy. Had the Dutch seen the Bosnian Muslims as allies they needed to win the war, they would not have surrendered them to be slaughtered without a fight. More to the point, had the European powers seen themselves as being at war with Milosevic, they would never have allowed the situation to get that far; they would have done, at the barest minimum, what Clinton eventually did in Kosovo, and launched an air assault on Milosevic’s troops. And they should, were they serious, have done more than that, and resolved to smash his war machine before it could inflict such atrocities.

This was the fundamental weakness of so many of the interventions of the 1990s: lacking the will to make war, the Western powers turned soldiers into sitting ducks, hunched in a defensive crouch, unable to protect the weak and the defenseless and unwilling to disable evildoers before they could carry out their plots. The contrast with our presence in Afghistan and Iraq could not be clearer: while we are certainly engaged there as well in “nation-building,” the main role of our soldiers is to hunt down the enemy, and our mission objectives are not in any way limited to being reactive.

Now, I confess that I didn’t follow the crises in the Balkans closely enough in the 1990s to have a firm opinion at the time of what should be done, and even in retrospect I can’t say for certain what the right answer was. As in Vietnam, there were hard choices and no good ones. But Srebrenica was the worst of both worlds: without the UN, the Bosnian Muslims could at least have remained armed to defend themselves.

I was fond of saying at the time that the US should not draw its sword in anger lightly, unless we were willing to keep it unsheathed until the job was done, and that lesson remains a vivid one today. There is peace, and there is war. Pretending you can play a halfway game between the two is a recipe for more Srebrenicas.