- Nov 22, 2003
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Not everything is 'Vietnam':
Is Iraq turning into Yugoslavia?
The lessons learned from the Balkans in the 1990s call for more troops in Iraq, not a withdrawal.
February 21, 2007
THE IRAQ DEBATE is starting to resemble the Yugoslavia debate of the early 1990s. Once again we are hearing that crazed foreigners are in the grip of ancient ethnic hatreds and that the U.S. has no cause to get involved in their internecine strife. Ironically, some of those now making this "realist" argument resisted its spurious logic 15 years ago. They were right to do so then, and they would be tragically mistaken were they to succumb to the siren song of nonintervention today.
In the former Yugoslavia, as in Iraq, ethnic groups have clashed over the years, but they also have had long periods of peaceful coexistence and not only under the heavy hand of a Tito or Saddam Hussein. Croats, Bosnians, Slovenians, Kosovars, Macedonians, Montenegrins and Serbs lived together for centuries under the relatively benign Ottoman and Habsburg empires and later under their own monarchy. So did Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis in Mesopotamia.
In both cases, intermarriage rates were high, and there was no popular clamor for civil war. In more recent times, domestic strife was fomented by megalomaniacs such as Slobodan Milosevic and Abu Musab Zarqawi, who sought to profit from the violence. They were able to gain the upper hand because central authority had collapsed. In a lawless land, ordinary people were forced to seek protection from sectarian militias. As these groups committed atrocities, they fed demands for vengeance, leading to a death spiral.
Viewing the violence from a comfy couch, it is easy to conclude that "these people are animals. We can't help them." But imagine what would have happened in Los Angeles if the 1992 riots had gone on for weeks, with no police or military intervention. L.A. could have come to resemble Baghdad or Sarajevo, with Anglo, African American, Latino and Asian gangs rampaging out of control.
To extend the analogy, violence could have spread throughout Southern California. That's what happened in the Balkans when fighting spread from Slovenia, the first province to secede, to Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. A wider spillover was averted thanks to American-led intervention.
Today, only the U.S. troop presence is preventing Iraq, already in the throes of a low-level civil war, from degenerating into an all-out conflict a la Yugoslavia. The likely effect of such a bloodletting is spelled out in a recent report, "Things Fall Apart," by Brookings Institution fellows Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack. They examined recent civil wars not only in Yugoslavia but in Afghanistan, Congo, Lebanon, Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Somalia and Tajikistan. "We found," they write, "that 'spillover' is common in massive civil wars" and "that while its intensity can vary considerably, at its worst it can have truly catastrophic effects."
They cite six such effects, beyond the obvious humanitarian nightmare.