Edward P. Joseph is currently an EES Research Scholar. He has served in the Balkans for over ten years, most recently as Director of the Macedonia Project at the International Crisis Group. Meeting Report 286.

Jorge Santayana would be pleased. Nearly every policy proposal on Iraq these days mentions lessons learned from past interventions, such as postwar Germany and Japan, East Timor, Bosnia and Kosovo. In the spirit of Santayana's famous dictum—"those who forget the past are destined to relive it"—analysts have been doggedly culling US state-building experience for lessons learned.

While the determination to learn from the past is noble, there are three major problems. First, some of the lessons no longer apply. At this point in the Iraq intervention, it makes little sense to harp about the need for broad coalitions when going to war, or careful planning for dealing with war's aftermath. Second, many of the still-relevant lessons from the Balkans are poorly understood and, therefore, easily misapplied to Iraq. Finally, there is the risk that even well-understood lessons may be ill suited to different circumstances. The differences between Iraq and the Balkans are many, far greater than the differences between Bosnia and Kosovo. Yet, the record shows that it is easy to misapply lessons even between these two Balkan neighbors. Divining lessons learned from one theatre is daunting enough, without trying to extend the analysis to other remote theatres.

The conventional wisdom about Bosnia's elections
Consider the most frequently cited lesson from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH): do not hold elections too early. The conventional wisdom has long been that the 1996 elections in Bosnia were held far too early, leading to victories for nationalist leaders who impeded the implementation of the Dayton Accords. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz made a point of citing the early election disaster and applying it to Iraq. During his visit to Bosnia last May, Wolfowitz stated, "By holding elections so early, it became impossible to remove bad actors, because they [gained] electoral authority." While the election decision in Iraq is guided primarily by concern over Shiite dominance at the polls (and possibly pro-Iranian clerical dominance), the Bosnia election experience has been offered up as another justification for delay.

Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the conventional wisdom on Bosnia's elections is inadequate. Certainly there were no conditions for holding free and fair elections in Bosnia in 1996. The peace agreement was less than a year old, the country remained utterly divided, war criminals were highly visible and much of the media was controlled by nationalists. But none of these conditions were likely to change simply by postponing elections. The sad fact was that nationalist leaders were already in power, dominating each of the three ethnic groups (Bosniak Muslims, Serbs and Croats.) Whether or not elections were held in 1996, these nationalists would have continued to hold power—unless the international community removed them from office. The simple truth was that neither the US nor its European allies were willing to assume responsibility for governing Bosnia at that time. It was not the timing of Bosnia's elections, but the lack of will to remove nationalists from power that doomed Bosnia to years of post-war stagnation.

Indeed, it was not until 1998 that that the international community recognized the folly of letting elected leaders simply obstruct Dayton implementation. The Peace Implementation Council (the key countries involved in Bosnia) vested the High Representative with the so-called "Bonn powers," enabling him to remove obstructionist officials and impose legislation. The High Representative promptly sacked the president of the Republika Srpska, Nikola Poplasen, who had been one of the most obstructionist of the elected nationalist leaders.

Even with the benefit of this deeper understanding of Bosnia's elections, it is hard to discern lessons for Iraq. With near-daily attacks on Coalition forces, the imperative to transfer power in Iraq is far greater than anything seen in either Bosnia or Kosovo. While international forces in the Balkans were seen as an unchallenged authority (with the exception of the Serbs in northern Kosovo), the legitimacy of the Iraq occupation force is tenuous at best. And where elections in Bosnia posed the risk of entrenching hardliners and the territorial division of the country, it is the possibility of a Shiite clerical sweep to power that could aggravate relations with Sunni Arabs and Kurds. Perhaps the most meaningful lesson for Iraq from Bosnia is the need to muster the political will early on to deal with the most serious impediments to democracy and state-building. Bosnia teaches policy makers to keep the ultimate priority of a viable, stable democracy in mind. Without a solid understanding of strategic priorities, it is easy to let secondary objectives drive policy.

Priorities rather than panaceas
Confronting the myriad of obstacles to stability in post-conflict or post-regime-change countries, the temptation is great for policy makers to find a panacea. For a few years in Bosnia, the favored panacea was the economy. It was widely believed that trade between ethnic groups and across borders would build prosperity and thereby automatically foster cooperation and diminish conflict. This school of thought overlooked the fact that all Balkan factions happily traded with each other before and during the war.

Succeeding the economy as the top panacea is the rule of law. The current High Representative in Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown, has written that, "we should have put ... rule of law first [in Bosnia], for everything else depends on it." The rule of law is of course crucial in the Balkans, but it is not always the absolute top priority. In 1996, after the peace agreement was signed, Bosnia was a state that was utterly divided. Ethnic cleansing had left Bosnia with much of its population as refugees. The mass expulsion of populations in Bosnia was not (as in some wars) a mere by-product of fighting, but was the primary objective. As evidenced by the elimination of Muslims from the Drina River valley, ethnic cleansing was the way in which territorial control was gained in BiH.

By delaying refugee return, the ethnic territorial divisions created by the war simply became more concrete. Consequently, without some mixing of populations, the "joint institutions" created by the Dayton Agreement became a farce. What incentive was there for either the Croats or Serbs to cooperate in joint enterprises that, by definition, involved surrendering control to a state in which they feared eventual domination by Muslims? In other words, contrary to what Ashdown has said, the immediate priority for Bosnia in the aftermath of the war was not the rule of law, but rather refugee return.

Indeed, refugee return would have boosted the rule of law, spurring the need for courts in areas controlled by all three peoples to provide justice for minorities. (The parties themselves would have demanded it.) Instead, just like the joint institutions, the country's court systems simply reflected the ethnic division of the country, with Muslim, Serb and Croat judges remaining inattentive to the just claims of minorities. Valuable time was lost by making the courts and related institutions, such as the Ombudsman and the Human Rights Chamber, the primary vehicles for refugees and minorities to reclaim their rights.

The international community helped seal the ethnic division of Bosnia created through ethnic cleansing by accommodating the disastrous Serb exodus from Sarajevo in 1996. Rather than delay the phased transfer, officials—including senior US diplomats—worked to stay on schedule for reunification. The result was anything but unity. Sarajevo was soon virtually bereft of its Serbs. What was meant to be a multiethnic country was left with an almost wholly mono-ethnic heart. The Serb exodus only reinforced their sense of victimization and determination to maintain Republika Srpska as a largely mono-ethnic citadel. In short, rigid adherence to the Dayton timetable dealt a devastating, perhaps fatal blow to the strategic aim of constructing a functional, multiethnic state. Thus, if there is a lesson for Iraq in the early years of Dayton implementation, it is that no one issue, including rule of law, is a panacea for nation-building.

Transferring lessons learned
Not only is it difficult to grasp the real lessons learned in Bosnia, but their applicability to other situations is highly questionable. This is most clearly demonstrated by the transfer of the successful military strategy in 1995 Bosnia to 1999 Kosovo. In August 1995, after years of hesitation about bombing the Serbs, NATO finally launched a fortnight of air strikes. The Serb military withdrew in a panic in the face of the air strikes combined with the Croat and Muslim ground assault. Thanks to US pressure, the Federation forces garnered about half the country's territory, precisely the territorial basis for the subsequent Dayton map. With this apparent ‘lesson' of the success of air power firmly in mind, the US and its NATO allies launched Operation Allied Force against Serb targets in Kosovo and Serbia in March 1999. Convinced that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic would cave after limited bombing—as the Serbs had done in Bosnia—little thought was given to preparing for a drawn-out campaign. Policy makers had forgotten the critical role that Croat and Muslim ground forces had played in making air strikes successful in Bosnia.

By simply transferring the lesson learned to Kosovo, no one anticipated—let alone prepared for—the mass expulsion of Kosovar refugees into Macedonia and Albania. Indeed, Milosevic seemed to have seized deliberately on the prospect that refugee flows could destabilize neighboring countries and thereby weaken the Alliance. Fortunately, NATO quickly reoriented itself and helped major non-governmental organizations deal with the refugee emergency in neighboring countries.

This was not the first time that lessons had been misapplied in the Balkans. In 1996, the NATO implementation force (IFOR) helped squander the critical first year after the Dayton agreement was signed by clinging to the lesson of 1993 Somalia: "stick to the narrow military mission and resist ‘mission creep.'" Thus, IFOR commanders resisted providing substantial aid to the civil mission until late in the year. IFOR mostly fiddled, for example, while the Pale regime led the burning of the formerly Serb-held areas of Sarajevo. Only after General Wesley Clark took over as NATO Supreme Allied Commander did commanders move toward a pro-active partnership with civil officials.

There are valuable lessons still to be gleaned from the Balkans for Iraq. But learning the lessons means probing deeper into their origin, renouncing the belief in panaceas and, most of all, maintaining a healthy skepticism and even humility about applying lessons learned from other areas. What the long hard slog in the Balkans teaches—or should teach—policy makers in Iraq is to base their decisions on their best assessment of what it will take to build a stable democracy in the country. Navigating the subtle tradeoffs between security and freedom requires a penetrating awareness of strategic priorities. The most enduring lesson from the Balkans—wholly applicable to Iraq—is that even the most astute analysis is meaningless without adequate political will to confront the most serious obstacles to stability.