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Only after Washington reasserted itself in late 1995, after Srebrenica, did the situation on the ground change. When U.S. military might was finally brought to bear against Serbian paramilitaries, the one-sided war came to an abrupt end, just as many had predicted.
This is not to say that a Bosnia- or Libya-style intervention in Syria is the right course of action. After all, there are risks to getting in and risks to staying out.
Intervening makes post-Assad Syria the West’s problem—and could even open the door to more toxic problems. Egypt reminds us that what replaces autocracy may not be worth celebrating.
Not intervening, on the other hand, will allow Assad to strangle the opposition and extend his rule, like his father and Saddam did for decades, like the mullahs have in Iran, like all dictators do when their subjects’ cries for help go unanswered.
Moreover, no two international crises are identical. Indeed, there are many differences between Bosnia circa 1995 and Syria circa 2012. One of the most significant is how directly what’s happening in Syria could impact America’s wider national-security interests.
The primary motivation for intervening in Bosnia was always humanitarian. Syria, on the other hand, is one of those unique cases where conscience and national interest overlap: Protecting the people of Syria—a humanitarian motivation—by targeting the Assad regime would deal a blow to Syria’s patron and partner in Iran—a national-security interest.
Another important difference between Bosnia and Syria is how U.S.-led coalitions of the willing have built an impressive record in recent years of punishing and/or ending regimes that flout basic norms of behavior: In addition to Bosnia, that record includes Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. (The fact that brutal governments remain in power in places like Sudan and North Korea should not overshadow the fact that there are fewer such governments today than there were, say, 15 years ago.)
While Obama has been largely silent and inactive on the situation in Syria, he wasn’t silent this time last year, when he ordered U.S. forces to take part in NATO’s air war against Qaddafi.
“In just one month,” Obama boasted, “the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a no-fly zone with our allies and partners. To lend some perspective on how rapidly this military and diplomatic response came together, when people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians. It took us 31 days.”
If it was fair for Obama to take that swipe at the Clinton administration, then it seems fair to point out the shortcomings in Obama’s own approach. It is Obama’s incongruent response to these congruent crises that—according to his own standard for action—makes his Syria policy a failure.
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