We got no dog in this fight.
Secretary of State James Baker, 1991
At the time of Baker’s memorable use of bad grammar, President Bush the elder was presiding over that much-envied “moment” when the US was at the peak of its relative power. It seemed a good time to preside, especially after the one-sided war in Iraq. If the path forward was not totally clear, as even Fukuyama admitted, the result was written in stone. A calmness set in. The economic and political liberals were triumphant in an almost gladiatorial sense. Their ideology as much as their actions won the Cold War. Such a success undoubtedly would encourage imitators. Those who cared about something other than the supposed economic benefits of open society were bums on the wrong side of history.
Some of these losers, it turns out, were still into a confusing mix of religion, history, and ethnicity. And, in what was soon to become “the former Yugoslavia,” they were armed. Their war would present one of many examples (Somalia, Rwanda, Iraq, Congo) where the most powerful nation in the world was unwilling to use its strength to prevent bloodshed in areas tangential to its national well-being. Dreams of endless moral authority couldn’t trump annoying questions like, “What the hell do we do after we get involved?” and “What if voters hate this?” Hence Baker’s comment.
The Bosnian War presented an interesting challenge: It didn’t always rage. It just didn’t stop. And it was really complicated. For three years, the Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs kept fighting, taking towns, changing sides, and generally confusing us. The Euros spent years trying to put a lid on the war. An arms embargo didn’t stop the fighting. Emotive moments piled up: the Siege of Sarajevo and starving prisoners; Elie Wiesel telling Bill Clinton to do something to stop the genocide (in public, directly to the president); and various massacres. The death toll mounted—in the end, 102,000 people had been killed. A mass murder at Srebrenica in July 1995 was the final morbid act before Bill Clinton gave in. At some point, no one can stand being called feckless for months on end. The US bombed Bosnian Serb positions in September of 1995 and inserted 20,000 peacekeepers after the Dayton Accords were signed. The operation went surprisingly well, though much of the fighting—and ethnic separation—was already finished by the time Bill fired up the Air Force.
Why get involved in a brutal cultural and historical argument? Proximity and prestige explain some of it. The New World Order jargon—an idea introduced by H.W. Bush that for all its vagueness was certainly a synonym for US primacy—set up the intervention. Made responsible for ending the Cold War and the threats inherent to superpower stand off, the US now compelled itself to enter the peace enforcement business. America had to act because it could (proximity) and there was a gnawing guilt that the most capable country on Earth should act (prestige). It even sort of worked a little bit. (Keep in mind that peacekeepers stayed in Bosnia for a decade.)
The US “got a dog in the fight” not because there was a war in Europe. Clinton, like his predecessor, believed that Washington must maintain unquestioned global leadership in a time of relative tranquility; the numbers of dead were too great to ignore and a risk had to be taken. Oh, and F-16s could fly from Italy to Bosnia rather easily. Baker’s comment is notable because of the slaughter of subsequent years, not that he was necessarily wrong in 1991. Forecasting is a difficult business and Bosnia isn’t exactly paradise now. If the Syrian War ended tomorrow with Bashar al-Assad hung from a lamp post (doesn’t that seem quaint at this point?), few would mourn the lack of Western involvement. Unless an ethnic struggle broke out. Then, of course, the West’s lack of involvement was irresponsible.