Consider ISIS’s recent capture of territory in the strategic Syrian city of Deir Ezzour. The group’s military success had very little to do with hatreds of any kind, ancient or otherwise, and more to do with the failure of the international community to support the rebels of the Free Syrian Army, who warned American officials, including Samantha Power, that ISIS was closing in. For weeks, they pleaded for assistance but were ignored. “The FSA numbers are big, but we don’t have weapons, we don’t have ammunition, we don’t have anything,” complained one FSA commander.
In Iraq, the original sin was the Bush administration’s decision to invade in 2003 (or was it the elder Bush’s failure to back the Iraqi uprising of 1991, effectively allowing Saddam to stay in power?). But, again, there was nothing inevitable about the fall of Mosul to ISIS in June and the eruption of civil war in Iraq. To emphasize, as Obama has, that this is a conflict between Iraqis and must be resolved by Iraqis, is banal and self-evident, but it also implies—in the context of Obama’s broader approach to the region—a certain studied detachment. This is not our civil war, but theirs. Except that the U.S., through a staggering combination of incompetence, neglect, and myopia, is directly implicated in the country’s political deterioration. As Ali Khedery, the longest continuing serving U.S. official in Iraq, writes: “The crisis now gripping Iraq and the Middle East was not only predictable but predicted—and preventable. By looking the other way and unconditionally supporting and arming Maliki, President Obama has only lengthened and expanded the conflict that President Bush unwisely initiated.”
If anything, the lesson of Bosnia, Kosovo, and, for that matter, Rwanda, is that supposedly “primordial” conflicts over religion, sect, and ethnicity are the very ones, due to their intractability and viciousness, that are more likely to require outside military intervention. Ultimately, the end of the Bosnian war did not mean that Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats hated each other any less; it meant that, despite their hate, they would agree to abide by a peace agreement. This return to “politics” would not have been possible without, first, the resort to force by NATO and the international community.
In his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bill Clinton took on the “inevitability” argument: “People say, okay, maybe it’s not inevitable, but look, there are a lot of ethnic problems in the world. … And you’ve got all these ethnic problems everywhere, and religious problems. That’s what the Middle East is about. You’ve got Northern Ireland. You’ve got the horrible, horrible genocide in Rwanda. You’ve got the war, now, between Eritrea and Ethiopia. They say, ‘Oh, we’ve got all these problems, and, therefore, why do you care about this?’”
Clinton came to the conclusion that it was worth not just caring, but acting. There was a difference between realism—recognizing that religious and ethnic hatreds are real and resonant—and resignation, where the powerful say nothing can be done and look away. He came to this conclusion years after first reading Balkan Ghosts. Luckily, by then, it wasn’t too late.