By Coleman Hopkins
President Trump’s recently expressed desire to withdraw US forces from Syria has set off neoconservative and progressive critics who charge that such an action would put the security of America’s regional allies at risk, and would even advance the interests of long-standing enemies and rivals. These discontentments further assert that the president’s desired policy change in the Middle East is an abdication of America’s responsibilities in the region and of its special obligation to balance aspiring hegemonic powers and their ambitions, such as Russia; they also dispute President Trump’s determination that America’s mission in Syria is complete.
Setting aside the president’s proposed changes in America’s foreign policy strategy as well as the venom of his internationalist rivals, it is important to ask what exactly the US’s interest is in Syria. Assuming President Trump meant what he said when he stated that his administration is “not nation-building again; [it is] killing terrorists”, then there are reasons to believe that he sees US interests in Syria as being more limited than do his neoconservative critics. Moreover, if the president is opposed to endless wars and is skeptical of democracy-building as a counter-terrorism strategy, then what is his vision for American involvement in the Syrian Civil War?
In all likelihood, the administration’s interest is twofold: first, it wants to establish a ceasefire to the country’s brutal civil war; second, it wants to ensure that no entity or actor — especially not ISIS — expands its influence too far in the region. If these are President Trump’s objectives (and there are reasons to believe that they are) then it is worth asking if American involvement is necessary to achieve those ends.
To ask such a question — explicitly, or implicitly as it seems the president has — is, for interventionists, tantamount to rejecting the principles of benevolent or progressive American imperialism that have come to define the foreign policy ‘truths’ of the two major parties. The central tenant to this belief system is that US interests are best reached through direct American involvement and that such intervention is always preferable to any alternative due to America’s unique character, ambitions, and values. To distill this outlook into a more accessible and comprehensive phrase, it can simply be dubbed the ‘American Exceptionalism thesis’: when America takes action, everybody — save the bad guy(s) — wins.
The proposition that America can reach its strategic goals without a military commitment or through restraint is rejected out of hand by interventionists who see the US as the indispensable nation, or the essential actor in foreign affairs. For liberal internationalists, the country’s involvement in foreign disputes from the First World War to the Cold War vindicates their position, even if the cases they most often cite in their defense, such as World War II, are selectively represented.
Recent history casts doubt on the internationalists’ view that American action is a cure-all for military conflicts and political disputes. Specifically, the case of the Bosnian War offers a good reason to believe that American interests can sometimes be furthered when it steps back and allows local actors to resolve disputes. One reason for this is that such conflicts have cultural and/or ideological currents that are alien to the US’s politics and liberal ethos, and that in turn confound its approach to resolving such problems. Indeed, the lesson of that multilayered dispute is that giving participants in certain conflicts — those with the most at stake and the best understanding of the goals of the different parties involved — the ability to set terms and mediate disagreements can lead to results that are acceptable to all parties and to US interests. The corollary is that clumsy American interference can and often does foil US strategic goals.
To appreciate the moral of the Bosnian War story and its potential value in substantiating President Trump’s foreign policy decision in Syria, or simply as acting to a counterpoint to interventionist assumptions, it is necessary to revisit that historical moment and the context that it grew out of.
By the early 1980s, Yugoslavia, then a socialist republic, was dissolving. Formed after the First World War as a combination of the Kingdom of Serbia and former territories of the then-recently collapsed Austro-Hungarian Empire, Yugoslavia featured a disparate collection of peoples of various religions with their own histories; those differences eventually pulled the country apart, once in the early twentieth century and a second time at the end of the century. Both instances are discussed below in turn.
It is time to look at the country’s first period of civil unrest. Yugoslavia first split in the 1940s. The chaos and violence that eclipsed late-Weimar Germany and the USSR during the height of Stalinist terror made its way to Yugoslavia in the late interwar-early WWII period. Radical political factions based on religious identities and historic grudges came into increasing and violent contact with each other as nationalist sentiments reached a fevered pitch in Central Europe. Pushed over the edge by the backing of fascist governments in Germany and Italy, Yugoslavia evaporated due to a spree of targeted killings by competing and occasionally aligned paramilitary organizations. Heightened violence and foreign interference eventually divided the country into several smaller territories ruled by different entities, some of which were loosely aligned.
The large-scale violence instigated by an assortment of militaristic actors — Germans, Italians, civilian organizations, and Hungarians — concluded as the Second World War came to an end in the mid-1940s. One consequence of this relative peace was that Yugoslavia was reunited. But the reunification of Yugoslavia did not happen on its own. Rather, left-wing groups and royalist forces ultimately overcame and repressed the fascist organizations and invaders that had broken up and governed the territories that previously constituted Yugoslavia. Following this period of vicious sectarian violence in the 1930s and 1940s, Yugoslavia’s government was commandeered and dominated by Josip Tito and his communist allies; they went on to establish a militaristic, authoritarian state. The mixture of a repressive government and a potent and all-encompassing state ideology worked to minimize religious and other ideological tensions within Yugoslavia.
After a break with Stalin, Tito ruled independently from USSR influence until his death in 1980. When Tito died, so too did the communist identity that he and his allies had built and sustained for almost forty years by mixing communist ideology with civic reforms and a relatively tolerant approach to religious pluralism. The critical point is that, with Tito’s death, the communist/socialist ethos that he worked to cultivate and spread — one that transcended and supplanted the very real, disparate, and meaningful cultural and religious identities of the people in Yugoslavia — disintegrated. In its absence, other identities and ideologies competed to fill the void.
From 1980 to 1992 (the final year of Yugoslavia’s existence), tensions within the country were ratcheted up as various factions, some religious and others ideological, began to assert themselves and demand new rights to sovereignty. Nationalism, expressed here in claims to ethno-religious self-determination, was an especially strong force that the already weakened communist government could not contain or respond to — a problem that the USSR failed to address in its own lands and one that is relevant again today. In only a few years, several groups — e.g., Catholic Croatians and Bosnian Muslims — were in conflict with both the state and with each other as internal forces moved to leave Yugoslavia.
Upon the secession of both Croatian and Slovenian states from Yugoslavia, pressure mounted on other religious and ethnic groups and territories to split from the socialist republic and to form their own nation-states. One such entity, the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia), was the next to act. It summarily initiated and passed a referendum to secure its own independence. The referendum went through, but not without controversy.
Internal political disputes concerning the referendum and the status of Bosnia as a state threw the affirmative decision into question, and that had ramifications throughout Central Europe. Perhaps the most important consequence of this uncertainty was that it exasperated paranoia in religious and nationalist organizations. Put differently, the questions about what kind of nation Bosnia would be as well as the intense opinions that various ethnics groups had about that query served to pour gasoline on the proverbial political fire in the region.
To make matters worse, and in part as a response to both the the lack of a decisive majority group in Bosnia and the spread of nationalist sentiments in and around the country, the Serbian government aligned with the Bosnian Serbs (nonparticipants in the referendum) to try and determine the demographic and/or political fate of the newly independent state. When the Serbian government got involved in the conflict, so too did the forces of the decaying Yugoslav state as well as other combatants, including various militias.
Bosnia was soon engulfed in violence and horrific acts of terror, including systemic rapes and attempted genocides. In only a few months, the Bosnian War was a humanitarian and political concern to the US, and, in coordination with some other actors, it summarily took actions to resolve it. In this case, America’s principal concerns were ending the conflict and brokering some kind of social peace. The two aims are distinct as the former was focused on the military conflict itself while the latter was aimed at reducing the potential for further violence within the civil societies of the various participants.
The US, however, was but one of several actors that had an interest in quelling the violence. Another participant in the conflict, one that had strong opinions on creating a lasting resolution, was Russia. Mainly aligned with Serbs, and Russia consistently advocated against heightened Western (American) involvement in the conflict; it also pushed back more forcefully against targeted violence against Bosnians. Moreover, the Russian government was most vocally opposed to NATO bombings in the region, in part because it felt that such strikes were A) counterproductive, B) unjust, and C) revealing inasmuch as they highlighted a Western bias vis-a-vis the conflict itself. In sum, the US-led bombings were exacerbating the conflict and harming its own image as a neutral arbiter, at least in the eyes of the combatants and at least one other key actor in the peace process — Russia.
The extension of the conflict as well as the response to later bombings of Kosovo (a territory once a part of Yugoslavia), namely the rise of more radical nationalist groups in Russia and the region, underscore the extent to which NATO and US interventions can generate further impediments to their goals, including the ratcheting up of nationalist and anti-Western sentiments. And these feelings worked to prolong the conflict and in turn confounded American goals.
While it is impossible to know what would have transpired in a counterfactual world, it is nonetheless valuable to consider such a scenario. Perhaps reduced American involvement, or at least more willingness on the part of the US to listen to other voices, including those with a more direct connection to the conflict, such as Russia, might have brought about the kind of peace that it wanted. By deferring to Russia on negotiations, a compromise might have been reached, thus making the bombings unnecessary and keeping America’s standing in the region strong. Furthermore, it is also likely that in such a situation anti-American nationalism might not have thrived as it did in the following years when the prominence of extremist views were rising again.
To reiterate, America’s primary goals in the Bosnian War were to stop the massacres and to try and move the various peoples and entities involved towards peace. The main effect of US involvement, however, was the opposite: it exacerbated feelings of distrust, resentment, and nationalism in Bosnia and in neighboring countries; it also failed to stop the killings. In this case American involvement frustrated its security interests.
US involvement in the Syrian Civil War has also undermined its strategic interests in the war and in the region. Specifically, American involvement in the conflict, from bombings against the Assad regime to its interesting approach to training local troops to combat ISIS, has worked against its stated desire to fight and degrade terrorist organizations on the one hand and to promote political stability and stymie the hegemonic ambitions of its rival states on the other. The lack of a coherent strategy, as well as the difficulty of negotiating so many competing and questionable ‘goals’ — not to mention the failings of prior strategies — all suggest that the interventionist approach is not a viable one.
In light of these considerations, it seems that the US’s involvement in Syria has not worked; it certainly has not worked in Afghanistan. As such, there are reasons to believe that President Trump’s withdrawal is reasonable and could well be effective. Given that several of the actors in Syria, such as Iran and Russia, are either tepid allies or non-combative rivals, it is likely that they will balance each other following the conclusion of the war, meaning that their hegemonic ambitions (if we assume they exist) will be mitigated if not stifled. Similarly, their coordination with Assad as well as his hostility to fundamentalist challenges to his authority will force the alliance he has formed with Russia and Iran into further conflicts with ISIS. This would further another US goal.
The debate around President Trump’s proposed withdrawal form Syria and his desire to leave the Middle East more broadly is convoluted, in no small part because there is a class of journalists, politicians, lobbyists, and think tankers that is determined to present the decision in a single, negative light. In casting intervention and military involvement as the only way to secure American goals, these activists manipulate history and distort public opinion in a way that is unhelpful to intellectual debate, to the forging of a strategy in Syria, and to the country.
The case of the Bosnian War demonstrates that American intervention in conflicts that do not directly involve it can have unintended consequences for all parties, including the undermining of US strategic goals. As such, it is entirely possible that the upshot of President Trump’s withdrawal could well be the realization of American interests that years of involvement — some of which has been direct and some which has been less so — could not achieve, namely achieving stability and the balancing of the disparate forces in competition for land and power in Syria.
Whatever happens with US involvement in Syria, it is vital to keep in mind the main lesson from the Bosnian War, which is that sometimes more involvement is less desirable and that, occasionally, less involvement is more desirable. This moral is especially salient in that it casts doubts on the reflexive assertions of interventionists who contend that anything short of a commitment of American forces and money is necessary to further US interests. While this point does not substantiate the president’s proposed change in strategy in Syria and the Middle East, it ought to give advocates of ‘American Exceptionalism’ pause when they condemn the president’s plan and insist that US involvement is essential for problem-solving in international affairs when no amount of money, weapons, and time has brought the US any closer to reaching its strategic goals in Syria, or in other parts of the world in recent years, for that matter.
As such, the first question America ought to debate is not the logistics on the conflict before it, e.g., how many troops should it commit, how much money ought to be allocated, etc. Instead, it ought to start out by seriously reflecting on the costs — especially the secondary and tertiary ones that it so often ignores or fails to consider, like how its actions might engender anti-American sentiments or empower hostile governments and militias — inherent in military involvement before it make any commitment.
In the Bosnian War the US put itself in a straightjacket by trying to dictate terms and control which actors had a voice in the negotiations, e.g., by intermittently excluding and ignoring Russia and its perspective. The result was prolonged bloodshed and the inadvertent promotion of extremist forces and regimes that directly frustrated American interests. In Syria as in Bosnia, US involvement continues to work against American interests.
Lawmakers should be more open-minded towards the fact that US interests are not always served through US involvement, particularly in conflicts where America has no clear and direct reason for offering itself as a ‘solution’ to multifaceted and distant problems. That President Trump has highlighted this truism is a double-edged sword: it is ‘good’ in that he is a high-profile public figure who has brought attention to a truth that falls outside of the foreign policy mainstream in America; but it is ‘bad’ because many will write off his perspective and his proposed shift in policy because of disagreements with his administration.
One must hope that journalists, politicians, and other figures in government and media — especially those that shape opinion and frame political debates and choices — will be able to, despite their disagreements with President Trump, give the perspective and the principles he has expressed and referenced full and fair consideration. Doing so necessarily means that they will need to take seriously the lessons that history offers on how American involvement can, has, and continues to thwart US objectives and empower its enemies. The Bosnian War offers a good starting spot for appreciating those lessons as it highlights the steep price that others pay for cocky American imperialism and its potential for creating unforeseen and complex problems that have a tendency to stick around for years.
The sooner America sees itself as a fallible actor as opposed to the righteous deus ex machina in world affairs, the better. The case of the Bosnian War is clarifying and ought to be studied to draw attention to the fact that the US can be its own worst enemy abroad.
Coleman Hopkins is graduate of the University of Michigan with degrees in Philosophy and Political Science. He intends to enroll in law school next year to focus on environmental and/or appellate law. At some point in the future Coleman would like to teach.