Of Sarajevo and Baghdad
by Roger Cohen
On a visit to Serb-encircled Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, I drove the treacherous Igman road with Samantha Power, then a twenty-something rookie reporter and now a Harvard professor and a Pulitzer prize-winning author. Her book A Problem from Hell: America and the age of genocide has become a reference.
Moving at high speed on a twisting dirt track exposed to Serbian fire, I lost control. We veered toward a vertical drop that would kill three American diplomats later that year. She looked at me; I looked at her. Such moments, survived, create a bond.
So it has been hard seeing Power agonize, as I think the whole Bosnia generation has agonized, and come down, like David Rieff and Ed Vulliamy and other eloquent voices of Balkan interventionism, against the Iraq invasion.
Power concluded in early 2003 that intervening would ‘make the world a much more dangerous place’ even if it might make Iraq ‘a more humane place’. The former, for her, outweighed the latter.
Iraq did not grow more humane, not yet anyway. The world is still dangerous, possibly more so. When I spoke to Power the other day, she said something sad but probably true: ‘Humanitarian intervention - the non-consensual use of force - is dead. It had a very short life - September 1995 to the summer of 2003 - and it’s been killed for the next decade. America is the only power that can do it and, after Iraq, we would just be recruiting fodder for this apocalyptic nihilism.’
Put US soldiers in Dafur, in other words, and you create a target for the global jihadists.
An Iraq invasion turned ex-post-facto into a humanitarian intervention does not sit well with human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantà namo. The Bush Administration’s hubris has vitiated America’s moral clout.
Still, what a difference a dozen years make. Power waited, as I did, for American force, deployed too late but deployed nonetheless, to put an end to the mass murder of Muslims in Bosnia by a repressive Serbian regime.
It was American power again, used in Kosovo without the backing of a United Nations resolution, that brought to justice the regime’s loathsome dictator, Slobodan Milošević.
But, of course, compared to Saddam Hussein, Milošević was a plaything. And there’s the rub.
Have we liberal interventionists of the Balkans, members of the rapidly emptying school of ‘liberal hawks’, been too quick to abandon our principles out of feat of alignment with the neo-cons?
Or perhaps, more inexcusably, have we fallen short merely because of a failure of the imagination, an inability to conceive of and work for a better Middle East, as if Arabs and freedom were somehow incompatible?
I think so. Paul Berman, a political historian, has a useful phrase to characterize American Middle East policy over the six decades before the Iraq invasion: the pursuit of ‘malign stability’.
This approach, involving acquiescence to dictatorships in the name of stable repression and a stable oil supply, found its vilest expression in US support of Saddam through his 1980s war with Iran (about 1 million dead) and the Kurdish genocide of 1988.
Backing turned to indifference when, in 1991, Saddam slaughtered Iraqi Shiites and Kurds whom the United States had encouraged to rise up. As malignity goes, that takes some beating.
The price of ‘stability’ safeguarded by cynicism is worth recalling at a time when the Middle East’s name is instability. Whatever else the bungled Iraq operation has been, it marked the end of American buttressing of a poisonous Middle Eastern stasis and a murderous Stalinist regime.
It is also worth recalling that it was in the time of quiet malevolence, back in 1998, that Osama bin Laden declared: ‘To kill Americans and their allies - civilians and military - is an individual duty for every Muslim.’
Malign stability did not work, not in Iraq or Saudi Arabia. It produced a backlash that ended America’s self-image as sanctuary protected by two wide oceans.
The global jihadists were not created by the Iraq invasion. They were thriving on American policy prior to it.
The manifold blunders of America in Iraq have made it unfashionable to recall such truths.
Fashion is a poor compass. The next time a car bomb goes off, remember Saddon al-Saiedi, a 36-year-old Shiite army colonel, father of two, abducted by Saddam’s goons on 2 May 1993 and never seen again.
As he went, so went numberless others, without a bang. Totalitarian hell - malign stability - holds no hope. Violent instability is unacceptable but not hopeless. Baghdad is closer to Sarajevo than we have allowed.
This op-ed appeared in The International Herald Tribune, 25 June 2007