Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Feeding the Fragile Dove of Peace

Ten years ago, at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, Ohio, the leaders who had waged a brutal four-year war in Bosnia -- at the center of a volatile region that had launched two world wars -- finally agreed to peace. They took this momentous step only after intense international military and diplomatic pressure led by the United States. At the time, almost everyone predicted that the Dayton Peace Agreement would fail.

To enforce the agreement, I sent 20,000 U.S. soldiers to Bosnia as part of a 60,000-troop NATO peacekeeping force, because it was the only way to ensure that the Dayton Agreement was more than words on a page. For three winters, the people of Sarajevo had inspired us all with their courage in the face of snipers, hunger and bitter cold. After the genocide of 1995, when more than 7,000 men were murdered in Srebrenica, it was clear that only NATO under America's leadership could ensure peace.

Still, a large majority of the American public opposed my decision. Some expected heavy casualties; some feared another round of war, with Bosnia split in two and the need for our troops never-ending. On the day before the Dayton Agreement was to take effect, the House of Representatives voted three-to-one against a U.S. troop deployment to Bosnia. Despite this opposition, I felt the United States had to act in order to stop the atrocities and try to bring peace and stability to the region.

Ten years later, the people of Bosnia have validated those who stood with them. Dayton ended the war. It will not resume. The region is now stable and peaceful, and the brutal killings are only a memory, albeit a painful one for the many families who lost loved ones. In 10 years, there have been no U.S. or NATO casualties from hostile action, and troop levels are now down to 7,000 overall, of which fewer than 200 are American.

Bosnia is one country. It does have two distinct entities, one Serb and one a Croat-Muslim Federation, but movement is unimpeded across the boundary line and there are no troops or roadblocks on that line. The country has a single currency and a single economy. Bosnia had more than 400,000 people under arms in 1995; today it has fewer than 10,000. Just under half the displaced people have returned, many of them to areas where they constitute a minority. Almost no one dared to predict these successes a decade ago.

To be sure, Dayton was not a perfect peace. It is hard to imagine such a thing. But it achieved vital national security interests. It ended the worst war in Europe in a half-century, which threatened the peaceful integration of Europe after the Cold War. It, and subsequent events in Kosovo, laid the basis for a multiethnic state, which has lived in peace for a decade with its neighbors. It triggered the events that led to the dictator Slobodan Milosevic's removal and trial at The Hague for war crimes.

Additionally, at the time of Dayton we estimated that there were more than 1,000 Islamic extremist fighters in Bosnia, and Iran had forged close ties to some in Bosnia's government. Special provisions that we wrote into the military annex of the Dayton Agreement gave us the opportunity to use NATO troops to clean out those cells, even as al-Qaida was building its organization in the heart of Europe.

We were well aware then of Dayton's shortcomings, and our hopes to improve on them over the years have not all been realized. Most regrettably, one major Dayton task remains unmet. While this year the authorities in the Serb republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina have assisted in the transferal of some 12 indicted war criminals to the International War Crimes Tribunal, this is not enough. The authorities of the Republika Srpska, together with those of Serbia and Montenegro, must continue to do their part to close this chapter of history. Without the arrest and transfer of all indicted war criminals, especially Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, justice will not have been done and the Balkans will be unable to leave the past behind them.

Bosnia's 10-year path since Dayton reminds all of us privileged to lead U.S. foreign policy of a simple truth: Every one of us who starts a large initiative will be out of office before America's job is done. Progress takes time, and speed is often the enemy of progress. Therefore, we cannot undertake an initiative without preparing to hand it off -- by building support across the aisle at home, and by finding international partners who will pick up the job when America is occupied by new challenges. To this end, my administration built our policy around gaining allied support and adding international help over time.

In October, the European Union took the tremendous step of inviting Bosnia to begin the process of becoming a member of the EU. For centuries, empires collided in and around Bosnia. Today, Bosnia and its neighbors are on their way to becoming part of a Europe that is whole and free -- something every U.S. president since Harry Truman has wanted. This could not have happened had America not sustained its partnership with Europe during the difficult process of making peace. And all of Bosnia's neighbors would not today be on the doorstep of a new prosperity if Bosnia and her citizens had not worked hard to make the Dayton peace a success.

Today, the United States is again showing leadership in the region. When U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Undersecretary Nicholas Burns invited Bosnia's leaders to Washington to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Dayton this week, it was not just for ceremony; it was an important move to improve the accord. I commend them for the agreement to adopt meaningful constitutional reform; all of those involved in the original effort believed in continued American engagement to improve on our efforts. After this week's focus on Bosnia, I look forward to the far more daunting task that lies ahead for Balkan negotiators: resolving the final status of Kosovo. The long delay and rising tensions will make negotiations harder, but they must proceed with strong American involvement.

Looking back, it is clear that the United States and its European allies should have acted in Bosnia earlier. But when America did act, with bombings followed by the diplomatic initiative that culminated in Dayton, we made a decisive difference.

Although no American troops have been killed or wounded, the country's involvement cost the lives of three of its finest diplomats. Robert Frasure, Joseph Kruzel and Nelson Drew died in the negotiating team's first attempts to reach Sarajevo over the dangerous and disputed Mount Igman road on Aug. 19, 1995. When I met with their families and the only survivors of the original negotiating team -- Richard Holbrooke and General Wesley Clark -- at Arlington National Cemetery a few days later, I asked the reconstituted negotiating team to return immediately to the region to show our commitment and determination to end the war.

A week later, the Bosnian-Serbs mortared the Sarajevo marketplace and I immediately authorized a serious and sustained NATO bombing campaign, which played a vital role in bringing the parties to Dayton.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. While there is still work to be done, the Dayton Accords brought a long-awaited peace to a volatile region, where ethnic minorities now feel safe and children play on streets where they used to hide from snipers and mortar shells. And the dream of a Europe united, free and at peace, is still alive.

Bill Clinton was the 42nd president of the United States. This comment first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.