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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Was Bosnia Worth It?

If you wonder whether the 1995 American intervention in Bosnia was the right decision, go to a really horrible place, one whose name has become synonymous with genocide and Western failure. Go to Srebrenica.

Ten years after Bosnian Serbs under the command of General Ratko Mladic murdered 7,000 Muslims there, I found myself back in that valley of evil as part of the official U.S. delegation. We walked across muddy fields, under leaden skies, through a vast throng of victim families who were burying more than 600 of their loved ones, their grief and personal hatred of those who had done this undiminished by the passage of a decade.

But even in Srebrenica, there has been progress since my last visit, five years ago. Then, only 10 brave -- one might say recklessly brave -- Muslim families had returned to their homes, and they lived in constant fear among 12,000 Serbs. Today, 4,000 Muslims have returned, and one-third of the Serbs have already left. This is astonishing, and more of the same seems certain if the international community remains involved; in this regard, U.S. President George W. Bush's strong words of support at the ceremony -- read by the head of his delegation, Ambassador for War Crimes Pierre Prosper -- were welcomed. There was also an important effort at reconciliation: Top leaders from Serbia and the Serb part of Bosnia came to lay wreaths, an important acknowledgment of Serb responsibility for what happened.

Things have improved even more in the rest of Bosnia. Above all, there is peace and not simply a cease-fire; this war will not resume. Nor has Bosnia become two separate states, as many critics of the Dayton Peace Agreement predicted. Although many (including in the Pentagon) predicted a Korea-like demilitarized zone between Serbs and Muslims, there are no barriers between the regions, and there are growing economic and political ties between ethnic groups. More than 1 million refugees have returned to their homes, many, like those in Srebrenica, to areas where they are in a minority. Both the European Union and NATO are beginning talks that could lead to association agreements between Bosnia and Brussels.

So there is good news (which often means "no news" to editors) from Bosnia. But not nearly enough. From the beginning, implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement was insufficiently aggressive. The most important failure was not capturing the two most wanted war criminals in Europe, Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. This is a story unto itself of missed opportunities and poor intelligence. Mladic is, after all, in Serbia, and has been seen in public. I would guess that Karadzic has trimmed his trademark gray pompadour, grown a beard, and is hiding in some monastery in the deep mountains of eastern Bosnia or Montenegro. If Karadzic and Mladic are not brought to justice, the international security force (now a European Union force, with NATO reduced to a small office and fewer than 200 American troops) will never be able to leave, and Bosnia's return to a multiethnic society (and the institutions of Europe) will be delayed or prevented.

It is by now universally understood that a great crime was committed in Srebrenica. As U.S. assistant secretary of state for European affairs at the time, I argued, unsuccessfully, that we needed NATO airstrikes to stop the Bosnian Serbs -- bullies who preferred long-range artillery and short-range murder to anything resembling a real military operation. But Britain, France and the Netherlands had troops deployed, as part of the United Nations' peacekeeping force, in three extremely exposed enclaves in eastern Bosnia, including Srebrenica. Facing the brutal threats of Mladic, they refused to consider airstrikes until the Dutch troops were ignominiously escorted out of Srebrenica. By then it was too late.

From 1991 to 1995, the United States had been reluctant to act in Bosnia. But after Srebrenica, President Bill Clinton knew that although the American people would not like it, the United States could no longer avoid involvement there. Thus began the diplomatic and military policy that led to the Dayton accords, to peace in Bosnia and, four years later, to the liberation of the Albanian people in Kosovo from Slobodan Milosevic's oppression.

Sending 20,000 U.S. troops to Bosnia as part of a NATO-led peacekeeping contingent to enforce Dayton took real political courage. There were widespread predictions that it would fail, and there was opposition from most of Congress and the foreign policy elite. In a poll at the time, Clinton's decision was supported by only 36 percent of the American public, who expected heavy U.S. casualties. As it turned out, that expectation was misplaced; in the 10 years since Dayton, no -- repeat, no -- American or NATO military personnel have been killed by hostile action in Bosnia. It is a mark of the respect in which NATO -- that is, the United States -- is held.

This was Clinton's most important action in regard to Europe -- an action opposed, incidentally, by most of his political advisers. It was a classic commander-in-chief decision, made alone, without congressional support and with only reluctant backing from the Pentagon. But it worked: Without those 20,000 troops, Bosnia would not have survived, 2 million refugees would still be wandering the face of Western Europe, a criminal state would be in power in Bosnia itself -- and we would probably have had to pursue Operation Enduring Freedom not only in Afghanistan but also in the deep ravines and dangerous hills of central Bosnia, where a shadowy organization we now know as al-Qaida was putting down roots that were removed by NATO after Dayton.

Was Bosnia worth it? As we approach the 10th anniversary of Dayton, there should no longer be any debate. Had the United States not intervened -- belatedly but decisively -- a disaster would have taken place with serious consequences for U.S. national security and the war on terrorism. Dayton reasserted an American leadership role in Europe after a period of drift and confusion. But the job is not yet finished, and it is encouraging to see Bush and the new team at the State Department recommit the nation, as they did last week at Srebrenica.

Richard Holbrooke was the chief architect of the Dayton Peace Agreement. He writes a monthly column for The Washington Post, where this comment first appeared.