How the Srebrenica Massacre Led to the Iraq War

A suspected mass grave site near Srebrenica in 1996 Vadim Ghirda / AP

The genocide in Srebrenica, Bosnia, 15 years ago this week continues to haunt European consciences. The massacre is frequently in the news, most recently because relatives of the victims are now asking prosecutors in the Netherlands to charge Dutch peacekeepers with war crimes. For Americans, the anniversary of the massacre will mostly go unnoticed. But it shouldn't—the horrible events of July 1995 in Srebrenica have a lot to do with why Americans are now in Iraq.

Of course, Iraq was on few minds at the time in Srebrenica, a small town in the east of Bosnia and Herzegovina. There Dutch troops stood by at the U.N.-declared "safe zone" while Serbs overran it, killing 8,000 Muslim men and boys with firing squads. It was the worst crime in Europe since World War II, and it happened while the world watched.

Besides the genocide itself, the spectacle of peacekeepers acting as bystanders seemed an atrocity in its own right. Prohibited from using force, the 600 U.N. soldiers depended on NATO planes to give them cover. But NATO policy required the U.N.'s blessing before it could launch attacks—a circular logic that made intervention difficult. Betting correctly that the international community wouldn't use force, the Serbs simply marched past the peacekeepers, separated the males of Srebrenica from the females, and slaughtered them. Soon after seizing the town, the Serbian general responsible for the genocide insisted that the commander of U.N. peacekeepers there raise a glass with him "to long life." He did. The image of the two drinking together seemed to encapsulate all that was dangerous and hypocritical with the United Nations and multilateralism.

It was not just the U.N. that was at fault—the United States stood by, refusing to lead NATO in striking the Serbs, despite begging from Srebrenica residents and their peacekeepers. President Bill Clinton was hesitant about using force, opposed to using American troops in a distant land. "We've chosen not to put troops on the ground because we don't believe it is in the vital interests of the United States to do so," declared an administration spokesman.

Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic, left, drinks with Dutch Col. Ton Karremans, second from right. AP

The awful photos and stories that emerged from Srebrenica destroyed the myth of decisive multilateralism. Democrats began to lose faith. As Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier put it in their book America Between the Wars, "Although neither the president nor his advisers embraced the more paranoid, reflexive anti-U.N. attitudes held by the [congressional] Republicans, they did become more willing to sidestep the organization and find new ways to work with others or establish legitimacy—and, if necessary, to act alone." The New Republic devoted an entire issue to Srebrenica, driving home the message of the failure to act.

Compounding the frustration was the seeming ease with which Clinton (this time along with a NATO-led coalition) put Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic off his next campaign—against the Kosovars—by targeted bombing. Liberals saw a lesson: the real danger was not in acting impulsively, but in acting too late.

If liberals were disillusioned with the U.N., conservatives were unsurprised. For Republicans, Srebrenica confirmed what they already know: multilateralism was worse than useless, it was counterproductive. So when Iraq came onto the U.S. radar screen in 2002 and 2003, the U.N. had already been discredited in American eyes. "Having proved itself impotent in the Balkan crisis and now again in the Iraq crisis, the United Nations will sink once again into irrelevance," wrote Charles Krauthammer. And since Saddam Hussein was even worse than Milosevic, making an invasion against Iraq also seemed like a humanitarian imperative.

Many Democrats supported President George W. Bush in Iraq after their Srebrenica failure. As the British columnist David Aaronovitch wrote, there was a "road from Srebrenica to Iraq ... If Bosnia was the betrayal through inaction and appeasement, Srebrenica the consequence and Kosovo the determination not to let it happen again, then the line runs clear." Americans across the political spectrum supported Iraq after seeing success in the Balkans and concluding that U.S. power was indispensable, says Tony Smith, whose book A Pact With the Devil chronicles the Iraq War. "The animus against Milosevic was such that it was easy for many to put Saddam in the same crosshairs once Milosevic had been successfully defeated," he says. "In this sense, I see a path from the Balkans straight into Iraq."

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Of course, Iraq was not Srebrenica, and Iraqis were not Bosnians. What seemed relatively painless there—stopping a dictator and forging a peace—was an order of a different magnitude in Iraq. Seven years after the Iraq invasion, 4,000 American troops are dead and the U.S. is still struggling to forge a coherent state. "Mistaking the relative ease with which Serbia could be handled for what might be repeated in Iraq was obviously an error of enormous consequence," says Smith. It may have occurred in Europe, but the ghosts of Srebrenica haunt America, too.

Jordan Michael Smith is a writer in Washington, D.C. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, and The New Republic.