Referring to recent political change in various parts of the Middle East, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week, "These changes have taken place, essentially, in the last two years and that's really the blink of an eyelash in terms of history."
Well, this week marks the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-brokered Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. That, too, can be seen, in historical terms at least, as the blink of an eyelash.
On several levels those marking the occasion made appropriate comments about the significant progress which has been made in the Balkans during the past decade. Some alluded to the obvious comparison with America's current involvement in Iraq.
Secretary Rice said: "Ten years ago, many doubted whether democracy would be possible among Serbs and Croats and Muslims in the war-torn lands of the Balkans. Today, we are seeing those doubts dismissed. Bosnia and Herzegovina is emerging as yet another example of how democracy can help diverse peoples live together without fear or repression."
Of course that is exactly what the Bush administration hopes a future secretary of state will be able to say about Iraq in a few years.
Bosnia and Herzegovina's eventual aim is for membership in NATO and the European Union. The biggest roadblock now is for its political leadership to meet the international community's demand to arrest several of its former leaders who have been indicted on war crimes charges, most especially Radovan Karadic and Ratko Mladic.
"There can be no more excuses and no more delays. Ten years is long enough." To emphasize her point, Rice added: "America's position is clear and uncompromising. Every Balkan country must arrest its indicted war criminals or it will have no future in NATO."
Aside from the issue of apprehending war criminals, most of those gathered in Washington this week hailed the overall political, economic and social progress made in the Balkans. However, one participant, who asked not to be identified because he is still involved in the region, said, "progress has been slower than it should have been." Asked why, the diplomat smiled and simply said: "There aren't too many statesmen in the Balkans."
In the case of Iraq, most of what we see now is in the context of its current political importance here at home and in the daily toll it takes in lives lost, American and Iraqi.
Comparisons can be tricky. However, when asked about lessons learned in Bosnia as they apply to Iraq, retired Ambassador Robert Gelbard, former presidential envoy for the Balkans, said, "The fundamental lesson … is troop presence."
Noting that the U.S. military suffered no combat casualties during its involvement in Bosnia and Kosovo, Gelbard attributed frequent patrols and a highly visible military force for the astonishingly low casualty rate.
"The intimidation factor is essential," he said. In short, there were enough troops under the NATO umbrella to do the job. By comparison, while no one could expect a zero combat casualty rate in Iraq, the administration has been criticized often for not having enough troops in Iraq to handle the problem posed by those who oppose America's presence there.
Gelbard also noted another lesson. In the Balkans the Clinton administration developed a reconstruction plan and included a lot of other countries at the outset to help implement the Dayton agreement. By contrast, he said, the Pentagon "made a conscious and determined effort not to want to know the lessons of Bosnia from the beginning."
The high representative in charge of reconstruction efforts was always a European, with an American as deputy. This, Gelbard claims, gave the Europeans a stake in what happened from the beginning in the Balkans. While the Bush administration has, over time, gotten the U.N. and others involved in Iraq, it got off to a slow start when it came to sharing decision-making.
America is not finished with its involvement in the Balkans, but this week political leaders and those involved at Dayton could proudly point to much progress achieved during the past 10 years.
It's hard to imagine a scenario where significant numbers of U.S. troops will be in Iraq a decade from now, given the political pressure to withdraw them. But clearly there will have to be the same kind of patience and commitment shown by the international community in rebuilding Iraq for many years if the reconstruction effort is to be as successful there as it has been in the Balkans.
Charles M. Wolfson