Lessons from the Balkans

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LISA MULLINS: Iraq is mending slowly. Then again, recovering from a war is almost always a difficult process. A case in point is Bosnia-Herzegovina. US air strikes against Bosnian Serb targets in 1995 ended a civil war there. The country has known a fragile peace since then. Well today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began a tour of the Balkans. Roger Cohen covered the Balkan wars for The New York Times. He says Iraq could do worse than to follow the path Bosnia has taken, as arduous as that path has been.

ROGER COHEN: It has to be said that no shot has been fired in anger in Bosnia since 1995. But the country had been so ripped apart at that point that a very awkward three-way sharing of power was set up between the three constituent parties of Bosnia, the Muslims, the Croats, and the Serbs. Now whether in Iraq the Kurds, Shia, and Sunnis, which I guess would parallel the three groups I mentioned in Bosnia, whether they could ever come to some similar power sharing arrangement I think is highly debatable. I suspect that Iraqi democracy is going to prove, it's already proving, or continue to prove, very cumbersome. Nevertheless it's an important example, I think, to the Middle East if one Arab nation does try to settle the quandaries it faces not by one ethnic or religious group crushing another, but through the painful process of sitting around the table and trying to resolve things.

MULLINS: So, as we look for a model, or Iraqis look for a model, just to put a finer point on what happened in Bosnia, how fixed would you say it is today?

COHEN: Well, it's not a very satisfactory arrangement and one of the things Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may be looking at is how to establish a more functioning, perhaps more unitary, constitutional system. In Bosnia it's difficult. The Serb parts still talks of secession and joining with Serbia and takes, as an example, Kosovo's recent independence from Serbia. So the issues are by no means resolved.

MULLINS: I don't know if you've ready Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister's memoir, have you yet?

COHEN: I haven't read it, but I'm pretty familiar with his thinking.

MULLINS: Well, then you probably are familiar with what he wrote about Kosovo saying that the experience in Kosovo gave him, at least, the confidence to try and change things in Iraq. Do you think that the relative success stories that you've described in the Balkans, given the caveats, do you think that they have indeed influenced other policy makers when it comes to Iraq?

COHEN: Yeah, I think very much so. And I would place myself very firmly in that generation of liberal hawks, if you like, liberal interventionists who then got to sobering lesson in Iraq. Look, Lisa, the experience, I covered the war in Bosnia and the experience of sitting in a men's circle, European city, year after year, watching women and children being shelled and the [INDISCERNIBLE] emanating from Washington and elsewhere, thousand year old hatreds and all this, justifying non-intervention, I think turned all of us, and Tony Blair included, into interventionists and in a sense Saddam Hussein was a more brutal tyrant and took more lives than Slobodan Milosevic. So one argument at the time went well, is it just because Iraq's not in Europe that the kind of interventionism was upheld in the Balkans doesn't apply to the Middle East. But, of course, with the Iraq war this was not justified on the grounds of a humanitarian intervention, it was justified, the reason given for going to war, was the supposed weapons of mass destruction and those reasons proved empty, void, it was a false justification and it forever, I think, flawed the whole enterprise.

MULLINS: Alright, thank you very much for your thoughts. Roger Cohen, columnist for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, speaking to us from London.

COHEN: Thank you very much, Lisa.