While Democrats and some Republican senators compete with one another to see who can come up with the most politically attractive plan for abandoning Iraq, one of the most thoughtful assessments of what will occur if the United States starts pulling troops out of Iraq appeared in the lead of Sunday’s massive front-page story in The Washington Post. Unfortunately, The Post buried the lead — an unnamed U.S. official’s comment about the catastrophic consequences of an ill-conceived withdrawal — in the 34th paragraph of a 35-paragraph story. If the administration decided to have troops retreat to bases inside Iraq and not intervene in sectarian warfare, a U.S. official said, our troops could find themselves in a position that “would make the Dutch at Srebrenica look like heroes.”
The article didn’t explain the Srebrenica reference. But the murder of up to 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men by Serbian militias, which occurred 12 years ago this week, should serve as a warning to those senators who think they can split the difference by “redeploying” troops out of Iraqi cities to “safe havens” and border areas where the soldiers can’t get hurt. War critics routinely speak with derision about the idea that American troops should intervene to prevent a “civil war” — as if there is really some way to make neat distinctions between jihadists who want to attack America and Iraqis slaughtering Iraqis, which apparently needn’t concern us.
On July 9, 1995, Bosnian Serbs stepped up their shelling of Muslim refugees near Srebrenica; the Serbs attacked Dutch observation posts, taking close to 30 soldiers hostage. Three days later, the Serbs began separating males between ages 12 and 77 for interrogation over “war crimes.” The following day, peacekeepers handed over approximately 5,000 Muslim men to the Serbs, who released some of their Dutch hostages and began murdering their Muslim captives. By July 16, 1995, between 7,000 and 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men, callously betrayed by the Dutch soldiers who had been responsible for their protection, had been slaughtered. In all likelihood, the barbarism at Srebrenica will seem small when compared with the mass murder of Muslims that will occur if the United States begins drawing down its forces in Iraq anytime soon.
In their seminal Brookings Institution study published earlier this year (“Things Fall Apart”) of how civil wars routinely spread to and destabilize neighboring countries, Brookings scholars Kenneth Pollack (a senior National Security Council official in the Clinton administration) and Daniel Byman warn against trying “half-hearted humanitarian interventions” such as those attempted by the United States in Bosnia and by the United States in Lebanon a quarter-century ago. “Limited forays are likely to do little more than cause American casualties and embroil the United States more deeply in the conflict while courting humiliating defeat,” they wrote. The consequences of such a policy, according to Messrs. Pollack and Byman, will prove so disastrous that it would actually be preferable for the United States to completely abandon Iraqi population centers, even though the results of doing that would be “horrific.”
Iraq war critics are deluding themselves if they think there’s a cheap and easy way to abandon Iraq.