The Enduring Lesson of Sarajevo

News Abroad

Matthew Levinger is an associate professor of modern European history at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and a writer for the History News Service.

"No more Munichs," President Bush warned at the November ceremony in Lithuania marking the latest round of NATO expansion. The president should have added:"No more Sarajevos."

The notorious Munich conference of 1938, where Britain and France abandoned Czechoslovakia to Nazi aggression, taught the lesson:"Don't appease dictators." As the Bush administration prepares for a U.S. invasion of Iraq, it should also heed the lesson of Sarajevo:"Don't start a war without planning for all contingencies."

In the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo in 1914, Serb nationalists assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne. Austria's retaliation against Serbia escalated into a catastrophic world war that shattered Europe's political stability and left 10 million dead.

In the space of a single week in August 1914, the rigid alliance system of the European great powers transformed a regional conflict in the Balkans into a conflagration engulfing the entire continent. When Austria moved to attack Serbia, Russia mobilized against Austria and its ally Germany. Germany's military strategy mandated that any war against Russia begin with a knock-out blow against Russia's ally France--which brought Britain into the war as well.

Today, no such rigid alliances exist among the world's great powers, so an invasion of Iraq is unlikely to escalate into world war. Even so, given all the potential consequences of such an invasion, the administration's public statements on this subject suggest a disturbing lack of flexible contingency planning.

A wide variety of scenarios could seriously disrupt U.S. plans for regime change in Iraq:

Our invasion strategy appears to presume that popular support for Saddam Hussein will crumble rapidly. This assumption may well prove correct in light of Saddam Hussein's long and brutal oppression of his people -- but it is equally possible that the Iraqi dictator will preserve the loyalty of elements of Iraq's military and of the population at large.

Saddam Hussein's forces could succeed in attacking American troops with chemical or biological weapons, or Iraqi-sponsored terrorists could unleash such weapons on American or Israeli soil. The United States or Israel might contemplate retaliating against the use of weapons of mass destruction with a nuclear attack on Iraq.

After an American invasion, the Iraqi military could engage in house-to-house combat or terrorist attacks against U.S. troops in Baghdad and other cities. The U.S. forces could suffer heavy casualties and cause thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths in attempting to set in place a post-Saddam political order.

Iraqi Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south could take advantage of Saddam Hussein's fall to launch their own secessionist wars. The United States would then have either to accept the disintegration of Iraq or expend blood and treasure to suppress these outbreaks.

Popular outrage against an American invasion could spark violent uprisings in other parts of the Muslim world, thus toppling precarious governments such as that of General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. The United States would then face the terrifying prospect of a radical fundamentalist regime armed with nuclear missiles.

In 1914, Europe's generals planned only for rapid victory, not for the bloody stalemate of trench warfare."We'll be home for Christmas!" shouted the soldiers as they boarded trains for the front.

The blinkered optimism of military strategists made them too eager to start a war in 1914, and their lack of contingency planning made it harder to extricate their countries from the conflict when their initial strategies went awry. The ruinous aftermath of World War I made Hitler's rise to power possible.

In dealing with Iraq, it is vitally important that we learn from Europe's failure to contain Nazi Germany. The United States and our allies in the United Nations must hold Saddam Hussein accountable to the U.N. resolutions from the end of the Gulf War.

But we should exhaust all diplomatic alternatives before contemplating military action. If war proves unavoidable, the United States should define its objectives as narrowly as possible, focusing on the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, not the vague and expansive goal of"regime change." The narrower the mission, the more likely it is to be achieved without a decades-long military occupation of Iraq.

In seeking to contain one threat to international stability, we must take care, as those of the World War I generation did not, to avoid unleashing even greater evils on the world.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Ben Sanders - 2/12/2003

When a nation state is thrust into a world leadership role it has
two options. Behave like a world power or stumble into what France now finds itself mired in namely,wishfull day dreaming of
world leadership and respect in thier eyes at least.

America is fortunate in having a president who is light years
divorced from the loser Clinton & cohorts.Projecting a nation
states manifest destiny to borrow the admirals thoughts,is correct in confronting muslim terror. Our so - called European
NATO allies have short memories and long lived ulterior motives
to contend with today. France a country of willing nazi collaborationists coupled with Germany a nation of murder's thrived under the American taxpayers & military safety net for
56 years. How about an American boycott of them and products! It
would do wonders for Americans to begin this rejection today of
any store that continues to sell such products.

David F. Trask - 12/25/2002

At the risk of being called an old fuddy-duddy, I would reiterate an important truth about comparative history. In most cases the similarities are probably far less significant than the differences.

I suppose it is legitimate to note certain aspects of the Sarajevo episode as a basis for commenting on the situation in Iraq, but the observation that historical developments are unique suggests the inadequacy of straight-line comparisons. The Munich analogy to the Cold War conflict is perhaps the most notorious failure to recognize the essential novelty in the policy problem at hand and the need for the most careful consideration of the differences as against the similarities in the making of policy. Some may dismiss this viewpoint as sterile historicism, but thoughtless comparison to past events spurs me to comment.

I hope that this view is not viewed as support for present national policy. I am desperately opposed to an attack on Iraq unless it is proved that Sadam possesses dangerous weapons in sufficient amounts to pose unacceptable danger. Not until a UN-sponsored intervention based on proof rather than allegations of "material" errors, would I approve of a military solution in this case.

The key to a solution of the Middle East situation is a settlement of the Arab-Israeli confrontation. Previous American administrations understood this reality. "Regime change" in Iraq won't contribute to a settlement of this incredibly complicated matter. It may have the opposite effect.

Three especially cogent arguments suggest the need to suppress calls for a unilateral military attack. One is the extreme probability of plenary disarray in post-intervention Iraq, leading to a lengthy and expensive occupation. The second is the probability that any such effort would further exacerbate the Islamic fear and hatred of the U.S. and its coadjutors, further undermining chances of a peaceful Arab-Israeli settlement. The third is the uncertainty associated with any military operation. A possibly false analogy may contribute to the optimism of many Americans, i,e., that our forces could replicate the easy victory of the Gulf War. Many Americans seem to believe that we can win without serious costs in blood and treasure, an assumption that may or may not be true. If ultimately an intervention must take place, it should be with broad popular understanding that it may not be an easy task and that victory, whether hard-won or not, is bound to lead to problems that might well be far more difficult than the behavior of Saddam. The idea that if we destroy him, we will send a message to others and restore stability is another argument bolstered by historical comparisons that are exceedingly suspect.

These judgments result from a careful historical investigation making clear the full complexity of the present crisis. Comparison is the essence of responsible historical thought, but simplistic historical comparisons that emphasize similarities rather than differences are almost always productive of error. Observations such as the possibility that the "short-war illusion" prevalent in 1914 may have been reinvented in the case of Iraq are useful as hypotheses to be tested, but they do not provide sufficient guidance for the immensely difficult task of deciding questions of war and peace. Each situation poses new challenges that often aren't dealt with by inane historical analogies.

Gus Moner - 12/16/2002

Well, Mr Huisler or Bill if you will, here are the real definitions, not the interpretations:

Source: The Collins English Dictionary © 1998 HarperCollins Publishers
armistice [a m st s]
n. an agreement between opposing armies to suspend hostilities in order to discuss peace terms; truce.

Chiefly military.
1. a period of truce, esp one that is temporary and a preliminary step to establishing a more permanent peace on agreed terms.
interj., n.
2. the order to stop firing

There is barely a semantic difference, and one could make a case for a synonym. Thus, I do not believe that we are anymore at war with Iraq than we are with N Korea. Nor do I find one state more appealing than the other. So, we you may be technically right. However, both terms imply establishing a more permanent peace, not further hostilities. The difference is the wagons have been drawn tighter round Iraq for economic and political self-interest. I am more concerned with N Korea’s activities and potential for mischief than Iraq’s.

Not allowing a Sarajevo means what, exactly? Bear in mind AH’s imperialistic designs on the Balkans, (annexation of Bosnia Herzegovina rather than its administration under Ottoman sovereignty as had been agreed). It suited these just fine to find the links and use them as an excuse to subdue the upstart Serbians. Domination (economic and administrative) of the area would be much easier.

There is no ‘pacifist’ line as you’d have us believe. There is a diplomatic, international posture of measure response in accordance with the real- not propagandised- threat through the UN and the belligerent, unilateralist US posture.

At the risk of betraying my ignorance, I’ll admit having never read Zinn-Foner-Chomsky so I can hardly be in their ‘orbit’. I thank you for wishing to avoid me a fall in flames into your flaming reality inferno. I too wish to avoid it, and I do believe that is where the belligerence being proselytised by our leaders in the US administration will lead us.

It’s cause for pause and wonder why so few nations are in favour of this posture. The nations most likely to be affected by supposed Iraqi threats, their neighbours, all oppose this posture.

Aside from Britain, where opinion oscillates between 50-50 and 60-40 in favour of belligerence, the people of the EU, in an area ‘threatened’ by Iraq, are by huge margins opposed to the belligerent US policy. Mightn't be a good idea to let them have a leadership role? Or would youhave us believe they are suicidal or masochistic peoples wishing to be harmed?
Bye for now

Bill Heuisler - 12/16/2002

Mr. Moner,
Call me Bill; we correspond so much you seem almost family.
Armistice: A temporary cessation of hostilities.
Cease Fire: A halt to offensive operations, usually in anticipation of parley and armistice.
There has been no peace treaty with Iraq. The cessation of hostilities was predicated on an ongoing inspection by UNSCOM and has been tentative at best. Under any definition the UN and the US are technically still at war with Iraq.
Your fervent denials do not change reality.
Given this reality, any comparison with Sarajevo becomes moot. There was no cease fire or armistice in place between Serbia and Austria on June 28th, 1914. The Austrian reaction against the Bosnian/Serbian terrorists who killed the Arch-Duke and Duchess was to declare war on Serbia one month later. And with good reason: The Serbian Government was found to have been aware of the assasination plot by Princeps and the Serbian Union Or Death Society, but did little to prevent the crime or warn the Austrian Government. Sound familiar?
Using this historical paridigm, the author's original Sarajevo hypothesis supports W's arguments rather than the intended pacifist cautionary tale.
Were the US/UN to follow the pacifist line there would be no sanctions to broken treaties, no muscle in the parleys of the future. Therefore, future treaties, armistices, cease fires would become obsolete - a waste of time for the dominant and a forlorn hope for the nearly defeated. So, pacifists who care about human life should support the enforcement of agreements or prepare to watch the end-game slaughter in future uneven wars.

Speaking of uneven wars, North Korea's date with destiny involves oil and food rather than military conflict. Zeminh, W and Jong are realists. Wait and watch.

My government service involved the Marines and Special ops for a decade or so after discharge. For more than thirty years I have been a private citizen altruistically driven to saving the benighted from their folly - as you must be pulled from the rarified air of the Zinn-Foner-Chomsky orbit before you fall to reality in flames.
Best wishes, Bill

Gus Moner - 12/15/2002

Mr Huisler,
I have enjoyed and even learned from a few of our exchanges. In all your writings, even when opposed to my perspective, as you almost always are, you have anyway seemed lucid and logical, albeit flawed at times. I do realise you work for the government and may even have as part of your job description participation in these exchanges to keep the propaganda going. I am willing to live with that.
However, citing the US (dis) Information Agency as a credible and unbiased source is just a bit over the top. I’ll nevertheless bite, for the sake of argument.

So, Iraq is in violation of the cease fire? Fine. They are not alone. Why not attack other violators, like N Korea, supplier of missiles and builder of WMD? They are in violation of treaties the US amongst others, is signatory to.

I am not wrong about the basics. You are. Why do you claim we at war with Iraq? Since when? Did you declare it for all of us? Just why is Iraq more dangerous than N Korea, Iran, Saudi and Yemeni groups or Pakistani, Philippine, Indonesian terrorists?

Most 9-11 perpetrators were Saudis; Yemenis are avid supporters of al Qaeda. Pakistanis helped N Korea build WMD and are ‘spiritually’ responsible for terrorism in India. Why are we not after these proven perpetrators of terrorism and disseminators of dangerous weapons? All our anti-terrorism efforts are misdirected by obsessing on Iraq. Including Iraq in this melee now has been counter productive to combating terrorism, alienating potential allies. No one has convincingly explained why is Iraq so important now.

Your grudge match with Iraq needs clarification, and I beg to differ, we are not at war with them. Based on the evidence so far, I would also say there is no legal or moral basis to do what the US administration wants to do. And I reproach this administration’s lack of diplomatic teeth to deal with the roots of terrorism.

By the way, I am keen to learn what you believe are my ideological underpinnings. Additionally, please explain how a warmonger is ‘middle of the road’?
Ideologically challenged salutations to you.

Suetonius - 12/14/2002

A welcome cautionary point, Mr. Foster.

It may well be, when we look back on this in thirty years, that the Bush team was not interested in using military force. Instead, it may be that they felt compelled to threaten its use, as the only language that Hussein would understand, to demonstrate the seriousness with which they viewed the question of compliance with UN resolutions on Iraq's disarmament.

If Husseins back down, and the UN is able to complete the disarmament, the military force will still have achieved its purpose, and with far fewer casualties than the last Gulf War.

David Foster - 12/14/2002

In 1940, French Premier Paul Reynaud explained the difference between WWI and WWII: "People think Hitler is like Kaiser Wilhelm. The old gentleman only wanted to take Alsace-Lorraine from us. But Hitler is Genghis Khan." (quote approximate)

The level of risk one should be willing to take is dependent on the stakes. In 1914, the stakes involved the European balance of power. In 1940, they involved something much more serious.

Which situation is most analogous to the present? A few nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists could kill millions and reduce the world to chaos. Surely this is more similar to 1940 than to 1914.

Charles Bancroft - 12/13/2002

The analogy is by no means exact, but there is a similarity between the current Bush Administration's handling of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and the actions of the Kaiser's Germany in 1914. In July, 1914, after the Sarajevo murders, the international "bad guy" was Serbia. Two months later, following the preemptive violation of Belgium's neutrality, Germany was the leading candidate for that position.

George Beard - 12/12/2002

This piece is interesting but very incomplete. More important than the Sarajevo lessons of "plan for all contingencies" or "exhaust all diplomatic alternatives" is the one which is the most quintessentially American: Don't trust lying and incompetent politicians.

The operative word in describing the outbreak of the First World War is BLUNDER. Thanks to blundering politicians and the blundering generals they handed control over to in 1914, millions of Europeans died in a war that almost nobody wanted, that failed to resolve the most fundamental strategic problems that helped precipitate it, and which brought in its wake the twin evils of Bolshevism and Fascism, which in turn led to the violent deaths of tens of millions more.

Bill Heuisler - 12/12/2002

Mr. Moner,
Your sources of information are evidently as flawed as your ideological underpinnings.
Look this up and then argue with Kofi about your Armistice.

USIA BULLETIN August 8, 1998
By Judy Aita
USIA United Nations Correspondent
United Nations -- The UN Security Council and Secretary General Kofi Annan declared August 6 that Iraq has violated the Gulf War cease-fire agreement by unilaterally suspending cooperation with UN weapons inspectors, but the Secretary General held out hope that further talks with Iraqi officials will avert another crisis between Baghdad and the international community.--

When you are wrong about the basics, details just go all to hell.
Thousands of breeches, maybe, but it's cold in Korea. There are 16 major breaches of the cease-fire agreement with Iraq in the most recent UN resolution. We have an Armistice with Korea. Send pants to them if you'd like to help, but we are not presently at war with Korea and we are definitely at war with Iraq.
Middle-of-the-road salutations, Bill Heuisler

Gus Moner - 12/12/2002

I hate to disappoint you, but I have never read them. As for Holocaust Revisionism, where’s the link to the story line? Are you unable to follow your own thought patterns?

Gus Moner - 12/12/2002

One would have to question your self assessment of middle of the road. There is no scramble to ‘avoid taking action’. While Saddam is unable to do anything, and we insist he is the threat, N Korea proliferates missiles and other re-starts nuclear reactors that can help make weapons that can threaten the interests of the Western world. What are we doing about that? Nothing.
It’s a grudge match, a family feud, unnecessary save in Kentucky or W. Virginia. Your ‘middle of the road’ obsessions with Iraq are blinding you to real threats. Other nations fail to heed the UN resolutions affecting them. Why not hold them accountable too? If you had read instead of fumbled history, you’d know the Gulf War ended just like the Korean war did, with an armistice. Why not attack N Korea? Why continue appeasement of N Korea? Why obsess on Iraq? Not for oil, of course.
There have literally been thousands of breeches of the N Korean cease fire agreement. Not 16. The two sides just had a second naval engagement this year. You can help your nation. Get off your middle of the road gibberish, stop parroting government propaganda and start thinking.
We just don’t see the urgency with Iraq. Of course, they didn’t try to kill my daddy.

Bill Heuisler - 12/12/2002

Mr. Moner,
In spite of our hallucinogen-induced hysteria, we middle-of-the-road realists manage to fumble pages and read books and search for facts. We froth at pacifists like Levinger because his frantic scramble to avoid taking action against Saddam Hussein ignores the truth and misleads.
Deception #1:
" is vitally important that we learn from Europe's failure to contain Nazi Germany. The United States and our allies must hold Saddam Hussein accountable to the U.N. resolutions from the end of the Gulf War."
There was no end to the Gulf War, only a cease fire. If we continue to appease, we do not learn from Europe's failure.
Deception #2:
"But we should exhaust all diplomatic alternatives before contemplating military action."
There have been 16 major breaches of the cease fire agreement. How many diplomatic alternatives should we exhaust? (see#1) before finally ending the Gulf War like VE and VJ in 1945?
Deception #3:
"...the vague and expansive goal of regime change."
There is nothing vague or expansive about regime change. Rather it is the common result of war to replace the losing leader.

Lastly, there has never been a plan for war that covers all contingencies; to anticipate all possibilities would mean never doing anything. Is that what you and Mr. Levinger want?
Bill Heuisler

donkates - 12/11/2002

I don't need valium, Mr. Moner. YOU need to read somehing on history and world affairs more accurate that THE PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION, and the works of Holocaust "revisionists"

Gus Moner - 12/11/2002

Please, take a tranquilliser and calm down, you are frothing at the mouth.
What exactly is irresponsible about airing opposition to US Iraqi policy? That you don’t like it? If you want to live in a one thought state, move house to the object of your obsession, Iraq.

The scenarios you lay out do seem remotely possible. But not from Iraq, rather perhaps N. Korea (which you claim has no record comparable to Saddam’s). Read your history of Korea.

These scenarios could come from any mad regime willing to invest enough to get these weapons. Need proof? Are N Korea, Israel, Pakistan and India enough? These regimes are led by radical nationalist or religious fundamentalists, in the case of Israel, it’s the most militarised society on Earth, surpassing even N Korea. Do you want real lunacy instead of your hallucinogenic ‘possibilities’? How about three Israeli ‘preventive’ wars, three Pakistani Indian conflicts, with a China-India sideshow included. N Korea unleashed a war to re-conquer the southern part. All since 1946. Need more?

Quick, name the nations that have used WMD since they were banned after WWI. Your ‘programme’ sounds dastardly. Would you support all other nations dealing with each other this way? Killing leaders to suit their whims, perceived threat or what have you, rather totalitarian methods, wouldn't you say? It sounds like Nazi Germany or the USSR.
The resulting chaos if your 'policies' were implemented would……

don kates - 12/9/2002

The foregoing pseudo-analysis epitomizes irresponsible opposition to our Iraq policy. We have to consider, the author says, the grave potential downsides of invading. Why, we might lose as many as perhaps tens of thousands of troops in such a campaign if it included house-by-house clearing of Baghdad.
Fair enough. But why is there no mention of the grave downsides of allowing a maniacal mass murderer to obtain nuclear weapons -- as has been his fixed objectives for years. What about the down- side that having obtained as few as 6 such weapons Saddam might surrepticouly plant them on tramp freighters and have suicide bombers sail them into NY, Boston, LA, San Francisco and Seattle harbors and set them off? If we consider this possibility -- and our UTTER inability to prevent it -- is it not MANDATORY that we disarm this lunatic to avoid tens of MILLIONS of dead Americans, and the smashing of America back to a pre-industrial level?
NOTE: please do not tell me that N. Korea, Pakistan, India, China, France, England, etc. have nuclear weapons. The leaders of those nations do not have records comparable to Saddam's. Also, do not talk to me about the dangers of "regime change." I am not advocating that. I am advocating disarming Saddam. This would in all probability involve killing him or his removal from power but that is not a part of my program, just an incidental benefit.