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Matt Frei's diary: Dilemmas of intervention

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

In 1991, the war between Croatia and Serbia shocked and confused the world in equal measure.

Radovan Karadzic in The Hague in 2008
Radovan Karadzic is accused of leading a campaign of ethnic cleansing

I was despatched to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, which was then quietly gearing up for its own carnage.

It was early spring. The trees were beginning to blossom. The pavement cafes were packed. The writers' club was full of cigarette smoke and premonition about the impending war in Bosnia.

But somehow the laughter, much of it hysterical, and the local plum brandy, most of it lethal, rendered the dire warnings into the realm of paranoia.

Meanwhile, attics and cellars were busily being converted into arms depots. Plans for ethnic cleansing were being finalised, murderous maps circulated amongst men waiting for orders.

I was there to write a story about Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader who had waged war with Slovenia and Croatia for wanting to split off from the withering state of Yugoslavia.

I wanted to find out more about the alleged propensity for suicide amongst Serbs from Montenegro, which is where Milosevic's family hailed from.

"I know who you can talk to," a friend of mine said.

"He's a psychiatrist. He's a Montenegro Serb and he knows Slobodan really well. His name is Dr Radovan Karadzic and he tends to hang out at the Holiday Inn."

Matt Frei in the BBC World News America studio
This wasn't a remote pile of rocks in Asia Minor. This was a place you could drive to for lunch from Vienna or Venice

That was the first time I heard the name of the man who failed to sit in the defendant's chair this week to face charges of mass murder at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.

At first, Radovan Karadzic appeared a likeable sort of fellow. He was tall. He spoke excellent English and he loved poetry.

He wrote some himself, although it apparently wasn't very good. Melodramatic nonsense combining the bloodcurdling and the soppy, seems to have been the general verdict.

Over the next few years, the psychiatrist and amateur poet is accused of morphing into one of the most ruthless engineers of mass murder in Europe since the Nazi occupation.

For four years, the outside world grappled with its conscience, watched as Bosnia tore itself apart and dusted off old arguments as to why military intervention in the boggy Balkans was bound to end in a bloodbath for American or British troops.

And this wasn't a remote pile of rocks in Asia Minor. This was a place you could drive to for lunch from Vienna or Venice.

The UN was deployed, but its presence was a cruel joke. A few hundred Dutch peacekeepers, with no orders to shoot, were unable to stop more than 7,000 men and boys from being machine-gunned into mass graves.

That was Srebrenica and it was only the worst of far too many crimes.

The purveyors of violence weren't the suicide bombers of today who hate their enemy more than they cherish their own lives. There were no diabolical IEDs hidden in drink cans.

Era of absence

For the most part, the killing was carried out by drunken men with guns who rounded up defenceless civilians. As we discovered later - far too late - in Kosovo in 1999 when NATO ground troops did show up, the thugs just melted away.

After leaving Kosovo, I found quite a few of them on the beach in Montenegro, taking a rest after so many years of exhausting ethnic cleansing.

Today, we debate whether we should get further involved in Afghanistan and whether we should have gone into Iraq at all.

Pres Obama greeting troops in Florida on 26 October 2009
President Obama told troops he would not rush a decision on deployment

In the 1990s, it was the other way round. That was the decade of great absences. US troops were despatched to Somalia but soon hurried to the exit when it got too hairy.

Former President Bill Clinton agonised for one month in the spring of 1994 over Rwanda while almost a million people were systematically butchered. It is still one of his biggest regrets. And so it should be.

This was the era in which PJ O'Rourke memorably said that the American public viewed the Bosnian war as pitting the "unspellables" against the "unpronounceables".

The response of the world's most powerful nations to Bosnia was, by and large, criminally inert.

Since 9/11 we have gone from being light-footed to being heavy-handed. Many have conveniently forgotten that this change came about because the attacks on the Twin Towers made the fight against extremists abroad very personal.

Intervention became more than just a moral obligation. It became a matter of our security.

If the last decade of the 20th Century was the era of negligence, the first decade of the 21st Century has been one of robust intervention.

I wouldn't be surprised if we're now seeing this era fizzle out courtesy of Afghanistan. Even if President Barack Obama does order a significant surge, you can feel the urgency seep out of this war.

Americans no longer understand it. They don't get why their sons and daughters should be deployed to prop up a regime that has just stolen an election.

Little support

Our BBC News/Harris poll finds fewer than a third of Americans support sending more troops. And who can blame them? Their appetite for occupying Afghanistan and defying the ghosts of history has dwindled with the resources for making it happen.

Personally, I am still not convinced which is the better option: beefing up or scaling down.

But even the most minimal engagement today is greater than the most muscular response debated for Bosnia.

Getting the dose of intervention right is one of the trickiest decisions any president can make.

In the 1990s, generals in London and Washington kept warning their political masters about the perils of hasty deployment. Today they seem to do the opposite.

The onset of winter and the end of the fighting season in Afghanistan should allow everyone to take a bit more time.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).

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