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The Enduring Lesson of Sarajevo

by Matthew Levinger on Dec 4, 2002

Matthew Levinger

“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.


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