Holbrooke's Legacy: The Power of Limited War

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Mike Wintroath / AP

Richard Holbrooke

The untimely death of Richard Holbrooke last month has occasioned numerous paeans to his signal professional achievement: the Dayton peace accords of 1995, which ended four years of war in Bosnia. To some of Holbrooke's admirers, that diplomatic masterstroke — as well as Holbrooke's quip, as he lay dying, that his doctors find a way to "stop the war in Afghanistan" — are rebukes to those who extol the virtues of American military power. It took negotiations to silence the guns in Bosnia; something similar, the thinking goes, will be required to quell the insurgency in Afghanistan. "Holbrooke the Dove," proclaimed Foreign Policy, the magazine Holbrooke once edited. Holbrooke's wife Kati Marton told one gathering of mourners that the best way to honor him "is to press on with peace."

There's every reason to believe that Holbrooke would endorse that sentiment, and there's no denying that Dayton is the most significant success in American diplomacy in the post–Cold War era. But Holbrooke's diplomatic skills would not have stopped Slobodan Milosevic's campaigns of ethnic cleansing without the persuasive power of NATO bombardments. In the Balkans, the Clinton Administration showed that limited applications of military power in the service of modest and clearly defined goals — stop the killing of Bosnian Muslims and get the warring parties to the negotiating table — could serve the U.S.'s strategic and moral interests. That model of war-fighting was largely abandoned by the Bush Administration, with calamitous results. But now would be a good time for Barack Obama to revisit it. In fact, the most relevant lessons from Holbrooke's work in the Balkans may have less to do with making peace than with waging war.

The U.S.'s decision to launch air strikes in Bosnia came after years of Western dithering. Holbrooke was an early advocate of allowing the Bosnian Muslims to arm themselves while bombing Serb positions from the air — the policy known as "lift and strike" — but was met with skepticism from both the military establishment and Vietnam-scarred liberals inside the Clinton Administration. Holbrooke, who as a young foreign-service officer had opposed the bombardment of North Vietnam in the 1960s, believed that the Bosnian Serbs were "poorly trained bullies and criminals [who] would not stand up to NATO air strikes the way the seasoned and indoctrinated Viet Cong and North Vietnamese did." As Serbian atrocities mounted in the summer of 1995, the lift-and-strike camp finally convinced Clinton to step in. NATO airplanes began striking Bosnian-Serb positions in September. Within six months the war was over. Four years later, the U.S. used the same approach of "limited war" to force Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo.

Yet despite those successes, limited war never really caught on. Hawks complained that air strikes might punish aggressors like Milosevic, but wouldn't vanquish them. Doves warned that the relative ease of the Balkan wars would tempt future Presidents to launch armed interventions all over the globe. After 9/11, the Bush Administration abandoned limited war in favor of a more expansive strategy of regime change and nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our inability to pacify both places subsequently gave rise to another model of war-fighting: counterinsurgency, which requires the commitment of massive numbers of U.S. ground troops to battle guerrillas, protect civilians and train local security forces.

The counterinsurgency approach has helped avert an American defeat in Iraq, and may yet do so in Afghanistan. But it has also become politically and financially unsustainable — which is why limited war may be on the verge of a comeback. In recent months, drone strikes and commando raids in Pakistan have done more to achieve the U.S.'s core strategic aim there — degrading al-Qaeda — than 100,000 ground forces in Afghanistan ever will. Limited war could also be the least worst option for dealing with Iran's nuclear program: the diplomatic fallout from another armed conflict in the Middle East means that any attack on Tehran will more closely resemble the war against Milosevic than the one against Saddam Hussein. And preventing genocide in places like southern Sudan may require Obama to threaten some form of U.S. military intervention, just as Clinton did in the Balkans — though the use of ground troops for such a mission is off the table.

That's a good thing. By definition, limited wars can only achieve limited aims: drone strikes in Pakistan may damage al-Qaeda, but they won't help liberate Afghan women; an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities will delay Tehran's march toward the Bomb but not stop it. And yet acknowledging the limits of military force, without forswearing the right to use it, would be a first step toward restoring the world's faith in American power. "There will be other Bosnias in our lives," Holbrooke wrote in 1998, anticipating future challenges of American will. Then as now, limited war is a useful tool to help meet them.

Ratnesar, a TIME contributing editor-at-large, is a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of Tear Down This Wall: A City, a President, and the Speech That Ended the Cold War. His column on global affairs appears every Monday on TIME.com.