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Letter from Bosnia: The Dayton Agreement at Twenty

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By:Srdja Trifkovic | December 21, 2015

The “General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina” was negotiated at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995. It ended the Bosnian war and provided for a decentralized state comprised of two entities of roughly equal size: the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska, RS). The General Framework Agreement, including 11 annexes, was formally signed in Paris on December 14, 1995. Annex 4 of the Agreement is still Bosnia and Herzegovina’s de facto constitution, the basis for its territorial-political divisions and its complex government structure.

For all its shortcomings, and in spite of many attempts to revise or reverse it, the Dayton Agreement has provided a platform for peace among close to four million Bosniaks (i.e. Muslims, 48%), Serbs (33%), and Croats (14%). Bosnia’s relative stability may soon be threatened by political forces in Washington intent on altering the delicate balance achieved at Dayton. Already during her 2009 confirmation hearings as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton declared she was committed to wrapping up what she called “the unfinished business in the Balkans,” and she still believes that the U.S. needs to revise Dayton in the direction of greater centralization of Bosnia at the expense of the autonomy of the two entities – which in reality would adversely affect only one of them, the Serb Republic. It is to be feared that the push for Bosnia’s “constitutional reform” will be relaunched if Mrs. Clinton becomes president. To her, “Bosnia” is an obsession which has generated outright lies over the years.

Two decades after Dayton it should be obvious that no arrangements can be good for Bosnia as a whole unless it is good for its three constituent peoples. The Bosniak (Muslim) political elite unsurprisingly hopes for a Clinton victory as a means of establishing what in effect what would be a Muslim-dominated unitary state. In addition to re-igniting old animosities that caused the war of 1992-1995, this scenario is incongruous with the trend towards devolution, self-rule, and decentralization—from Quebec to the Basque Country, from Scotland to Catalonia. Whatever the defects of Dayton, the essential fact is that for the past two decades Bosnians and Herzegovinians have not been killing each other. Nothing should be done that risks a new confrontation among Bosnia’s communities and possibly reigniting the horrors of the 1990s.

To this day, an old question remains unanswered by the advocates of unitary Bosnia like Mrs. Clinton: If Yugoslavia was untenable, and eventually collapsed under the weight of the supposedly insurmountable differences among its constituent nations, how can Bosnia-Herzegovina—the Yugoslav microcosm par excellence—develop and sustain the dynamics of a viable polity, let alone a centralized and unitary state? The United States does not need to “re-engage” in Bosnia, which in any event is Europe’s problem, not America’s: Bosnia’s future is integration with its immediate and regional neighbors. Furthermore, with no end in sight for America’s many global commitments, and no end in sight for its domestic economic, financial, and social-cultural problems, the United States does not have the resources to police and subsidize yet another stepchild ‘nation-building’ project. Bosnia has suffered a lot through history, almost invariably due to some distant powers’ ambitions and policies.

Also essential, in the context of security risks posed by global jihad, is for the U.S. political leaders to consider the danger a Muslim-dominated unitary Bosnia would pose for the region and for Europe. Back in the early 1990’s, of the three ethnic-religious parties in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Muslim party—the SDA—was the most radical, in that it alone advocated a fundamental restructuring of the Bosnian society in accordance with divine revelation. It attempted to do so not on Bosnia’s own terms, but within the terms of the global-historical process (as its leaders saw it) of the global Islamic renaissance. Many in the West have been in a state of denial for years about the nature of the late Alija Izetbegovic’s long-term program.

Not unlike Islamist parties elsewhere (notably the AKP in Turkey) the SDA – which is now led by Izetbegovic’s son Bakir—has a public, “secular” front, and an inner core of cadres that have remained semi-conspiratorial from its early days. Izetbegovic-senior was an advocate of Sharia law and a theorist of the Islamic Republic long before the first shots were fired. His ideas later matured into a comprehensive, programmatic statement in the Islamic Declaration: “The Islamic movement must, and can, take over power as soon as it is morally and numerically so strong that it can not only destroy the existing non-Islamic power, but also build up a new Islamic one . . . There is no peace or coexistence between the Islamic faith and non-Islamic social and political institutions.” This was a political program par excellence. In another revealing sentence, Izetbegovic discusses the status of non-Muslims in countries with Muslim majorities: “The non-Muslim minorities within an Islamic state, on condition that they are loyal [emphasis added], enjoy religious freedom and all protection.” Such views were unremarkable from a traditional Islamic point of view. The final objective is Dar al Islam, where Muslims dominate and infidels submit. That is the meaning of “being loyal”: non-Muslims can be “protected,” but only if they submit to Islamic domination. That was the root cause of the Bosnian war in 1992, and it should not be allowed to generate another disaster by Izetbegovic’s heirs.

Yugoslavia was a flawed polity, and in principle there should have been no objection to the striving of Croats or Bosnian Muslims to create their own nation-states. But equally there could have been no justification for expecting a million and a half Serbs to accept incorporation into Izetbegovic’s putative Islamistan. The same applies to the Croats of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who were denied an entity of their own but were forced by the U.S. into an uneasy federation with the Muslims at the end of the war.

Two decades ago the Dayton Agreement was reached as a kind of compromise which is both logical and necessary in a multiethnic, multi-confessional polity. Any attempt to revise its foundations in the years ahead would be both a crime and a mistake.

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