Humanitarian Intervention and Public Opinion: Lessons from Bosnia in the Age of Trump

As U.S. military involvement in Venezuela increases, with military reconnaissance recently commencing and President Trump hinting at the possibility of U.S. military intervention as the humanitarian crisis reaches new heights, it is good practice for students and scholars alike to look to the past and see how, and more importantly, why U.S. presidents have reacted to such humanitarian crises. This article is a relevant and abridged adaptation of a term-paper originally written for Professor Peter Feaver’s U.S. Foreign Policy course in which I explore the vital factor of public opinion and the factors shaping it in explaining President Clinton’s severely delayed response to the Bosnian genocide.

It is important to note that, while one cannot compare the exigencies of the current situation in Venezuela (i.e. as of now, a few civilian casualties caused by government forces preventing aid from entering the border) to those of Bosnia (a genocide targeting the Bosniak Muslim minority and resulting in tens of thousands of deaths) in any meaningful way, one can indeed compare the use of public opinion, an extremely important domestic political process, by U.S. presidents to arrive at their final decision on whether or whether not to intervene in humanitarian crises.

Public Opinion Influences and Influencers

Public opinion matters. In the words of Bruce Russett: “Public opinion sets broad limits of constraint, identifying a range of policies in which decision makers can choose, and in which they must choose if they are not to face rejection in the voting booths.” But two fundamental yet opposing views of public opinion do exist: the delegate and the trustee.

The “delegate view” of democratic representation is where “officials act as the public’s representative by acting on their constituents’ wishes.” Devoid of intrinsic values, the “delegate view” led to the appearance of amorality and indecision, with the possibility of an intervention rising and falling with the public mood and the president and his foreign policy advisors leading without a “grand strategy.” The other approach to public opinion is the “trustee view” of democratic representation, where “elected officials rely more on their own judgment than on the presumably uninformed opinions of their constituents” and make claims based on personal beliefs and ideologies they feel accurately represent the general will of the American people. Those in favor of intervention talked idealistically of American values of freedom and equality; those opposed, about the national interest and the risk to American lives.

But what influences public opinion? Two factors are commonly discussed in literature. Some scholars argue that leaders can change public opinion themselves with regards to policy issues — two examples include the ability of “elite” leaders to persuade the public through rhetoric and policy (i.e. “elite manipulation”) and the concurrent trend seen in the general populace to support the foreign policy of the elite. A more important factor is the “CNN effect” — the ability of the news media and journalists to influence viewers and readers, which was far more influential in causing public opinion to support an intervention, as viewers watching a “particular problem generally become more convinced of its importance and the need for action.” The CNN effect in particular can catalyze public opinion towards a certain policy goal and ergo urge policymakers in a certain direction. These factors were both seen in the lead-up to intervention in Bosnia.

Srebrenica and The Bosnian Civil War

The Bosnian Civil War was fundamentally caused by borders that did not account for the fluid boundaries between the three major ethnic groups that comprise the former Yugoslavia — the Serbs, the Croats, and the Bosniaks. On a broader scale, the war was an ideological battle between differing visions for the future: a “multi-ethnic” society versus a “purified nation-state.” Unfortunately, in Bosnia, the latter vision prevailed. Without ethnic counterparts in neighboring countries, the Bosniaks were the target of “blood-and-soil” Serbian ethno-nationalism, and after years of ethnic cleansing and genocide, ignored by the United States and other Western nations, a watershed moment occurred: the Srebrenica massacre. Being the “bloodiest day in European history since World War II,” Srebrenica catalyzed the American response — after the failures of the relatively insignificant economic sanctions, arms embargoes, United Nations peacekeeper deployments, and smaller surgical airstrikes, the American-backed NATO “Operation Deliberate Force” dropped over 1,000 bombs on Serbian forces and forced their leadership to the negotiating table at the now-famous Dayton Accords, which led to the successful end of the conflict. But why did this massacre in particular generate such immediate action? My argument: public opinion.

Clinton the Idealist? Polling data shows otherwise.

At the operation’s end, President Clinton announced that temporary stability in Bosnia had been secured by NATO air forces and that United Nations peacekeeping troops under American command were to be deployed as a result of the Dayton Accords. He seemed to imply that the struggle in Bosnia was Manichean — a battle between absolute right and absolute wrong. But if the general premise is that President Clinton was pursuing a policy of idealism, why did he choose to intervene in Bosnia during its civil war while seemingly ignoring a similar and even deadlier conflict in Rwanda the year prior? If he was fighting to defend innocent civilians of a minority ethnic group from the genocidal actions of another ethnic group, should this sentiment have not been universal, and its implementation universally applied?

The previous question must be examined through the lens of public opinion. In the years leading up to the intervention in Bosnia, the “post-Vietnam syndrome” and its sensitivity still remained in the minds of the public. This sentiment was re-energized by the commonly known “Black Hawk Down” situation, in which a humanitarian intervention in Somalia against warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid evolved into a battle on the streets of Mogadishu. Ultimately, 12 soldiers died and 72 were wounded, “images of war were beginning to overwhelm the American public,” and President Clinton had to withdraw American forces in humiliation. After this event, 43% of individuals polled said that they would be “less willing to use U.S. troops in future humanitarian efforts.”

This post-Somalia effect can explain the Clinton administration’s reluctance to engage in the Rwandan genocide, as public opinion was conflicted between emotion at the genocide and fear of American casualties — but only after a minority (34%) of poll respondents expressed satisfaction with the administration’s lack of response in Rwanda did President Clinton deploy troops to neighboring African nations. From this fact, a positive relationship is seen between decreased positive public opinion and the willingness of the President to engage in military action, showing him take the “delegate view” of democratic representation that would shape his future intervention in Bosnia by causing him to prolong “comfortable inaction” until pressed by political pressure.

As the situation in Bosnia evolved over the years 1992 to 1995, the American response was almost nonexistent.

Public Opinion and Operation Deliberate Force

But as the war unfolded and the horrors of Srebrenica were seen, the Clinton Administration found itself “under siege” by the media. Phrases like “vacuum of leadership” and “failure of nerve,” started running in periodicals like the New York Times and the Washington Post. News broadcasters like CBS made Srebrenica the main headline, focusing on “empathy frames” that showcased stories of human suffering and criticisms of the Western response to the atrocities. Holbrooke himself said on television that Bosnia was “the greatest collective failure of the West since the 1930’s.”

Analysis of news articles and reports at the time, seen in Figure 1, clearly shows the trend of relative media complacency from about July 1992 to March 1995. Limited media coverage was given for the terms searched, apart from elite opinion pieces on why the US should or should not intervene, reports of the war crimes tribunals in Europe, details of some Serb military activity, and information about peace-keeping efforts, all of which would not have an emotional impact on the average American. But from July to November 1995, a massive uptick is seen on the graph for all search terms. Why is that? This analysis is significant due to the fact that in July 1995, the Srebrenica massacre occurred. The argument can be made that the increased levels of published and television news reports had a large influence on the American people and their willingness to support the intervention. The word “genocide” was finally used in mainstream vocabulary as a reality, not a theory, and an increasing number of articles connected President Clinton and the United States to the situation in Bosnia.

Statistics show that one-half to three-quarters of Americans were paying close attention to the conflict in Bosnia by December 1995, which was up from about one-third to one-half of Americans before the massacre. As time progressed to Srebrenica and “elite manipulation” and, more importantly, the “CNN effect” highlighted Serb atrocities, Clinton’s Bosnia approval rating simultaneously decreased to its lowest level since he took office (from 33% in March 1994 to 56% in July 1995). Through intervention, Clinton then perhaps made a political calculation to prevent himself from his ultimate fear: “getting creamed” at the ballot-box.

What about President Trump? And Venezuela?

What must now be asked is why is this topic important and relevant to our current political climate? President Donald Trump has long proclaimed himself a “realist,” wanting to promote a narrowly scoped national interest (ex. America First) and avoid what he sees as the scourge of American interventionism abroad. So, his recent interest in a Venezuela intervention is an interesting development that requires further analysis (i.e. Why is he willing to threaten intervention? How can any possible intervention be construed as in our national interest?). Furthermore, he has the unique position as President, in which he can be both influenced by public opinion through the CNN effect and, arguably more than any other recent president with the advent of social media tools like Twitter and allied partisan media networks, influence public opinion himself.

So: is Trump a delegate or a trustee? Public opinion in the United States regarding not just intervention but also global engagement has shifted towards what analyst Ian Bremmer calls “Independent America” — “an America that declares independence from the responsibility to solve other people’s problems.” From Trump’s previous actions, a strong case can therefore be made for the delegate view of democratic representation. From his withdrawal from the JCPOA (i.e. Iran nuclear deal) and the Paris Climate Accord to his destabilizing influence on NATO and other partnerships and the beginning of a “trade war” with China, Trump seems to have put “popular demands” from the campaign trail and his political base ahead of more pragmatic and utilitarian policies that would likely benefit more Americans, America itself, and the world.

Ultimately, it may be therefore useful to look at the current Venezuela situation in a similar framework to Bosnia. Given the Iraq War and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and Syria, both casualty sensitivity and response to atrocities must play a role in public opinion regarding U.S. military involvement. While this situation is ongoing, one can imagine that the Maduro regime will not give up power easily and, therefore, that more violence by government forces will occur as the U.S. and opposition leader Juan Guaido try to promote democratic reforms and deliver humanitarian aid (i.e., see Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the ongoing civil war).

If (a) more events in Venezuela by regime forces occur that go against international “norms” by targeting civilians and are picked up by the American news media and (b) the Trump administration increases its rhetoric towards intervention as well as publicizes its economic sanctions and military maneuvers, a cogent argument can be made that public opinion may inevitably swing towards military intervention despite the promotion of “Independent America.” Just as the American people changed during the course of the Bosnian war, so too may they change now as the Venezuelan situation unfolds.

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