The State Department is using a 10-year anniversary party celebrating the Dayton accords to make more “progress” on Bosnia’s future. The reality is that the interventionist U.S. foreign policy elite, led by the Bush administration’s Undersecretary of State, Nicholas Burns, is hosting the conclave of Bosnian leaders in Washington this week to “fix” the Bosnian constitution enshrined by the Dayton accords. The elite want to create a strong central government and abolish the rotating presidency in favor of a national president and two vice presidents. This plan is only likely to make the still precarious situation in Bosnia deteriorate. Even worse, these interventionists would like to take lessons from the failed attempt at nation-building in Bosnia and use them to attempt to remedy the desperate situation in Iraq.

After the U.S. suffered a bloody nose in Vietnam, U.S. interventionism temporarily fell out of favor. The U.S. foreign policy elite—who see the globe as a giant chessboard and who don’t mind sending other peoples’ sons and daughters to die in faraway brushfire wars that have little to do with actually defending the United States—derisively called this “casualty aversion.” As casualties in Vietnam rose, the American public rightly became suspicious of the interventionists’ pet projects abroad.

The elite, while vociferously disavowing any similarities between Vietnam and Iraq, are deathly afraid that a similar prudent public casualty aversion caused by a failure in the Iraq war will affect public support for future military social engineering abroad. So they are grasping at the Bosnian straw to pull themselves out of the Iraq mess. In the sparse universe of successful nation-building by outside foreign powers, Bosnia may be the best recent example, but is certainly nothing to brag about.

Ten years after the Dayton accords, NATO peacekeepers are still on the scene and all parties agree that they will be needed for years to come. What this state of affairs really means is that if the outside peacekeepers departed, the Bosnian civil war would probably reignite. The lethargic maturing of the Bosnian police and army shows that the Bush administration’s claim of rapid progress in training Iraqi security forces should be taken with a grain of salt. In fact, in a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, journalist James Fallows notes that the Iraqi insurgency is worsening faster than the Iraqi security forces are improving.

Further uncomfortable similarities between Bosnia and Iraq exist. For example, the U.S. dumped billions of dollars into the reconstruction of the Bosnian economy and slathered U.S. taxpayer money on Iraq. Bosnia is certainly not an example of government-driven post-war economic recovery, and prospects for the same in Iraq are equally dismal. The efficacy of U.S. aid is even more questionable in Iraq because it has arrived while the fighting is still going on.

Also, NATO forces in Bosnia have been unable (or unwilling) to capture the Bosnian Serb war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. Similarly, U.S. forces have had difficulty capturing or killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda forces in Iraq.

The only thing that can be said for the Dayton accords is that they have stopped the fighting in Bosnia for a time. The U.S. foreign policy establishment, however, has attributed this lull in carnage to U.S. military and political pressure, as well as to the presence of NATO peacekeepers during the ensuing 10 years. Actually, it probably has more to do with the decentralization of government in this multi-ethnic state. The Dayton accords created Serb and Muslim-Croat mini-states and a weak national government. Columnist Jackson Diehl, an interventionist, disparages such decentralization by calling it a “deeply flawed plan for federalism.” He bemoans the three-member presidency, which rotates between Serbs, Croats and Muslims, as well as the existence of 14 education ministries and 15 police agencies.

Yet because the central government is weak, the various ethnic groups have less fear that one group—such as the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia—could get control of the levers of power and oppress or murder the other groups. Although Bosnia has an uneasy peace, this decentralization probably at least somewhat inhibits the return to civil war.

But the lesson that the interventionists take from the Bosnian experience is that intensive diplomacy by a unified Western coalition, enough troops on the ground (Bosnia initially had more than twice the number of foreign troops per capita as stationed in Iraq), and resistance to the temptation to pull them out can achieve success in building a strong multi-ethnic national government.

Instead, the real lesson of Bosnia is that the creation of a peaceful multiethnic state with a strong central government is a dangerous mirage. Holding together an artificial state with ethnic or religious cleavages using foreign military power is unlikely to be successful anywhere. Decentralization in both Bosnia and Iraq is the only hope for peace and prosperity. The ethnic or religious groups in neither country really want to live together. In both countries, the United States should stop its risky attempts to create a strong national government and allow genuine self-determination. In Iraq, this might take the form of a loose confederation or partition, with a sharing of petroleum revenues or oil fields to entice Sunni participation.