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Where Are We Headed in the Balkans?

Author: James D. Zirin, Sidley Austin, LLP
June 23, 2001
Washington Times

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I recently returned from a NATO trip to the Balkans sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. Our group included members from various walks of life. We visited NATO and SHAPE headquarters and then went on, via military transport, to "theater" in Sarajevo and Kosovo.

We met diplomats and generals, sergeants and privates. Our purpose was to try to understand our country´s NATO policy, which right now is mostly our country´s Bal-kans policy. Most of us emerged mystified as to where we are headed, and I concluded that our government has no clear vision either.

Let´s start with Kosovo where we sent a force under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244 to maintain safety and security in the area. We went to war in Kosovo to protect the Albanians from the ethnic cleansing practices of Slobodan Milosevic. All well and good. But now Mr. Milosevic is in jail; the constitutional lawyer Vojislav Kostunica presides over the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY); and U.S. Balkans policy seems to be a brand-new ballgame.

Our generals say they are busy protecting the Serbs from the Albanian "extremists," who have brought violence to the South Serbia-Kosovo border, as well as the Kosovo border with Macedonia a remarkable irony because it all started the other way around.

Change in position? The U.S. obviously would like to forge a new relationship with Mr. Kostunica, who bitterly opposes the ethnic Albanians seeking independence for Kosovo and an end to Slavic domination of Macedonia.

The Bush administration has taken a decided tilt toward the Serbian nationalist Mr. Kostunica. After all, he´s no Slobodan Milosevic. He was democratically elected. He comes to Washington seeking money in what is billed as a "historic visit," and the president receives him. Mr. Kostunica is not a Lech Walesa or a Vaclav Havel, either. Indeed, he may be a wolf in wolf´s clothing.

Unable or unwilling to confront and show the slightest degree of remorse for Serbia´s dark past, he unabashedly harbors a passel of infamous Serbian war criminals indicted by the International Court of Justice in The Hague for unspeakable crimes against humanity, notably, Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

True, Mr. Milosevic languishes in a Belgrade house arrest on corruption charges, but Mr. Kostunica obdurately refuses to turn him over to The Hague´s authorities, nattering irrelevantly about the need for a new FRY constitution and for resolution of "procedural issues." And as for Mr. Karadzic and Mr. Mladic, the two "headline poster children" alleged, among other things, to have ordered the mass killings and atrocities in Mostar and Srebinica, Mr. Kostunica thus far refuses to take the approach he took with Mr. Milosevic and arrest them under local law on a charge of murder or mass murder or whatever they call genocide in Yugoslavia these days.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kostunica has hailed Mr. Karadzic as a great Serb patriot, and the wanted men remain at large either in Belgrade itself or in Belgrade´s client entity, the nearby Republika Srpska.

Then, there is Washington´s strange position toward Montenegro. Montenegro is now part of FRY, but it narrowly elected a Congress that wants independence from the Republic. I always thought that the U.S. since Woodrow Wilson believed in self-determination of peoples. With regard to Montenegro, however, we take the line that we are opposed to independence because secession will weaken FRY.

Also, there is Bosnia where we say we support the unitary multiethnic state mandated by the 1995 Dayton accords, which everyone you talk to in the region seems to agree were deeply flawed. Mr. Kostunica is fond of quoting Henry Kissinger, who warned against such a policy reasoning that, "there never was an independent Bosnia, why should we create it now?"

Since Dayton, we profess dedication to the concept of an independent and multiethnic Bosnia. Yet, we go about implementing it in a fashion that, by most accounts, has produced few tangible results. NATO´s implementation force after Dayton (IFOR) is now a stabilization force (SFOR), whatever that means. Its U.S. contingent reasons that any casualties are politically unacceptable and emphasizes "force protection"as a priority over mission accomplishment. For instance, SFOR soldiers recently stood by while a Serb mob prevented Muslims from rebuilding a mosque.

Gone from the military lexicon is the old "Vietnam syndrome," replaced, according to the generals, with a "Mogadishu syndrome" requiring that no U.S. soldier return home from the Balkans in a body bag.

True, no one wants a Mogadishu in the Balkans, but when Teddy Roosevelt ordered his troops to take San Juan Hill, the idea was to take the hill not to produce zero casualties.

Casualties are the tragic byproduct of every war. But zero casualties as the primary goal of a military operation would appear to be a pipe dream that prevents accomplishment of the basic objectives of the U.S. and the NATO alliance.

The military is in a funk. It is sunk in the Balkans "fortress bound" and want to get out because they know it is still a powder keg. Our NATO diplomats are in a funk. They say our policy is "ramp down," not cut and run, but can give no guidelines or milestones for success and ultimate disengagement.

Secretary of State Powell assured the NATO allies that the U.S. indeed will not cut and run, stating that "we got in this together, we´ll get out of it together." But what does this mean?

A senior German representative to NATO, estimated that the Alliance would be in the Balkans for at least 20 years. Mr. Powell surely contemplates a somewhat faster timetable, and actions speak louder than words. What appears to be the case is that the U.S. is slowly but surely reducing its commitment without formal acknowledgement.

As of this writing, KFOR is pulling out from the fourth and final sector of the so-called ground safety zone along the Kosovo-Serbian border, an ethnic fault line where two hostile communities meet, thereby opening the door for Mr. Kostunica´s Serbian army to deal repressively with the Albanian guerrillas that have nested there.

Ambiguity is everywhere. We went to the Balkans to pull Europe´s chestnuts from a fire all too painfully reverberating with the specter of ethnic cleansing, continuing violence and the burden of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing their homes with loved ones left behind to be butchered a mere half-century after the defeat of Nazidom.

We ended one war in Dayton and fought another in Kosovo, but even a cursory knowledge of modern European history teaches that a war´s end does not guarantee the peace.

The region badly needs money, but the instability exemplified by uncertainty over the future of Kosovo, a teetering "national unity" government in Macedonia and a jerry-rigged "made in Dayton" administration in Bosnia must be addressed before there can be even a modicum of economic reform. Refugees must have the confidence that they can return to their homes unmolested. The region cannot conceivably attract foreign investment where organized criminal activity runs rampant, borders are undefined and there is no dependable rule of law to bring violators to justice or even resolve civil disputes.

None of this can happen with the stroke of a pen, much less at the point of a gun, and it is obvious we need to stay for a while to reach the beginning of a definable end game. So when a West Point senior asked recently, "I´m probably going there after graduation, what should I expect to accomplish?," there was no clear-cut answer. The only stab at it is that we came to lend some stability to a part of the world plagued by ethnic hatreds that created a human charnel house this past decade, and it would be a shame if we withdrew without achieving our declared purpose to shape the peace by restoring stability to the area.

There surely must be more to our European policy than more and better missiles. If we retreat too precipitously from the Balkans, we welch on our commitment to the NATO alliance and on Dayton´s promise to the region. Then, the ethnic cleansers will only dance on the graves of their victims by waiting out American irresolution.

But the agony of the situation is that if we "ramp down" too slowly, we may find ourselves inevitably drawn into an untenable long-term involvement resulting in untold expense and unacceptable peril to our armed forces in area. We owe it to our fighting men and women to give them some clarity and a roadmap of our intentions.

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