Washington’s Destabilizing Crusade

By Doug Bandow
Monday, 27 Apr 2009

Printer-friendly versionSend to friend

Presented at the LBF forum in Washington to mark the 10th anniversary of NATO's war against Serbia

A decade ago the United States intervened in the Balkans, a region of no strategic interest to America. The alliance triumphed, naturally, but the peace has proved to be harder than the war. Europe is still living with the consequences of that ill-considered aggression.In February 2008 Kosovo declared its independence, with Washington’s support. The number of recognitions has stalled, however, despite U.S. pressure on friends and allies around the globe, and Russia used the Kosovo precedent to justify its war with Georgia in support of South Ossetia. The conflict remains frozen, only with new flashpoints, most notably the status of the Serbian community in Kosovo’s north.

U.S. policy desperately needs reconsideration. Despite a foreign policy at times ostentatiously at odds with that of his predecessor, President George W. Bush closely followed the Clinton administration’s Balkans policies and illusions. Now the responsibility lies with President Barack Obama. He won the presidential election running against Bush administration policy, yet so far his international approach has emphasized continuity with the previous administration. And with Hillary Clinton at the State Department, little change is likely in U.S. attempts to micromanage Balkan affairs.

Throughout much of the Cold War, the U.S. implicitly backed Yugoslavia against the Soviet Union. When the former began to split apart in the early 1990s, Washington, in contrast to Europe, sought to slow the dissolution process. But President Bill Clinton eventually saw the Balkans as the perfect laboratory for turning U.S. foreign policy into a form of “international social work,” and took American policy in a very different direction.

President Clinton shifted American foreign policy by disconnecting interest from policy, intervening where the U.S. had no geopolitical interests at stake. For instance, the administration pushed to expand the United Nations mission in Somalia from food relief to nation-building. Washington ousted the military rulers of Haiti.

But Somalia soured official Washington on attempting to save Africa. When Sierra Leone imploded, resulting in a quarter million deaths, Washington did nothing more than issue statements. Washington policy-makers seemed unsurprised by such violence in such places, and were not inclined to intervene. Some unkind observers suggested that latent racism was responsible for the difference in approach.

Clinton administration policymakers viewed Europe very differently, however. With no major power willing to go to war over Yugoslavia’s break-up – in sharp contrast to the events preceding World War I, in which alliances proved to be transmission belts of war – the U.S. could have safely ignored the conflict in the Balkans. But President Clinton saw an opportunity to burnish the administration’s humanitarian credentials.

Moreover, Yugoslavia provided a convenient enemy, unlike Sierra Leone. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright admitted that her framework was Munich. The facts that six decades had passed and the circumstances could not have been more different – Slobodan Milosevic, though a nasty piece of work, was no Adolf Hitler, and tiny bedraggled Serbia was not remotely comparable to Nazi Germany – apparently escaped her. She believed that only American entry in the war could prevent Europe from suffering a historical relapse with who knows what imagined consequences.

Thus, on humanitarian grounds Washington supported every group which sought to secede from the central Yugoslavian state. The principle of ethnic self-determination, harkening back to Woodrow Wilson’s famed Fourteen Points, became central to U.S. foreign policy.

However, self-determination stopped whenever Serbs sought to apply the principle. Slovenes, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and Macedonians (and later Montenegrins) were entitled to secede from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. But Serbs were never entitled to secede from other political units, most notably Croatia and Bosnia. The Clinton administration implicitly believed in collective punishment: the perceived aggressors would not be allowed to take advantage of the humanitarian principles available to others. Never mind that Croats and Muslims perpetrated their own share of atrocities, sometimes against each other. Most notably, the Clinton administration did not protest Croatian ethnic cleansing of Serbs from their historic homeland in that seceding nation, refusing even to term Zagreb’s brutal military offensive ethnic cleansing. Federalism and stable borders became defining issues whenever Serbs constituted the minority population.

American policy towards Kosovo reflected the same attitude: outside intervention was necessary to stop a new Hitler and self-determination applied to anyone in revolt against Serbs but not to Serbs. As before, reality on the ground was irrelevant. Washington would engage in social engineering to make the Balkans, if not the world, a better place.

Milosevic was a thug and Serbian forces behaved badly throughout Yugoslavia’s break-up, but the fighting in Kosovo was no worse than in any other guerrilla conflict. Consider how Turkey, a full NATO ally and EU aspirant, treated its Kurdish minority—nearly 40,000 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced in a brutal guerrilla war. The Kosovo Liberation Army responded to official brutality, but committed its own atrocities in return, targeting Serb security forces and Albanian “collaborators.” U.S. diplomats even referred to the KLA as “terrorist.”

The Clinton administration made a symbolic attempt to restore peace, summoning the contending sides to Rambouillet, France. Under the guise of “negotiating” Washington attempted to impose a settlement that would have given the ethnic Albanians everything except immediate independence.

Serbia would have had to accept the status of a conquered province, agreeing to free transit by NATO forces through the entire country. It was an accord that no sovereign state could sign, as the Clinton administration well knew.

Since Belgrade refused to accept rule from Washington or Brussels, the U.S. led the world’s greatest military alliance made up of most of the globe’s industrialized powers against the small, isolated Balkan power that had been wracked by years of secessionist conflict and ravaged by Western sanctions. The outcome was never in doubt, though the lack of allied planning was stunning. The Clinton administration had assumed that a few days of bombing would cause Yugoslavia’s acquiescence, but had no Plan B when Milosevic refused to yield. After 78 days of bombing Belgrade finally gave up Kosovo but refused to otherwise compromise its security.

Of course, once NATO defenestrated Serbian security forces from Kosovo, the final disposition of the territory was obvious. Although UN Resolution 1244 assumed continued Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo, providing for “a political process designed to determine Kosovo’s future status,” the allies never intended serious negotiations without preconditions. Rather, Washington clearly communicated to ethnic Albanians that independence would be the final result. Negotiations were simply for show to disguise Serbia’s expected surrender. Thus, the ethnic Albanians had no reason to consider settling for anything short of independence.

They did offer to respect the rights of ethnic Serbs – respect, however, not demonstrated when ethnic Albanians kicked out a quarter of a million Serbs and other minorities, including Roma and Jews, after the war, and destroyed Serb homes, churches, and monasteries in another round of violence in March 2004. But the Albanians offered nothing else, demanding nothing less than independence for all of Kosovo, even in the northern areas heavily populated by Serbs.

The newly elected democratic government in Belgrade responded by offering a number of approaches with largely unrestricted autonomy. Nevertheless, the U.S. and leading European states declared Serbia to be the intransigent party, “obstructing” and “stonewalling” a settlement. In short, the “negotiations” were a sham designed to justify a decision made long before to grant Kosovo independence.

Obviously, there was no perfect solution, one which would fully satisfy both sides. The Milosevic government had behaved brutally and after the ouster of Serb forces the ethnic Albanians saw no reason to again recognize Belgrade’s sovereignty. But minority Serbs had no more reason to believe Pristina’s promises of protection and inclusion.

Nor could the Serbs take the West’s promise to maintain outside oversight seriously. After all, both spasms of ethnic Albanian violence occurred during allied occupation. In mid-1999, even as tens of thousands of people were fleeing Kosovo, Secretary Albright was telling the Council of Foreign Relations that the allied occupation force “takes seriously its mandate to protect Kosovars, including Serbs. And its effectiveness will increase as deployment continues, and demilitarization gains steam.” It would have been a bad joke were people not at that very moment being driven from their homes.

The territory seemed no closer to ethnic reconciliation in 2004, when thousands more ethnic Serbs were killed, injured, and displaced. Derek Chappell, spokesman for the UN military force, UNMIK, observed: “some in the Kosovo Albanian leadership believe that by cleansing all remaining Serbs from the area ... and destroying Serbian cultural sites, they can present the international community with a fait accompli.” Even the International Crisis Group (ICG), which believes in a multilateral response to every problem, acknowledged that the rampage “shattered international confidence that the Albanians were committed to a tolerant society” – confidence that obviously was never justified.

No one was punished for their crimes, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) acknowledged that “This relatively weak response ... not only contributes to the impression of impunity among the population for such kinds of ethnically motivated crimes but may also be considered inadequate to prevent similar acts of public disorder in the future.”

While the Pristina government did not publicly support the attacks, the ethnic Albanian political leadership, made up of former guerrilla leaders, some accused of war-time atrocities, likely had the same goals as in 1999. Acknowledged the ICG: “With no vision for the future of Serbs in Kosovo, one might suspect that the latent Albanian hope is that they will all eventually sell out and leave.” The Washington Post captured this attitude when it quoted an 18-year-old ethnic Albanian cigarette vendor: “Really, the Serbs ought to go back to Serbia.”

The ethnic Albanian leadership also has been implicated in the explosion of organized crime, including drug dealing, money laundering, and sex trafficking. Maria Kalavis, UNICEF's regional director for Southeast Europe, recently warned, “We know that child trafficking within Kosovo’s borders is on the rise.” Some have referred to Kosovo as the “black hole” of Europe.

Although Islam was never much of a factor in the past, radical Islam appears to be on the rise. There has been an influx of Saudi money, which has underwritten many of the 200 mosques constructed since 1999; on a recent trip I saw a Saudi flag flying over a mosque. Christian converts have been threatened and some analysts believe that terrorists have infiltrated the Balkans through Kosovo as well as Bosnia. Thomas Gambill, a onetime OSCE security official, observed: “My biggest concern has always been the incursion of radical Islam into the area.” Imagine the possibilities: Kosovo, the newest tourist destination: “Sex, crime, terrorism, it’s all there,” one U.S. diplomat told me.

All told, Kosovo’s record was at best disappointing after a decade of supposed tutelage in democracy by the “international community.” At a 2006 congressional hearing, Charles English of the State Department stated: “Discrimination remains a serious problem. Access to public services is uneven. Incidents of harassment still occur. Freedom of movement is limited. And too many minorities still feel unsafe in Kosovo.”

Even Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy head, and Kai Eide, the UN’s special envoy, criticized Kosovo’s failure to meet specified political benchmarks. In 2006 the ICG, which continued to push for an independent Kosovo, warned that “The international community’s immediate priority is to avert a new exodus of Serbs, new Albanian-Serb clashes, or a new wave of burning houses and churches.”

In November 2007 the European Commission released a report that concluded that “some progress was made in consolidating government” but “working tools for an efficient government” still had “to be enhanced and fully applied” – more than eight years after the territory's de facto separation from Serbia. Unsurprising, given the level of criminal activity by former guerrillas, the Commission warned that “corruption is still widespread and remains a major problem.” Moreover, “Civil servants are still vulnerable to political interference, corrupt practices and nepotism.” As for the judiciary, “The backlog of cases is increasing, with more than 50,000 civil cases and over 36,000 criminal cases pending.” There also is a backlog in war crime cases, which are “hampered by the unwillingness of the local population to testify.”

Overall, explained the Commission, “little progress has been made in the promotion and enforcement of human rights. The administration is not able to ensure the full implementation of human rights standards.” The commitment of the Pristina authorities to resolving more than 2000 missing persons cases “is not sufficient to achieve objective and efficient investigations,” complained the Commission. Further, “no investigations or court procedings on torture or ill-treatment [of prisoners] have yet taken place.” Minorities and other vulnerable groups “face restrictions in exercising their right to freedom of assembly and association across Kosovo.” In fact, the police or armed forces must always guard minority gatherings. Finally, “only limited progress” was achieved in promoting religious liberty. Indeed, the Commission concluded, “Religious freedom is not fully respected.”

Kosovo hardly sounded ready for prime-time.

Compromises were possible—overlapping EU, Kosovo, and Serbian citizenship and partition north of the Ibar River were two leading candidates—which might have won grudging agreement on both sides. No one would have been happy with the result, but both sides could have “moved on,” in common parlance. But rather than encourage genuine negotiations, the U.S. preferred to employ the principle “the Serbs always lose.”

What was supposed to be a pleasant bit of Kabuki theater, with everyone playing their assigned role to reach the predetermined outcome, quickly fell apart. Both the Serbs and Russians balked. Russian opposition apparently surprised the U.S. When another year of meaningless “negotiation” ended, Washington and like-minded European states decided to make another end-run around the United Nations and back Kosovo’s unilateral independence.

The success of Washington’s gambit remains in doubt. The current number of recognitions is under 60, only a few more than the number of countries which recognize the Western Sahara (claimed by Morocco). Even many Islamic countries which worry about challenges to their own territorial integrity have refused to sign on: Washington’s claim that Kosovo’s status is “unique” and not a precedent is too self-serving for anyone to take seriously. Serbia vows continued resistance and Russia insists that Kosovo will never join the UN. If the ICJ rules for Belgrade some nations might even reverse their recognitions of Pristina.

But Washington policymakers have had no apparent second thoughts. Their justifications sound the same as before, though reinforced with a heavy dose of self-righteousness.

In her official statement on Kosovo’s independence in 2008, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice harkened back to NATO’s intervention “to end brutal attacks on the Kosovar Albanian population.” Since then, she said, Kosovo “has built its own democratic institutions” and Washington welcomed its commitments “to embrace multi-ethnicity as a fundamental principle of good governance, and to welcome a period of international supervision.” President George W. Bush said much the same, stating: “Kosovo committed itself to the highest standards of democracy, including freedom and tolerance and justice for citizens of all ethnic backgrounds.”

It is hard to take such arguments seriously. The guerrilla conflict was brutal, but no more so than America’s Civil War, after which the seceding territory was forcibly retained. Far more Kurds have died at Turkish hands in long-running hostilities, but the Kurds remain part of Turkey. The U.S. has never held that the relative bitterness of a conflict a decade before determined a territory’s juridical status. Moreover, Secretary Rice appeared to be the only person who believed in the effectiveness of Kosovo’s so-called democratic institutions.

If Secretary Rice’s arguments were considered dispositive, then they appled with even greater force to the ethnic Serbs in Kosovo. The Serbs (as well as Roma and other minorities) can point to recent brutality and oppression as warranting independence. And by remaining in Serbia they would remain in a democracy which used the ballot box to overthrow Milosevic. What more is needed, under Washington’s rationale?

Even more bizarre was Secretary Rice’s claim that Kosovo maintains a multi-ethnic state. Today the territory is multi-ethnic only in the sense that the majority ethnic Albanians were unable to kick out all of the ethnic Serbs and the Western states want to force the remaining ethnic Serbs to stay. A truly multi-ethnic society does not exist.

Moreover, the consecutive secessions from united Yugoslavia, all supported by the U.S. and many European states, ran against Washington’s supposed principle of maintaining multi-ethnic nations. It is more than bizarre to cite multi-ethnicity as a rationale for denying the final oppressed minority the right to secede—which, in this case, simply means remaining within the mother country. The ill precedent of dividing countries along ethnic lines was set long ago and has been reinforced by Kosovo’s claimed independence by the ethnic Albanian majority.

Another argument, advanced by Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns in 2008, was that there is positive good in creating another majority Muslim state in Europe. He explained: “Kosovo is going to be a vastly majority Muslim state …. And we think it is a very positive step that this Muslim state, Muslim majority state, has been created today.”

Muslims have the same right of self-determination as does everyone else, of course, but why should be establishing a Muslim government America’s or Europe’s goal? Europe is finding the task of thwarting terrorism and blending cultures to be more difficult than Washington acknowledges. Although the credible claims of jihadist and terrorist activity centered in Bosnia and Kosovo are of most concern to Europe, the U.S. also should worry. Recognizing Kosovo is not likely to dampen potential conflict.

Then there is the issue of stability. In 2008 President George W. Bush asserted that “our position is that its status must be resolved in order for the Balkans to be stable.” His successors advance identical or similar claims.

While an independence deal accepted by Kosovo and Serbia, as well as the U.S., Europe, and Russia would encourage stability, Kosovo’s unilateral declaration has destabilized the region. Serbia has drifted towards Russia as even centrist politicians in Serbia affirmed their opposition to Western policy. Serbia’s politics has grown more fractious. Any attempt to coerce Serbs within Kosovo to submit to Pristina is likely to generate violent resistance. The divide between Russia and the U.S. and EU has grown.

Indeed, Moscow put the West’s principles to work in the Caucasus. Russia may have been cynical in supporting Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s self-determination, but the latter two have as much if not more justification in declaring independence as did Kosovo. Washington’s complaints about Russia violating Georgia’s territorial integrity during the brief war in August 2008 could generate only a horse laugh in Belgrade and Moscow. The U.S. set the rules in Kosovo: Washington could act as judge and jury in adjudicating independence claims in other countries and violently dismember another sovereign state if it chose to do so. Russia has simply adopted these rules as its own.

Secretary Rice undoubtedly believed that “It’s time to move forward.” What could be more convenient for Washington’s policy ends. But Kosovo never was part of America. Tell the Spanish to yield their Basque territory or Catalonia. Tell Hungary to forget about land parceled out to the victors by the Versailles Treaty. Tell Kurds to accept rule from Ankara. Tell Serbs in Bosnia and Albanians in Macedonia to abandon their dreams of independence. And tell people in scores of nations around the world to forget their desire for self-determination.

Kosovo’s impact is likely to ultimately reach far beyond the Balkans. Taiwan cheerfully recognized Kosovo, to China’s chagrin. Costa Rica recognized both Kosovo and Palestine. Similar cases are likely to multiply. Hypocritical claims by U.S. (and EU) officials that Kosovo is unique fall on deaf ears of peoples wishing to be free and independent.

Indeed, rather than discouraging other claims of independence, the American insistence that Kosovo is unique is likely to spur groups desiring recognition to replicate the Kosovo formula: violently resist, target collaborators, encourage a government crackdown, and demand foreign intervention. The U.S. and EU have written an official playbook for separatism.

The West’s hypocrisy regarding the self-determination for Kosovo’s remaining Serbs through partition of Kosovo is even more grotesque. Undersecretary Burns declared simply “We will not support any form of partition.” He added that “the great majority of countries would not stand for that,” even though the great majority of countries have refused to recognize Kosovo. As justification he harkened back to the brutalities of the 1998-1999 conflict. Set aside the fact that the KLA was not a group of innocents. Serb misbehavior might explain why Kosovo should be independent; it cannot explain why majority Serb areas should be forced to remain in Kosovo, especially since ethnic Albanians already have repaid past brutality in kind.

The refusal to consider any compromise suggests that Washington – at least the part of the bureaucracy today concerned about Kosovo – remains ruled by Madeleine Albright’s Munich mindset. Leading Serbs privately acknowledge that partition is the most obvious strategy to bridge the ethnic divide. Washington’s refusal to consider the slightest compromise indicates that the support for Kosovo’s independence is ideological.

U.S. policy retains an otherworldly quality. American officials seem genuinely bewildered why Serbs are so angry. While she was explaining how the U.S. was working to strip Serbia of 15 percent of its territory, Secretary Rice asserted: “The United States takes this opportunity to reaffirm our friendship with Serbia.” Without irony, President Bush claimed: “the Serbian people can know that they have a friend in America.” That dismembering their nation would be viewed as an unfriendly act by Serbs apparently never occurred to Secretary Rice or President Bush. They appeared to the world to be naïve fools, far worse than being seen as callous cynics.

Now it is up to the Obama administration.

For more than a decade Washington has led the bungling in the Balkans. The U.S. torpedoed one of the early attempts to settle the Bosnian crisis, the Lisbon Plan. Years of war and tens of thousands of dead resulted: much of that blood was on the hands of Washington policymakers. But the U.S. government continues to put ideology before reality.

Returning to the status quo might not be a viable option, but neither is pretending that recognizing Kosovo independence will yield regional stability. The U.S. and EU could still convene a conference, harkening back to the Congress of Berlin and similar gatherings, to conduct genuine negotiations with the goal of achieving an acceptable compromise. Otherwise, Kosovo’s declaration of independence is likely to prove to be just another milestone in continuing regional strife.

Dr. Bandow is a former Special Advisor to President Ronald Reagan