Have It Your Way: Why the Bush Administration Should Be Thrilled About Macedonia

The New Republic
June 29, 2001

In 1993, connoisseurs of government dithering heard Warren Christopher utter a delightful phrase that reflected his befuddlement with the war in Bosnia. The conflict, the secretary of state confessed, was a “problem from hell.” What he meant, of course, was that he hadn’t a clue what to do about it.

In the Bosnian war, Muslims were the victims of genocide at the hands and knives and AK-47s of Serbs and Croats. But was it in the national interest of the United States to intervene in a morally repugnant conflict that did not appear to threaten our national security? That was the problem from hell, and until the NATO alliance began to rupture in discord, creating an unmistakeable threat to our interests, the famous consciences in the Clinton administration couldn’t make up their famous minds.

Now along comes Macedonia, where U.S. troops defused a standoff on Monday by escorting Albanian rebels out of harm’s way, at the request of the government in Skopje; even so, an anti-American riot erupted in the capital. Will the White House refuse the next time a request is made for military assistance? President Bush made a pro forma statement this week that he wouldn’t rule out the use of force, but his administration hasn’t been shy about looking down its realpolitik nose at the Clinton crew’s adventures in the Balkans–they’ve made it clear they don’t want any of their own. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted in a widely-circulated memorandum earlier this year, “It is easier to get into something than to get out of it.” (No prizes for guessing which part of the world he was referring to.)

But Messrs. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell would be misreading history–and the present–if they treat Macedonia as another moral quagmire in which the U.S. should not muddy its political or military boots. Despite outward appearances, Macedonia isn’t Bosnia or Kosovo. In fact, it’s the kind of pure geopolitical play the Bush team professes to be perfectly suited to master. They should be drooling at the opportunity to prove their expertise.

The administration has made a point of saying it plans to conduct foreign policy the old-fashioned way, based on a classic definition of national interests that banishes moral considerations to the inky pages of The Nation. But guess what–the Macedonian crisis does not involve the grand moral dilemmas (or even minor moral dilemmas) that caused so many headaches and humiliations for the Clinton team, whose ineptitude, especially in Bosnia, was matched only by its hypocrisy.

From the start of the Bosnian crisis the United States faced a threat to its national interests–the Clinton administration just failed to realize it. Without intervention of some sort, the war was going to fester so badly that Western Europe and NATO would begin to rot. Instead the U.S. focused on whether or not the moral arguments for intervening–that genocide was being committed, that the genocide was unprovoked, and that the victims of the genocide stood for Western values of tolerance and diversity–were true and cause enough to get involved. After three years of dithering and several hundred thousand deaths, the Clinton administration finally figured it out. Later, with Madeleine Albright in charge at Foggy Bottom and eager to give the supremely immoral Milosevic the comeuppance he deserved, the White House organized NATO’s bombing of Serbia, which had increased its repression in Kosovo. After 78 days Milosevic agreed to withdraw his forces from Kosovo, and almost immediately Kosovars began cleansing Serbs who remained behind. We had not, it turned out, rescued angels.

The Bush administration does not want to be a global moral cop. Given the Clinton administration’s nightmarish experience in the Balkans, that’s understandable. But it’s not a reason to ignore Macedonia, where there is no moral call to action–no genocide, no horrible dictator, no white-hatted or black-hatted factions. It’s true that the Albanians have not enjoyed their deserved share of political rights, but that hardly justifies their guerilla uprising. The Slavs, who form the majority of Macedonia’s population, have been derelict in giving the Albanians their rightful slice of power, but they have not instituted any Milosevic-style repression. By Balkan standards, the situation is uncomplicated.

There is, however, a valid geopolitical reason to become engaged, because the fighting, muted so far, could spiral into all-out civil war. That would mean another wave of refugees in the Balkans, and it could mean the involvement of troops from neighboring countries that have historical ties to Macedonia and territorial designs on it–Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, Greece, and even Turkey. The nightmare scenario, which is unlikely but possible, is that one foreign country will get involved–say, Albania–and that others will follow, like wolves to a twitching carcass. The involvement of Greece and Turkey would be particularly disastrous because both are NATO members and longtime adversaries. “Macedonia is in real danger of destruction,” wrote Richard Holbrooke and Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations, in a recent Washington Post column. “Macedonia’s descent into civil war would call into question national borders across the Balkans, reward forces of violence across the region, and even create tensions within the [NATO] alliance.” Henry Kissinger’s maid could figure out that it’s in our national interests to prevent this from happening in Europe.

So far the European Union has spearheaded mediation efforts, with the Bush Administration happily taking a back seat, professing confidence the EU can do the job, and that it is the EU’s job to do. That’s wrong. The EU failed to head off the previous wars in ex-Yugoslavia, and its current effort does not have bright prospects. It’s not time, and it may never be time, to send the 82nd Airborne to Macedonia, but it’s past time for an aggressive U.S. diplomatic push to defuse the conflict. If the smug Bush crew continues to believe that the Macedonia crisis does not threaten our national interests, they may soon be confronted with a very real problem from hell.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.