Our Half-Baked Balkan Policy

The Washington Post
March 26, 2001

All too often the American government has, in its handling of Balkan affairs, pursued a policy of “Do as I say and not as I do.”

Last week Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was on the receiving end of this treatment during his visit to Washington. The Bush administration is threatening to cut off a $100 million aid package and block World Bank and International Monetary Fund support for Belgrade if the authorities there do not arrest Slobodan Milosevic before March 31.

The idea is that Belgrade’s new leaders must abide by the international community’s norms of behavior if they hope to reap the benefits of being in the international community, and this means arresting Milosevic, the recently deposed strongman who has been indicted for war crimes by the U.N. tribunal in The Hague.

There is nothing wrong with the U.S. threat itself–Milosevic should be arrested, and the authorities in Belgrade, particularly Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, a democratic nationalist, appear to need a kick in the pants. But so does the Bush administration. The U.S. government, in the past decade, has a spotty record of honoring its commitments and obligations in the Balkans, and this has contributed to the region’s continuing instability. Bashing Yugoslavia’s new leaders, though useful, is less important in many ways than upholding the standards of integrity that we expect them–and others–to uphold.

In 1992 the first Bush administration went through the motions of condemning the Serb-led attack on Bosnia but did nothing to counteract it. The problem was handed off to the Clinton administration, which dishonored itself, as the war raged on, by making eloquent protestations and promising vigorous action and then doing little except blaming its European allies for dithering–as, for example, when U.N.-protected safe havens were overrun by Serb forces. There was a war room in the Clinton campaign but not, for a crucial few years, in the Clinton White House.

A U.S-led bombing campaign ended the war in 1995, but the peacekeeping force, spearheaded by U.S. troops, shied away from arresting indicted war criminals, including Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader whose whereabouts were not impossible to determine. (And, lest we forget, Milosevic’s crimes were amply documented at the time, but the White House treated him as a statesman, thereby bolstering his grip on power in Belgrade.)

A modest number of arrests have taken place in Bosnia since those early days, but it’s been a halfhearted effort, and the continued divisions there stem, in part, from the influence of men and women who should have been sent to The Hague years ago.

The same reluctance to do the hard work on the ground has hobbled the U.S.-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo. Ethnic Albanian extremists have intimidated and killed Serbs, just as Serbs effectively have taken control of a northern slice of the province and divided the city of Mitrovica.

Why has this happened? As in Bosnia, aggressive policing could expose the peacekeepers to greater danger, and the United States, which calls the shots, does not want any casualties.

Of greatest urgency, ethnic Albanian extremists in Macedonia have taken up arms against the democratically elected government, and much of the rebels’ supplies and some of their manpower comes from Kosovo. Stopping the flow of men and materiel is difficult and dangerous, but when NATO took control of Kosovo, it accepted the responsibility for making sure the province would not be used as a staging ground for terrorism or insurrection.

There is a new administration in Washington and, with it, the possibility that these obligations will be met. Whether President Bush likes it or not, the U.S. government is a key player in the Balkans. Just as the Serbs need to do the right thing, the Bush administration must do its job, too. If there’s one lesson that should have been learned in the past decade, it is that pointing fingers or telling others what to do is not going to bring about a Balkan endgame.

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.