Comprehending the Absurd: The U.S. Balkan Policy
Over the past two decades the decisionmakers in Washington have acquired and internalized a bias in Balkan affairs that falls outside the parameters of rational debate. As Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute has noted, such policy is not as inconsistent as it seems: “Time after time the U.S. policy makers would ask what is it that the Serbs want, they would think about it for about five seconds, and reply that it is totally unacceptable.”
Such consistency has had grim results. Their mendacity, as displayed at Rambouillet in February 1999, was on par with the farce of Munich in 1938. In Kosovo their bombs led to a violent secession by an ethnic minority which, in the fullness of time, may render many European borders tentative. In Bosnia-Herzegovina they helped ignite the war in the spring of 1992, notably with U.S. Ambassador Warren Zimmermann’s now notorious mission to Sarajevo. They kept it going in 1993 by torpedoing the European-led peace initiatives. They engineered an outcome in 1995 that could have been obtained in 1992 without a single shot. In Croatia, in August 1995, they aided and abetted the biggest act of ethnic cleansing in post-1945 Europe.
The puzzling question remains: why did America get involved in Balkan affairs, which bear no relationship to U.S. security, involving herself in long-standing and perhaps incurable national conflicts, and consistently acting in bad faith at that?
THE BURDEN OF HISTORY—The U.S. policy in the Balkans made its debut near the end of the First World War. President Wilson, while advocating the creation of Yugoslavia in 1918, did not realize that the unification of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was at least half-century overdue: the process of separate cultural development and the emergence of mutually incompatible national identities among the South Slavs had been completed. But being a liberal, Wilson did not allow Balkan realities to get in the way of his vision. He blended the Puritan self-righteous zeal with the Progressive Era’s belief in the power of politics to change the world for the better. His concepts of “self-determination,” “enlarging democracy” and “collective security” signaled the birth of a view of America’s role in world affairs which has created—and is still creating—endless problems for America and for the world.
After 1948 Tito came to be perceived as an asset by the U.S. Money, weapons, and warm welcome were soon to follow and continued until the end of the dictator’s life in 1980. Fixated on “Tito’s Yugoslavia” as a factor of Cold War stability, key American leaders disregarded—a decade later—the fact that Tito’s internal boundaries between the federal republics were the root cause of the looming conflict. Arbitrarily designed by the communist winners in the civil war in 1945, they left a third of all Serbs outside Serbia-proper, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Montenegro. For good measure two “autonomous provinces” were carved out of Serbia, one of which—Kosovo—is an almost Serbenfrei quasi-state today.
For as long as Yugoslavia existed the Serbs could nevertheless derive some comfort from the existence of a common Federal framework: it appeared to promise them a measure of security from the repetition of the nightmare of 1941-45. When Yugoslavia started unraveling, however, in 1991-92, they were determined to resist any attempt by the breakaway republics to force millions of Serbs to become insecure and disliked minorities in their own land.
POLITICAL ESSENCE OF THE WARS—In Croatia in 1991 and in Bosnia in 1992 the Serbs reacted in the same manner as the Americans of Texas, Arizona or New Mexico may react—10 or 20 years from now—if they are outvoted by a Latino majority demanding that those states be reabsorbed into Mexico, or into a contrived “Republic of the North.” For those who discount such outcomes, let us remember history. For example, the Protestant Ulstermen fought, demanded, and were given the right to stay in the United Kingdom when the Irish nationalists opted for secession in 1921. A second poignant illustration is the creation of the State of West Virginia in 1863 when—during the Civil War—the Union annexed the counties of the Commonwealth of Virginia that rejected secession. When comparing the paradigms, the Loyalists of Ulster and the Unionists of West Virginia were just as guilty of a “Joint Criminal Enterprise” to break up Ireland, or the Old Dominion, as were the Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina who did not want to be dragged into secession by the Muslim plurality.
Yugoslavia was a flawed polity, and in principle there should have been no objection to the striving of Croats or Bosnian Muslims to create their own nation-states. But equally there could have been no justification for forcing over two million Serbs west of the Drina River to be incorporated into those states against their will. Yugoslavia came together in 1918 as a union of South Slav peoples, and not as a federation of states or territorial units. Its divorce, once it became inevitable, should have proceeded on the same basis. This has been the key foundation of the Yugoslav conflict ever since the first shots were fired in May 1991.
The political essence of the wars of Yugoslav disintegration has been systematically hidden or distorted in the Western mainstream media, academia, and political forums, behind the portrayal of the Serbs as primitive ultranationalists who seek to conquer other peoples’ lands by violent means. The demonization of the Serbs was an exercise in social constructivism, depressingly effective in its crude simplicity. As early as 1992 the media pack equated the brutalities of the Balkans with the Holocaust. Once the paradigm matured with the myth of the “Srebrenica Genocide,” and once any doubters were equated with holocaust deniers, the possibilities for mendacity were limitless. Its fruits will be with us for decades to come.
UNDERSTANDING THE ABSURD—At the level of institutionalized corruption which passes for the political process in Washington D.C. the Yugoslav policy was the end-result of the interaction of pressure groups within the power structure: finding a new role for NATO, earning points in the Muslim world, caving in to ethnic lobbying, pandering to the military-industrial complex, isolating Russia, controlling strategic routes between Europe and the Middle East, and above all cementing American global hegemony. The influence of organized political lobbies in Washington was not decisive, but it should not be underestimated. Anti-Serb lobbies, notably Albanian-Americans, have been well-funded and well-placed for decades, while today (as in the past) the “Serbian lobby” does not exist. As James Jatras has noted, well before the outbreak of hostilities in 1991, the Serbs had already been branded the bad guys. Combined with media reinforcement, much false information was and still is accepted as unquestionable fact.
The Bosnian war transformed NATO into a tool of U.S. hegemony and it opened the door to the renewal of American dominance in European affairs to an extent not seen since Kennedy. As the late Richard Holbrooke put it, Dayton demonstrated that Europeans were not capable of resolving their own problems and that America was still the “indispensable nation.” He boasted, a year later, “We are re-engaged in the world, and Bosnia was the test.”
It is undeniable that geopolitical-strategic factors have played a role in defining the Balkan policy in Washington. Such “rational” reasons are not sufficient, however, to explain the zeal of successive administrations in pursuing a premeditatedly duplicitous anti-Serb policy. The clue is not in the realm of tangible strategic benefits and geopolitical assets, of transit corridors, oil and gas pipelines, lignite and zinc reserves, or military bases such as Camp Bondsteel. The key is in the desire of the Western elite class to use the Balkans as a testing ground for their emerging postmodernist, postnational project. They know that Kosovo is more than a piece of real estate, that it is to the Serbs what Alamo is to Texans or Jerusalem to Jews, that taking it away and letting its churches and monasteries be demolished is an unprecedented exercise in ethnocide. They condoned the Albanian barbarity because they saw the demolition of a small nation steeped in tradition of heroism and martyrdom—the Kosovo saga embodies it perfectly—as a step in the direction of a U.S.-dominated post-national world based on propositional abstractions.
This is the cue to the treatment of the Serbs by the U.S. political and media decision-makers over the past two decades. On the ruins of real nations, the rhetoric of “universal human rights” is imposed as the new basis for law and morality. The Serbs were merely a litmus test. The slogan of choice is multicultural democracy, irrespective of the wishes of the citizens of the particular territory involved—unless it is Serbs who wish to maintain a multi-ethnic state, in which case secession is the West’s preferred policy.
PANDERING TO ISLAMIC MILITANTS—In 1980 the U.S. supported hard-core Islamists in the insurgency against the Soviets in Afghanistan. That decision was a strategic mistake of the highest order: it prompted the release of the Jihadist genie from a bottle that had remained sealed for almost three centuries after the siege of Vienna. Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski’s “brilliant idea”—as he called the Afghan covert action almost two decades after the event—meant that hundreds of millions, and eventually billions of dollars were poured into the coffers and arsenals of people who openly stated their intention to rebuild an early-medieval theocracy in Afghanistan.
The fruits went beyond the jihadists’ wildest dreams. Brzezinski will go down in history as the man who did for Bin Laden what the Kaiser did for Lenin by providing him with that sealed train in 1917. Two “liberal” interventions on the side of the Balkan Muslims, in Bosnia and Kosovo, ensued in the 1990s. The most tangible result of promoting “common ideals and interests in this globalized world” by NATO bombs is the existence of a vibrant, hard-core jihadist base in the heart of Europe that has had a connection with every major terrorist attack in the past decade. Even 9/11 itself had a Bosnian Connection: Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, who planned the 9/11 attacks, was a seasoned veteran of the Bosnian jihad, as were two of the hijackers.
In spite of all other unresolved domestic and foreign issues, at a time when the U.S. power and authority are challenged around the world, key players in President Obama’s team still look upon the Balkans as the last geopolitically significant area where they can assert their “credibility” by postulating a maximalist set of objectives as the only outcome acceptable to the United States, and duly insisting on their fulfillment. We have already seen this pattern with Kosovo, and we’ve seen an attempt to stage its replay in Bosnia under the ongoing demand for unitarization.
The U.S. policy in the Balkans—just like its policy in Libya last year and in Syria today –facilitates the jihadist agenda. American goals paradoxically coincide with the regional objectives of those same Islamists who confront America in other parts of the world. Far from enhancing peace and regional stability, such policies continue to encourage pan-Islamic agitation for the completion of an uninterrupted Green Corridor in the Balkans by linking its as yet unconnected segments. It destabilizes Bosnia by encouraging constant Muslim demands for the abolition of the Republika Srpska, and it destabilizes Serbia in the Raska region (“Sanjak”). It encourages greater-Albanian aspirations against Macedonia, Montenegro, Greece, and Serbia. It encourages escalation of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman ambitions in the region. It is destructive and harmful.
In all cases the immediate bill will be paid by the people of the Balkans, as it is already being paid by Kosovo’s disappearing Serbs; but long-term costs of the U.S. policy in the Balkans will haunt the West. By encouraging its Albanian clients to proclaim independence, the U.S. administration has made a massive leap into the unknown, potentially on par with Austria’s July 1914 ultimatum to Serbia. The fruits will be equally bitter. In the fullness of time both America and Europe will come to regret the criminal folly of their current leaders. Remarkably, the continuing automatic-pilot policy directed against the Serbs is taking place without any serious debate in Washington on the ends and uses of American power, in the Balkans or anywhere else. Obama’s and Bush’s rhetoric differ, but they are one regime, identical in substance and consequence. Its leading lights will go on disputing the validity of the emerging balance-of-power system because they reject the legitimacy of any power in the world other than that of the United States, controlled and exercised by themselves. Theirs is, indeed, the global equivalent of the Brezhnev Doctrine.
The quest for hegemony leads to a counter-coalition which defeats it. The proponents of American exceptionalism nevertheless scoff at history’s warnings provided by Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, the Kaiser’s in 1918, or Hitler’s in 1945, as inapplicable in the post-history that they seek to construct. They confront the argument that no vital American interest worthy of risking a major war is involved in Georgia, or Syria, or the Balkans, with the claim that the whole world is America’s near-abroad. It is therefore essential for the emerging powers to refuse in principle to accept the validity of Washington’s ideological assumptions and the legitimacy of its associated geopolitical claims. At the same time, the key “liberal hawks” in the Obama Administration remain anchored in Madeleine Albright’s hubris: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall.”
The premises of an imperial presidency—which in world affairs translates into the quest for dominance and justification for interventionism—remain unchallenged, as we are witnessing in Syria today and as we shall witness in Iran tomorrow. (We are witnessing it in America, too, with Obama’s unrestrained use of the Presidential executive order—an extreme emergency measure—as a tool for overriding the will of the Legislative branch.) American meddling in the Balkans has been paradigmatic of the problem. It remains unaffected by the ongoing financial crisis manifest in a 16-trillion public debt, just as Moscow’s late-Cold War adventurism—so tragically manifested in Afghanistan—was enhanced, rather than curtailed, by the evident shortcomings of the Soviet political and economic system.
[Excerpts from Dr. Trifkovic’s paper presented in Belgrade at The Gorchakov Foundation conference European Security: The Balkan Angle on June 27, 2012.]