America: A Beacon, Not a Policeman       America: a Beacon, not a Policeman

Bosnia & Kosovo Mess---How it all Started

Americans Against World Empire  Homepage


Editor's Note--It was Washington's Ambassador who torpedoed the Bosnian Agreement of 2/23/92 in Lisbon for a Swiss style cantonization.  This led to all the subsequent killing and wars.  See Below-----


By Robert R. Reilly


In a recent WALL STREET JOURNAL article (5/6/99), Lady Margaret Thatcher reprises the rationale for NATO’s war against Yugoslavia in a way that is worth examining because it is shared by so many. She draws an exact parallel between "Milosevic’s Serbia" and the "madness of Nazism," and insists that an appeasement policy failed in both instances. Lady Thatcher has been joined in invoking Hitler’s name by many NATO leaders, including President Bill Clinton. They have used it to explain the morality and purpose of the current military campaign. Such statements evoke Winston Churchill’s pronouncements about Nazism and the insatiable ideology that drove its onslaught. Is this what existed in nascent form in Yugoslavia eight years ago, and is this what has come to fruition in the brutal ethnic cleansing in Kosovo?

The use of Nazism to explain events in the Balkans is a visceral response to the horrible atrocities there. But selectively concentrating on atrocities can incapacitate the kind of thinking needed to discern the underlying political reasons that gave rise to them in the first place. This article is not meant to exculpate Serb authorities for their barbaric acts, but to examine the political conditions behind the conflicts and the Western role in igniting them.  Also, the military means employed by NATO must be used to further political ends. If we mistake the political origins of the problems in the Balkans, we can bomb forever and miss the real target.

On the face of it, the Nazi analogy immediately runs into problems. Nazi Germany steadily grew through its acts of aggression until it nearly conquered the Soviet Union, and thus all of Eurasia.  Yet throughout every act of “Serbian” aggression that Lady Thatcher lists, Yugoslavia has become smaller. What kind of Hitler could this be, if through “unopposed” aggression his country has been successively diminished over the past eight years? By 1993, there were already 600,000 Serb refugees who had fled to Serbia and Montenegro from other parts of Yugoslavia. Also, no one has produced a Serbian document faintly resembling Mein Kampf, that spells out an insidious totalitarian ideology of unlimited goals.  Rather than implementing a master plan of Serbian race supremacy, Slobodan Milosevic, a clever Leninist tactician, has been improvising in the midst of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. That disintegration, aided and abetted by Western powers, set off a contest over sovereignty. In the ensuing struggle, it is difficult to assign blame to only one side. Without a framework within which to decide it otherwise, that contest has been conducted by force of arms. To understand it otherwise invites further disaster than has already been caused by Western intervention.

Lady Thatcher starts with the proposition that "the West could have stopped Milosevic in Slovenia" in 1991. This would have been difficult since, in 1991, the collective presidency of Yugoslavia was in disarray and the then new president of Serbia, Slobadan Milosevic, was not in the chain of command. The Yugoslav federal parliament ordered the Defense Minister to secure the county’s borders with Italy and Austria. For ten days, the Yugoslav People’s Army offered what was essentially symbolic resistance to Slovenia’s secession from the Yugoslav Federal Republic. After encountering armed resistance from the Slovene home defense forces, Yugoslavia called it a day and withdrew. There were fewer than seventy fatalities. It is hard to imagine how Serbia could have been "stopped" here, as Lady Thatcher suggests, since it had not yet started.

The bloodier case of Croatia more clearly illustrates what has driven the fighting since the beginning of Yugoslavia’s breakup -- something far more parochial and less ambitious than a Thousand Year Reich. Yugoslav political theorist Vladimir Gligorov expressed this driving force succinctly in the form of a question: “Why should I be a minority in your state when you can be a minority in mine?” Croats no longer wished to be a minority in the larger Yugoslav state, so Croatia declared its independence in 1991. If one accepted the unilateral Croatian declaration, the Yugoslav Peoples Army forces stationed in Zagreb were already, by definition, “aggressors.” But what of the nearly six hundred thousand Serb civilians living in Croatia and their wish to remain part of Yugoslavia?  Was Croatia only for the Croats? 

Changes in the Croatian constitution in December 1990 led the Serbs to think so, as did the purges of Serbs from police and other civil functions. In reaction, the Serbs in the Krajina area of Croatia attempted what the Kosovar Albanians would themselves try to do -- to establish autonomy. Here were the makings of the civil war that ensued.  The final outcome of that struggle came in 1995, when Croatian military forces cleansed a hundred and fifty thousand Serb civilians from Croatia by roughly the same means the Serbs are now employing in Kosovo. According to the Hague war crimes tribunal report on “Operation Storm,” these included indiscriminate shelling of the Serb civilian population, looting, burning, summary executions and numerous disappearances. It is hard to comprehend this conflict simply as an act of Serb aggression.

Lady Thatcher also states that the West could have stopped Milosevic in Bosnia in 1992. However, this tragedy can also be understood as a struggle over sovereignty, though it is far more complex, because no nationality in Bosnia enjoyed a majority. The fundamental political problem in Bosnia was that the majority of its people did not accept it as a sovereign entity. Nonetheless, it was constituted as one by a unilateral declaration of independence and by international recognition.  The question then arose: on what basis could those Bosnians who did not accept the sovereignty of Bosnia be forced to accept it?  And who would do the forcing?

Before Bosnia was declared an independent, unitary state, the Bosnian Serbs said they would consent to a joint confederation only if provided local autonomy and the possibility of some form of future association with Serbia. Without those conditions, the Bosnian Serbs warned that they would fight for independence. The trip wire for such a fight would be a Bosnian declaration of independence without Bosnian Serb consent.   Some may argue that the March 1st, 1992 referendum in Bosnia democratically decided the issue of its independence since the vote was overwhelmingly in favor. However, the Bosnian Serbs did not participate in this vote because it presumed the existence of a state that they had not yet agreed to be part of. They also knew they could be easily outvoted by the Bosnian Croats and Muslims, who at that time were allied. 

The democratic principle of one man, one vote, does not help much here because the argument is over the legitimate entity in which it is to be exercised.  Is it Yugoslavia, or only part of Yugoslavia?  Is it Bosnia, which had never before existed as a state, or only part of Bosnia?  Is it all right for Yugoslavia to disintegrate into ethnically-denominated republics, but not all right for one of its regions to fracture further into smaller ethnically-designated entities? As stated to a U.S. correspondent before the breakup of the Yugoslav federation, Mr. Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian Muslim leader, said he was willing to apply one man, one vote, within Bosnia, but he was not willing to accept this principle within the larger Yugoslavia. According to Gligorov principle, the reason is simple. In Yugoslavia, the Serbs enjoyed a plurality, while in Bosnia the Muslims do.

Nonetheless, it appeared at first that the danger of a bloody conflict in Bosnia could be avoided by letting the three sides negotiate their own settlement under the auspices of a special commission of the European Community.  On February 23rd, 1992, in Lisbon, the three Bosnian leaders -- Izetbegovic for the Bosnian Muslims, Radovan Karadzic for the Bosnian Serbs, and Mate Boban for the Bosnian Croats -- agreed to a confederation divided into three ethnic regions: the Swiss cantonization of Bosnia. However, returning to Sarajevo, Izetbegovic told U.S. Ambassador Warren Zimmermann that he did not like the agreement.  Mr. Zimmermann is quoted as saying, "I told him, if he didn’t like it, why sign it?"  Mr. Izetbegovic then publicly renounced the Lisbon agreement.  (In a September 30, 1993, letter to The New York Times, Mr. Zimmermann disputes this account.) According to a high-ranking State Department official, quoted in The New York Times, "The [U.S.] policy was to encourage Izetbegovic to break with the partition plan."  In March, Karadzic predicted "a civil war between ethnic groups and religions with hundreds of thousands dead and hundreds of towns destroyed.  After such a war, we should have completely the same situation: three Bosnia-Herzegovinas, which we have right now." By early April, twelve European Community members and the United States granted recognition of Bosnian independence.  As predicted, full-scale civil war erupted.

What can account for the role of Western diplomacy on this issue?  Ambassador Zimmermann said, "Our view was that we might be able to head off a Serbian power grab by internationalizing the problem. Our hope was the Serbs would hold off if it was clear Bosnia had the recognition of Western countries. It turned out we were wrong."  Instead, the Western powers fired the starting gun for what was an unnecessary war. One of the most basic principles of foreign policy is to keep local problems local, not to internationalize them. If any part of the world speaks to the danger of internationalizing local problems, it is the Balkans.

The Kosovo case is also a struggle over sovereignty and nationality. Kosovo is universally recognized, except by many Kosovar Albanians, to be part of Serbia.   The Yugoslav federal government, not Milosevic, revoked Albanian autonomy in 1989, after a fourteen-year period of autonomy granted by Tito. Milosevic had made his political reputation in an earlier visit to the region, when he told the Kosovar Serbs that no one would beat them any more. The term, if not the practice of, "ethnic cleansing" was formulated in 1983 by a Kosovar Serb parliamentarian to describe the treatment of Kosovar Serbs by Kosovar Albanians. The Serbs had been cleansed from Kosovo during World War Two, and were not allowed to return by Tito. The sizable Serb minority was then eclipsed by the Albanian birth rate. Also, the Kosovar Albanians made it sufficiently uncomfortable for the Serbs that an estimated 130,000 left the region between 1966 and 1989, 50,000 during the period of autonomy.   One might call it ethnic cleansing in slow motion.

Nonetheless, the Serbs were worse than foolish not to work with Ibrahim Rugova and other moderate Albanians who espoused non-violent means for their political goals.   The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), with origins in both the fascist and communist pasts, began a series of provocations in the last several years, that included weekly assassinations of Serb postmen and policemen, as well as of moderate Kosovar Albanians. Serb forces obligingly retaliated with the expected viciousness. When the atrocities reached sufficient proportions, the West was ready with the Hitler analogy to explain events. Through the loss of a relatively small number of people (less than three thousand in the preceding several years), the KLA was able to obtain in its service the finest air force in the world. NATO is now fighting on the KLA side in its civil war against the Serbs. The fact that NATO thinks it is fighting for democracy in Kosovo is in no way likely to change the consequences of the outcome. The sorry lesson awaiting the West is that Greater Albanian nationalism is not morally superior to Serbian nationalism.

NATO committed an extraordinary blunder in the Rambouillet accords by insisting Serbia agree to de facto independence for Kosovo. No Serb leader could have accepted such terms. By resisting them, Milosevic gained far broader Serbian support than he had ever before enjoyed. Faced with what appeared to be the inevitable loss of part of his country with the Kosovar Albanians in it, Milosevic came upon the brutal expedient of keeping Kosovo without its people.   While his behavior is inexcusable, it was folly for NATO to drive him, or any Serb leader, into this position. Also, Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing in Kosovo would have been impossible with the presence of the 1400 observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who were withdrawn so NATO could begin its bombing campaign. The bombing campaign created the conditions it was meant to prevent.

The peaceful devolution of Yugoslavia was probably the only practical goal for Western policy after 1990. The West consistently mismanaged the disintegration of that state by taking sides in the struggles over sovereignty, and then blamed the results of its own bungling on "Serbian aggression."

Russian mediation may now bring about a resolution in Kosovo short of the NATO Rambouillet objectives that would have been obtainable before the slaughter began. In other words, another unnecessary war. Or if NATO "wins," it most likely will result in an independent KLA-controlled Kosovo, whose existence will fire the region toward a Greater Albania that will destabilize Macedonia, Greece, Albania and Montenegro. Who will be Hitler then?  The West missed its opportunity for a comprehensive settlement in the former Yugoslavia. It had better do some hard thinking -- outside of the  analogies it has chosen to understand the very complex problems of the region -- before it does more damage, with consequences far outside the Balkans.

Mr. Reilly, a long time conservative activist, was a former Special Assistant to President Reagan