Commentary

America’s Balkan Quagmire

Fighting has burst anew in the Balkans, only this time in Macedonia. The government in Skopje is at war. President Bill Clinton’s foolish humanitarian warmongering two years ago sowed the wind; unless the Bush administration quickly disengages, it will reap the whirlwind.

The collapse of the Soviet Union reduced the outside pressure that helped hold together multi-ethnic Yugoslavia.

The country disintegrated bloodily as Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia successively split off.

By 1998, guerrilla war was overrunning Kosovo, an integral part of Serbia. The ambitions of ethnic Albanians were not limited to Kosovo; many wanted to establish a greater Albania, incorporating ethnic kin living in Albania, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, and even elsewhere in Serbia.

For help in defeating Serb forces, ethnic Albanians looked west. One Kosovar leader with whom I spoke, Alush Gashi, was explicit: NATO intervention is necessary, and “it depends on how we look on CNN. People need to see victims in their living rooms.”

The Clinton administration was happy to oblige. Although Washington would ignore murder and mayhem around the globe — for instance the countries of Rwanda or Sierra Leone or the regions of Kashmir or Kurdistan — white Europeans it was determined to save. The United States had an “inescapable responsibility,” opined Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “to build a peaceful world and to terminate the abominable injustices and conditions that still plague civilization.”

In the name of peace, mighty NATO initiated war against a minuscule state that had neither harmed nor threatened any of the alliance’s members. Seventy-eight days of bombing later, Yugoslavia yielded control of Kosovo.

Alas, the succeeding two years have not generated a peaceful world. East Timor came and went; violence is spreading across Indonesia. The Congo is in flames. Kashmir remains a violent flash point. But Washington has not threatened to bomb any of them.

Then there’s Kosovo. A quarter of a million Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and even non-Albanian Muslims have been ethnically cleansed. As my Cato Institute colleague Ted Galen Carpenter notes in a devastating new study, “the cleansing has been accompanied by hundreds of murders. In addition to those confirmed deaths, nearly 2,000 people simply disappeared.”

That’s more than the number who died during Serb rule.

Moreover, former Kosovo Liberation Army members have turned to new pursuits. When not running lucrative organized criminal enterprises in Kosovo, or rubbing out their opponents to gain control of those operations, they have launched new insurgencies both in the Presevo Valley in south Serbia and in Macedonia, where a third of the population is ethnic Albanian. Explains Michael Radu of the Foreign Policy Institute: “We are simply witnessing Albanian expansionism under the very nose of NATO troops.”

Not that Washington’s disastrous bungling in the Balkans should surprise anyone. All of America’s recent experiences with so-called nation- building have been chaotic failures.

In a new book, “Fool’s Errands: America’s Recent Encounters with Nation Building,” Gary Dempsey, another Cato scholar, and Roger Fontaine, a former Reagan administration staffer, review the cases of Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia, as well as that of Kosovo. None have led to the promised world of peace and justice.

Advocates of international social engineering remain unphased. Observe Dempsey and Fontaine: Nation builders “seem to have chronic trouble distinguishing between what they aspire to attain through their policies and the real world.”

That problem is evident in the Balkans today. So far NATO has largely ignored the KLA’s brutality within Kosovo. But the KLA’s move outward forced the West to act. NATO has allowed Serb forces into the buffer zone in the Presevo Valley and offered verbal support for the Macedonian government.

Unfortunately, with backing from forces in Albania and use of Kosovo as a sanctuary, ethnic Albanian guerrillas will continue to undermine both Serbia and Macedonia. In turn, both states will feel increasing pressure to escalate.

If NATO does nothing, war will spread, inevitably entangling the alliance. If the United States and its allies instead confront the KLA directly, involvement will come sooner and be bloodier. In either case, Western forces will be killing the very people they came to save two years ago.

There is no easy solution. But Washington does have an out. It can pass what Carpenter calls the “poisoned chalice” to the Europeans.

Stability in the Balkans may or may not be judged to be a vital interest for the leading states of Europe. It is not for America, however. The region is tragic, not strategic.

Getting out would anger the Europeans, but staying will not avoid the necessity of making tough decisions. The fundamental issue is America’s national interest: there is none that justifies staying in the Balkans. The whirlwind is stirring; the only way to escape it is an early exit.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow.