Commentary

The Guns of April

April 18, 2009

Pundits warned that the Middle East would present the newly elected president with his first international crisis. Iraqi Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr could revive his forces’ attacks on U.S. troops. The Iranians might try to test the new occupant of the White House. More violence between Israelis and Palestinians could force the president to “do something.” And then there was the prospect of a devastating terrorist attack on the U.S. itself.

But as usual, the conventional wisdom was wrong. The leading Middle Eastern players decided to wait for the 44th president to make the first move on their regional chessboard.

Instead, the international crisis confronting the new resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue emanated from another part of the former Ottoman Empire, the Balkans. The emergency began when Samedin Xhezairi, a member of a shadowy Albanian terrorist group, Allah’s Army, aka Hezbollah in Kosovo, blew himself up and killed Javier Solana, the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union, on April 16 in Pristina.

Solana was about to conclude a series of negotiations that would have led to an agreement between Serbia and leaders of the state of Kosovo whereby the northern part of the Kosovo—where the majority Serb population lives in relative isolation from Kosovo’s Albanian-dominated institutions—would become an autonomous region under joint control of the Kosovo European Republic, Serbia, and the EU. The talks were sponsored by the U.S., the EU, Russia, and the UN.

Albanian and Serbian nationalists opposed the compromise, and Solana was able to win the agreement of Belgrade and Pristina only after committing Brussels to a process that would allow both Serbia and the KER to join the EU in ten years. Following Solana’s assassination, Serbia and its patron, Russia, withdrew from the negotiations.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told Moscow television on April 17 that the “specter of Albanian terrorism is threatening the lives of our Serbian brethren.” He said that if the KER took steps to extend its sovereignty in the Serb areas in northern Kosovo, his government would have “no choice” but to deploy Russian troops to protect the Serbs. The KER countered that this constituted an “act of war,” insisting on its right to control northern Kosovo and calling on the U.S. and EU to provide military assistance in “confronting Russian state-sponsored terrorism.”

April 20

The Russian announcement caught President Obama and his aides by surprise. White House Press Secretary James Rubin told reporters that President Obama was still planning to take part in the Bridge Between Civilizations Conference in Jakarta, Indonesia next week, where he will give a major address on the relationship between the West and the Muslim world. He will stop in Madrid to attend Solana’s funeral.

“We hope that President Obama will have a chance to meet with Prime Minister Putin to discuss the situation in the Balkans,” Rubin said. His wife, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, reported last night that security forces controlled by the Serbian government and trained by the Russian police and military have infiltrated northern Kosovo in the last two days. “No comment,” Rubin said with a smile when asked to respond to his wife’s report.

A White House source tells The American Conservativethat Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has spoken with Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who assured him that there are no “concrete” Russian plans to send troops to Kosovo and that Moscow hopes to resolve the crisis in concert with Washington and Brussels. “The Russians made it clear that as long as the Kosovars refrain from changing the status quo in the north, the Russians will continue pursuing a diplomatic resolution,” the source said. He added that U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the Serbs have only sent limited humanitarian aid to their compatriots in northern Kosovo. “Contrary to the reports on CNN, there are no signs that the Serbs are sending in their security people,” he stressed.

April 21

Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke has told his aides that the “the Obama administration is confronting the resurgence of Russian nationalism that threatens key Western interests in Europe.” In a front-page story entitled “Holbrooke Sees a New Cold War with Russia,” the New York Times reports growing concern among Holbrooke’s advisers that the Pentagon is sending “conciliatory messages to Moscow that project weakness and play into the hands of the hawks in the Kremlin.” As one aide put it, “Putin and Medvedev are testing Obama, who they perceive as inexperienced and vulnerable, in the same way that Khrushchev tested Kennedy. President Obama needs to counter that misperception by demonstrating resolve in face of Russian aggression.”

April 22

As Secretaries Holbrooke and Hagel continue to argue over the possible response, President Obama’s national security adviser, Samantha Power, seems ready to side with the secretary of state and leading Democrats and Republicans who have called for a tough U.S. stand against Moscow, according to the Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland. “Power, who in the past advocated American ‘humanitarian intervention,’ is arguing that the U.S. needs to take immediate action to prevent the collapse of Kosovo and an ensuing civil war that could produce a humanitarian catastrophe,” he wrote.

April 23

In a show of bipartisan spirit, Democratic and Republican lawmakers stood up and applauded President Obama after he delivered a major foreign policy address before a special session of Congress. He proclaimed that the U.S. would support “an independent and free Kosovo” with economic and military aid and would protect it from “outside aggression.” Dubbed the Obama Doctrine, the speech outlined a strategy aimed at forming close security ties with nations in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, “and other free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by the new totalitarian regimes.” President Obama said that NATO will sign a security accord with Pristina that will eventually allow Kosovo to join the organization.
Former President George W. Bush hailed the decision, and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain told Fox News, “President Obama made us feel proud to be Americans today.” The Weekly Standard’s cover hailed “Barack Truman.”

Or …

April 20, 2009

The Russian announcement caught President John McCain and his aides by surprise. White House Press Secretary David Brooks told reporters that President McCain was still planning to take part in the Building a New Democratic Community Conference in Prague, where he will give a major address on establishing a new international organization, the United Democratic Nations, which will include the U.S., the EU, India, Taiwan, Israel, Iraq, and a few other democratic nations and which will be headquartered on George W. Bush Avenue in the Green Zone in Baghdad. He plans to stop in Madrid to attend the Solana funeral.

“President McCain doesn’t have any plans to meet with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin,” Brooks said, “This is not a time for sweet talk but for swift action.” He also noted, “President McCain has not left the Situation Room in the White House since last night and has been on the phone with our allies. The president is also re-reading Seven Days in May. He is preparing to address the nation tonight and will follow up with several fireside chats.”

Brooks refused to comment on a front-page report in the Wall Street Journal by Pulitzer Prize winner Judith Miller detailing secret co-operation between Russia and Iran in developing space weapons that could target major American cities.

White House sources tell The American Conservative that Secretary of State Brent Scowcroft has spoken to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who warned him that American plans to bring Kosovo into the UDN and NATO would be regarded by Russia as an “unfriendly act” and could force it to sever diplomatic relations. Officials in Foggy Bottom blame Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz for leaking the reports on Russian-Iranian co-operation to Miller. But they insist that the space weapons developed by the two countries would not pose a clear and present danger to U.S. interests. They would only target popular American television reality shows like “The Biggest Loser.”

April 21

Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz has told his aides that “the McCain administration is confronting the emergence of a Russo-Islamo-Fascism that threatens the March of Freedom worldwide.” In a front-page story entitled, “Wolfowitz Warns of a Moscow-Tehran-Beijing Axis,” the New York Times reports growing concern among Wolfowitz’s advisers that Scowcroft and other “so-called realists” are “trying to appease the new Stalin in the Kremlin.” As one aide put it, “The Russo-Islamo-Sino Axis reminds Wolfowitz of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. He thinks that we need a Churchill, not a Chamberlain.”

April 22

As Secretaries Wolfowitz and Scowcroft continue to argue over the possible response, President McCain’s National Security Adviser Robert Kagan seems ready to tip the balance in favor of the Secretary of Defense and leading Democrats and Republicans who have called for a tough U.S. stand against Moscow, according to the Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland. “Kagan, who during the wars of succession in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s called for U.S. military intervention against the Serbs, is arguing that America needs to take immediate action to prevent the collapse of Kosovo and an ensuing civil war that could threaten the entire balance of power in Europe,” he wrote.

April 23

In a show of bipartisanship, Democratic and Republican lawmakers stood up and applauded President McCain as he delivered a major foreign policy address before a special session of Congress. He proclaimed that the U.S. would support the “independent and free state of Kosovo” with economic and military aid to prevent it from falling victim to “outside aggression.” Dubbed the McCain Doctrine, the speech outlined a strategy aimed at forming close security ties with nations in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, “and other free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by the new totalitarian regimes.” President McCain said that NATO will sign a security accord with Pristina that will eventually allow Kosovo to join the organization.

Former President Bill Clinton hailed the decision and former Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama told CNN, “Today, we are all Americans!” The Weekly Standard’s cover hailed “John Truman.”

Leon Hadar, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, is author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.