Commentary

Intervention Protection

By Gary Dempsey
August 2, 2001
Earlier in July, the Bush administration dispatched special envoy James Pardew to Macedonia to pressure the government there into peace talks with ethnic Albanians. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has since offered up U.S. troops to NATO should the alliance go in as a peacekeeping force. It would be America’s third Balkan intervention in 6 years, and a cynical attempt to save face.

For Washington’s deepening diplomatic and military involvement in Macedonia is not driven by any meaningful concern about the fate of that small country. It is instead driven by a desire to keep NATO’s flawed Kosovo intervention from unraveling and becoming a colossal embarrassment. Intervention protection, in other words, is what is guiding Washington’s Macedonia policy. What this means in practice is that American policymakers are willing to sacrifice Macedonia’s interests to prevent the Kosovo intervention from blowing-up in their faces.

Unfortunately, ethnic Albanian extremists in the region understand what Washington’s real policy priority is, and they have used that knowledge to advance a subtle form of blackmail: Placate us in Macedonia or we will make life very difficult for you in Kosovo.

Washington appears to understand the implied threat, and figures that the risks associated with telling the Macedonians to give in to ethnic Albanian demands are fewer than telling the ethnic Albanians to give in to Macedonian demands. But this is the case because the ethnic Albanians have greater leverage over Washington than the Macedonians: the potential to harass, maim, or kill members of the 40,000-strong NATO peacekeeping force now deployed in neighboring Kosovo.

Were ethnic Albanians in Kosovo to turn their guns on NATO, it would not only create a military debacle for Washington, but it would be a political embarrassment as well: Washington would have to explain to the American public why its former “allies” are shooting at NATO soldiers. Faced with such unappealing prospects, Washington has instead decided to pressure the Macedonian government into making constitutional changes that would not be tolerated in the United States itself. For example, Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority would be granted veto power over “any legislation that affects major interests of the Albanians,” even if the measure is supported by a majority of the country’s parliament.

Washington, of course, is loath to admit that protecting its Kosovo intervention is what is driving its Macedonia policy. It has therefore been willing to go along with the rebels’ charade that the Kosovo Liberation Army operating in Kosovo and the National Liberation Army, which has been trying to destabilize Macedonia’s government for the past six months, are separate organizations. Using different names has allowed Washington to maintain the self-serving fiction that the region’s recent problems are external to Kosovo and that NATO’s 1999 intervention has had nothing to do with the troubles in Macedonia.

In reality, however, the Kosovo Liberation Army and the National Liberation Army share much of the same equipment and many of the same military leaders. They also share many of the same soldiers. In fact, 20 percent of the Kosovo Protection Corps, the civil defense force set up by the UN to employ former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, are currently unaccounted for and believed to be fighting with the National Liberation Army. Equally telling, both groups share the same acronym in the Albanian language—UÇK. It’s only we outsiders who use the acronyms KLA and NLA.

The truth of the matter is that the peace in Kosovo has been a false peace. The Kosovo Liberation Army and its offshoots have not given up on their wartime objective: creating a Greater Albania. The rebels’ willingness to continue to agitate, fight, and provoke, however, is not at all irrational. It is a logical outcome of Washington’s ill-conceived 1999 intervention in Kosovo. Indeed, the hand of the rebels was strengthened and emboldened, as they were made nearly victorious by NATO’s air campaign against Yugoslavia. Given that outcome, they have had little interest in obeying Washington’s commands, especially when those commands conflict with their own nationalistic vision for the future of the Balkans.

Washington’s Kosovo policy, as a result, has not been creating the conditions policymakers said would allow American troops to eventually return home. In fact, the opposite is occurring: More U.S. troops are being considered for the Balkans. Protecting a flawed intervention, it seems, is now about to spawn an intervention of its own.

Gary Dempsey, a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute, is the lead author of the recently published book, “Fool’s Errands: America’s Recent Encounters with Nation Building.