Commentary

NATO’s Balkan Disaster: A Year Later

This article appeared in the Korea Herald, June 8, 1999.
The year 2000 has dawned: An uneasy calm reigns in the Balkans. The bombs have stopped falling. NATO has seemingly triumphed.

The majority of Serb security units have withdrawn from Kosovo, easing the heavy-handed repression characteristic of the last two years. Alas, ruins are all that remain of many Kosovar villages.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees still populate camps in Albania and Macedonia. European and Russian peacekeeping forces have been unable - and, more importantly, unwilling - to suppress continuing attacks across the Albanian border by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Angry young refugees unwilling to return to Kosovo nominally controlled by Serbia are flocking to the guerrillas.

Serbs have slowly begun to rebuild, but much of Yugoslavia remains rubble. Slobodan Milosevic is still entrenched in power; his family and friends control the modest aid money flowing in from the West. Milosevic continues to skillfully tarnish democratic politicians’ reputations with the taint of disloyalty in the midst of a seemingly endless national crisis.

Tensions are growing between ethnic Albanians, Albanian refugees and the Macedonian government. Montenegro is being squeezed between the Serb-dominated Yugoslav government and KLA guerrillas, operating with the aid of ethnic Albanian refugees still in Montenegro. Clashes have occurred between ethnic Hungarians and Serbs in Yugoslavia’s northern territory of Vojvodina.

Albania grows more chaotic every day. The central government’s writ runs little further north than the capital of Tirana, while ousted president Sali Berisha - dedicated to overthrowing Albania’s government - steadily gains influence through his alliance with the KLA. Arms and recruits flow to the KLA, which promises to liberate Kosovo, irrespective of the ongoing diplomatic negotiations.

Tensions are escalating in Bosnia. Croats and Muslims alike have begun jostling for position. Although they watch each other warily, they are most interested in devouring the so-called Republic of Srpska, inhabited by ethnic Serbs. Croatia and Bosnia believe this time Belgrade could do little to save its fellow Serbs.

In Greece popular opinion remains harshly negative toward the alliance and the war. The economic costs have been high, hampering Athens’ plan to adopt the euro in 2001. Greece’s growing belief that it cannot count on fellow members of NATO in a confrontation with Turkey has caused Athens to accelerate its military build-up and strengthen ties with Moscow.

A presidential election is in full swing in Russia, with one nationalist or another expected to win. Animus toward the West in general and the United States in particular has been a constant campaign theme. Moscow has grown more recalcitrant regarding both economic market reform and high-technology transfers.

Moreover, Russia and China have used their position on the U.N. Security Council to frustrate American desires in Kosovo. Both countries demanded limits on the peacekeeping mission’s goals and powers. Beijing emphasized that it would not allow the U.N. to become a tool of U.S. hegemony. Concerns about Washington’s arrogance are expressed by other nations as well, such as India.

Recriminations were even worse among NATO members. London ended up resenting what it believed to be the Clinton administration’s premature capitulation in accepting the settlement peddled by Moscow. Clinton, in turn, blamed Congress, which sharply criticized Europe for free-riding, given its minor military contribution to the war.

Germany’s Red-Green coalition barely survived. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had found himself hard-pressed to prevent a split within his own Social Democratic Party. Italy’s coalition sought to recover politically by promising that it, like Greece, would support no more aggressive, “out-of-area” operations.

In fact, NATO’s enthusiasm for its new mission of making war on behalf of peace, joyously promoted at its 50th anniversary celebration in 1999, had largely dissipated. Many NATO officials privately described Kosovo as a Pyrrhic victory: one so costly that another such triumph would undo the alliance. Several European nations, particularly France and Germany, discussed proposals to invigorate the Western European Union and EuroCorps in order to reduce Europe’s military dependence on the United States.

Meanwhile, the slaughter continued around the globe. Turkey launched another military operation into Iraq to suppress Kurdish guerrillas. Civil war blazed in Sri Lanka. Kashmiris continued to fight for independence from India.

Cease-fires came and went in Sierra Leone. The killing escalated in countries ranging from Angola to Sudan. Not a peep was heard from the governments of Bill Clinton or Tony Blair.

Obviously, it is difficult to foresee what the new year will bring. But in Yugoslavia, NATO combined high hubris with spectacular ignorance and overwhelming incompetence. The allied nations are likely to find their supposed victory almost as expensive as defeat. Unfortunately, the Balkans - and, indeed, the rest of the world - is going to pay the price for a long time.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and former special assistant to President Reagan.