Commentary

U.S. Should Ignore Temptation and Stay Out of Albania

Yet another poor Balkans country is descending into violence and chaos, and again cries are heard for U.S. intervention. Beleaguered Albanian President Sali Berisha officially requested Western assistance; Albanian journalist Edi Rama called for Europe to see “the need for peace” in his nation. Austria, Denmark, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain have pushed for military intervention. Voices are rising in America, too, for “dealing with” the crisis.

Yet Albania’s disintegration is a humanitarian tragedy, not a security threat. Although Edi Rama warns that action is necessary “before the entire Balkans are set on fire,” this is a claim that we’ve heard before. If the West didn’t intervene in the multifaceted Yugoslavian civil war, it was said, Albania, Macedonia, Greece and even Turkey might be drawn into the conflict. But for more than four years - longer than World War I, which was sparked by a Serbian terrorist attack in Bosnia - the Croats, Muslims and Serbs warred against one another without involving anyone else.

Moreover, U.S. involvement in the Yugoslav civil war is a bad idea that shouldn’t be repeated in Albania. That the fighting has ended is good, of course, but the notion that the West can force the recent combatants to work together in a multiethnic state is surreal. The goal is neither attainable nor worth attaining. It is also hypocritical: the European and American governments encouraged the Slovenians, Croatians and Bosnian Muslims to secede from Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia. Why should not the Serbs likewise secede from Muslim-dominated Bosnia?

Even if preserving Bosnia was a worthwhile goal, it would not warrant the continued presence of U.S. forces. Europe obviously has the most at stake in the Balkans. If the conflict reignited, the violence, refugees, and instability would affect America’s allies, not America. Let the Europeans garrison Bosnia.

Of course, it has long been argued in Washington that the Europeans won’t act without the United States. Just look at Albania today. So what? Unless vital American interests are at stake, Washington should not risk U.S. lives and wealth.

The United States certainly shouldn’t bail out prosperous allies that don’t believe they have vital interests at stake. Moreover, the Europeans will never act if they don’t have to act. For all of their grumbling, these international welfare queens like being coddled, subsidized and defended by America.

Albania is even less important than Bosnia. Although the conflict has been oft-portrayed as a proto-communist attempt to reassert control, Berisha is no democrat, having rigged the last election and preserved the secret police. Who deserves to hold power in Albania? This isn’t something the West can decide, at least not without a lengthy occupation and MacArthur-like reconstruction of the nation. If the Europeans want to try, let them. There’s no reason for Washington to get involved.

But it’s not enough to stay out of Albania. The Clinton administration needs to recognize that its overall Balkans strategy is kaput. Croatia is considered to be an important ally, but President Franjo Tudjman is dying of cancer and his government has engaged in an orgy of murder, ethnic cleansing and other war crimes against Muslims and Serbs. While the polyglot Bosnia envisioned by U.S. diplomats continues to exist as an artifact of international law, a working republic it is never likely to be. Strong nationalists still dominate all factions in the region, and play an important role even in the democratic opposition in Serbia.

The administration should bring home America’s troops. If it won’t, then Congress should. Indeed, budget committee Chairman John Kasich is proposing to require the soldiers’ return by the end of the year.

Equally important, Congress should say no to NATO expansion. That the Central and Eastern Europeans fear both Germany and Russia is obvious. But that’s no reason for the United States to guarantee their security.

Instead of pushing to extend NATO, Washington should begin withdrawing U.S. troops and encouraging the Europeans to plan for their own defense. That shouldn’t be hard when Britain, France and Germany alone spend half again as much on the military as does Moscow. If the Western Europeans want to also defend their Eastern neighbors, fine. But America should be dropping old welfare clients, not adding new ones.

The world remains a dangerous place, we are told, and that’s true. But it is not a particularly dangerous place for America. The U.S. dominates the globe, accounts for 40 percent of the world’s military spending, and is friendly with all of the major industrialized states. It’s time for policy-makers to take pride in America’s relative security, rather than risking it by intervening in foreign hot spots, like the Balkans.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.