The Unraveling of Washington’s Balkan Policy

April 9, 1997 • Commentary

Barely more than a year ago the Clinton administration boasted of its successful policy in the Balkans. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke had brokered the Dayton accords between the warring Bosnian factions, and a short time later he outlined an ambitious policy to stabilize the entire Balkan peninsula. That policy was based on creating an “arc of alliances” involving the United States and several countries in the region.

Almost every building block of Holbrooke’s arc of alliances is visibly crumbling. That development has disturbing implications for the safety of American troops that remain in Bosnia as part of the NATO‐​led stabilization force (SFOR). It also poses a less obvious but still serious danger to the more than 500 American troops deployed in Macedonia as part of a UN peacekeeping contingent. More broadly, it is a devastating rebuke to the administration’s goal of making the United States the stabilizer and protector of the congenitally volatile Balkans.

There are several components to the arc of alliances policy. In addition to orchestrating the Dayton accords to end the Muslim‐​Serb bloodletting, Washington was midwife to the 1994 birth of the Muslim‐​Croat federation, which controls half of Bosnia’s territory, and has labored mightily since then to make the federation function. The United States has also cultivated the government of Franjo Tudjman in neighboring Croatia and established a network of political, military and intelligence ties with Albania and Macedonia.

All of those initiatives are in trouble. The Dayton accords hang by a thread. Bosnia’s municipal elections, originally scheduled for September 1996, were recently postponed for the second time. An American arbitrator assigned to determine whether the Muslim‐​dominated Sarajevo government or the Bosnian Serb republic should have jurisdiction over the city of Brcko in the strategic Posavina corridor has delayed his decision for a year. SFOR commanders candidly admit that any other action would have led to a resumption of fighting — with NATO peacekeepers caught in the middle.

Bosnia’s Muslim‐​Croat federation exists only on paper. There has been no significant integration of the two military commands, and the Croats have maintained a de facto independent state in the areas they control, continuing to fly the Croatian flag and use Croatian currency. The federation’s disarray is illustrated by the inability of European Union mediators to reunify the divided city of Mostar. Recently, Croat police fired on a crowd of Muslim civilians there, killing 1 and wounding more than 20. If that is the behavior of allies in a political federation, one shudders to imagine how avowed enemies would act.

The situation in Croatia is only marginally better. Citing “national security” reasons, Tudjman has refused to recognize the victory of the political opposition in municipal elections in the capital, Zagreb, and his regime continues to stifle an independent press. Washington’s decision to back Tudjman may prove unwise as well as morally dubious. He reportedly suffers from terminal cancer, and his political tenure is problematic at best. His probable successors seem even less serious than he has been about implementing the Dayton accords.

For several years, the United States hailed the government of Albanian president Sali Berisha as a model post‐​communist regime committed to democracy and market reforms. Washington also forged close military and intelligence links with Albania. That relationship has become a source of growing embarrassment. Berisha’s reputation was tarnished last spring when his political party swept to victory in parliamentary elections characterized by massive irregularities.

Popular discontent with Berisha has now reached crisis levels. The collapse of several pyramid investment schemes –most of which were run by individuals with close ties to the government — provoked violent reactions. Indeed, Albania is now in a state of civil war with rebel forces controlling the southern third of the country.

The growing weakness of the Berisha regime threatens to further undermine Washington’s Balkan policy. U.S. officials had counted on Berisha to help prevent a political explosion in Serbia’s restive, predominantly Albanian province of Kosovo and in Macedonia’s heavily Albanian western region. Although Berisha’s commitment to that objective was always questionable, any successor government is likely to be even less cooperative and will push more aggressively to create a Greater Albania.

Several ominous trends are occurring simultaneously. Worrisome possibilities include the spread of the fighting in Albania to Kosovo or Macedonia, the violent breakup of the Muslim‐​Croat federation, the further unraveling of the Dayton accords, and the adoption of even more hard‐​line policies by Croatia. Any one of those developments could endanger the U.S. troops stationed in Bosnia and Macedonia.

Washington should heed the warning signals and withdraw its forces from Bosnia long before the mid‐​1998 target date set by the Clinton administration. U.S. officials ought to pull American peacekeepers out of Macedonia immediately, given the danger that the nearby Albanian powder keg may explode. Equally important, the United States should abandon its grandiose objective of stabilizing the Balkans. Several centuries of history suggest that such a mission is impossible.

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