Waist Deep and Sinking in the Balkans

May 25, 2001 • Commentary

As its principal reasons for intervening in Kosovo in 1999, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) cited the need to stop ethnic cleansing and prevent a wider war. By both measures, that policy has failed.

Since NATO assumed control of Kosovo, there has been massive reverse ethnic cleansing as Albanian nationalists have driven nearly 90 percent of the province’s non‐​Albanian people from their homes. And now the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and its offshoots have expanded armed conflict into southern Serbia and Macedonia. Recently, eight Macedonian soldiers were killed by KLA guerillas. That, in turn, sparked rioting by Macedonians against ethnic Albanians.

By wresting Kosovo from Belgrade’s control, the United States and its NATO allies gave Albanian nationalists a base of operations from which they can foment insurgencies across the borders. Maps circulated by the KLA show that the group’s ultimate goal is to create an ethnically pure “Greater Albania” that includes not only Kosovo and Albania, but large portions of Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Greece.

If the Bush administration insists on staying in Kosovo, it faces three unpalatable options. Option one is passive accommodation—looking the other way while the KLA pursues its agenda. That is the approach NATO adopted while the KLA cleansed the province of Serbs and other non‐​Albanians. While continuing that approach might minimize the immediate danger to American military personnel, it virtually guarantees a wider Balkan war in the long run.

Option two is assertive mediation. But that approach not only risks getting the United States in the middle of the dispute between Albanian nationalists and the governments of Serbia and Macedonia, it also would likely result in the emergence of Greater Albania on the installment plan.

Option three is aggressive confrontation. In essence, the United States would conclude that the KLA is now the enemy and would try to crush the Albanian nationalist cause. That strategy would likely lead to armed conflict and American casualties.

Instead of trying to choose the least dreadful option, Washington should extricate U.S. forces from Kosovo and transfer responsibility to the European Union. America has no legitimate interests in the Balkans that even remotely justify becoming obsessed with its parochial disputes. From America’s perspective, the Balkans should be viewed as strategically and economically irrelevant. Whether Greater Albania comes into being, Serbia regains control of Kosovo, or Macedonia survives as a state will not affect America’s well being in any meaningful way.

Matters are different for the Europeans. Disorder in the Balkans creates refugee flows and myriad other problems for EU members. It would not be unreasonable for the EU to conclude that its own security interests require an interventionist role in the region. (On the other hand, it would be equally reasonable to conclude that the costs and risks entailed in peacekeeping missions outweigh any probable benefits.)

The point is that the Europeans ought to be the ones making such decisions. The EU has a population greater than that of the United States, a larger economy, and more than a million active‐ duty military personnel. The Europeans should be able to handle Balkan contingencies—if they choose to do so.

American policymakers have been blinded by the obsolete Cold War assumption that American and European security interests are inseparable. That wasn’t entirely true during the Cold War, and it certainly isn’t true in the absence of a great power threat such as that posed by the Soviet Union.

Today, American and European interests are separable. If the United States decides a few years from now to intervene militarily to prevent a Marxist/​narcotrafficking takeover of Colombia (a perilous step, to be sure), it is highly improbable that the European members of NATO would commit combat troops to such an operation. Civil war in Colombia would be regarded as a U.S., not a transatlantic problem. By the same token, Americans should regard the civil wars in the Balkans as a European, not a transatlantic problem.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that the United States and its NATO allies went into the Balkans together and will leave together. But U.S. foreign policy should never be a suicide pact. The United States ought to disengage and let the Europeans make the hard decisions.

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