- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2000

When you talk of the Balkans, as we all should have learned, there is good reason not to be too categorical. Still, with Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's acceptance of defeat in Yugoslavia's presidential election, all the pieces do seem to be in place for the final chapter of the Balkan War of the 1990s to be written.
For American lawmakers and students of foreign policy, this should be the time to look at the lessons. Not only is this a sound exercise for its own sake, unless in the crush of daily events we find that no lessons were learned at all. But is is also pertinent because we are just weeks away from a presidential election. What will a new president and his advisors take away from the Balkan experience? Will it make it any easier for the next administration to formulate policy when the next crisis occurs, as it inevitably will?
Below, therefore, is a bid for a few of the lessons of the Balkan War.
1. The first may be the most difficult for the Western mind to accept: Some people really do not think like us. Now, this is obviously regrettable, and may even be reprehensible of them, but it is true. Throughout the 1990s, we used to roll our eyes and groan almost like Vice President Gore when visitors from the Balkans would preface their explanations with: "to understand this you have to go back to the 12th century." This quickly became very tedious, but the fact was that lack of understanding kept us from appreciating the depth of the motives and urgency of the priorities of the Balkan ethnic groups. Their war on eachother made no logical sense. But logic was not the issue, oftentimes revenge was, national identity, honor for centuries of dead ancestors. As Robert Kaplan wrote in "Balkan Ghosts," about a visit to a Serbian Orthodox church, "I felt as though I were inside the skull into which the collective memories of a people had been burned." Too few of us, and certainly too few of those in power were capable of that kind of empathy. And while the pathetic aspirations of Mr. Milosevic for a "Greater Serbia" were easier to grasp, U.S. administration officials from from James Baker to Richard Holbrooke repeatedly underestimated the man's primitive cunning and ruthlessness.
2. Once again, not paying attention got the United States dragged into a European conflict. The initial U.S. policy failure must be placed at the doorstep of the Bush administration. Just as they failed to appreciate the force of what President Bush called "suicidal nationalism" in the former Soviet Union, so the administration hesitated when confronted with the break-up of Yugoslavia. It is understandable why who wants to get into the middle of "the powder keg of Europe" but hoping for the Europeans and then the United Nations to solve the problem did little good. One after one, the explosions kept rolling from Slovenia to Croatia to Bosnia to Kosovo with great predictability, as it happened. In fact, Kosovo had been known to be a flash point for so long that when it finally erupted, it paradoxically took everybody by surprise.
3. Small steps only made matters worse. The Bush administration's inaction was inherited as a policy by the Clinton White House. It took the leadership of then-Senate Majority leader Bob Dole to activate the administration at all. The Senate vote to lift the U.S. arms embargo on the Bosnians to allow them to defend themselves was a crucial turning point. President Clinton now claims credit along with the Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, needless to say for the role that our passing-strange air campaign in Serbia played in bringing down Slobodan Milosevic and stopping the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. This is partially true, but it is also true that we helped legitimize the Milosevic regime with our endless and unconvincing negotiations and empty threats.
4. We cannot afford to miss another opportunity now. While Americans may be congratulating themselves for last week's events in bringing down the Serbia regime, the greater share of credit goes to the Serbian people, who cast off their yoke of fear. As we saw it in the peaceful revolutions of Central and Eastern Europe in 1989, once the Communist regime was truly challenged by its own people, it just crumbled. Newly elected Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica is now moving smartly to consolidate his power, and even if he is not exactly a paragon of pro-western sentiment, he has extremely powerful incentives to work with Europe and the United States. Throughout the past decade, we saw how difficult such political and economic transitions are, and we have seen in the former Soviet Union how far we have failed to make a positive impact. Now support will be needed for the new leadership in Belgrade.
Today the urgency is to draw Serbia into the "family of European nations." EU sanctions are being lifted and promises of $2 billion in aid are flowing from Brussels, as everybody breathes huge sighs of relief. Now, the Serbs have much to account for in terms war crimes though they are not the only ones in the neighborhood. Still, this is the right thing to do if progress is to be made on Balkan reconstruction. NATO troops may be there for a long time to come, but if peace is ever to be self-sustaining, we have to seize this moment.
E-mail: helle.bering@washtimes.com

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