- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Events in Macedonia are rapidly forcing a choice on the Bush administration: Will the United States retain its vital leadership role in maintaining European security by preventing all-out war in Macedonia? Or will the United States and NATO again have to pick up the pieces of a shattered society after war disrupts the region and the alliance?
Fighting between Macedonian government forces and a small but resilient ethnic Albanian insurgency, the National Liberation Army (NLA), threatens to veer into a general civil war between the ethnic Macedonian majority and the ethnic Albanian minority.
Though the parties dont trust each other, all request a NATO presence. A tenuous cease-fire and negotiations to reach a political settlement hang in the balance.
This conflict has long since overtaken Macedonian and European capacities to end it. Inter-ethnic tolerance, strained before conflict began, is at an all-time low. Left to its own devices, the Macedonian governments hamfisted, artillery-driven offensive into extremist-held areas will trigger a wider civil war, replete with the ugliness seen in Bosnia. The European Union simply lacks the political unity and credibility to address the crisis without American leadership.
The Bush administration, far from exerting leadership, has fueled nationalist ambitions throughout southeast Europe with its rhetoric of retrenchment and withdrawal. Senior administration officials quoted by the New York Times Saturday said that the United States would opt out of any preventative NATO action in Macedonia. Colin Powells assertion Sunday that no request had been made for U.S. participation in a NATO effort is false, and indicates a startling policy of U.S. passivity within the alliance.
The compelling logic of the U.S. commitment to NATO and European stability eventually overrode efforts of the previous two administrations to shirk their responsibilities in southeast Europe. It was the failure to deter preventable wars in Bosnia and Kosovo that prompted major U.S. intervention later. Again, it is foreseeable that U.S. failure to avert all-out war in Macedonia will only require greater and riskier American engagement later in the Bush administration. Current policy is destined to deepen, not diminish U.S. engagement in the Balkans.
The administration risks not just losing the chance to avert war in Macedonia and consolidate gains in Balkan democratization, but also jeopardizes the longstanding, bipartisan American commitment to Europes security and stability. This is particularly troubling at a time when democracy is on the brink of triumph in Europe, and continued American leadership in NATO could secure hard-fought gains in the struggle to create a Europe whole and free.
The United States has unique clout to stop the conflict. The recent deal to demobilize an ethnic Albanian insurgency in the demilitarized zone between Kosovo and Serbia relied heavily on the currency of (overdue) American engagement. The powerful leverage of U.S. commitment would likely be effective in Macedonia, but remains unused. This has not been lost on the NLA, which rather than demobilizing, has broken cease-fires and actively worked to derail political dialogue to address legitimate ethnic issues in Macedonia. The danger is that the NLA, ostensibly motivated by longstanding ethnic Albanian grievances with the Macedonian majority, will be able to morph itself from a small group into a popular insurgency. Clearly, they have struck a nerve with many ethnic Albanians, and the Macedonian government reaction to them seems destined to create more NLA adherents.
As the first Bush administration recognized, fighting in Macedonia could draw neighboring states into a deepened war. Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania and NATO allies Greece and Turkey fought over this very territory in the last century. While all are publicly committed to Macedonias integrity and stability, some of these and Kosovo are in negotiations with factions in Macedonia, selling weaponry and preparing rival claims to Macedonian territory, for the eventuality that it is up for grabs. The ensuing regional conflict would shake NATO to its core.
Even as ethnic Macedonian and Macedonian Albanian factions busily revise maps that set their goals for the looming all-out war, each side knows that this path would widen the conflict and condemn the region to instability for decades. At this point each side could still be led into accepting an imposed solution, allowing for accommodation of reasonable demands without losing face in the eyes of their constituents.
The United States and NATO should not make the mistake of placing all blame with one side, but rather act to save Macedonia from extremists on both sides. A high-level administration envoy should travel to Macedonia and unambiguously demand the disbanding of the NLA while pressing the Macedonian government to quickly return its forces to barracks and adopt constitutional, legal, political and economic changes to redress legitimate Macedonian-Albanian grievances. Though violence and radicalism threaten to spiral out of control, the outline of such an agreement already exists, but will only succeed if NATO first indicates a willingness to monitor it. Only NATO can provide a secure atmosphere for a de-escalation of ethnic tensions. Though both sides have welcomed such a force, it must be robust enough to deter tests of its resolve.
Such a commitment to restore stability in Macedonia certainly would go against the grain of the Bush administrations well-advertised desire to cut existing efforts in the Balkans and avoid new ones. But the administrations response in Macedonia will determine whether it has learned an important lesson from 10 years of Balkan war: Security in Europe cannot be had on the cheap and still requires American vigilance. Procrastination is already raising the stakes.

Mark Palmer, U.S. ambassador to Hungary during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, serves on the Executive Advisory Committee of the new Washington-based Democratization Policy Institute. Kurt Bassuener and Eric A. Witte are co-directors.

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