- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2000

KRAJINA, Croatia.

One of the most important priorities for the incoming Bush administration will be freeing itself from the Balkans' tar baby created by its predecessor. That means standing aloof from any new sad but irrelevant conflicts.

In sharp contrast was the policy of the Clinton administration, which claimed to be the guardian of humanitarian values. For one brief moment last year, President Clinton declared his willingness to stop ethnic cleansing anywhere in the world. But a short visit to the Balkan nation of Croatia quickly dispels the illusion that Washington had adopted anything but cynicism as its policy.

Along the back roads of this Balkan nation, which now hopes to join NATO, remains the debris of war. Abandoned homes, with broken walls and absent roofs, dot the rolling countryside.

For miles at a stretch, not a single soul appears. It is ghost territory and the direct result of Clinton administration policy.

When Yugoslavia began to split apart in 1991, Germany raced to recognize as new nations Slovenia and Croatia. The Europeans and United States followed suit.

Yet, just as Croatians wanted to secede from Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia, Serbs, who made up a bit more than 10 percent of the population, wanted to escape their new Croatian-dominated state. Seven months of fighting ensued, with an uneasy cease-fire patrolled by U.N. forces.

The Serbian position was hardly unreasonable. If Croats deserved their own state, then why not Serbs?

The boundaries of the Yugoslav republic of Croatia were arbitrary, created by Josip Broz Tito's communist regime. Croats allied with the Nazis killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs in World War II. The newly independent Croatia was headed by Franjo Tudjman, an anti-Semitic thug unwilling to guarantee any protection for the Serbian minority.

Serbs had lived in the Krajina for 500 years. They had as much right to decide their political allegiances, in light of changing circumstances, as did Croats who no longer desired to be part of Yugoslavia.

For three years, the Krajina Serbs enjoyed an uneasy existence. Rejected by the rest of the world the West did not recognize their independence aspirations and unaffiliated with the nation of Serbia.

In the meantime, the Clinton administration, supposedly committed to peace, helped retrain the Croatian military. It didn't take a genius to guess where Zagreb would employ those troops.

In August 1995, Croatia launched Operation Storm. Although the U.S. ambassador to Croatia urged President Tudjman to negotiate, Washington winked at the attack, lauding its possible benefits. NATO aircraft attacked Serbian radar sites.

The assault spanned a 725-mile front and quickly overwhelmed the Serbian defenders. The Croatian military used artillery against Serbian towns and refugee columns.

The Croats triumphed in less than five days. Virtually the entire Serbian population, estimated at 250,000, fled. Croatian mobs attacked columns of refugees.

Who could blame Serbs for leaving? Those who remained behind were treated like, well, the Serbs have been accused of treating other people. According to Amnesty International:

"A wide range of human rights violations were perpetrated during and in the wake of Operation Storm. These include gross abuses such as extrajudicial executions and disappearances; torture, including rape; a massive program of systematic house destruction; attempts at forcible expulsions and numerous incidents of ill treatment."

While the majority of incidents were reported in the days and weeks immediately following the operation, these human rights violations continued to be perpetrated for several months afterward, and Amnesty International documented killings, acts of violence and intimidation well into 1996, and they had not been completely eliminated as of 1998.

These abuses war crimes, really do not, of course, justify Serbian misbehavior. But they demonstrate that all parties in the region's successive conflicts have committed atrocities.

They also demonstrate the bankruptcy of Western policy. Demand that Serbs always and everywhere remain at the tender mercies of their enemies. Do nothing when Serbs are murdered. Blame Serbs for every problem everywhere.

Happily, Croatia is changing. Mr. Tudjman is dead and has been replaced by a more liberal, Western-oriented government. It has begun to cooperate in the prosecution of Croatian war criminals and encourage Serbian refugees to return home.

But, many wounds in the Krajina have yet to heal. Abandoned Orthodox churches sit as silent sentinels in villages that retain scars from the 1995 fighting. Wrecked homes litter the landscape.

As Amnesty observes, "The widespread and deliberate destruction of houses and other buildings throughout the Krajina is the most visible evidence remaining of the gross human rights violations committed after Operation Storm."

It also remains the most visible evidence of a U.S. foreign policy that was both criminal and foolish, stoking the fires of hatred and conflict.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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