Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

March 14, 2001

Decision Time in Kosovo Coming?

Is there a chance the Bush Administration will do anything other than muddle through with the failed and failing policies put in place by the Clinton administration in Kosovo and the Balkans? Early on some comments by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice suggested that it was time to rethink what has in essence become an open-ended commitment to imperial garrisons in the wake of the Kosovo bombing exercise. She was quickly put in her place by expressions of horror from some European and EU leaders, and Secretary of State Colin Powell subsequently reassured NATO leaders that the United States wasnít planning to cut and run but would instead stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our staunch European allies.

So the safest bet would be that the Bush II administration will simply stick with the open-ended commitment in Kosovo left by the Clinton administration so long as it doesnít require increasing the commitment or watching body bags come home in large quantities. But the situation in Kosovo is not likely to remain as stable as seems to be the ultimate ideal in American diplomacy. Indeed, events in the past few weeks suggest that conflicts may be heating up, which could require some difficult decisions.


I talked with Gary Dempsey, a foreign policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute who visited Kosovo and the Balkans in late 1999 and predicted then much of the chaos that has since caught the attention of a few journalists and policymakers. He surprised me by seeing some intimations, in some of Colin Powellís statements, that at least some elements in the Bush team might be open to ideas for reducing the U.S. commitment or even phasing it out.

If you study Colin Powellís comments to NATO ministers after his Middle East trip, Dempsey claims, youíll see it doesnít make an unambiguous commitment to a permanent US presence. Dempsey thinks or maybe itís more hope than analysis that Powell may have been laying groundwork for an eventual reduction in the Bosnian commitment if a graceful way can be found to do so without alienating other NATO foreign ministries too much.

Maybe. Colin Powell is smooth and smart, and most of his instincts seem inclined in the direction of what he would deem I think realistic and reduced commitments rather than open-ended and unfocused commitments. The tendency is strong enough that establishment outlets, quite recently Newsweek, have done what I would call sophisticated "hit" pieces on Powell, describing almost every action in his career that I would view as heartening and sensible as alarming and potentially dangerous to American imperial ambitions and commitments.

On the other hand, he may simply be using smooth diplomatic language to soothe ruffled feathers and keep his options at least theoretically open. And a good bit of the evidence coming from various tea leaf readers about Washington policies who often have to rely as much on indirect clues as the old Kremlinologists did during the bad old Soviet days suggests that despite the image George W. Bush will have the final say on policy, that he will not be content simply with appointing experts most certified experts respect and letting them run foreign policy.


The best course would be to find a graceful way to remove the United States from primary responsibility for the future of the Balkans. Given the history both of the region and of recent US-NATO activities that might not be easy. But the alternative is more conflict, more expense and more direct danger to US personnel. So US policymakers might be forced by events into at least some mild alterations in the current, inherently unstable halfhearted commitment.

The danger was highlighted by a recent decision to have NATO troops, including US troops, increase patrols along the Kosovo-Macedonia border, where ethnic-Albanian guerrillas have been operating, upsetting authorities in both countries. NATO troops are supposed to operate only in Kosovo proper, but a US contingent chasing some rebels found itself surrounding a farmhouse which was, the owner notified the troops, in Macedonia. The misunderstanding was papered over, but it could have been grim.


Meantime, Albanian guerrillas, who may or may not be coordinating with ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, have reached an agreement for a cease-fire in the Presovo Valley, in a buffer zone between Serbia and Kosovo on Kosovoís other border. NATO officials have also agreed to allow Serbian authorities to step up their anti-guerrilla activities in the valley. But the cease-fire might last only a week, and an Albanian commander added a proviso that he could not be held responsible for violence by "independent" Albanian guerrillas.

"Itís likely to get worse," Gary Dempsey told me. "Itís still winter in the Balkans and insurgents usually wait until spring. This year they seem especially eager."


The fundamental instability, Mr. Dempsey believes, is largely of American making. "The US intervention into the Kosovo civil war brought the insurgents who dream of an independent, Albanian-dominated Kosovo to the brink of success," he said. The most radical of these groups have designs not only on Kosovo but on chunks of Serbia and pieces of Montenegro, the other province remaining in former Yugoslavia. They viewed the US bombing as a de facto declaration of support.

But the US wants stability. As usual it has outlined grandiose ambitions a peaceful democratic multiethnic state reveling in IMF-induced economic development, simply dripping with tolerance and good will without committing enough resources to have even a breath of hope for their realization. So the default position is to maintain stability, to keep the appearance of having the lid on simmering conflicts.

So the US, which did so much to build up the Kosovo Liberation Army, a band of guerrillas with a heavy level of criminality and thuggery, as a thorn in Milosevicís side, considers the KLA a problem. So it finds itself, in essence, backing the Serbian government, now that Slobodan Milosevic is out of power. Milosevic must be laughing up his sleeve at the irony.


Even as Albanian insurgents are making life difficult for authorities both in Kosovo and Montenegro, Montenegro has a referendum scheduled for April on whether it should stay affiliated with Belgrade. If Montenegrins vote for some measure of independence, it could mean the dismemberment of the last vestige of the old Yugoslavia. That might not be a bad outcome over the long haul. Yugoslavia, cobbled together by the allies after World War II and ruled successfully only by the fairly ruthless (but with a conciliatory face to the outside world) regime of Tito never made much sense.

But breaking the place up could be a messy and complicated business. Would you partition parts of Kosovo with parts of Serbia and Montenegro to create a majority Albanian entity, then incorporate the Serbian portions of Bosnia into Serbia proper? What would you do with all the Muslims in the region, who donít all live in one compact portion? Would they get an Islamic state? A lot of blood could be shed over such questions.


Aside from a few reassuring statements the Bush administration seems to be on autopilot regarding the Balkans. It hasnít even appointed some of the sub-secretaries who would have operational authority. Maybe there are mighty struggles going on behind the scenes between those who want to move toward disengagement and those who really think the United States can fix things if it keeps troops there long enough.

You could argue that the US created the mess and should stay around to fix it. But the likelihood of a successful US fix is low.

The best bet would be to negotiate the gradual "Europeanization" of the Balkan situation, recognizing that Western European countries have more at stake there and a better chance (even if not a very good one) of resolving conflicts with minimum bloodshed. But it would have to be clear that the US would not jump in if it became impatient with the Europeans, as it has already done twice, in Bosnia and in Kosovo.

The US imposed the Dayton agreement (after a round of bombing, our intelligentsiaís preferred method of diplomacy) when our foreign policy gurus got impatient about Bosnia. The US was the prime mover behind the Kosovo bombing exercise. So the record is that the United States murmurs nicely about multilateralism and rains death and destruction when things donít go well. It will take a lot to establish credibility for a policy not just of multilateralism but of Europeanization and gradual US disengagement.

But the new administration really should make finding a graceful way out of Kosovo a top priority. Not that I think itís all that likely, but that really would be the most intelligent policy direction.

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