January 4, 2001

Crusade's End

On the last day of 2000, the London Sunday Times announced that George W. Bush is planning to start withdrawing US troops from the Balkans shortly after his inauguration. After eight years of interventions by a Democratic administration, its Republican successor seems eager to extricate themselves from a battlefield they've never been particularly fond of. Thus may end America's Balkans crusade, an ill-fated endeavor that brought great misery to the peoples of the region but great wealth, power and prestige to the crusaders themselves.


Madeleine Albright immediately called any withdrawal a "huge error." Saying that Clinton inherited from Bush I the "goal of unifying Europe," Albright claims he was successful. The "use of force in the Balkans made a difference. America made a difference," she said. US intervention was a "huge victory for Europe."

Her powerful use of "huge" as epithet of choice notwithstanding, Albright never bothers to explain why it would be America's goal to unify Europe, or why she has to point out the obvious – that force always makes a difference, just not in the most desirable way.

Albright and her hatchet man Richard Holbrooke spent years making sure that Europe could do nothing without "US leadership" (it's in Holbrooke's book – you can look it up), and that the US would remain the dominant power on the continent despite the end of the Cold War. If this is a "huge victory" for Europe, then freedom really is slavery, ignorance is freedom, occupation is peace and terror-bombing is democracy. Imperial Newspeak at its best.


Albright's European vassals are oblivious to the irony. From their standpoint, they hardly deserve to be stuck with the consequences of America's imperial adventure now that America thinks it has more important battles to fight. Of course, the Europeans conveniently forget that they went along with this imperial adventure, accepting US "leadership" with nothing but the most pathetic of objections.

If they had the sense and the political will, Eurocrats would cheer US withdrawal and soon thereafter acknowledge that meddling in the Balkans only made a bad situation worse. But no one should hold their breath.


It all comes together, when one takes a look back on almost a decade of US involvement in the Balkans. Busy in the Middle East, Bush I's administration missed the initial stage of Yugoslavia's breakup. Germany led the European foreign policy in regard to the Balkans, with its 1991 recognition of Slovenia and Croatia. By 1992, the US reversed its public pledge to support Yugoslavia's integrity and openly worked on fostering the separatist regimes in Croatia and Bosnia. In fact, the US recognition of Bosnia in April 1992 was what sparked the civil war.

What was at the root of this policy reversal? No one is talking, and we may have to wait for decades to find out. It is likely, though, that Bush I became aware that America's position in Europe was slipping, so he acted rashly to "show leadership" and assert US influence over Europe and most of all, the Germans. Rather than the numerous conspiracy theories of US-German collusion and some grand anti-Serb strategy, America's Balkans crusade may have started as an act of jealousy – which makes it all the more tragic.


In a recent Washington Post editorial, former Clinton NSC staffer Daniel Benjamin pleaded with the Bushies to "Stay put in the Balkans." According to Benjamin, Clinton's "major strategic achievement" was "NATO enlargement" (he assumes NATO survival was a given, which it wasn't, so add that to the list as well). And of course, there were "intrinsic connections" between NATO enlargement and the Balkans wars. As Benjamin puts it:

"The decision at the Madrid summit of 1997 that NATO should grow came after two years of intense negotiations – talks that had as their backdrop the ordeal of Bosnia.

"Indeed, enlargement was only possible because the United States had led NATO to take military action against Serb forces and followed through by putting U.S. peacekeepers on the ground alongside European forces. Once the United States committed itself in the Balkans and showed that it remained a force for stability in Europe, the administration could press for enlargement with wary European leaders, few of whom shared America's enthusiasm for growth."

So there it is, in the words of a senior Clinton policy planner: the most committed opponent of US intervention could not have written it better – an admission that America used the Balkan wars to manipulate the "wary" Europeans into maintaining and even strengthening the major instrument of US power on the continent, one that should have been dismantled with the end of the Cold War.

Accusations by European diplomats and analysts that America's policy protracted the war in Bosnia now sound even more credible. The Bosnian war dragged on for three years because a Balkan settlement on European terms would spell the end of US influence on the continent and would have dealt a crushing blow to the imperial image of the "indispensable nation" – another very telling Albrightism. Because Clinton and Albright rejected any solution not made on their terms, thousands of people in Bosnia died in a war that should not have been fought.

Text-only printable version of this article

Nebojsa Malich left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo, and had contributed to the Independent. As a historian who specialized in international relations and the Balkans, Malich has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia and Serbian politics, which were published by the Serbian Unity Congress. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Thursday.


Past Articles

Crusade's End

The Worst of Times

Moments of Transition

Déja Vu

The Crucible

Bandits on the Border

It's the Spelling, Stupid

Zoran Djindjic: Serbia's Richard III

Wheels of Injustice

The Tragedy of Bosnia

The Suspended Castle

Hand Of The Empire: Decision in Kosovo

Introduction: The Balkans Babylon

ITN: Case Closed


For the rulers of the American Empire, the Balkans crusade was wrapped in the supposed moral imperative of intervention, which stemmed from the myth of America's role as the chosen savior of the world. Whether the masses bought into the moral argument, or fought for "McDonalds and McDonnell-Douglas" hardly matters. The crusade's main motivator was a desire for power and prestige. Now that both have been achieved, there is nothing to be gained by staying around.


There is another thing in the London Times report, one that has slipped past the media watchers because of their obsession with US withdrawal. The architect of Bush's withdrawal plan is no other than Richard Perle, the same "Dark Prince" who helped Richard Holbrooke craft a belligerent, hard-line negotiating tactic to help the Bosnian Muslim regime in 1995. Perle also speculated the role of US troops could be taken over by the Germans.

Fifty-five years after the people of Yugoslavia – some more willingly than others, but still together – booted out the German invaders, Perle and Bush II are turning the Balkans over to the sons of those very Germans. Of course, the region has taken so many insults and injuries over the past decade, this latest one will hardly be noticed. Still, even though many may be too exhausted to notice, the notion of German legions occupying the peninsula again – serving as American proxies or not – is enough to make a serious historian sick.


Provided that Bush II really pulls off the withdrawal of American legions from the Balkans, America's European vassals will have to make some unpleasant choices. There is a possibility that Europe could wake up to the fact that it's been used and abused, and end the charade in the Balkans altogether – but such a development is remote and unlikely. After all, the leaders currently running Europe either fiercely supported the NATO terror-bombing of Serbia in 1999, or went along meekly. Except the Greeks, not one EU/NATO country even tried to disagree with the US on the little matter of illegal aggression. This is hardly encouraging to any advocate of European independence.

The Balkans wars did considerable – and perhaps fatal – damage to the cause of Europe as a unified, political entity, independent of US dominance. Future scholars will doubtless pinpoint 1995 and 1999 as two years in which Europe happily played second fiddle to its overseas master as they indulged in wholesale destruction in the Balkans. But there is no understanding of this in London, Paris, Berlin or Brussels. Having grown up dependent on America and NATO, the Eurocrats are unable to kick this addiction. The golden moment of the early 1990s is no longer, and Europe is caught in the web of NATO and US "leadership" now more than ever.

Fears of renewed violence in the Balkans contain the implicit acknowledgment that the situation created by US force was not sustainable. After Nixon withdrew US forces from South Vietnam, much like Bush plans to do in the Balkans, the pro-US regime there collapsed within three years. Unlike Vietnam, however, the Balkans has turned out to be a victory for the idea of American empire – at least, so far.

Brussels, Paris, London and Berlin now need to decide whether to attempt the creation of an imperial Europe at the expense of the Balkans, or abandon the whole enterprise and let the balance of power reassert itself naturally. The latter would require losing face, but the former could be ultimately fatal for any sort of European confederacy they supposedly wish to create.


Bush II, on the other hand, ought to be cautiously commended for planning to do within four years what his predecessor promised to do in one, and failed to do in five – bring the legions home. Of course, they should not have gone in the first place, and knowing the record of Bush I, Reagan and Nixon, they won't stay home for long. There will be other imperial adventures: wars to fight, people to conquer, resources to "liberate" and crusades to win. After all, the US military has not been a defensive force for over 50 years. Rather, it has been an imperial force tasked with "breaking things and killing people" in other countries, rather than preventing them from doing so to America. So, while cheering Bush II's pullout from the Balkans, America's antiwar elements need to start worrying about where His Majesty will employ them next.


As for the Balkans, the collapse of imperial occupation is definitely something to be desired. Some may argue that without foreign aid the lands and peoples there would plunge into abject poverty and despair. They've done that just as successfully while the Empire was giving them all the "help" it could, though. And the argument that peoples of the Balkans are incapable of governing themselves and need foreign guidance ought to be shocking, coming from former Communist intellectuals who believed in self-determination, people's liberation and end of imperialism. Then again, more irony is hardly noticeable in the Balkans landscape.

If there is one lesson in the history of the peninsula – and the former Yugoslavia in particular – it would be that the interference of outside powers always creates infinitely more harm than good. And though none of those powers seems to have realized that yet, they may still do the next best thing and leave anyway. Better late than never.

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