At the beginning of this new century we may ask what problems we inherited, unresolved, from the last century. One of those problems is the Balkans.

No other region caused such grief to so many foreign empires in the 20th century. The Ottoman Empire declined and fell there in 1912. The Austro-Hungarian Empire started World War I over an assassination in Sarajevo and collapsed in 1918. The Italian empire of Mussolini and the Third Reich of Hitler invaded and occupied but never completely subdued the Balkans. The first setback to Stalin's Soviet empire was the successful breakout of Tito's Yugoslavia in 1948.

The Balkan peninsula was long a tempting playground for foreign forces, but they usually transformed it into a wasteland of grinding destruction and bloodshed. There was an inward effect as well. Dividing Balkan nations either into vassals or implacable enemies, the empires prevented the indigenous peoples from developing normal relations with each other. Further, they were discouraged from developing their own political life beyond the stage of satrapies or petty despotisms.

In 1991, as Yugoslavia - free of foreign domination for scarcely 40 years - plunged into dissolution amid fierce ethnic fighting, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger said repeatedly it might be best to leave the various factions to fight it out until they couldn't fight any more, and then they would go to the negotiating table. "I am personally of the view that the only thing that may bring it to an end,"' he said, "is when all of the participants are exhausted."

As cold-blooded as this approach might have seemed, how many thousands of lives might have been spared, how many people might have been able to remain in their homes instead of joining desperate refugee treks? I am not suggesting that the outcomes of the various conflicts would have been benign in such a scenario, just a good deal shorter, less bloody and less destructive.

Where is the error of the approach taken by the United States and its European allies to the problem of Yugoslavia, throughout the 1990s? I think that it lies in their belief that they could succeed where others failed and then, to choose sides narrowly in what inevitably became a series of civil wars: here uniformly innocent victims, there uniformly genocidal aggressors; here ethnic cleansers, there the ethnically cleansed.

Did it not register with the strategists in Washington, London or Bonn that in World War II, Croats "cleansed" far more Serbs than Serbs "cleansed" Croats; if one can call extermination of tens of thousands in the Jasenovac death camp "cleansing?" Or, that Albanians, with the backing of Ottoman Turks, followed by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany pushed far more Serbs out of Kosovo than vice versa.

The population figures before the NATO bombing campaign make simple testimony: 80 percent Albanian and 20 percent non-Albanian. At the root lies a simplistic dogma that blames one nation, the Serbs, as the origin of evil in the Balkans. It is an unwritten doctrine adopted by the State Department at the beginning of the Yugoslav conflicts and continued today, a doctrine endorsed and spread by the mainstream media, human rights groups and even some religious communities. It is a doctrine also embraced by Dr. Bernard Kouchner, the head of the U.N. Mission in Kosovo, who declared unabashedly before Albanians in Gnjilane last December that "Kosovo does not belong to anyone except the Kosovars." He further added: "I feel very close to the Albanian people... I love all peoples but some more than others and that is the case with you."

The indisputable reality of the Balkans is that none of its peoples have been an altogether innocent victim of vicious neighbors. Except possibly the Roma. All were complicit at one time or another in killing, rape, plunder and burning. And this was true in the first and second Balkan war, true in both World Wars and true in all of the Yugoslav civil wars of the 1990s.

Yes, more than 300,000 Croats were displaced during combat with Serbs in 1991. But more than 300,000 Croatian Serbs became refugees as a result of the American-fostered Croatian offensives of 1995 in the Krajina region.

Yes, more than one million Bosnian Muslims were driven from their homes by Serb and Croat offensives. Few have been able to return. But 400,000 Bosnian Serbs and tens of thousands of Bosnian Croats were also forced into exile by the Muslims.

Yes, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo in the spring of 1999. Yet, there is a curiosity documented by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) from the 78-day bombing campaign in terms of "cleansing" - the OSCE found that 863,000 Albanians left Kosovo, roughly 46 percent of the total. But it also reported that 100,000 Serbs and Montenegrins fled Kosovo in the same period, this constituting about 60 percent of the total. Proportionately, more Serbs were displaced during the bombing, and they - unlike the Albanians whose majority returned despite rampant destruction of their homes - did not return to Kosovo. A new exodus then commenced, as the unleashed fury of the Albanians wreaked hideous vengeance on Serbs, Roma and even ethnic Turks - shooting, knifing, strangling, grenading, shelling, burning - killing more than 1,000 people. This happened and continues to happen under the eyes of the 37,000 soldiers of the KFOR occupation force deployed by NATO.

Against this background of intimidation and threat it is estimated that 250,000 non-Albanians have fled Kosovo since the NATO bombing ceased. I am persuaded that much of this could have been avoided. Retracing NATO's steps in June, the inundation of arms in Kosovo could have been largely prevented rather early by sealing Kosovo's borders to Albania and Macedonia and then filtering the returning Albanian refugees to ensure that the KLA was not bringing weapons back to the region. Instead, NATO settled for a voluntary and totally ineffective disarming of the Kosovo Liberation Army last summer. Attacks on Serbs and others have not diminished since then, while Kosovo's Albanians remain armed to teeth.

Incidentally, it was reported in February that some 200,000 people have moved since the summer from Albania to Kosovo, which despite the destruction caused by Serbs and NATO bombing is still better off than the ancestral lands to the south.

Going back to the days before the bombing, I believe that if the United States and its allies had taken a calmer view of the situation, much death and destruction could have been avoided. Possibly even the seemingly endless cycle of ethnic revenge could have been halted.

A year ago after a difficult start, the American-inspired Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission (KDOM) numbering more than 1,000 personnel was beginning to get traction, separating the Serbian military and police forces from the Kosovo Liberation Army and enabling thousands of displaced Albanians to return to their homes. The final report to OSCE by a German general who was part of KDOM confirms this.

In its hubris, however, the Clinton Administration sought more dramatic results - amounting to abject submission of the Serbs to NATO rule. This was the message of Rambouillet. Had the observer mission been allowed to continue I think Kosovo would have been a much gentler, happier place today.

Perhaps someday we will discover whether the White House chose, as some suspect, a Kosovo scenario as a deliberate shift of focus away from the domestic turmoil caused by the impeachment. Perhaps we will learn how much importance the Kosovo operations, and Bosnia before it, had in Administration plans to turn NATO into an instrument of American foreign policy, and to assert American primacy in Europe. Perhaps an explanation will come to light about how Washington could list the Kosovo Liberation Army among the world's terrorist organizations in 1997, could denounce it as a "terrorist group" in February 1998, and then turn around 180 degrees overnight and embrace it as a formation of freedom fighters, installing it as a legitimate political force in the summer of 1999. This sudden shift occurred despite disclosures of links between the KLA and Albanian heroin trafficking rings in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and other European countries, and the connection of the KLA leader, Hashim Thaci, to assassinations of Albanian rivals. Perhaps the Administration could one day also dispel the mystery of why United Nations Police could be ordered last January to cease surveillance of the Thaci family after his brother was charged with illegal possession of weapons and of $791,000 in cash and then released.

Even without light being shed on those behind-the-scene developments I believe that the 11 billion dollar military campaign against the Serbs and for the Albanians was largely a failure. And it was a failure for the following reasons:

  • We know it greatly accelerated the flight of Albanians from Kosovo
  • It did not substantially hurt the Serb military
  • It did billions of dollars in pointless damage to civilian infrastructure throughout Serbia and Kosovo (for which NATO countries will end up paying some of the repairs)
  • It left Slobodan Milosevic, the named and targeted enemy, firmly in power. It seems his time in office might outlast that of General Wesley Clark at NATO - and perhaps he will outstay President Clinton
  • It sucked the United States and NATO into an open-ended commitment with no exit strategy

Military and political planners themselves acknowledged that the strategy was deeply flawed, that they were shocked when the Serbs did not capitulate after three days of bombs and had difficulty agreeing what to do next.

In the wake of the Cold War, some view the United States as the last great imperial power. I contend that the Balkan adventure of the United States in the last decade shows that if it is indeed imperialistic then it is essentially haphazard and makeshift in execution.

A truly serious power would have discerned immediately and clearly that Kosovo was not so much a military problem as a policing problem - as was the case under the Serbs - and prepared for it. The unarmed KDOM observers had demonstrated that. The Serb military was not going to be an obstacle - they withdrew, and on time. But all of a sudden there was a total absence of authority on the Serbian side and, among the Albanians, power swiftly gravitated to the men with guns. NATO, trained in conventional warfare, was hopelessly disadvantaged by Albanian groups experienced in hit and run and guerrilla tactics. Besides, it appears, few NATO commanders cared what happened to Kosovo's remaining non-Albanians. Their ears were still full of the Serb guilt broadcast by NATO's superb propaganda machine.

Frankly, Kosovo has been an indigestible stone in the stomach of the Balkans for at least the last hundred years. It promises to be just as indigestible for the international community for decades longer.

Thanks in considerable part to feckless interventions by a succession of imperial powers, the province's previous multiethnic character has been all but eradicated. But that does not make Kosovo any more compatible to its surroundings. On the contrary, I believe that an ethnically cleansed Albanian Kosovo threatens to destabilize southeastern Serbia , where there is an ethnic Albanian minority of 80,000, as well as destabilize Albania itself and Macedonia by way of its ambition to serve as the motor of a Greater Albania. In short, Kosovo remains a time bomb.

Looking back over the last 30 years we can find ample evidence that despite the desire of many Kosovo Albanians to live peaceably with their Slavic neighbors there was always an implacable core who demanded independence. Even the Gandhi-like passive resistance led by Ibrahim Rugova was unrelenting in this. The slogans changed slightly but their aim was the same. During the decade of Slobodan Milosevic's ascendancy in Kosovo, the majority of Albanians boycotted virtually everything that was Serb, including Federal elections where their compact voting bloc could have helped oust Milosevic. Fundamental separation had already occurred before NATO began to preside over the final phase of the ethnic cleansing of the remaining Serbs that got under way last June. Consequently, we should not be surprised that most Albanians seek to expel every Serb, even erase every sign of Serb culture witness the destruction of 80 Orthodox churches and monasteries, many of them matchless medieval monuments.

At the end of the bombing campaign President Clinton triumphantly declared that NATO would "protect all the people of that troubled land, Serbs and Albanians alike." But, as demonstrated, these preachings on the virtues of multicultural, multiethnic societies meant nothing to Albanians.

Believing as I do in the ad hoc essence of American exercise of power in the world, I wonder how long the Congress and the electorate will be willing to put up with a seemingly eternal commitment of thousands of soldiers and billions of tax dollars to a protectorate in Bosnia and a protectorate in Kosovo. Add to that the costs of proto-protectorates in Albania, Macedonia and - who knows? - Montenegro. Already we hear signs of disillusionment: Defense Secretary Cohen complains about "mission creep," Chief of Staff General Shelton states that his troops are only "marking time" in Kosovo.

Not long ago, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a guest of the Wilson Center, took a little time at the outset of his speech to damn rather than praise Woodrow Wilson as "at least a partial failure if measured by the consequences of his actions." In Holbrooke's rereading and rewriting of history, Wilson's 14 points which called for the self-determination of the South Slavic peoples among others "led directly to the disasters that befell us in Bosnia and Kosovo and elsewhere... Creating a single country out of what was once Yugoslavia never made any sense," he added.

As on other occasions when dealing with the Balkans, Mr. Holbrooke didn't do his homework. The idea of Yugoslavia was born, before any of the 14 points were conceived, out of the fear of Slovenes, Croats and others of the designs of imperial powers on their lands. The collapse of Yugoslavia was due similarly to its brutal subjugation by Nazi Germany and then by Communism and not as a result of Wilsonian idealism about multiethnic states.

Oddly, the American approach to the Central Balkans in the last decade has been Wilsonian self-determination gone wild, with some help from Ambassador Holbrooke. Aided and abetted by some European countries, the United States has had a decisive hand in creating not arguably fragile multiethnic states such as the Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia of Wilson's day but mono-ethnic ministates - Croatia, Slovenia and, even more grotesque, a Bosnia-Herzegovina that is ethnically divided three ways. Like it or not the Clinton Administration is now presiding over the evolution of yet another mono-ethnic state - an Albanian Kosovo.

To put it another way, the US and NATO, though it was the opposite of their declared intentions, have far outstripped everyone else in ethnic cleansings in the Balkans.

David Binder spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on March 1, 2000