Archive for October, 1992

A Yugoslav Trap the US Must Avoid

[Originally published in the Boston Globe.]

Although our evolving Yugoslav foreign policy is couched in humanitarian terms, there has been little public discussion of it beyond the immediate desire to put an end to the bloodshed.  As a result, Americans do not know what our real goals are, if we really have any.  The fact is that Yugoslavia is an extremely complicated area where local realities may preclude the eventual success of military policy options.

Unless you believe that the projection of US power is desirable per se, President Bush’s record in foreign affairs, despite his profound belief in his own expertise, is at best mediocre.  He stayed far too long with Gorbachev and thus actively contributed to the continued subjugation of the Soviet peoples.  His Panama policy was no success unless the incarceration of Noriega justifies the operation.  In today’s Middle East, Sadam Hussein’s continuing survival, the brooding Arab need for retribution and the replacement of Iraq  by an implacably anti-American Iran as the dominant power in a region that is terribly important to us, do not constitute foreign policy successes.

Understanding foreign cultures is key to the formulation of solid foreign policy.  Understanding today’s Yugoslavia is as important as our recent need to understand the Middle East.  Yugoslavia did not exist before WW I.  It has existed since then only because first the Serbs, then a Monarch and later the Communist Party had the will and the means to impose central control on a diverse population which had little desire for unity.  There are twelve national groups speaking almost as many languages in the former Yugoslavia.  Only force kept this “country” together in the face of ages old animosities.  It is really an unhappy agglomeration of tribal cultures and nothing more.

It was a favorite pastime in the CIA’s East European Division in the mid 1950’s, to listen in on angry, vitriolic verbal battles between members of the Yugoslav Branch.  Almost all of them had personal connections to Yugoslavia.  Their passions were unsettlingly deep.  Serbs hated Croats.  Everyone hated Serbs.  Those who had fought in the resistance with Mihajlovic did battle with those who had fought with Tito.  It seemed terribly complicated!

We stand on the threshold of another foreign adventure in an extraordinarily complicated culture.  We have committed “to air support only”.  What happens when the first US plane is hit by a missile?  Will we then “secure” the area to avoid a repeat?  How large an area would we have to “secure”?  Will that mean we will have to commit ground troops?  Will this become a second Beirut?  Yugoslavia is no Middle East desert.  It has inhospitable 9,000 foot mountain terrain which is ideal for guerilla warfare.  The Yugoslavs maintained  control of their mountainous regions against a force of 37 German divisions during WW II.

More important than that, why are we doing this?  What are our specific goals?  Can we be successful?  It would seem that the major goal here is to find a way to permit Yugoslavia to disintegrate as peacefully as possible into its component regional/ethnic parts.  However, minorities in the various regions, particularly Serbs, do not want to be left to the brutal retribution of other regional majorities.  Additionally, Premier Milosevic seems to see himself as the Serb with the will and the means to keep the old Yugoslavia together.  In permitting (or encouraging) the bloodshed, he already may have seriously complicated any possible peaceful solution.  If there is a way to stop the bloodshed, it is to stop Serbian military, economic and political support of Serb minorities in the non-Serbian regions.  That is possible, particularly if we have the will to enact and enforce really tough sanctions.

We have long urged Europeans to accept more responsibility for their own military affairs.  Yet, even in Yugoslavia where European interests (minimizing refugee movement) are paramount, we seem ready to wade in and “solve” their problem.  Are we the new Hessians?  US military involvement does not meet any test for validity.  We do not seem to have clearly defined goals; it does not appear to be in our national interest; and it is unlikely we can succeed with any reasonable level of commitment.

It is appropriate for us to provide humanitarian support, but there should be no military involvement.  Sanctions with teeth are the key.  If perceived internal US political needs in this election year, whether Clinton’s or Bush’s, influence our policy toward the former Yugoslavia, that area easily could become America’s new international tarbaby.  Once you sink your first limb (US air support) in the tar, you’re in deep trouble.

Haviland Smith is a former CIA Officer who specialized in Soviet and East European operations.  He served in Prague, Berlin, Beirut,Tehran and Washington, and  has lived in Vermont since his 1980 retirement.

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