Archive for July, 1995

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

With the failure of Viet Nam still all too vivid, most Americans have hardened their hearts against Bosnia.  Not even brutal, bloody, Balkan barbarism entices Americans to get more involved.  That fact is seen clearly in public opinion polls that repeatedly underline America’s mistrust of any greater Balkan involvement.  However, we must not confuse the two issues.  Our Viet Nam involvement was never in our national interest.  Bosnia almost certainly is, if only to avoid the almost certain horror that inaction will bring.

Yugoslavia has always had the perfect mix of trouble-making ingredients.  It is the locus of four major religions, Greek and Russian Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim.  It consists of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Serbia/Montenegro and Macedonia.  It is surrounded by Italy, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Albania, each of which has some mix of historical, religious, economic or ethnic interest in one or more of the major parts of Yugoslavia, interests that usually conflict with those of fellow neighbors.

Worse, there is nothing tidy about the way the former Yugoslavia is split up.  It looks like a complicated, large scale model of Palestine in 1946 – a chunk of swiss cheese.  Where Palestine only has Jews and Arabs (and they make plenty of trouble on their own), the former Yugoslavia’s problems are compounded by their much broader diversity.  There you can have a Bosnian Muslim enclave within an Serbian Orthodox enclave which is in turn an enclave in greater Catholic Croatia!

In the broader regional sense, each of those enclaves, and there are many, has a foreign champion looking out for its interests.  Except for those who are of Serb, Bulgarian or Albanian extraction, Greece supports  Macedonians against Serbia.  Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Croatia, and Hungary are all looking out for the interests of their national and religious minorities in Serbia.  Serbia dislikes all of them.  Orthodox Serbia’s champion is Orthodox Russia.  Muslim Bosnia’s champions are Muslim Iran and the Muslim/Arab world.  Catholic Croatia and Catholic Slovenia draw support from Catholic Europe.

Given these extraordinary complexities, the potential for disaster is limitless.  The peoples of the former Yugoslavia have been killing each other purposefully at least since the fifteenth century.  The only time they are at relative peace is when they are forbidden to kill each other by sufficiently strong leaders, leaders who historically come from dominant and aggressive Serbia and occasionally (as in Tito) from Croatia.

At this point, the only thing that is preventing a downward spiral into general, regional civil warfare is the unhappily inept and unsupported UN peacekeeping effort.  In the absence of a meaningful deterrent, virtually anything can happen.  Scenarios include the involvement in war

of all the former Yugoslavia’s neighbors and quite possibly, of Russia.  That could easily get the European powers involved in a general war in Europe.

In the absence of an alternative plan, it is simplistic, foolish and dangerous to say the UN should pull out and let the Bosnian Muslims arm themselves and take on the Bosnian Serbs.  Under that scenario, if things go badly for the Bosnian Serbs we will certainly see Serbia/Montenegro intervene.  As a matter of fact, it really doesn’t matter what happens – the conflict will spread inexorably because of the vested interests that all of the former Yugoslavian components, sponsors and neighbors have in the outcome of such a conflict.

So, what’s the answer here?  There seems no predisposition in America to become involved and Western Europe, which should know better, doesn’t seem much more enthusiastic.  Yet, if we fail to support the suppression of internal conflicts in the Balkans, there is more than a reasonable possibility that a disaster will take place that will involve Europe and America in a far more dangerous situation, including war.

This really is one of those “pay me now or pay me later” situations.  Unfortunately and shamefully, there are no national level politicians who are leveling with the American people on the issue.  Even if there is a viable solution that is not too costly, we are not getting any leadership from Washington.  Republicans are calling simplistically for us to arm the Bosnian Muslims and get completely out and Democrats, including those in the administration, are undecided and uncommitted, wishing the whole mess would go away.  Well, it won’t.  What we need is some leadership on this issue, and we need it quickly before we continue further down this slippery Balkan slope.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station Chief who specialized in Soviet and East European operations.  He lives in Brookfield.

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