Archive for May, 1999

[Originally published in the Burlington Free Press.]

In his “Close to Home” column  (Free Press, April 24), Editorial Page Editor addresses the issue of Kosovo.  In addition to his argument about humanitarian aid, he makes two major points.  The first is:

“These divisions have not always been violent, so clearly it takes a despot to inflame them.  Remove him and the order returns.”

Internal strife in the Balkans has been going on for centuries.  The only time is stops – for example, during the Ottoman Turkish occupation from the 14th to 18th centuries, or the Tito era from 1945 to 1980 – is when the central power, whatever it is, is strong enough to forbid internecine warfare.  Tito simply told all the assembled mutual haters in the Yugoslav Federation that if they started killing each other, he would do the same to them.  The result was an absence of mayhem.

Conversely, the biggest troubles have come when leadership was diffuse or weak.  Milosevic and the last Yugoslav king were the perfect examples.  The Balkans fell apart under them because they were not sufficiently strong either to occupy and hold the land they wanted to or to impose peace by force of arms

This leads to Kiernan’s second point:

“This troubled region has not had the benefit of democratic governance, which would most promise a lasting peace.”

Many Americans tend to think the best solution to just about any problem is to export democracy.  Obviously, it is because it works for us here.  It is an unfortunate fact that American foreign policy since WWII has been built on the hopeful but questionable assumptions that we would be able to export democracy everywhere and that it would be good for the people who imported it.

Unfortunately, there are many people in the world who are psychologically, culturally and sociologically ill-suited to our system of government.  However unfortunate we might think it, democracy in the Balkans has about as much chance of survival as an ice cube in hell.  Not only that, but the time it would take to prepare the Balkan people for it would so destabilize the area that the old scenario of weakness and chaos would certainly re-emerge.

All of Kiernan’s humanitarian arguments are, of course, valid.  That is true simply because we no longer have the option of beginning our policy anew.  There are no born-agains in foreign policy.  It is totally irrelevant to argue what we could have done or should have done.  It is way too late for that.  Nevertheless, anyone who thinks we can drive Milosovic to the table – bomb him into submission – has not looked at the history of air power.  What we are trying to do has never been accomplished before.

We have zealously demonized Milosovic since the beginning of the problem in Bosnia.  How can self-righteous zealots – we Americans – sit down and talk to a man such as that.  We can’t, so we dictate to him.  Why would he want to sit down and do anything with us.  We have methodically eliminated virtually all of our options in the Balkans.

What everyone needs to know is that we are in the process of grabbing hold of our next tarbaby.  We have created a situation in which our options are bad, bad and worse.  We will do something humanitarian because that is the kind of people we are.  We will probably have to put troops on the ground.  That might result in body bags coming home – or it might not.  We were told how many body bags would come out of Iraq and that didn’t materialize.  Everything is up for grabs.  We have no real policy and that will lead us ever deeper into trouble.

The single most important thing to remember is tat the tarbaby is ours.  If we are motivated by our humanitarian feelings, there will be no choice but to become involved on the ground.  We have to get the Kosovars back to Kosovo and then protect them from harm.

Clinton said we would be out of Bosnia in a year, but now it’s three.  Even if we successfully occupy the Balkans and are able to stop them from killing each other, the minute we leave, they’ll be at again.  At best, that will be our future in the Balkans.  How long will we be prepared to stay? Forever?

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who specialized in Soviet and East European affairs.  He lives in Williston.

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