Archive for the ‘Yugoslavia’ Category

[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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[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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[Originally published in the Burlington Free Press.]

The Clinton Administration is currently indicating a clear willingness to intervene militarily in Haiti.  This is an important milestone, because the administration has for some time been attempting to define a new foreign policy for the post-bipolar world that involves the use of US military power to put down certain local and regional conflicts.

Foreign policy revision is a necessary national exercise, but what is getting obscured here is the fact that conflicts we are now facing often are the result of hundreds, even thousands of years of ethnic, national or religious hatreds.  They are now reerupting because of the breakdown of central authority in the post-bipolar world.  Such conflicts in the former USSR, its satellites and its former client states or anywhere else, do not lend themselves to quick fixes.

We are now observing the results of centuries of European colonial domination, particularly in Africa.  In the process of putting together their empires they created what looked to them to be tidy nation states based on European models, even though the states created (Nigeria, Rwanda, etc.) reflected absolutely no African political or tribal realities.  Those difficulties have been compounded by the end of the cold war which had previously brought some measure of stability to American and Soviet client states.

Quite frankly, East and West alike viewed Africa primarily as a surrogate battleground.  Very little that was done there was based on any genuine desire to improve the lot of Africans.  Most of it was done to show the “superiority” of either the Soviet or American systems.

We are currently looking at the possibility of intervention In Haiti, Rwanda, and Bosnia. If we add in Somalia and Iraq where we already have recently intervened, are there any perceptible common threads?

It is probably safe to say that intervention in Iraq and Bosnia represent our national interests.  The only common thread in the other three is that they are all black countries.  It is likely that our preoccupation with them, as opposed to Bosnia where the carnage has been equally as horrendous, reflects the long overdue and growing involvement and influence of black American leadership in our foreign policy formulation.  Randall Robinson has recently exercised considerable influence on US foreign policy.

This is an extremely complicated issue, and American black leaders will have to learn to balance their understandable and legitimate interests in international black issues with the overall national interests of this country.  If they can do that, they will avoid the inevitable complications that have come in white-dominated foreign policy when decisions have been based on internal US political considerations rather than on objective facts and our acknowledged national interests.

Military intervention in Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, or any other area, incurs long range obligations.  If we decide to intervene in those countries we will have accepted, like it or not, a long term custodial responsibility for first establishing and then keeping the peace.  We will not be able to stop the fighting and/or killing and then go home.  We seem somehow to have forgotten that as a result of a previous intervention, we spent almost two decades occupying Haiti, a country that has never had either democracy or stability of any kind.

This is not to say that we should not intervene either in Haiti or elsewhere.  It is only to point out that any such intervention will cost lives and resources and will require a major post-conflict commitment that could cost millions and last decades.   Even though we call ourselves the only superpower in the world, we do not have sufficient resources for unlimited interventions.  We got around that problem in the Gulf War by supplying the troops while others supplied the money.  Is that to be our future role – Hessians to the world?

Any new policy of suppressing conflicts where there is no real national interest will bring the same problems and ultimately negative political results.  If the Clinton Administration is arguing that such a policy is generically in our national interest, there needs to be a national debate on that change.  There simply has not been sufficient public examination and discussion of that issue.

Haviland Smith is a retired former CIA Station Chief who specialized in Soviet and East European operations.  He served in Prague, Berlin, Beirut, Tehran and Washington and now lives in Brookfield.

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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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