James George Jatras
Former policy adviser to the U.S. Senate Republican leadership, former U.S. diplomat
Director, American Council for Kosovo
The topic today is bringing long-term stability and peace to the Balkans, by which we primarily mean the bloody breakup of former Yugoslavia. It is a region that figured prominently in the news in the 1990s but which most Americans have been happy to forget ever since.
Forgetting is not always bad. Sometime to move forward on a productive basis, we need to stop reopening old wounds and focus on what can be done now and in the future.
That, however, is not possible when the dead hand of the past continues to exert a tenacious grip on the present, and preclude fresh and honest approaches. That, unfortunately, is the case with the Balkans, where outside powers – primarily the American and secondarily the European foreign policy establishments – insist that the Balkans’ future must be confined by the reverent preservation of past idols.
We can discuss the specifics in detail today, but two idols that have distorted our understanding of the Balkans and block genuine progress are especially noteworthy:
First, the notion that the United States and NATO intervened in the Bosnian war of 1992-95 to rescue European failures, and brought “peace” by imposing the Dayton Agreement (To End a War, in the self-congratulatory and dishonest title of the book by the late Richard Holbrooke). But in fact, not only did Washington play a key role in touching off the Bosnian war in 1992, the U.S. was instrumental in prolonging the war and opening the door to radical Islamic influences, including Iran and al-Qaeda.
Second, the notion – even more zealously maintained as an article of faith – that in the Serbian province of Kosovo and Metohija in 1999 the U.S.-led NATO war was the textbook example of a successful “humanitarian intervention.” But in fact, far from stopping a claimed “genocide” of Albanians in Kosovo – a claim about as real as Saddam Hussein’s WMDs – it precipitated a genuine eradication of most of the province’s Serbian community, along with Roma and others. Even more dangerously, the “Kosovo precedent” has become the template for U.S. interventions in contempt of the international legal order (in Iraq, Libya, and now in Syria – see, for example, “To deter extremists in Syria, Obama must heed lessons of Kosovo intervention,” The Christian Science Monitor, 1/7/13.) outside the authority of the Security Council; has led to more instability, not less; and has empowered not “moderates” and “democrats” but Islamic radicals and criminal groups.
At the macro-level, the Balkan interventions and their legacies have fed the dangerous notion that “American exceptionalism” means that the rules of international conduct don’t apply to us, and that whatever we do is right because we claim as our goals promotion of democracy and human rights. It also has reinforced NATO as the favored mechanism for U.S. hegemony, first in Europe, then globally.
At the micro-level, U.S. policy in the Balkans is based on two simple identity-based rules and one corollary, which apply to all questions in a variant of the game “rock-paper-scissors,” where right and wrong are determined not by actions but by the identities of the actors and of those acted upon.
Rule One: The Serbs are always wrong, and all claims and interests they might have must be thwarted.
Rule Two: Muslims are always right, and all claims and interests they might have must be facilitated.
The Corollary: Deriving from the two rules, the claims and interests of non-Serbs, non-Muslims – notably Croats – are dependent on their relationship to Serbs or Muslims respectively. So Croats are right when in conflict with Serbs (who are always wrong), for example in the former Krajina; but Croats are wrong when in conflict with Muslims (who are always right), for example on the former Herceg-Bosna.
These rules and the corollary apply in all circumstance: verdicts at the Hague so-called “tribunal” (cf., treatment of Gotovina, Markac, Oric, Haradinaj, vs. Serbian defendants), allocations of territory, constitutional arrangements, participation in international organizations, and others.
In closing, I wish to note the predominance of the second rule: in U.S. eyes, the Muslims are always right. It cannot be emphasized enough that American policy-makers trotted out a commitment to Muslim causes in the Balkans specifically because they are Muslim causes. This is a complex phenomenon, going back at least to our support for the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, and continuing to our support for jihadists in Syria today. In general, the idea seems to be that if Washington continues to adopt the political agendas of Muslim (especially, Sunni) communities they will reject violence and be friendly toward the United States. It appears this idea was consciously patterned on American support during the Cold War for socialist and social-democratic parties as the best “antidote” to possible sympathy for communism.
In the Balkans, this has meant support for Bosnia’s Muslim community and Albanians in Kosovo specifically because they are Islamic movements. For example, the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) -- Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee -- said the following at a hearing on Kosovo in 2007:
“Just a reminder to the predominantly Muslim-led government[s] in this world that here is yet another example [i.e., “another” example after Bosnia and Herzegovina] that the United States leads the way for the creation of a predominantly Muslim country in the very heart of Europe. This should be noted by both responsible leaders of Islamic governments, such as Indonesia, and also for jihadists of all color and hue. The United States' principles are universal, and in this instance, the United States stands foursquare for the creation of an overwhelmingly Muslim country in the very heart of Europe.” (emphasis added)
Not to be outdone, Mr. Lantos’ Senate counterpart at the time, now Vice President Joseph Biden, expressed similar views (Financial Times, January 3, 2007):
“ . . . [A]droit diplomacy to secure Kosovo’s independence could yield a victory for Muslim democracy, . . . a much-needed example of a successful US-Muslim partnership . . .”
In other words, American support for Islamic communities in the Balkans is not primarily driven by Balkan realities. Rather, this aspect is guided by a larger, global concept regarding how the United States wants to be perceived in the Islamic world.
Still, it remains paramount to our approach to the Balkans today, for example in a recent American proposal to reform the absurd Dayton structure of Bosnia and Herzegovina in favor an even more absurd structure to strengthen the hand of the Muslim community over Orthodox Serbs and Roman Catholic Croats. To this day, real progress is stymied because Washington insists on championing the concept of Bosnia as a “Muslim country” (in Mr. Lantos’s words) even though it in fact has a Christian majority. Similar observations could be made with respect to Kosovo and to Albanian efforts in the name of “natural Albania” to dominate parts of FYROMacedonia, Montenegro (the so-called “Malesia” region), the Presevo Valley in southern Serbia, and southern Epirus (“Çameria”) in Greece.
Until the dead hand of the idols that were wrong in the 1990s and even more out of place today is removed, real progress – which might otherwise be achieved – will be blocked. Instead, what we will have is a permanent lock consisting of:
- Perpetual U.S. hegemony via NATO, with the EU playing handmaid.
- Re-Islamization of the region – in effect, reversal of the liberation wars fought by the Balkan Christian peoples in the 19th and early 20th centures – with major roles assigned to a neo-Ottomanized Turkey under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and secondarily to Saudi Arabia, UAE, and other Sunni states.
- Continued imposition of a “Carthaginian peace” on Serbia, abetted by successive quisling governments in Belgrade.
None of these bodes well for the future.