America Caves in Kosovo

US cedes stabilizing role as Serbia rewrites rules in the region's conflict

The Clinton administration's inaction in the face of Serbia's war in Kosovo has effectively repealed the security legacy of the Truman Doctrine in the Balkans. When all eyes turn to Belgrade, rather than Washington, to wait the next move in a conflict that jeopardizes regional stability, it is a sign that something profound has changed in Europe. The stabilizing role that the United States established in the Balkans in 1947, when Truman issued his doctrine, has come to an end as Serbia rewrites the rules of the new Balkan order.

The war in Kosovo, following hard on the heels of the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, confirms that this administration, like the one before it, lacks the will to fight in the Balkans. Limited pinprick bombing, yes; the US may yet use minimalist air power in Kosovo to avert the looming humanitarian catastrophe.

Nor does the US government show any evidence of the political will to prevent another avoidable war in the Balkans. Kosovo was the most anticipated conflict in recent memory, foreseen by any number of officials, observers, and experts. Yet the Clinton administration allowed its most effective conflict prevention tool - the 1992 "Christmas warning" threatening Belgrade with prompt and severe military retaliation if Serbia cracked down in Kosovo - to lapse into disuse as the Bosnian conflict receded into post-Dayton diplomatic politicking.

The calamity that the US now uneasily watches in Kosovo is unfolding precisely because the US hugs the sidelines. We see and hear familiar sights and sounds: of sobbing refugees - nearly 20 percent of Kosovo's inhabitants have been displaced by the fighting; of crackling fires destroying unharvested crops and homes - over 20,000 so far; and of tough NATO rhetoric about lessons learned in Bosnia not to be repeated in Kosovo. The collapse of Kosovo into war and destruction is the visible effect of the collapse of any semblance of coherent US policy in the Balkans.

WE might reasonably ask, what will come next? How will the Greeks, Turks, Bulgarians, Macedonians, and others act in anticipation of low-risk American leadership and policies? Indeed, how will Serbia act itself?

Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic skillfully and persistently labored to create a security vacuum that he can fill with his ultranationalist agenda, eliciting like behavior from America's friends and allies in the region. This will poison the discourse in Macedonia, exacerbating latent ethnic tensions there. NATO will talk, but Milosevic will act, destabilizing the Balkans indefinitely and leaving others to pick up the pieces.

What will the US do? Unwilling to take up Belgrade's military challenge, Washington seeks an accommodation with Milosevic in Kosovo that legitimizes his political aims and battlefield gains under the guise of a negotiating process, perhaps sealed - at best - by a brief bombing campaign against Serbia to project NATO's "firm resolve" to avert a humanitarian disaster and stabilize the region. Will the Kosovar Albanians cooperate? With the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) decisively defeated on the battlefield, the ethnic Albanians have little choice but to accept what they can get from Milosevic, even as the KLA underscores its intention of regrouping in neighboring sanctuaries to prepare for a long guerrilla war.

Is short-term stability so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at a price of de facto partnership with Milosevic? It seems so. That is the price the US pays for divesting itself of the burden of carrying the roughest security problems in the post-cold-war Europe. Milosevic will, of course, shortchange the West, bringing even more instability to the region and upping the ante on Washington and NATO in the next crisis.

What should the US do? Everything in its power to expand and build up Serbia's democratic forces until they are strong enough to govern in Belgrade. A democratic Serbia will bring more genuine stability to the Balkans than any number of carrots used in vain attempts to induce good behavior from Milosevic. With committed leadership by Washington, the support of America's allies, and the tools and knowledge acquired from successful democratization efforts throughout Eastern Europe in the 1980s and in Portugal in the 1970s, the task would be less difficult than many might think. Did Solidarity's task in Poland look any easier in 1980?

Such an approach requires disentangling Washington from its embrace of Milosevic, whom it still treats as a Balkan peacemaker rather than the paramount regional destabilizer. First, that means launching an effective air campaign to drive Serbian forces from Kosovo, and placing Kosovo under a self-governing international protectorate. If the Kosovars nurtured their own democratic institutions and behaved responsibly in their treatment of minorities and neighboring states, they could seek independence. If democrats attained power in Belgrade during the period of the protectorate, the Serbs could explore constructive relationships with Kosovo that might conceivably find some degree of reciprocation.

Milosevic has made force the coin of the realm in the Balkans. the time has come for Washington to shed its defeatism and begin letting Milosevic pick up the pieces from our initiatives for a change.

* James R. Hooper is director of the Balkan Action Council in Washington. He was a US foreign service officer, 1971 to 1997.

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