June 19, 2019

In the Balkans: Get real

WASHINGTON — An American combat infantry company has arrived in Macedonia. It is unclear whether this modest step is part of a coherent strategy for the Balkans or merely a palliative offered to those in the administration and Congress who advocate that we “do something.”

If the deployment is the former, it may merit support. If it is the latter, it will prove a prelude to disaster. Diplomatic ambiguities sufficient for international summits will not do for the Balkans. We must clarify what we are up to.

For months the administration has indulged in contrapuntal soliloquies over what to do in Bosnia, when the real question has always been what to do in the Balkans. The broader conflict, of which the Bosnian war is a part, will not be resolved by a halt to hostilities in Bosnia. Indeed, simply compelling a cease-fire in Bosnia, assuming it could be achieved, would likely resemble the squeezing of an inflated balloon: pressure on one portion of the sphere producing a disfiguration or explosion at another.

It is fruitless to continue debating whether Western passivity in the face of Slobodan Milosevic’s butchery has been an act of cowardice or of prudent restraint. Historians (or an independent commission) will have to render that judgment. Preventing the conflict from spreading must now be our primary objective. The administration seems to have accepted this necessity by indicating that containment of the conflict is its first priority, rather than “assuring survival of Bosnia as a state,” as it declared in its February initiative.

To deter the outbreak of fighting in neighboring states, the capabilities and credibility of the United Nations force in Croatia, where intense fighting could resume soon, must be strengthened as part of an agreement to extend the force’s mandate. In addition, the U.N. force to Macedonia should be bolstered and a similar force dispatched to Albania.

Limited U.S. military deployments, such as the troops planned for Macedonia, could be an important element of this effort, although the U.N. commander there has called for a brigade of 5,000 or more NATO troops, not the company of 300 the United States has sent.

In order to protect minority rights and foster a climate in which legitimate Albanian, Hungarian and Serb interests can be addressed, we should also seek to renew the mandate for and strengthen significantly the international monitoring teams in Kosovo, Vojvodina and Sandzak. The United States cannot continue to temporize a decision on whether to grant recognition to Macedonia, but such recognition must be conditioned on procedures that protect the rights of minorities there and ensure the integrity of its borders with Greece and its other neighbors. Congress should also endorse the warnings to Serbia of Presidents Bush and Clinton that the United States would respond forcefully to a Serbian offensive in Kosovo. Cross that line, and Belgrade is in the cross hairs.

Within Bosnia, our efforts should focus on minimizing the violence while diplomacy seeks a realistic, sustainable outcome. This must be based on a recognition that while no one can claim virtue in the slaughter of innocents, none of the Bosnian parties is without sin. The interests of all three must be accommodated; otherwise the bloodletting will continue.

The current U.N. effort to create six safe havens for Muslims may have value as a temporary measure. But those who have suffered so much already should not be consigned to a Balkan gulag archipelago for refugees. Such an arrangement would be an outrage even to those of calloused sensitivities.

What is required instead is internationally supervised population relocation to provide each of the three major factions with a contiguous entity under its control. This would allow the creation of a politically and economically viable Muslim state to which credible international guarantees, as well as U.S. military assistance, could be given. The Bosnian Croat and Serb entities should be afforded the prospect of increasing association over time with Croatia and Serbia, subject to strict conditions on the treatment of minorities and the departure from power of individuals deemed responsible for war crimes.

The United States should not send troops into Bosnia in an effort to stop the fighting, as some continue to argue. A massive, unified Western commitment to Bosnia a year ago might have stopped the merciless slaughter the world has witnessed. But the most likely outcome of U.S. military intervention now in Bosnia would be to encourage the fighting to spread to neighboring states, resulting in even more death and suffering, quite possibly triggering a region-wide war-which would pose a substantial challenge to the durability of our military commitment in that region.

While more ambitious objectives, such as rolling back all Serb gains and preserving a unitary Bosnian state, might balance the scales of justice and better deter those who contemplate future aggression, there is little basis for believing they can be achieved under present circumstances. The establishment of realistic goals is no match for the expression of noble sentiments. But the specter of the rubble in Beirut and that of our exit from the rooftops of Saigon should counsel us to seek to do what we can and not what we might prefer.

William Cohen wrote this column for The Washington Post.

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