Balkanizing Barack

Conventional wisdom advocating more Western intervention in the Balkans is completely wrong. Obama needs to come up with a new approach.

As if a collapsing economy and the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza were not problematic enough, there is increasing recognition that President Obama will need to devote more U.S. attention to southeastern Europe. Yet in many ways, his greatest challenge there will not entail dealing with recalcitrant nationalists. Rather, it will involve rejecting official Washington's essentially neoconservative understanding of the Balkans. This approach says that problems in the region can be reduced to a Manichean struggle between "good" and "bad" nationalisms, which can be dealt with by ignoring international institutions such as the UN, and encouraging unilateral American action and the application military force. For the past fifteen years, the neocon's strategy for the Balkans has been tried and has clearly failed. President Obama needs a new framework for dealing with the region.

Consider the following: since 1992, the international community has spent upwards of $200 billion trying to bring peace, stability and economic development to southeastern Europe. From 1996 to 1997 in Bosnia alone, sixty thousand NATO troops and over ten thousand international civilian personnel were engaged in the postwar peacekeeping effort. Bosnia's population received more financial aid per capita than any country in Western Europe under the Marshall Plan. Since 1999, international aid to Kosovo has exceeded even these amounts, with Kosovars receiving twenty-five times more international aid per capita than that of Afghanistan. Needless to say, it is highly unlikely that we will ever see such levels of aid or international engagement devoted to the Balkans again.

Yet what has this tremendous investment in time and resources actually achieved in a relatively small area of the world? Two men with considerable Balkan experience, Richard Holbrooke and Paddy Ashdown, have recently warned that Bosnia "is in real danger of collapse." Two other officials with similarly extensive Balkan backgrounds, Morton Abramowitz and Daniel Serwer, have also recently noted that the region is "sliding towards greater instability. . .[and] America's massive investment in the region in the 1990s may go the way of the subprime market."

These assessments of conditions in the Balkans are not inaccurate. But the Washingtonian conventional wisdom being offered to the new administration for dealing with these conditions almost certainly is.

Consider the case of Bosnia, for instance. All of the above argue that Bosnia's main problem is the prime minister of the Serb entity in the country, Milorad Dodik. Poor Dodik can't seem to make anyone happy for very long. A few years ago, while Holbrooke was calling Dodik "the most promising young Bosnian politician of his generation," Radovan Karadžic was reportedly saying that his biggest political mistake had been not having Dodik killed. Now, according to Ashdown and Holbrooke, it turns out that Dodik is a nasty nationalist bought off with Putin's petrodollars. Whichever way we cut it, however, this line of reasoning reveals either a failure of analysis or a failure of policy. If Bosnia is important and Dodik can be bought, then why doesn't Washington just make him a better offer? On the other hand, if Dodik isn't being bought, then maybe something more substantial is at work. Either way, Washington seems incapable of dealing with the problem.

Another drawback to this view is that it fails to acknowledge an even more serious problem in Bosnia-the disastrous effect that Haris Silajdžic (one of the men who led Bosnia into war in 1992, and currently the Bosniac member of the collective state presidency) has had on relations among Bosnia's ethnic groups since his return to politics several years ago. Srdjan Dizdarevic, the head of Bosnia's Helsinki Human Rights Committee, rightly notes that Silajdžic's behavior is reminiscent of Milosevic's in the old Yugoslavia. Fortunately, as Bosnia's political temperature has risen over the past couple of years, a pleasant surprise has been Alija Izetbegovic's successor as head of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), Sulejman Tihic (a man who was interned in Serb detention camps during the war), who has emerged as an important voice of reason and moderation in Bosnia. Tihic has been arguing with increasing vehemence that Silajdzic's actions are damaging the country, and that Bosnia has to be built not just by Bosniacs in Sarajevo, but by Serbs in Banja Luka and Croats in Mostar as well. Unfortunately, this is an argument seldom heard in Washington.

Washingtonian conventional wisdom on the need for greater international control over political processes in the Balkan countries is also worth questioning. We are frequently told that Bosnia is a "nonfunctioning" state, but this elides the fact that it is the nature of international engagement in Bosnia that is dysfunctional, rather than the federal system set up under Dayton. One critic of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) during Ashdown's tenure, for instance, found a "gross lack of due process" in the high representative's exercise of his "unlimited legal powers," noting that