If Flaubert were alive today, he would be taking a special interest in Western policy on the Balkans. He was always fascinated by a certain kind of accepted wisdom, which shades off into platitudes, clichés, and expressions of sheer stupidity--what he lovingly described as la bêtise. An updated version of his Dictionary of Received Ideas would have to include several new entries derived from Western policymakers during the Bosnian war: "Balkan people: full of ancient ethnic hatreds. Cannot stop fighting one another." "NATO air strikes: completely ineffective without the deployment of hundreds of thousands of NATO ground troops." "Arming the victims: creates a level killing field. Only prolongs the war", and so on.
More recent events would have added a couple of new entries: "Kosovo, autonomy of: must be restored." "Kosovo, independence of: dangerous and destabilizing; would lead to new Balkan war." These two received ideas are constantly affirmed by our politicians and diplomats; the more they are repeated, the less often anyone pauses to question their truth. How could a policy assumption be wrong, when the foreign ministry of every major power in the West is agreed about it? The Bosnian experience suggests that the answer to that question is: very easily. Some serious thinking is needed about the possibility of independence as a long-term solution for Kosovo. If, as I believe, the foreign policy establishment has got this issue completely wrong, the consequences, in terms of Balkan instability and costly Western involvement--to say nothing of the lives of thousands of the local inhabitants--could be severe.