Balkanizing Barack

January 21, 2009 Topic: Society Region: Balkan PeninsulaEurope Tags: KosovoYugoslavia

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

The right to amend legislation, and to dismiss public officials, could be exercised without any prior reference to any affected party. Bosnia's democratically elected parliaments did not have to be consulted. Where officials were removed, they did not have to be given any notice, or an opportunity to respond to the evidence against them. Indeed, the evidence did not even have to exist. There was no possibility of appeal or review of a decision, even if one lost one's job or otherwise suffered direct and individual harm as a result.

Just for the record, the above critique is not that of some extreme-nationalist malcontent. It is the view of the former head of the OHR's own legal department, Matthew Parish. So much for the ideals of democratic governance and accountability we are trying to provide Bosnia's citizens.

Many of the same problems are evident with regard to Washington's understanding of problems in Kosovo. Abramowitz and Serwer argue that Belgrade is to blame for the fact that Kosovo "barely functions" as a state. Unfortunately, most of Kosovo's current non-viability is due to domestic problems and the disastrous failure of the UN Interim Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) since 1999. Transparency International considers Kosovo one of the most corrupt entities in the world, and both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have recently reported that Pristina lacks the most basic elements of a legal justice system. Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that a German secret intelligence (BND) report leaked in November 2008 alleged that Kosovo's top political leaders were personally involved in such activities as human trafficking and drug smuggling. If accurate, the BND's findings have a very disturbing implication-quite literally, it means that Washington and Brussels led an effort to give a group of mafiosos control of an independent state. Yet the consequences of such policies were already apparent as far back as 2001, when extremists from Kosovo began fomenting an insurrection in neighboring Macedonia-the first time in history that a UN member state was the victim of aggression launched from a UN protectorate. Macedonia, unfortunately, has yet to recover from the violence. When one adds a few other unpleasant pieces of information, such as the fact that over the past ten years over one hundred Christian churches and monasteries have been destroyed in Kosovo, one starts to realize that Kosovo's problems are somewhat more complicated than Abramowitz and Serwer are suggesting.

For President Obama, a useful starting point to start thinking about what needs to be done in southeastern Europe will be his own views on Iraq, as expressed in a Foreign Affairs essay in 2007. The contradiction between Washington's interventionist perspective on the Balkans and then-Senator Obama's positions on Iraq could not be more striking. In Iraq, then still in the grip of major communitarian violence and almost daily suicide bombings, Obama argued that the only way to move Iraq's transition forward was to reduce U.S. involvement and turn more responsibility for the country over to Iraqis themselves. Yet in Bosnia, where the guns fell silent more than thirteen years ago, Washington's conventional wisdom is arguing that what the country needs is more, not less, foreign political tutelage. And the blame for problems in Kosovo is being shifted to some other place altogether, an example of political misdirection reminiscent of the argument that we needed to attack Iraq to get rid of those hard-to-find WMD's.

Over the coming months, Washington's conventional wisdom on the Balkans will tell President Obama many of the same things neocons are already saying about Iraq-that their ideas and plans were right, but other people screwed up the implementation. Some will do little more than try to convince him to chase Milosevic's ghost all over southeastern Europe. Unfortunately, such foreign policy efforts will not lead to success. Nor will they focus our attention on the real problems facing the Balkans-weak economies with high youth unemployment, unstable democratic institutions, strong organized criminal syndicates and a centuries' old, deeply-rooted political culture that puts a premium on ethno-confessional self-governance. More of the same (or, more accurately, less of the same) will not solve any of these problems. President Obama needs a new approach to southeastern Europe. If he develops one, he will go a long way toward giving the peoples of southeastern Europe some change they can believe in, too.