Jumping to Confusions

December 1, 2000 Topic: Great Powers Regions: LevantMiddle East Tags: BalkansKosovoMuslimSuperpowerYugoslavia

Jumping to Confusions

Mini Teaser: The fall of Milosevic does not vindicate U.S. Balkans policy, and the violence in Israel does not prove Oslo was doomed to fail.

by Author(s): Adam Garfinkle

It is a rare moment for those who contemplate international politics
when a dramatic event suddenly clarifies seemingly insoluble
arguments over basic principles and policies. Such moments are of two
basic types: those that repudiate a course of action and those that
confirm it.

When a seminal event confounds a reigning consensus, it can condense
fragmented thoughts on the margins of debate into powerful new
metaphors and motivations, and generate a new vocabulary to discuss
new realities. Thus Hitler's perfidy in Czechoslovakia not only
turned the 1938 Munich agreement into a powerful symbolic repudiation
of appeasement, but revealed unmistakably the strategic intentions of
the Nazi regime.

When an event reaffirms widely held convictions, on the other hand,
even strong dissent may be silenced by the trumpets of official
vindication. Confirmation can lead to the commitment of more
resources to achieve a more complete success, and to "lessons
learned" applied to seemingly analogous problems. Thus the 1948
Berlin blockade solidified U.S. elite consensus around a Cold War
model of American foreign policy, and the June 1950 invasion of South
Korea spread that consensus to the country at large. Both resources
and lessons followed.

What a lucky bunch are we, then, to have recently witnessed two such
clarifying dramas in near simultaneity. The fall of Slobodan
Milosevic in Belgrade not only vindicates Clinton administration
policy in the Balkans, but shows the broader wisdom of worldwide U.S.
engagement in armed humanitarian interventions. The collapse of the
Oslo process is a prooftext written in rocks, flaming bottles and
rubber bullets that Oslo was a mistake from the start, not just by
Israel, which negotiated and signed it, but by the United States,
which endorsed and supported it at times with greater energy than the
Israeli government of the day. And how useful for pedagogy that one
event vindicates and the other condemns a policy of the selfsame U.S.

There is only one problem with all this: it isn't true. Those who
have jumped to such conclusions are mainly those who have been
waiting impatiently at the chalk line for evidence to confirm their
own views. The temptation to see "clearer than the truth", to twist
Acheson's memorable phrase just a bit, owes as much to ego
maintenance as to the wish to influence others. It is a natural
impulse, and nearly all of us succumb to it now and again. But
sometimes it leads us to jump not to conclusions but to confusions.

"The triumph of demo-cracy in Serbia last week may well rank as the
most important international event of the post-Cold War era", Robert
Kagan and William Kristol told us on October 8. It constitutes for
the United States "a strategic triumph of the first order", for it is
now "irrefutable that U.S. intervention in Kosovo, as well as our
earlier intervention in Bosnia and the continued presence of U.S.
peacekeeping forces were essential factors in the defeat of

If the Belgrade revolution is really such an epochal event, then it
follows that U.S. interventions in the Balkans were epochal, too. But
as the premise strains credulity, the conclusion suffers in

It is aesthetically pleasing that Slobodan Milosevic is fallen, but
it is still far from clear that the problem he represented ever
threatened any significant U.S. strategic interest. The Balkans are
not, and never were, at the heart of Europe; anyone who thinks
otherwise either cannot read history or a map. The worry that Balkan
wars would spread to Central Europe or the Aegean was always
exaggerated, and the argument that NATO would have collapsed had it
remained passive before Serbian depredations became true only after
Western leaders foolishly spoke and acted in ways that made it so.

Most likely, if the United States had let the Serbian dog lie it
would be lying still--an ugly, decrepit and slightly rabid dog, true,
but not an especially dangerous one for those able to keep their
distance. Consider: as the wars of Yugoslav succession slithered on,
the Serbian state was shrinking, not expanding, and its ability to
jeopardize peace outside of the former Yugoslavia was shrinking with
it. It had no ideology that appealed to others. Weapons of mass
destruction were never involved. Serbia did not directly menace any
American ally. And--contrary to common misuse of the word--there was
no genocide in the Balkans, but a very brutal pre-twentieth
century-style land grab not unlike many others in this and other
parts of the world.

Neither was Milosevic the worst of the Yugoslav lot. He did win fair,
democratic election at least once, which makes the claim that his
fall has somehow introduced democracy to Serbia a little peculiar. Is
a foreign country a democracy only when America approves of those
elected? Or when it intervenes massively in the election campaign?

Aside from the exaggeration of the Serbian threat, there is the
matter of what U.S. interventions have accomplished and are likely to
accomplish in future. Yes, Milosevic is gone from power--though not
yet from Serbian politics--and good riddance. But that will make
building a viable, multi-ethnic Bosnian state only marginally easier,
and it is very hard. It will not make removing Kosovo from its
diplomatic suspended animation any simpler either. To the contrary,
since it will be harder to deny Yugoslav sovereignty there with a
"nice guy" like Vojislav Kostunica in office, NATO forces are liable
to become "bad guys" in the eyes of the Albanian Kosovo Liberation
Army (KLA). The KLA being what it is, those forces are also liable to
draw not only enmity but live fire. That the KLA has lost recent
local elections to more moderate forces makes this not less but more

As for Serbia proper, it may finally be able to "join Europe", but
this is not obvious either. Having practiced for centuries a cult of
sacred victimization, it will take at least a generation to convince
the Serbian body politic that the whole world is not conspiring
against it. It may take nearly as long to persuade many Serbs that
atrocities were committed in their name. That is why it is a mistake
to analogize Milosevic to Saddam Hussein. In Iraq, a homicidal madman
aided by a small group of thugs intimidates and terrorizes a mostly
innocent people. This is not the case in Serbia, where Milosevic has
been much less ruthless and far more popular, and where his strongest
opposition has come from the ultra-nationalist Right.

Which raises several potential problems. Dr. Kostunica may or may not
be able to root out the corruption in Serbia's political and economic
system and establish the rule of law. He may or may not turn out to
be a skillful politician, and, if not, someone worse than Milosevic
might replace him. It is sweet when a dictator is deposed, but the
aftermath can quickly turn sour. Suharto was corrupt and aged and had
to go; but is Indonesia more stable without him? The Haitian colonels
were vile, but was Father Aristide such a prize? Will we still thrill
to Milosevic's fall if former Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj,
a certifiable apprentice mass murderer, succeeds Vojislav Kostunica?
Stranger things have happened.

Against these achievements, too, we must mark the price paid for
them. A sizeable chunk of the U.S. Army has been tied down by the
Clinton administration's Balkan interventions. The damage done by
heightened operational tempos to military morale, recruiting and
retention is not mere, and neither is the large sum of money spent
that might have been better used for modernization. The Kosovo war
also damaged U.S. relations with both Russia and China and, conducted
as it was without UN Security Council sanction, increased worldwide
resentment of U.S. arrogance and double standards.

The most serious price in the long run, however, may be fallout from
the feckless conduct of the war itself. U.S. diplomatic and military
tactics exacerbated an existing humanitarian problem and then dragged
the NATO alliance into a bombing campaign that succeeded only at the
eleventh hour, and for reasons no one yet fully understands. That
fecklessness led willy-nilly to an acceleration of the European
Union's desire to build foreign policies and military forces separate
from those of NATO (read: those of the United States), an impulse
that if sufficiently mismanaged in future could doom the Atlantic
partnership itself.

When one sums its mixed consequences and close calls, the real costs
and the uncertain future of it all, U.S. Balkans policy hardly
suggests itself as a model for emulation. When a good thing
happens--and Milosevic's fall does qualify--it is hard to resist the
temptation to elevate its meaning beyond the evidence, particularly
if one can plausibly take credit for it. But resist it we should; we
are a long way from finished with this mess.

One should also resist exaggerating trouble. From Israel's point of
view, Oslo was a calculated risk. Yitzhak Rabin, never known to be an
impetuous man, was faced in 1993 with a choice between an untenable
status quo and an uncertain leap into the future. To succeed, that
leap rested on the possibility that enough trust might develop
between self-interested Israeli and Palestinian leaderships to move
away from positions of mutual negation.

Essay Types: Essay