Strategy Creep in the Balkans: Up To Our Knees and Advancing

Strategy Creep in the Balkans: Up To Our Knees and Advancing

Mini Teaser: Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans are Europe's hangnail, not its heart. Developments there may be disgusting and tragic, but they have meager potential to disrupt even the European, much less the global, strategic environment.

by Author(s): Ted Galen CarpenterAmos Perlmutter

President Clinton contends that the Bosnian conflict lies at the heart of Europe and threatens to destabilize the entire continent. He has said that "the conflict in Bosnia is the most dangerous threat to European security since the end of the Second World War", and that "there is the very real risk that it could spread beyond Bosnia, and involve Europe's new democracies as well as our NATO allies." This argument misconstrues both geography and history. Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans are Europe's hangnail, not its heart. Developments there may be disgusting and tragic, but they have meager potential to disrupt even the European, much less the global, strategic environment. Indeed, Britain's ambassador to the United States, John Kerr, has conceded that "the war in Bosnia could rumble on for years without directly impinging on the security of Western Europe." President Clinton notwithstanding, the Balkans have little potential to roil post-Cold War Europe--unless, that is, the United States and the major European powers choose to make it once again an arena for great power rivalries.

The dismaying fact is that U.S. policy is proceeding in a direction that is likely to have that effect. In a haphazard fashion, we are moving toward making that volatile region a zone of extensive U.S. influence--perhaps ultimately a virtual American protectorate--with the goal of containing Serb power. We are developing an ever more extensive network of political and military relationships with Belgrade's neighbors. Begun as no more than a provident effort to prevent the Balkan War from spreading--at a time when it was assumed that there would be no major dispatch of U.S. combat troops to the Balkans--this policy has since acquired a momentum and a logic of its own now that tens of thousands of U.S.-led NATO troops are there.

While America has long had significant interests in Western Europe, never before has a U.S. administration argued that the country has such interests anywhere in Eastern Europe. But now the Clinton administration, inspired by the forceful advocacy of Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke before he left office in February 1996, has put in motion a new and far-reaching policy that envisions an arc of alliances to contain Serbia, the most powerful Balkan state. That course has far reaching and potentially dangerous ramifications. The Balkan region has served as an arena for peripheral but still vicious imperial conflict since the days of Rome and Byzantium. It has been a battleground between Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam, Habsburgs and Romanovs, as well as hostile indigenous groups. There is scant evidence that the local situation is likely to improve in the coming decades. Indeed, the complex rivalries that produced carnage in Bosnia may constitute a foretaste of what lies in store elsewhere in the Balkans. Extended rivalry, between the United States and Russia, could return as well.

Blurring Objectives in Bosnia

Washington's anti-Serb containment policy has been evolving since 1992, even before Holbrooke's time. The Clinton administration followed its predecessor's decision to recognize the newly minted country of Bosnia-Herzegovina, supporting the Muslim-dominated government and openly opposing the secessionist campaign of the Bosnian Serbs. The United States placed more than five hundred troops in Macedonia at this time, as part of a UN peacekeeping operation to keep the Bosnian conflict from spreading and to thwart any designs that Belgrade might have on its southern neighbor. Washington also played a crucial role in training and equipping the Croatian army--a force that was subsequently to engage in a ferocious ethnic cleansing campaign against Serbs in both the Krajina region of Croatia and in northwestern Bosnia.

The Clinton administration's Serb containment policy now shows signs of escalating further. Washington is pushing U.S.-designed military training programs for Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Macedonia, and Albania. U.S. forces have also conducted joint military exercises with most of those countries. All except Croatia are already avid participants in nato's "Partnership for Peace" program (PFP), thereby gaining extensive military contacts with the United States. (Zagreb is lobbying for inclusion at the earliest possible date.) Hungary, Romania, and Albania are also among the most eager applicants for full NATO membership, which they see as a vehicle for securing reliable U.S. protection. It is notable that Hungarian president çrp‡d Gšncz has offered as one argument for his country's membership in NATO that it "would ensure NATO an access route to the Balkans, which despite the peace process currently under way, can be expected to continue as a region of instability in the future." Gšncz later told Hungarian reporters that Hungary's participation in nato's Bosnian peacekeeping mission "far surpasses the original goal of the Partnership for Peace program, and it now implies an actual and genuine peace-creating partnership."

It is Bosnia, of course, that has become the centerpiece of Washington's Balkan policy. Secretary of Defense William Perry has indicated that American "civilian contractors"--the same instrumentality used to equip and train the Croats--will soon be training Bosnian Muslim military units. Turkey, a NATO ally, will apparently be in charge of arming those forces, with other Islamic countries (most likely Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states) financing the enterprise. The CIA has also moved into Bosnia, under the guise of guaranteeing the safe deployment of U.S. forces, so that no Somalia-style incidents occur. A CIA role in Bosnia expands the presence already established in the post-Cold War Balkans, including extensive ties with the governments of Albania and Macedonia.

The administration has also been edging--slowly and reluctantly, but edging all the same--toward full-scale "nation-building" in Bosnia. The Dayton Accord stipulates that:

"reconstruction of the infrastructure and the functioning of transportation and other facilities are important for the economic resurgence of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and for the smooth functioning of its institutions and the organizations involved in implementation of the peace settlement."

That provision suggests that there is little intellectual separation between the U.S.-directed military deployment and the "civilian" missions assigned to the European Union. The blurring of those objectives does not bode well for the early exit strategy officially outlined by the Clinton administration.
Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt has been placed in charge of nation building, but his organization is glaringly deficient in both personnel and resources. He will be forced to depend on American participation in case of emergency--especially for transportation, electrical power, bridge construction, and temporary housing. Since the Europeans demur from extensive non-military activities, the burden might eventually be shouldered by the United States. We are already seeing early indications of that trend with the burgeoning activities of the Agency for International Development. (The aid, facing possible elimination by Congress, has a vested interest in doing its utmost to demonstrate its usefulness in Bosnia.) Bildt has also called on the NATO Implementation Force (IFOR) to assist the civilian reconstruction mission, and military units have already begun to undertake such tasks, starting with transport and communications assistance.

The Dayton agreement also emphasizes the importance of "free, fair, and democratic elections." It is unclear how such an ambitious goal--literally creating the complex political structures of a bifurcated yet theoretically unified Bosnia--can be undertaken within the supposedly limited mandate of IFOR.

The nation-building agenda belies the notion that the Dayton Accord is merely a troop-separation, peacekeeping agreement. In fact, the United States has been extensively involved in the broader missions from the beginning. Bosnia's new constitution was largely drafted by the U.S. State Department in the weeks leading up to the signing of the Dayton agreement. That level of involvement again contradicts the announced U.S. exit strategy. Will the United States really be willing to withdraw its forces before the Bosnian constitution has been implemented and the country's political institutions are functioning? Certainly, few knowledgeable people believe that that withdrawal will occur in accordance with the twelve-month timetable the administration has established.

Indeed, the facts on the ground hardly inspire confidence that even the facade of a unified Bosnia can be maintained during that period. The mass exodus of Serbs from Sarajevo is merely one indication that the goal of a multi-ethnic Bosnia is a chimera. Continuing friction in the Muslim-Croat Federation (which is not likely to dissipate, despite yet another agreement in April pledging cooperation) is another. The most probable outcome is a three-way partition, with the Serbs becoming part of a greater Serbia, the Croats joining a greater Croatia, and the Muslims ruling a rump Bosnia. A March 1996 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report provided a gloomy assessment, concluding that Bosnia is fragmenting, and that without a massive developmental aid program, a complete collapse of the peace initiative is almost certain once NATO-IFOR withdraws.

Since it appears that civic action and nation-building are beyond both the financial capability and will power of the United States and the European Union, doubts arise about another important object of Washington's Bosnia policy: that of strengthening the Bosnian military. Much of the official American optimism in this regard is based on the assumption that the Bosnian Muslim army will be able to defend itself at the end of a year. That will entail a considerable training effort, and, again, the United States appears to be heavily involved. "West Point and the U.S. Air Force Academy", reports the Washington Post, "are accepting applications from Bosnian officers this year. Other [emphasis ours] defensive ties are expected to increase as well." It is not clear what the Pentagon means by "other" ties, but as any student of history and politics knows well, the formation of an army is central to the effective functioning of a state. Moreover, one does not build a capable army without supporting political institutions and structures. In short, taken seriously, strengthening the Bosnian military will involve a comprehensive nation-building effort.

The charge of "mission creep" thus misses the essential point; what we have here is better termed "strategy creep." We are witnessing the construction of an ambitious Balkan strategy by stealth. But that keystone of Washington's policy appears to be crumbling even before the regional structure is built, which raises the question of how wise and competent a strategy it is.

The Kosovo Connection

There are hints that the administration may even see Serbia's restive, predominantly Albanian-populated province of Kosovo as a component of America's new Balkan policy. Although U.S. officials still insist that they merely favor greater autonomy for the Kosovars, rather than independence, various statements and actions suggest a more ambivalent position. Secretary of State Warren Christopher has defined an "outer wall" of economic sanctions that will be maintained against Belgrade until the Kosovo crisis is "resolved" in some unspecified way. The United States has also twice warned Belgrade not to use force in the province. With unusual bluntness, a December 1992 letter from President George Bush to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic declared that, "In the event of conflict in Kosovo caused by Serbian action, the United States will be prepared to employ military force against the Serbians in Kosovo and in Serbia proper." (Note the implication that Kosovo is not part of "Serbia proper.")

President Clinton issued a similar warning in March 1993, and a senior administration official admitted that the dispatch of U.S. troops to Kosovo was seriously considered in May 1993, when troops were sent to Macedonia, although the option was ultimately rejected as too dangerous. Ibrahim Rugova, president of the self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo, visited Washington in November 1995 and announced plans to open a diplomatic office. A few weeks later, Holbrooke stated that the U.S. government would "try to establish in the very near future a United States official presence in the capital of Kosovo." Such actions suggest something more than routine American interest in the province of another country.

A Policy Without a Name

Holbrooke has been the only high administration official thus far to express a rationale for the deepening U.S. involvement in the Balkans, stating that "we have got to make the Balkans safe from Serbia." He quickly followed that blunt justification with the more conciliatory comment that "the Balkans should also be made safe for Serbia." The former goal would be difficult enough, but adding the latter goal multiplies the potential problems. The notion of a stable, peaceful Balkan peninsula defies a daunting historical record. It is certainly an implausible objective without a massive, ongoing U.S. political and military presence.

There is little doubt that a network of U.S. military and intelligence ties throughout the Balkans is developing clandestinely, but such a potentially intrusive U.S. role has not undergone public and congressional scrutiny. If a "Clinton Doctrine" for the Balkans is emerging, the American people and their representatives deserve to be told as much, and given a chance to ask some hard questions. Why, for example, should Serbia--a landlocked, poor state with no ability to threaten the United States or even the major European powers--be the target of a policy (containment) that was originally conceived to thwart the global expansionist ambitions of a totalitarian superpower? What tangible benefits does Washington anticipate from defending Serbia's neighbors--including the quasi-fascist regime in Romania, the neocommunist governments of Hungary and Albania, and unstable, fratricidal Bosnia? And perhaps most important, given the frustrations experienced by earlier, more proximate, great powers (most notably the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires) in their attempts to stabilize the Balkans, why assume that Washington's bid to play the role of stabilizer will fare better? Although the Ottomans were initially successful, they had to put forth an enormous, sustained effort, and even then their hegemony slowly unraveled. At least the Ottomans (and to a lesser extent, the Austrians) could plausibly justify their commitment on the basis of proximity and other elements of an interest-based policy. The United States lacks that justification and has failed to advance any other.

It is an overstatement, in our view, to describe the proposed arc of alliances as a coherent policy or strategy. Furthermore, no major European country has endorsed, or is likely to endorse, such an ill-conceived venture. (Washington's NATO allies, for example, are notably unenthusiastic about plans to arm the Bosnian government forces.) An anti-Serb containment policy does not even make sense as a search for an alternative mission for NATO, since it has not been defined as an official alliance policy. (Although a few prominent individuals, including former Secretary of State James Baker, have proposed that nato's new mission should be to guard the independence of Macedonia and otherwise promote Balkan stability.) A containment strategy in the Balkans cannot be a surrogate for the eastward expansion of NATO, since it has no relevance to the security of Poland, the Czech Republic, or other Central and East European countries.

Nor does it address the crucial question of Russia's intentions. Boris Yeltsin's purge of reformers in his government following the strong showing of communist and ultra-nationalist candidates in the December 1995 Duma elections--most conspicuously the replacement of Andrei Kozyrev with hardliner Yevgeny Primakov as foreign minister--raises legitimate concerns about the possible re-ignition of Russian imperialism. If the worst-case becomes a reality, does the United States intend to undertake dangerous security commitments on two fronts--the Balkans and Central Europe, two regions replete with ethnic frictions?

Indeed, the administration's Balkans strategy might well stimulate rather than deter a new Russian imperial role in Southeastern Europe. As the target of a U.S.-directed encirclement strategy, Serbia would have little choice but to turn to Russia for protection, and Moscow would be under considerable domestic pressure to respond favorably to overtures from Belgrade. Russians and Serbs have ethnic and religious ties going back many generations, and the Yeltsin government has already been assailed by its political opponents for betraying Serb interests. Should things proceed in that direction, the Balkans would once again have become an arena for great-power rivalries, with all the dangers that implies. As in other parts of the world, America could easily find itself in danger of being dragged into conflicts by client states pursuing their own particular agendas--a case of Balkan tails wagging the American dog.

Perhaps worst of all, the United States could find itself attempting to harmonize the interests of clients that dislike one another almost as much as they dislike the Serbs. The delicate balancing that would be involved in such a venture is already evident in Bosnia. Not only does Washington face the difficult task of preventing renewed fighting between the Muslims and Serbs; but it must also exert every effort to hold together the fragile Muslim-Croat Federation--something that is very hard to do. And if that is not enough of a challenge, there is the matter of Croatia's barely disguised desire to annex the predominantly Croat portions of Bosnia.

The Macedonian Axis

Washington is almost certain to encounter similar problems in its mission to protect Macedonia's independence and territorial integrity. Serbia is by no means the only--or even the principal--menace to Macedonia. Relations between the republic and several of its other neighbors are tense and confrontational. Bulgaria, which earlier in this century went to war on three separate occasions to press its territorial claims to Macedonia, has recognized the independence of the new republic with great reluctance and continues to insist that Macedonians are merely "western Bulgarians." Greece has waged a virtual cold war against Macedonia because the new state appropriated the name "Macedonia" and chose the sixteen-point "Vergina Sun" pattern--a symbol of Hellenic culture dating from the time of Philip of Macedon--for its flag. Athens has also worried that Macedonia has designs on the Greek province of the same name, a concern fanned by the inflammatory rhetoric and extravagant territorial ambitions of a small but vocal "Greater Macedonia" movement in the new republic. For more than two years, Greece refused to extend diplomatic recognition to Macedonia and even imposed an economic embargo on its landlocked northern neighbor.

An agreement brokered by Holbrooke in September 1995--yet another example of Washington's growing role in the Balkans--appears to have resolved some of the disputes between Greece and Macedonia. The government in Skopje agreed to modify Macedonia's flag and to amend the constitution to remove passages that implied any claims on Greek territory. In exchange, Athens agreed to recognize its neighbor as a sovereign state and to lift the trade embargo. Other thorny issues, including Macedonia's name, were not resolved and animosity between the two capitals remains high.
Albania's attitude is the most worrisome of all, since that country appears to covet Macedonia's heavily Albanian western provinces. (Indeed, maps circulated by a "Greater Albania" movement lay claim not only to most of Macedonia but to large portions of Greek Epirus as well.) Tirana has offered none-too-subtle encouragement to Albanian separatist political forces. When moderates left the leading Albanian party in Macedonia, the Party of Democratic Prosperity, in February 1994, Albania's president, Sali Berisha, immediately formed close ties with the new radical leadership. He has also responded favorably to statements by Albanian Macedonian leaders, such as Mahi Nesimi, that Albania "must aggressively support the interests of Albanians in Kosovo, Macedonia, and elsewhere in the region." The Macedonian government contends that it has foiled at least one armed secessionist campaign directed by Albania.

It is symptomatic of the multiple sources of threats to Macedonia that so many parties were rumored to be involved in the October 3, 1995, assassination attempt against president Kiro Gligorov--a car-bomb attack that left Gligorov gravely wounded. In addition to the disgruntled Albanian minority in Macedonia, suspicion fell on strident Macedonian nationalists (who considered Gligorov "soft" on both Albania and Greece) as well as the Serbian, Greek, Albanian, and Bulgarian intelligence services. Responsibility has yet to be established, but the assessment of one European diplomat familiar with the Balkans is especially worrisome. He described the assassination attempt as "very professional" and concluded that the bombers almost certainly had been trained outside Macedonia.

Given the multitude of potential pitfalls, the Clinton administration will have a difficult time making the case for a U.S.-orchestrated containment policy in the Balkans. America's significant strategic and economic interests center around the major powers of Western Europe and, increasingly, East Asia. There is little need to become deeply committed to a geopolitical backwater like the Balkans, and there is even less wisdom in doing so.

At the very least, if the administration wishes to pursue a containment policy against Serbia, it ought to do so openly, not in a clandestine manner. If stabilizing the Balkans is to be nato's new mission, or even if it is merely a solo U.S. venture, the president has an obligation to do what Harry Truman did for the original containment doctrine: seek public support and congressional approval. He also has an obligation to explain why the Balkans are so important that America must risk a considerable investment in blood and treasure.

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