As the debate over what to do in Bosnia & Herzegovina after the country's October elections resurfaces and the Kosovo issue again moves to the UN General Assembly, the Obama Administration will be increasingly called upon to provide American leadership in the Balkans. Yet a serious observer of U.S. Balkan policy might be forgiven for questioning whether the US has an intellectually or politically coherent policy in the Balkans, or whether our approach to the region is simply an ad-hoc collection of prejudices and biases. The very same diplomats and pundits who tell you that ethnic vetoes are bad in Bosnia will say they are needed in Macedonia, or that international supervision should be eliminated in Kosovo but increased in Bosnia, or that Helsinki principles do not apply to a universally recognized member state of the United Nations, but they should apply to an entity which two-thirds of the international community hasn't recognized.
And it gets worse. In the somewhat intellectually perverse foreign policy salons of New York and Washington, the more ties a Balkan politician has to drug smuggling, human trafficking, and al-Qaeda, the bigger their fan club is likely to be. Get yourself indicted for murder and torture, and a celebrity journalist will even write a glowing portrait of you for Vanity Fair. One of Washington's now-deceased Balkan darlings was a member of a Nazi-collaborationist organization in the 1940s, a fan of the Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1980s, and a host to Osama Bin Laden in the 1990s. On the other hand, spend your career writing a book criticizing the communist monopoly on power (while the communists are in power), or translating de Toqueville and the Federalist Papers into your native language, and people will call you Slobodan Milosevic's reincarnation. Go figure.
In reality, much of what passes for a debate over "Balkan policy" in both Europe and the US is based on wishful thinking, illusions about what is important, and an exaggerated sense of what we can accomplish. Sometimes it is even worse—a not-so-thinly veiled belief that some ethnic groups or peoples have no legitimate rights or interests. Such a view of the world, of course, was unfortunately common among several political movements popular in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. It should certainly not be the basis for U.S. policy today.
Moreover, rarely do we focus on what is of vital importance for American national security. Among the flavors of the month popular with many Balkan "experts," for instance, are imposing a new constitution on Bosnia, or appointing a new special envoy for the Balkans, or initiating a new US effort to resolve the diplomatic debacle over Kosovo. In this context, it is usually just taken for granted that we should not let Bosnia's peoples resolve their own affairs in keeping with their own political culture and traditions, or that another international bureaucrat can solve the region's many problems, when in fact it is frequently international bureaucrats themselves who are the problem in the region.
Meanwhile, how many people in Washington are discussing the one real issue emerging from the Balkans that does affect vital US national security interests? Consider the following: The 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The USS Cole. The LAX bomb plot. The Fort Dix bomb plot. The 2008 attempted attack on the New York City subway system which Attorney General Eric Holder called one of the most serious terrorist cases since the 9/11 attacks. A 2009 plot "to engage in violent jihad" in Gaza, Israel, Jordan and Kosovo. Another 2009 attempt by a Brooklyn resident to attack US targets in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Balkans. September 11th. The organized crime gangs who have taken over heroin distribution along the eastern seaboard. The terrorists who beheaded Daniel Pearl . . .
What is the common denominator here? All were carried out or planned by individuals who had fought in the Balkans, or who come from the region. For more than a decade, Saudi-sponsored Wahhabists have been infiltrating Bosnia, Kosovo, the Sandzak, and Macedonia. The overwhelming majority of southeastern Europe's Muslims want nothing to do with them. But as we found out on 9/11, it only takes a few small extremist cells to kill thousands. Yet despite the grave, direct nature of this threat, it is practically ignored in Washington. As the debate about what to do in the Balkans heats up over the coming months, we should finally start asking some serious questions about how and why southeastern Europe affects US national security-and then, hopefully, come up with a coherent and consistent way to deal with the region's problems.