March 21, 2006

What really happened in the Balkans

A reader writes:

I got really, really interested in the whole Balkan situation at the time it was happening. Read all kinds of stuff, not just current events stuff but Serbian poetry and folklore, that sort of thing. I was still a center-leftie at the time, so I attended all sorts of center-lefty kinds of events about the war, and I got to be known as the guy who confused everybody with too many facts.

Some comments:

In terms of proximate causes, the conflict was basically Germany's fault. Germany, feeling its oats after reunification, immediately recognized both Slovenia and Croatia (historically parts of the Hapsburg Empire and hence in the German cultural sphere) when they broke away from Yugoslavia. Britain and the US were, at the time, trying to figure out how to keep Yugoslavia together, because Major and Bush foresaw that the breakup would be bloody. (BTW, little known fact: President Bush - 41 - made a commitment at the time of the breakup of Yugoslavia that the U.S. would not permit Serbian aggression in Kosovo. This was timely because Milosevic began his populist/nationalist campaign in 1989 by agitating to restore Serb dominance in Kossovo. The subject was of concern to the Turks in particular, which is why Bush made the commitment. People who cannot figure out why we went to war over Kossovo are probably forgetting that we drew a line in that particular patch of sand nearly a decade prior to the war.)

You'll recall that Secretary of State James Baker also tried to convince the Ukrainians not to split, for much the same reason (and I predict he'll be proved right - we continue to inch towards the likely eventual Ukrainian civil war, though thankfully we're still only inching). But, for the sake of European unity, France promptly followed Germany's lead and recognized Slovenia and Croatia, and then Britain followed suit. The U.S. held out for a while, but once all of Europe recognized the breakup of Yugoslavia there was no way to put the cat back in the bag.

The unity of Yugoslavia was a crucial priority for NATO throughout the Cold War, since ethnic divisiveness could be used as an excuse for a Soviet military intervention to re-incorporate neutral Yugoslavia within the Warsaw Pact. The news that Tito was dying of cancer that arrived in January 1980, immediately following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the hostage seizure in Tehran, was perhaps the most alarming moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was in college in January 1980 and the odds that we'd be drafted and have to fight in Europe in WWIII seemed pretty high at the time.

Fortunately, Yugoslavia held together for another decade. Then, the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 broke up the Warsaw Pact and presumably gave an impetus by example to the break-up of Yugoslavia. That raised the question of whether a general trend toward breaking up along ethnic lines was in the West's interest or not. Should the breaking up of Yugoslavia be encouraged in order to make the reincorporation of the Warsaw Pact unthinkable and make the break-up of the Soviet Union thinkable? Our great fear for 40 years had been of a tank invasion from the East and the more the borders of Russian control were pushed back, the less likely it became. Or were we better off with the devil we knew?

(In general, it's easy to forget just how uncertain and perilous the future looked in 1989-1991. For example, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was deeply unhappy about German re-unification. I was sitting with General William Odom, the former head of the National Security Administration, at a dinner in 1999 where Mrs. Thatcher gave her a speech. During the Q&A, the very pro-German Gen. Odom gave her hell about this. Afterwards, Mrs. Thatcher came over to our table and argued heatedly with Gen. Odom for ten minutes. It ended with Gen. Odom telling her, "My ancestors hid behind trees and shot your ancestors wearing those stupid redcoats during the Revolutionary War!" Mrs. Thatcher laughed, and they went off to the bar and shot the breeze amiably for two hours. As we know now, German reunification turned out to be a net drag on the strength of Germany, so Mrs. T's traditional English fear of the might of a united Germany turned out to be misplaced. But, the future wasn't so obvious back then.)

Milosevic tried to invade both Slovenia and Croatia to keep Yugoslavia together. But there was no way he could hold on to either. Slovenia was, luckily for it, already a pretty monocultural entity, over 90% Slovene with no geographically concentrated minorities, so the Slovenian war of independence ended quickly and without too much bloodshed. But Croatia's territory included the Krajina region, which was overwhelmingly Serb and, moreover, the historic home of some of the most rabidly nationalist Serbs (naturally enough, since they were surrounded by Croats and were the top targets for expulsion or murder by the Croats during WWII). So the Krajina broke away from Croatia, and the Yugoslav army invaded to defend them against the Croats.

Bosnia was left surrounded and in an impossible situation. It had to declare independence to avoid being crushed by Serbia, but there was no chance it could hold together as a unitary state. And if it did break up, the largest component of the population - the Muslim Slavs - would have no ethnic state to call their own; they would either be a minority in a Greater Croatia or a minority in a Greater Serbia. It didn't help matters that the Serb region of Bosnia abutted not Serbia but the Krajina region of Croatia, and was separated from Serbia proper by Muslim and Croat regions. The situation is similar to the Armenian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh or the Palestinian Arabs split between Gaza and Judea/Samaria, or the old problem of East Prussia (and the new problem of the Russian enclave at Kaliningrad). So we got the very bloody and nasty Bosnian civil war.

The Croatian war ended when the West backed the Croats sufficiently that they were able to physically expel the Serb population from the Krajina. No people, no problem. If it weren't for the Bosnian Muslims, everyone could have gotten an ethno-national state by some combination of exchanging populations or exchanging territories. Serbia could have gotten the predominantly Serb regions of Bosnia, and Croatia could have gotten the rest, and Kosovo could have been partitioned between Serbia and Albania, leaving Serbia with the historic churches in the north of the region and Albania with the bulk of the Albanian population. But everybody treated Tito's borders as sacrosanct, and nobody was able to convince the Bosnian Muslims (did they try?) that they were better off as a minority in Greater Croatia then as the plurality in a totally nonfunctional multi-ethnic Bosnia.

Why were Tito's internal borders - which did not match the historical borders of the components of Yugoslavia - treated as sacrosanct? Well, once you start accepting the principle of re-drawing borders, where does it stop? Nobody was really worried about what was happening in the Balkans. People were worried about how the precedents set there could spill over into other parts of the world. What if Hungary decided to pursue a "Greater Hungary" strategy? There are big Hungarian minorities in Romania, Slovakia and Serbia. If we re-drew the map of the Balkans to suit the distribution of ethnic groups, wouldn't that encourage Hungary to pursue such a strategy?

But the real fear was Russia. There were very big Russian minorities in all of the Baltic states, in the Ukraine, in Moldova and in Kazakhstan. Once the Soviet Union broke up, everyone was rightly concerned that Russia would make territorial claims in one or more of these states - particularly once some of these states started actively disenfranchising the ethnic Russian population. To a considerable extent, the world's treatment of the situation in Yugoslavia was driven entirely by considerations about the precedents being set for the situation in Russia. The impact on the actual Yugoslavs was a secondary, if not a tertiary consideration.

At the time, I thought that Bob Dole had the right idea about what our policy should be: lift the arms embargo so the Bosnians had a chance to defend themselves, but don't get directly involved. In retrospect, this probably would have meant Hezbollah and al Qaeda providing most of the arms to the poor Bosniacs (which to some extent happened anyhow), and we'd have even bigger problems today. The only really good solution to Yugoslavia was partition into Slovenia, Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia, but this would have left smaller ethnicities like the Macedonians and the Bosnian Muslims high and dry, and besides nobody was in a position to impose such a settlement. And I guess I agree that the precedent such a settlement would have set would have been very bad in terms of its potential impact on Russia and, possibly, Hungary. So the Balkans were just screwed, kind of like they always are.

Even now, after the Iraq War that announced our willingness to use force to reorder the Middle East as we saw fit, we're - properly - constrained by our respect for borders. Iraq isn't a country; it would be far more logical to break it up than to try to keep it together. But we can't let, for example, the Kurds have their own state for fear that the precedent of carving a Kurdish state out of Iraq would just as logically be applied to Turkey. And the first Iraq war was fought to preserve a thoroughly artificial border between Kuwait and Iraq. There's no ethnic difference between Kuwaitis and Iraqis - they're all Arabs, and both sides of the border have a mix of Shiites and Sunnis. Same thing with Saudi Arabia, the eastern provinces of which that abut Iraq and Kuwait are largely Shiite, just like southern Iraq. Once you start saying that we're going to re-draw borders to make more ethnic "sense" it's not clear where you stop, or why, and much of the underpinning of our international system (such as it is) falls away.

Indeed, which is why the Kosovo War of 1999 was so strange: Kosovo was universally recognized as part of Yugoslavia (i.e., Serbia) and, under the Abraham Lincoln precedent, Yugoslavia certainly had the right to forcibly put down an armed rebellion within its own territory. But, that was not allowed by NATO. But then neither has been the natural alternative -- for Kosovo to become an independent state.

One interesting thing about the breakup of Yugoslavia in terms of how people in the West reacted is the weird alliances that were formed. For example: the two groups who were most sympathetic to the Serbs (apart from ethnic Russians and, of course, ethnic Serbs) were paleocons and right-wing Jews.

Right-wing Jews saw an analogy between the situation of the Serbs and the situation of the Israelis. Both felt historically persecuted (and by some of the same people); both were now trying to hold on to maximum territory in a situation where geographic contiguity was elusive (Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria versus the Serbs in Krajina); and both were specifically trying to reclaim a holy territory (Kosovo for the Serbs, Jerusalem and its environs for the Jews) that was now dominated by an alien - and Muslim - ethnic group. Yasser Arafat saw the analogy as well; in fact, he proclaimed more than once in the wake of Kosovo that the West was now obligated by analogy to defend the Palestinian Arabs against the Israelis just as they defended the Kosovar Albanians against the Serbs. This probably had an impact on his unwillingness to come to some kind of a deal with Ehud Barak.

Paleocons identified with the Serbs not so much, I think, because of anything intrinsic about the Serbs or their situation but because they saw the West's war against Serbia as emblematic of Western and American meddling in a part of the world in which we had no justification for sticking our noses. The New World Order was being forged in the war against Serbia, and since they knew they were against the NWO that meant they were for whoever the NWO was fighting. But I remember reading all sorts of paleocon stuff in the late 1990s that crossed way over from antipathy to our involvement to active enthusiasm for the Serb cause. Which was, frankly, bizarre.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ledger, the two groups most sympathetic to the Bosnian Muslims were left-wing Jews and Muslim fanatics. Susan Sontag flew to Sarajevo to put on a performance of Waiting for Godot, and Osama bin Laden was smuggling guns to the Sarajevo government. Go figure.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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