Another Balkan Alarm, and Again Washington Is Napping

Jackson Diehl The Washington Post
International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON As Macedonia's army bombed and shelled ethnic Albanian villages last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell flew to Africa. To the alarmed foreign ministers of Austria and Greece, who arrived in Washington just before he left and just in time to read Donald Rumsfeld's latest declarations about pulling U.S. troops out of the Balkans, he offered boilerplate reassurance. Anyone looking for forceful action to stop the latest ethnic bloodletting in Europe had no one to talk to in the Bush administration.

On the contrary. "Secretary Rumsfeld is always looking for opportunities to back off on some of the overseas commitments we have, and that's his job," General Powell told reporters on the plane to Africa. "The president wants that." .General Wesley Clark can be excused for thinking he has seen this movie before. As commander of NATO forces in Europe in the spring of 1998, he watched the beginnings of the Serbian campaign against the Albanians of Kosovo and pleaded in vain for Washington to intervene before the situation got out of hand.

As he recounts in his newly published memoir, "Waging Modern War," his attempt to get the attention of the Clinton administration earned him an angry 2:30 a.m. telephone call from the Pentagon. "Look, Wes, we've got a lot on our plates back here," he says he was told by the then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Ralston. "We can't deal with any more problems." .A year later, the Clinton administration and NATO were dealing with a full-blown war in Kosovo, and General Clark had confirmed a couple of painful lessons.

First, "these situations are best dealt with early on when they are ambiguous," he said last week. "If you delay until the threat to U.S. interests is so clear-cut it's undeniable, the costs and risks are going to be far higher." .Second: "The Pentagon is not the right locus for the generation of U.S. foreign policy." By now those principles have been proved over and over in America's ventures into the post-Cold War world. Yet each new U.S. administration seems to have to learn them the hard way - especially in the Balkans, where the dangers and stakes have been underestimated by three consecutive presidents.

In 1991 the first Bush administration concluded that Yugoslavia's breakup was better managed by the Europeans, only to see the eruption of a bloody war between Serbia and Croatia. In 1993 the Clinton administration decided to leave Bosnia to the Europeans, only to be drawn into the war after two more years of senseless carnage. As General Clark persuasively argues, U.S. inattention to Kosovo in 1998 led directly to the war of 1999.

Now the second Bush administration has watched the trouble once again brewing in Macedonia, Kosovo, southern Serbia and Bosnia - and, spurred on by the Pentagon, has decided once again to leave its management to the Europeans. "It's exactly the same mistake as before, only worse," General Clark told me. "Now the rivalry between the European Union and the United States is worse." .Two miscalculations were central to U.S. misadventures in the Balkans during the 1990s. Both the first Bush and the Clinton administrations underestimated the power of Serbian nationalism and the ruthlessness with which Slobodan Milosevic was willing to use it. Both also misjudged the importance of U.S. involvement in the Balkan crises to the overall U.S.-European relationship.

"When the conflict began I thought it was about Kosovo," General Clark said of the 1999 air war. "But later I realized that it was really about NATO." If the alliance was unable to respond effectively to a European conflict, Kosovo showed, it would be fatally weakened.

With Mr. Milosevic's downfall last fall, Serbian nationalism is now arguably less of a threat. But longtime watchers of the Balkans say the West is failing to adequately address a new engine of destabilization: Albanian nationalism. Ethnic Albanians make up more than 90 percent of the population of Kosovo and are a substantial minority in Macedonia, Montenegro and southern Serbia.

At the root of the fighting in Macedonia, and the wave of tension building through the region, is the absence of a clear answer to Albanian political aspirations, in particular the lack of a Western consensus about Kosovo Albanians' demand for independence from Serbia.

"The whole course of Albanian nationalism is now up for grabs," says Jim Hooper, managing director of the Public International Law and Policy Group. "Depending on how the West and particularly the United States handle it, it can be a nationalism that buys into democracy and buys into regional stability, or it can turn into another destructive force in the region." .European ministers are quietly telling the Bush administration that it must lead an effort to come up with political solutions for the Albanians, with timetables and conditions - and do it before the guer-rillas of the region ignite a new conflict that defies political solution.

NATO may have to expand, rather than shrink, its forces in the short term to stop the flow of guerrillas and weapons across the borders of Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia.

What is needed, in short, is a major investment of U.S. energy, at a time when the level of violence is still low - and Washington has much else "on its plate."