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May 4, 1999
'Wag the Dog' in Reverse

By Mollie Dickenson

President Clinton staggered from his messy impeachment acquittal in February only to find himself leading NATO into the middle of a gruesome war in the Balkans in March.

It was a transition that neither he nor the American people fully expected -- or fully understood.

Americans weren't prepared for the horrors of Slobodan Milosevic's "ethnic cleansing" of Albanian Kosovars. Nor was the country ready for NATO's "surgical strikes" that inflicted hundreds of civilian dead by missing targets, by accidentally bombing the wrong targets - such as columns of Kosovar refugees -- and by intentionally destroying Serbia's official television studios in Belgrade.

Distracted by the 13-month Monica Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment proceedings, the noted domestic-policy wonk may have skimped on the time needed to study and address the worsening crisis in the former Yugoslavia.

Instead, Clinton relied on hawkish foreign-policy advisers, such as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Vice President Gore. On Jan. 19, when Albright went to the White House to present her planned ultimatum -- demanding that the Serbs accept NATO forces or be bombed -- Clinton wasn’t even present.

The president was preoccupied with the Senate impeachment trial and his upcoming State of the Union address that many political pundits felt was crucial to his political survival.

As The New York Times noted, “It is unclear whether the president’s decisions on Kosovo would have been any different if he had not been distracted by his own political and legal problems. But it is clear that his troubles gave him less maneuvering room to make his decisions. Diplomacy that came to rely heavily on military threats reduced the wiggle room even further.” [NYT, April 18, 1999.]

Clinton was caught in a kind of reverse "Wag the Dog." Rather than a fictional war in the Balkans diverting the nation's attention from a presidential sex scandal, a presidential sex scandal diverted Clinton's attention from a real war in the Balkans.

As the war clouds built and the thunderous bombing began, Clinton disclosed that he'd been boning up on Balkan history. He then offered a "Cliff notes" version that skimmed over the centuries-deep roots of the ethnic hatreds and ignored this century’s atrocities visited on the Serbs by Nazis, Croatians and Moslems.

On March 24, announcing the start of NATO air strikes in a nationally televised address, the president presented the overly simplistic conclusion that it was Milosevic's fault. Clinton explained:

"In 1989, Serbia's leader, Slobodan Milosevic, the same leader who started the wars in Bosnia and Croatia and moved against Slovenia in the last decade, stripped Kosovo of the constitutional autonomy its people enjoyed, thus denying them their right to speak their language, run their schools, shape their daily lives. For years, Kosovars struggled peacefully to get their rights back. When President Milosevic sent his troops and police to crush them, the struggle grew violent."

Along with a coherent history of the region, Clinton left out the salient fact that a religious civil war was raging in Kosovo, with the ethnic-Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army committing its own share of atrocities.

While Clinton certainly was not the first leader to simplify the reasons for war, the president's address suggested either that he held a frighteningly shallow notion of what was behind the conflict or that he was willfully misleading the American people.

His administration might have hoped that some tough talk and some military muscle-flexing would compel Milosevic to back down in Kosovo. A brief NATO bombing campaign in 1995 had pushed Milosevic into signing the Dayton Accords and ending the three-year war in Bosnia.

But Serbs view Kosovo much differently than Bosnia. Kosovo is the cradle of their ancient civilization, whereas Serb-inhabited areas of Bosnia and Croatia, although important, were less significant both to Serbian national identity and to Milosevic's political survival.

Indeed, the gap between international outrage over the brutal "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo and the Serb national ambivalence toward the practice rests on the fact that the Balkan brutality has not been one-sided, as Clinton's speech suggested.

Part of the Serb intransigence comes from the failure of the international community to demonstrate sympathy for the suffering inflicted on Serbs both historically and more recently.

Since the break-up of Yugoslavia, beginning in 1991, the Serbs themselves have suffered widespread "ethnic cleansing" from their historical homelands in Croatia, Bosnia and, to a lesser extent, Kosovo.

President Bush's national security adviser Brent Scowcroft gave a hint of this missing context when he murmured during a recent MSNBC-TV fadeout, "Milosevic is trying to protect his Serbian populations."

But why the ruthless Milosevic needs to protect his population is rarely fleshed out -- and that may be the fundamental weakness of NATO's strategy.

As writer Mark Ames noted, "trying to bring the Serbs to heel by making them suffer won't work; these people have too much practice at suffering." [See Ames's Moscow-based Internet magazine, The eXile,]

That Serb suffering traces back to Europe's Middle Ages when three major religions -- Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Islam -- converged and clashed in the Balkans. One pivotal moment in this Serb culture of suffering traces back to 1389 when Serb King Lazar and his army battled a superior force of Turk invaders in Kosovo. The Turks killed Lazar and 77,000 of his soldiers in the battle at Kosovo Polje.

The Serbs, however, were a difficult race for the Turks to subdue. Periodic revolts flared for the next five centuries. In 1809, in literally a monument to brutality, the Turks built a tower in the town of Nis, using the skulls of their Serb victims.

The Turkish Ottoman Empire finally lost control of the Balkans in 1878 as a result of the Russo-Turkish War, with the Serbs fighting as allies of the Russians, an historic alliance that is relevant again today.

In 1878, the Congress of Berlin recognized Serb independence, but left the small country subservient to the dominant regional power, Austria-Hungary.

The Serbs continued to chafe under foreign domination. As history books note, Serb nationalists were furious when Austria annexed the Serb-majority province of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908.

One Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip then touched off World War I by assassinating Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914. Two months later, the Austro-Hungarian government invaded Serbia. When Serb forces retreated through Kosovo, many were killed at the hands of the ethnic Albanians.

As the competing European powers took sides in the conflict, the Balkans split into warring factions, too. The Orthodox Serbs sided with the Allies -- led by England, France and Russia. Roman Catholic Slovenia and Croatia as well as Islamic Albania joined Germany and the Central Powers. Serbia lost about one-fourth of its population during World War I, including about two-thirds of its military-aged men.

After World War I, to avoid the harsh peace terms imposed on defeated Germany, Slovenia and Croatia joined the Kingdom of Serbia. But ethnic and political tensions continued during the 1930s under the rule of Serb King Alexander.

When World War II broke out, Croatia and Slovenia again sided with Germany. Collaborating with Adolf Hitler's Nazis and the Axis Powers, Croatia's fascist Ustasha party murdered 700,000 Croatian Serbs as well as 40,000 Jews and 20,000 gypsies in death camps.

Even the Nazi SS found the Ustasha's brutality unspeakable. While the Nazis generally sought coldly efficient methods for exterminating their victims, the Ustasha relished torturing, gutting and mutilating their captives.

Jewish children sometimes were butchered in ritualistic "kosher" fashion. Like its predecessor, World War II claimed about one-fourth of the Serb population.

In the mountains of Yugoslavia, however, a Slovenian Croat communist known as Josip Broz Tito led Serb-dominated Partisans who tied down eight divisions of Hitler's army. Serbian "Chetnik" guerillas also rescued more than 1,000 downed Allied pilots including 500 Americans.

By the war's end, Tito and the Partisans had all of Yugoslavia under their control. In the four decades that followed, Tito held the fractious peoples together with a combination of guile and ruthlessness -- under the slogan "Brotherhood and Unity."

But Tito also sowed the seeds for today's troubles. He redrew the border of the Yugoslav provinces so two million Serbs ended up inside Bosnia and Croatia. Serbs have long believed that Tito's goal was to dilute Serb power as Yugoslavia's dominant population.

Although Kosovo was historically part of Serbia, the number of ethnic Albanians living there surged with higher birth rates and immigration from neighboring Albania. These ethnic Albanians resisted incorporation into Yugoslavia, but Serb police enforced compliance with Belgrade's orders.

By 1968, however, the Albanian influence had grown so strong that Tito granted a broad autonomy under the control of ethnic Albanians.

After Tito's death in 1980, tensions in Kosovo grew worse with ethnic Albanians killing Serb policemen and Serb citizens complaining about persecution at the hands of the ethnic Albanian majority.

In 1987, a little-known Serbian communist apparatchik named Slobodan Milosevic traveled to Kosovo and delivered a fiery speech. He vowed to protect the rights of Serbs in Kosovo and elsewhere. Commemorating the 1389 battle, Milosevic spelled out his core principle as a Serb nationalist: Serbs "will never be beaten again."

In 1989, Milosevic was Serbia's new president and viewed as the protector of the Serb people. He began backing up his promises with tough policies to rein in the increasingly rebellious non-Serb regions.

In a fateful move, the Yugoslavs reduced the political autonomy that Tito's constitution had granted Yugoslav republics and provincial Kosovo. In 1991, Slovenia and Croatia reacted by announcing their secession from Yugoslavia, a decision promptly recognized by their old ally, Germany.

The Bush administration and NATO nations drew criticism at the time for acquiescing to the German-backed secession. Washington stayed on the sidelines as the blood feuds resumed.

"We don't have a dog in that fight," declared Bush's Secretary of State James Baker.

Yugoslavia gave up Slovenia after only 10 days of fighting, largely because few Serbs lived there. In Croatia, however, the new president, Franjo Tudjman, a former Nazi collaborator, set the stage for a more violent conflict by rejecting demands of ethnic Serbs for their own autonomous regions. With the Serbs receiving help from Yugoslavia, a brutal civil war followed.

International negotiators brokered a temporary peace in 1994, maintained by a UN peace-keeping force. But in May 1995, Croatian forces marched through UN lines and overwhelmed a Serb enclave. Through the summer, the Croat army swept across the Serb-populated areas burning homes and forcing Serbs to evacuate Croatian territory.

The offensive raised fears about a response from Milosevic's Yugoslav army. But Milosevic did not attack and an estimated 350,000 Serbs were driven south to camps in Bosnia and Serbia, where many still live in squalor. Many of the old and sick Serbs left behind were killed.

The loss of large chunks of traditional Serb territory was a bitter pill, especially on top of the World War II legacy of Croatian/Nazi genocide against Serb populations.

Meanwhile, in Bosnia-Herzogovina, the Serbs found themselves outflanked by an ethnic combination of Croat and Muslim forces.

The three sides fought ferociously in that civil war from 1992-96, but most of the international opprobrium fell on the Serbs for atrocities such as the massacre of some 7,000 civilians at Srebenica. Nevertheless, all sides committed atrocities and engaged in "ethnic cleansing" of "their" territories.

That conflict finally ended after a round of NATO air strikes prodded Milosevic to grudgingly sign the Dayton Peace Accords. The Serbs complained, however, that the agreement was unfair to them, both in loss of Serb territory and in denying them a corridor to connect the two major areas of Serb populations.

While the Serbs were battling in the northern provinces of the old Yugoslavia, trouble also was brewing in the south, in Kosovo.

Contrary to Clinton's public assertion that "the struggle grew violent" only "when President Milosevic sent his troops and police to crush" the ethnic Albanians, the struggle actually grew violent when the Kosovo Liberation Army began assassinating Serb police and other Serb representatives.

Western intelligence also had a dim view of the KLA. The KLA was believed to draw financial support from the region's heroin traffickers and had ties to Islamic extremists. Last year, U.S. Ambassador Robert Gelbard labeled the KLA "without question a terrorist group."

But as the Serbs struck at the KLA guerrillas, Serb forces also shelled ethnic Albanian villages and burned houses. Scores of civilians were killed and tens of thousands escaped into the woods where they suffered from hunger and exposure.

Despite a fragile cease-fire in the fall, a Kosovo turning point was reached in January. The KLA resumed the guerrilla fighting and the Serbs unleashed their military on the province.

On Jan. 15, the world was shocked by the massacre of some 40 ethnic Albanians in Racak. Few believed the Serb government claims that the atrocity had been staged as a KLA provocation. The Racak massacre came to demonstrate Serb military resolve to suppress secessionist elements in Kosovo with all brutalit necessary.

In private, Milosevic and his hard-line advisers apparently had decided that they would cede no more territory to their rivals. But President Clinton dropped any recognition of the moral ambivalence that preceded Racak.

In trying to rally the American population to bombing a far-away land, the president made the choices stark and simple. It was a case of "High Noon" in the Balkans.

The Serbs, however, confronted a bitter irony as their ancient enemies -- the Turks and the Germans -- again were attacking Serbia, though now as part of the NATO coalition.

Perhaps the best chance for a peace accord in Kosovo will be a creative proposal that recognizes the region's conflicting territorial claims as well as the historical grievances.

Possibly, with Clinton more fully engaged on the Balkan crisis, he finally might apply his legendary persuasive powers to find a route out of the Balkan abyss. At press time in early May, Clinton seemed to be more open to possible compromises that he had been earlier.

But that pathway out of the Balkans -- if it exists -- can only be found by a president who recognizes that all the moral terrain in the historic region is gray.

Mollie Dickenson, an iF Magazine and Consortiumnews contributing editor, is a student of Balkan history.

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