Intellectual Capital
April 9, 2001
By Alan W. Dowd

Though buried under stories on China this past week, the Balkans are in the headlines again. While Serb police detain Slobodan Milosevic in a Belgrade prison cell, ethnic Albanians with quixotic dreams of carving out a greater Albania are at work in Macedonia. Using the NATO-mandated demilitarized zone between Kosovo and Serbia as a launching pad, Kosovar militiamen have been waging a guerilla war against Serbian villages since the beginning of NATO's peacekeeping mission in June 1999. NATO tried to ignore the mini-war until this month, when its own troops came under fire and the Albanian uprising spilled into Macedonia—yet another china shop of Balkan ethnic groups.

Macedonia appears to be weathering the crisis, but just barely. The situation is serious enough in Kosovo's borderlands that NATO has authorized Serbian soldiers to return to the buffer zone. Germany has redeployed tanks from Kosovo into Macedonia. And Macedonia's tiny army is fighting pitched battles with the rebels in the hills and villages of northern Macedonia.

Predictably, NATO's nay-sayers are using this latest Balkan brush fire to criticize the alliance's intervention in the Balkans. Not so predictably, President Bush's heavyweight foreign-policy team has taken a pass in its first Balkan crisis.

Critics of NATO's Balkan policy, some of whom occupy key positions in the White House, are revealing their own shortsightedness—and short memories. Just two years ago this month, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic was rampaging through Kosovo, using terror and torture to purge the tiny enclave of its non-Serb population. All told, some 850,000 Kosovars would be flushed from their homes; and thousands would die.

When NATO decided to intervene, the critics doomed the air war to failure. When the air war succeeded—albeit after 78 days—the same critics then predicted the peacekeeping mission would be a flop, just as they had scoffed at the international effort in Bosnia four years earlier.

One is left with the impression that the critics actually wanted NATO to fail in the Balkans: To them, NATO's decision to enter the area represented a dramatic departure from the traditional mission of the Alliance. For nearly fifty years, NATO kept the peace in Europe by keeping the Soviets out of Western Europe. Stabilizing the Balkans wasn't part of the equation. 

Stabilizing the Balkans, Stabilizing Europe

But with the Cold War melted away, keeping the peace in Europe is impossible without keeping the peace in the former Yugoslavia—Europe's most reliably dangerous neighborhood. Indeed, by stabilizing a region riven by war and distrust, NATO is doing the same thing for Eastern Europe in the 21st century that it did for Western Europe in the 20th century.

With America leading the way, NATO troops are enforcing an armistice in Bosnia that has held for almost six years—longer than the war itself lasted. Defying the odds and the experts, NATO has returned all 850,000 refugees to Kosovo—the only case in history where a systematic removal of ethnic groups has been reversed.

If, as some suggest, the Balkans are a test NATO's relevance, the alliance is obviously passing the test. The events along Kosovo's frontier are evidence of this—not a refutation of it. The sound of gunfire in the Balkans is newsworthy today precisely because NATO has brought peace and stability to the region.

Were it not for NATO, Milosevic would still control Serbia; there would likely be no Macedonia to protect; and the last 21 months in the Balkans would have been marked either by the chaos of war or the sickening silence that follows a pogrom—the silence we hear in Srebrenica, and in towns and villages across Rwanda and Chechnya.

But because NATO acted, the Kosovars are home. Macedonia is independent and democratic. And Milosevic is gone, pacing in a Balkan jail cell. Without him, the region's other troublemakers have been exposed for what they are—not freedom fighters, but irredentists driven by myth and legend to kill and conquer.

Bush: Shirking America's "Disproportionate Responsibility"

Even so, NATO's work is obviously not done. The Bush administration seems unable to grasp this point. With the embers of ethnic hatred still smoldering, President Bush's main goal is not to smother the fire, but to keep the 5,000 U.S. troops in southeastern Kosovo out of harm's way. Indeed, as Macedonia teetered on the edge of civil war, all the White House offered was supportive words and a flock of unmanned spy planes.

The United States can and must do more. Macedonia wasn't the first Balkan flare-up, and it won't be the last. If NATO's delayed action in Bosnia and early intervention in Kosovo proved anything, it's that the alliance has the capacity to quarantine Balkan hatreds and the conflicts they spawn—but only when America leads. As the first President Bush once observed, "The United States bears a disproportionate responsibility for peace in Europe and an obligation to lead NATO."

The younger Bush would do well to take his dad's advice. Europe won't be stable until the Balkans are. And the Balkans cannot be stabilized by an America focused on nothing more than keeping its hands clean, or even worse, an America in retreat.