The Bombing of Serbia - Back to the Future


The US-led attack on the rump Yugoslavia is a colossal error, an example of a policy applied too late, in the wrong place, and in ignorance of history. While an attack on Serbian forces invading the internationally recognized territories of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia would have been a legitimate NATO action under international law and might have stopped the conflagration in the Balkans in the early '90s, the present attack on the Serbian forces that are brutally suppressing an armed internal rebellion on their own territory is either a sanctimonious blunder or an exercise of Realpolitik under a figleaf of humanitarianism. It is hypocritical, inconsistent, and leaves important questions unanswered. It will create problems whether it fails or succeeds.


We must recognize that Serbian attempts to suppress Albanian self-expression in Kosovo are attempts to recover a historical Serbian dominance. Misty-eyed proclamations about mediaeval Serbia are not the issue and are simply exercises in symbolic legitimation. More to the point was denial to Serbia and Montenegro of their conquest of most of Albania in 1912-13 through Austrian and Italian insistence that Russian influence in the Balkans be countered by creating a brand new state of Albania independent of pro-Russian Serbia. More to the point is the resulting irridentist anti-Austrian sentiment of the Serbian Black Hand, in cooperation with the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization that led to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 and to World War I. More to the point is that the Marxist government of Yugoslavia gave special privileges to the Albanian population (in the 1950s perhaps a half or two-thirds, but by now nine-tenths of the population) as well as to other ethnic groups to contain nationalist Serb threats to the Communist state. The Communist state won out against two opponents: the Axis and the monarchist Serbs. The remnant socialism of Milosovic's regime notwithstanding, it is nativist Serbian sentiment that now drives the former Yugoslavia.


We must also recognize that all states consider it their prerogative to maintain hegemony over their populations -- Turkey does it to the Kurds, to which for obvious reasons we make no objection. Croatia did it to the Krajina Serbs, to which for not so obvious reasons the US made no objection. The North did it to the South, 1860-65. None of this recognition excuses brutality; it just avoids the kind of hypocrisy on the subject manifested by recent U.S. official rhetoric. What would the United States do if parts of California and the Southwest decided to become independent, or to join Mexico? If part of Texas seceeded, would the National Guard not charge in, crying, "Remember the Alamo"?


The current mantra of the Clinton administration is that the participants in these Balkan disputes are consumed by irrational ethnic hatred. Doubtless they have historians who could set them right. The ethnic groups are locked in conflicts into which they were set by surrounding empires that were adjusting their own imperial interests. Why is the United States now assuming the role of Austria-Hungary, recreating not a Cold War, as those of shallow memory opine, but a much older and deeper conflict opposing the Habsburgs to Russia, Catholic Europe to Orthodoxy, Rome to Byzantium? In this context the West should realize that the shattered remnants of empires have no basis for political mobilization except ethnic nationalism. It is the only game in town. It brought Milosevic to power in Kosovo, and it is a tiger he cannot afford to dismount. No knowledgeable observer can fail to be offended by the hypocrisy of the US official position and the symbolic use of human suffering to mask political objectives.


We must also ask how the Albanian insurrectionists in Kosovo came into being and how they are financed. There are plausible reports that they are supplied largely by and through Croatia and Albania. Is gunrunning to insurrectionists not something to which NATO and the UN should pay heed? To what degree are fundamentalist Muslim interests involved, as they were in Bosnia? None of this is to ignore the argument that Serbian police brutality weakened the Albanian moderates and strengthened the hand of more violent factions (just as NATO bombing is now weakening Serbian dissidents and strengthening Milosevic).


The parallels with the Western bombing of Iraq are compelling. If the complicity of a nation in the misdeeds of its leaders is justification for punishment, to what degree can the Iraqis or the Serbs be held complicit? To what degree can any people, living in a police state under dictatorial control and with an efficient and brutal police, be held complicit and subjected to deprivation and devastation? Just as the complaint that Saddam Hussein has used violence against his own people seems an exercise in cheap demonization, so also the hand-wringing over the Kosovo Albanians trivializes both their plight and the larger situation. If it is acceptable to bomb those who may be innocent, or at least powerless, why is it not acceptable more simply just to assassinate their troublesome leaders? Both actions seem to be equally reprehensible morally and under international law. The answer to the question is simple. Political leaders are afraid of retaliatory assassinations. Nevertheless, they are quite willing to put their populations at risk.


What's the real story behind US rhetoric? On the eve of its collapse, Communist Yugoslavia had arguably the fourth largest army in Europe and was capable of sustaining it from internal resources. While the rump Yugoslavia has lost much of that capacity, it is still the most dangerous in the region. To what degree is the NATO campaign against Serbia designed to neutralize this force by way of a pre-emptive strike against a military and political establishment that might seek to expand its borders? To what degree would Serbian policy be driven to those extremes by the need to settle or resettle Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia? To what degree might neighboring countries welcome such neutralization? Kosovo (if its Albanian population were driven into Albania) or parts of the Vojvodina (if its Hungarian and Romanian minorities were ejected), or even Macedonia (if its Albanians could be removed) would be prime areas for Serbian resettlement. Even Serbia's traditional ally, Montenegro, is at risk of complete Serb domination. If the threat of Serbian aggression for Lebensraum against its neighbors is the issue, is the NATO campaign the best way to counter it, or will it exacerbate the situation? If this is the issue, why is it not put on the public table?


What would be the costs of success in the NATO campaign? It is hard to see how the Kosovo Albanians could continue to exist within Serbia absent the presence of a permanent NATO police force. It is more likely that Kosovo would ultimately become independent. It might, or might not, join Albania; there is no particular love lost between the Albanians of Albania and of Kosovo. An independent albanophone Kosovo would increase unrest among the Albanian minorities in Macedonia and Greece, seeking their own autonomy or perhaps merger. Is the outcome of NATO and US policy the creation of some kind of "Albanian" bloc peeled away from the existing nation-states? Is this a new partitioning, following on the failed attempts of the Big Powers in 1878, 1913, 1915, 1945 -- all with the goal of stabilizing their own political and military relationships rather than those of the subject populations?


What US policy did in the Dayton Accords and is doing in Kosovo is just that -- to continue Woodrow Wilson's mistaken and romanticist idea that recognized international states should be ethnically based and as homogeneous as possible -- an idea carried to its furthest extremes by Nazi Germany. It is impossible to achieve that in the Balkans (just as in the Near East), where the collapse of empires has left shatterbelts of ethnic groups strewn across the landscape. Short of the exercise of rationality, the only solution is population relocation, now impolitely called "ethnic cleansing" (or mistakenly, "genocide"), of the kind employed by Greece and Turkey after the Balkan and First World Wars.


US policy need not be driven by the stupidities of German romanticism or cheap appeals to humanitarianism. If the West can concentrate the mind, it can do what it should have done from the beginning of the Balkan crisis. It can avoid pulling the keystone out of the arch of regional integration, as the precipitous and self-serving German and Austrian recognition of Slovenia and Croatia did. It can instead work very hard at creating the incentives for a Balkan union in which it is to advantage of all participants to unite, rather than to infinitely divide. How to do this in 1999 as in 1991 requires laser-guided diplomacy, not laser-guided bombs.


Yet at this juncture the fat is in the fire, and the Rubicon is behind us. There is no choice now but the bitter one to press on, to destroy the Serbian military machine, and hope that Milosevic will not come out the political victor again. At worst, the former ally that saved the West in two wars (even if it sparked the first one), will be a surly thorn for decades or more, chewing on the fact that it lost Kosovo twice, once to the Ottomans and once to the U.S. At best, the U.S. and NATO may have the opportunity to rebuild Serbia and pursue rational policies of inducement.


E. A. Hammel

Professor emeritus

Departments of Anthropology and Demography

University of California, Berkeley

POB 1438

Point Reyes Station, CA 94956