Albania has descended into the Hobbesian state of utter anarchy, which seldom happens to a European country. Armed mobs have ransacked stores, unruly soldiers have stolen cars at gunpoint, foreign nationals have been evacuated by helicopter from embassy compounds, and rebels have stolen some 100,000 light arms from government arsenals. The sinking in March of an Albanian boat full of refugees (which many Albanians believe Italy sunk on purpose) has only heightened tensions, convincing many European authorities to rethink the prudence of dispatching troops to the area as part of an international peacekeeping brigade.

Tiny Albania’s implosion was sparked by the collapse of pyramid savings schemes, which left hundreds of thousands of people literally destitute in Europe’s poorest country. The spark hit the tinderbox of bitter, albeit ill-articulated, grievances; it bared the angst of a traditional society which has been brutalized over the past six decades by imported and imposed ideologies—initially by Italian fascism, then by a long spell of Stalinism, and finally, for the past five years, by the robber-baron brand of “democratic capitalism.”

What does the melancholy story of this faraway country, of which we know little, matter to us? One could bewail the inability of traditional communities to survive the encounter with “progress,” in Albania no less than in the Highlands, in the Vendee, or in Appalachia. One could dwell on the fragility of order in human affairs, and the potential for anarchy that may be lurking even in our midst, beneath the veneer of constitutionalism and legality. But some Americans may also find it instructive to examine the contribution their own government has made to the unhappy outcome of Albania’s encounter with “democracy” and “free enterprise.”

When Albania emerged from almost a half-century of Stalinist isolation in 1991, the United States took a sudden interest in its fortunes. At that time neighboring Yugoslavia was sliding into violent disintegration, and the Bush administration saw Albania as a potential foothold in the Balkans. But in order to become useful, Albania first had to be “stabilized,” and made friendly to American interests. The search was on for the Albanian Vaclav Havel. After a few false starts, an ostensibly credible substitute was found in the person of a little-known surgeon and former middle-ranking communist, Sali Berisha, whose Democratic Party adopted all the right slogans of Democracy, Human Rights, and Free Enterprise.

Within months, as the first postcommunist presidential election was approaching, the American embassy in Tirana actively promoted Berisha’s candidacy. The rest, as they say, was history. “In those heady days of communist collapse, America’s endorsement was worth a million votes,” says Arben Puto, a history professor at the University of Tirana who had supported Berisha in the early days. According to a State Department insider, “We may have overstepped the bounds of diplomatic propriety, but hey—it’s the Balkans, and it was well worth it!” Berisha’s landslide victory in 1992 “cost us a mere eight million bucks.”

For over four years, until the collapse of pyramid-style investment funds (which many Albanians suspect were encouraged by Berisha’s entourage who were given a piece of action by the “entrepreneurs”), there was hardly any criticism of his rule. Even now some experts are loath to admit that Berisha is just another “postcommunist” demagogue who uses communist methods in pursuit of greater personal power. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, for example, one Mark Almond—known to Balkans aficionados as the British author of fascinatingly fact-free pamphlets on the war in former Yugoslavia—claimed that Western correspondents critical of Berisha have been duped by the insurgents, who form “an alliance of communists and mafiosi.”

Absent from such analysis is the fact that Berisha inherited the notorious communist secret police in 1992, changed its name from Sigurimi to Shik, and let its unpurged personnel carry on their grisly business as usual. Berisha’s apologists also overlook his government’s aggressive campaign against the few remaining independent newspapers and magazines in late 1995. (As for the electronic media, no such campaign was necessary: they had remained the organs of the ruling party, despite Berisha’s promises to allow private radio and television stations.)

The new climate of fear, reminiscent of the heyday of the late communist dictator Enver Hoxha, culminated a year ago. In May 1996, Berisha staged a general election which was spectacularly fraudulent in conduct as well as outcome. According to the official count, his Democratic Party gained 110 parliamentary seats from a possible total of 115. This ratio, one feels, would have been acceptable even to Hoxha.

These and other objections to Berisha’s style and substance were routinely rejected in Washington in the name of “stability.” Berisha was to be forgiven for his dictatorial trespasses for as long as he towed the line—which included letting America use Albania’s airfields to send spy planes over Bosnia and relinquishing control over its naval installations to NATO’s Southern Command. Even after Berisha’s sham elections a year ago, the United States cohosted NATO exercises inside Albania. The week-long war games, dubbed “Peaceful Eagle,” were staged 50 miles east of Tirana, in a new training center which was developed under American guidance. A month later, in August 1996, the Albanian army sent the first batch of its soldiers for training to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, while American marines exercised along Albania’s Adriatic shore.

The cynic would say that there was nothing unusual in the government of the United States propping up a corrupt, dictatorial regime and offering it military assistance; but normally such regimes—in Kuwait, Indonesia, Turkey, or Pakistan—are to be found in strategically or economically important parts of the world. Albania is “strategically important” only if this administration has longterm designs in the Balkans, which remain unstated in public.

American policy in the Balkans has never been about the Balkans, any more than it has been about peace, justice, prosperity, and democracy. Albania was interesting in the early 1990’s as a low-cost bridgehead in a region beset with animosities—some of which, as in Bosnia, have been additionally fanned by American interference. It was also interesting as an area where America’s presence, once established, could stay immune to any future ups and downs in its relations with European allies.

An additional explanation for American policy in Albania is to be found in the broadly anti-Serb set of assumptions that have dominated Washington’s strategy in the region for the past five years. Dame Rebecca West warned that foreigners seem unable to resist taking sides in the Balkans, and Clinton’s foreign policy team has confirmed the adage with considerable gusto. Strong American support for Albanian ethnic separatists in the Serbian province of Kosovo may have been initially intended as a tool for curtailing Serb objectives in Bosnia, but it has developed into a bipartisan tenet that is no longer open to reexamination.

It is uncertain how long it will take for the State Department to grasp the futility of its present reliance on Balkan dictators, such as Berisha and Milosevic, and their regional colleagues, Franjo Tudjman in Zagreb and Alija Izetbegovic in Sarajevo. But come what may, Americans may rest assured that their embassy silver in Albania will be safe. In a cable to the American envoy in Tirana, Marisa Lino, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reiterated “the State Department’s policy for safeguarding of sterling silver flatware on the occasion of an evacuation” and instructed Ms. Lino to take the cutlery with her if the time comes to fold the flag. Good! At least some or the mistakes of Saigon and Phnom Penh will not be repeated.