Debate on U.S. Kosovo Policy Brewing in Washington

Srdja TrifkovicAs we near the deadline of December 10 for the Contact Group “Troika’s” report on its attempts to negotiate a solution to the problem of Kosovo, the voices of reason in the United States are finally becoming more influential and more articulate than ever before. Over the past two weeks alone, John Bolton, Christian Science Monitor commentator David Young, and a host of prominent analysts meeting at a conference in Washington D.C. have warned that the U.S. policy in the Balkans is heading for the rocks.

On November 1 the Voice of America interviewed former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, about the future status of Kosovo. Mr. Bolton expressed the view that the State Department has conducted a consistently anti-Serbian policy for more than 15 years. Unfortunately, he said, this biased policy has continued even though there is no logical reason for it after the fall of Milosevic:

While Serbia is trying to establish an effective and functional democracy regarding human rights and other issues, the anti-Serbian policy has continued, especially with regard to Kosovo, where a decision in favor of its independence could only create other concerns. Such a decision could impact on the democracy in progress in Serbia, and the possibility that the Security Council would step beyond its authority, which would be very unfortunate. This is one of the numerous examples of behavior by the State Department, which is a problem the next President has to solve.

John Bolton is the most prominent former Administration official so far to be so outspoken about the U.S. policy in the former Yugoslavia. In his VoA interview he was adamant that the United States should not recognize any unilateral declaration of Kosovo independence:

Such a decision, which would be taken under threat of violence, would actually represent a way to reward bad behavior. The issue of Kosovo should be solved by two parties at the negotiation table . . . this is much better than to impose a solution on one side or the other, based on a wrong understanding of the situation.

Bolton added that the last thing we should do is to sow the seeds for future conflicts under the pressure of one side or the other. Of his new book, “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad,” Bolton said it was focused on how the policy is actually formulated. He quoted a senior State Department official who told him that “if they knew how we formulate our foreign policy, Americans would be very dissatisfied.”

That the critique of the current U.S. policy on Kosovo is steadily becoming more mainstream was also apparent from David Young’s excellent article (“If You Give Separatists An Inch . . . ”) in the November 5 issue of the Christian Science Monitor. It warned that “Washington has been encouraging, and will continue to encourage, foreign governments to support a technically illegal, self-declared, independent Kosovo in the event that negotiations collapse.” The author points out that “there are more than 50 separatist conflicts across the globe, and few of the governments that have endured the bane of irredentism will be eager to recognize Kosovo if such a precedent could come back to haunt them.”

The State Department official in charge of European affairs Daniel Fried claimed earlier this year that “Kosovo is a unique situation because NATO was forced to intervene to stop and then reverse ethnic cleansing. The Security Council authorized Kosovo to be ruled effectively by the United Nations [and] stated that Kosovo’s final status would be the subject of negotiation. Those conditions do not pertain to any of the conflicts that are usually brought up in this context.” But Young notes that, unfortunately, Washington’s “unique” arguments “are actually engraving a separatist playbook in stone, blazing a glorious trail that separatists will follow with greater determination, recruits, and (in all likelihood) success”:

By so explicitly stating the merits of Kosovar self-determination and independence, Washington is essentially creating an innovative code, only to make the cipher publicly available. Current and future separatists merely have to manufacture the same conditions and sequencing that have compelled the West to embrace an independent Kosovo: terrorize locals, invite government crackdowns, incite a rebellion, and lure in foreign intervention and commitment to rebuild. Once militants get this far, Kosovo will no longer be unique— even by Washington’s peculiar standards—and areas that share Kosovo’s characteristics will be equally deserving of independence. The horrid irony, of course, is that declaring Kosovo’s uniqueness has been Washington’s deliberate attempt to prevent future separatism, but it is inadvertently teaching militants how to navigate the complex inconsistencies of geopolitics. In fact, the more thorough and persuasive Western governments are about Kosovo’s “uniqueness,” the more legitimate separatists’ ambitions become, if only they follow the Kosovo model.

Not only has Washington had a hard time selling Kosovo’s independence to all but its closest allies, the Christian Science Monitor’s contributor concluded, but the very basis for that appeal is even more threatening to governments that would face invigorated separatism in the wake of an independent Kosovo —even if that independence is informal and technically illegal: with the “unique” endorsement, Washington and a few European capitals create new separatist analogies for the future, and our failure to anticipate these complicated roadblocks will cost our allies more than anyone else.

The climate in Washington is changing. Over the past decade the nation’s capital has been the venue of countless conferences and symposia on Kosovo by the International Crisis Group, the United States Institute of Peace, the Wilson Institute, and a myriad of like-minded institutions. All of them shared one unchangeable assumption: that independence is the only solution. Their only disagreements, if any, have been how to get from where we are now to carving up Serbia and welcoming “Kosova” into the “international community.” Very few voices opposing the wisdom of that outcome have been allowed a proper platform and a fair hearing—until now.

On October 23 The Lord Byron Foundation for Balkan Studies, in cooperation with The American Council on Kosovo, held a conference at Washington’s Capitol Hill Club under the title of “Kosovo, a Preventable Disaster.” The whole-day event attracted some 70 attendees. Those present included journalists, a TV camera team from the Voice of America, Congressional staffers, policy analysts from various government agencies, and foreign diplomats.

Two members of the House of Representatives and ten panelists who addressed the conference did not agree on every point, but all of them were generally critical of the assumptions that are enshrined in current U.S. policy on Kosovo. To that extent, this event has contributed to kick-starting the ongoing debate, and to the creation of some badly lacking analytical balance.

The keynote address was delivered by Ambassador James Bissett, Chairman of The Lord Byron Foundation, who warned that a new breed of American political leaders have betrayed the trust bestowed upon them by the Founding Fathers: “By doing so they have abandoned the very principles upon which America was founded . . . [T]hey have lost the moral authority that formed the real strength of the democratic countries in overcoming the forces of totalitarianism.”

According to James Jatras, Washington’s irrational and destructive Balkan policy is to a significant extent the product of the ignorant and misguided notion that the U.S. can curry favor in the Islamic world by sacrificing Kosovo’s Christians to the violent jihad-terror elements that dominate Kosovo’s Albanian leadership. Such an unfounded notion shows a breathtaking incomprehension of the worldwide jihadist threat. International opposition and the Bush Administration’s failing domestic credibility put a weight on the policy, however, which can be dealt a fatal blow if enough Americans raise their voices against it.

Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College in Rhode Island John Schindler opened with the warning that “the much-misunderstood Bosnian jihad remains a troubling template for future Al-Qa’ida operations in the Balkans”—especially Kosovo—and across the world. Al Qa’ida considers the Bosnian war one of its top three victories (along with Afghanistan in the 1980s and Chechnya in the mid-1990s), as it provided Bin Laden’s legions with a place to win critical battlefield and propaganda experience. Dr. Schindler said that the jihadist success in Bosnia can be attributed largely to the successful application of information operations as a core element of strategy: “those who hope to defeat the jihad in the Balkans and elsewhere must learn to match the enemy’s formidable capabilities.” Recognizing Kosovo’s unilaterally complained independence would be counter-productive and detrimental to that objective.

Director of the Center for the Study of Political Islam Bill Warner presented a devastating account of the fate of various minority non-Muslim populations in predominantly Muslim societies. What has happened to the Serbs and other non-Albanians in Kosovo fits in with the tradition of intolerance that is endemic to the Muslim mindset, Warner argued, and that in Kosovo combines with a particularly virulent form of ethnic nationalism to produce a lethal mix. This theme was also developed by Ben Works, Director of SIRIUS. His focus was on the phenomenon of “predatory migrations”—of which Kosovo provides a classic example. Independence under whatever name and with whatever “guarantees” would only reward the process of ethno-religious cleansing that has been going on since June 1999.

Former New York Times correspondent in Belgrade David Binder focused on the overall dysfunctionality of today’s Kosovo: an economy stuck in misery; a bursting population of young people with criminality as the sole career choice; an insupportably high birthrate; and a society imbued with corruption and a state dominated by organized crime figures. Binder noted that political unrest and guerrilla fighting in the 1990s led to basic changes in Kosovo-Albanian society. The result is a “civil war society in which those inclined to violence, ill-educated and easily influenced people could make huge social leaps in a rapidly constructed soldateska.”

Doug Bandow started his closing remarks by noting that the only consistency in the U.S. policy in the Balkans is the odd insistence that the Serbs have to lose on each and every account. In Bosnia they are subjected to centralization, but in Kosovo they are asked to accept amputation in the name of self-determination. The Administration is continuing to act as if the outcome in Kosovo is preordained, which indicates that the U.S. has learned nothing since 1999. A unilateral declaration of independence would divide the EU, set a collision course with Russia, and alienate Serbia which is the hub of the western Balkans. To prevent a series of negative consequences, Bandow suggested, we need negotiations without preconditions and without a prescribed outcome. A clear warning from Brussels that the EU would be badly split by the U.S. recognition would certainly help. Serbia needs to focus on lobbying Europeans to that end.

NOT TOO LATE?—The rising opposition to the Bush Administration’s policy of bringing about Kosovo’s independence by hook or by crook is taking place at a crucial moment. With the threat looming of a Kosovo Albanian unilateral declaration of independence and Washington’s pledge of recognition, authoritative voices of sanity have started to speak more freely than ever before about the disaster that would ensue. But will anyone listen? Predicting a sudden attack of common sense in Washington is always a risky proposition.

The support of such respected Members of Congress as Dan Burton and Melissa Bean show that reasonable and courageous people can and therefore will do the right thing. More importantly, John Bolton, David Young, and the Washington conference participants have exposed, if more proof could be needed, the bankruptcy and futility of America’s Kosovo policy. It is a policy that cannot prevail in the long run, as now is evident to everyone but its authors in government and a few think tanks inside the Beltway.


Chronicles Foreign Affairs Editor Srdja Trifkovic opened the afternoon session at the Conference by focusing on the need for Serbia to diversify her foreign policy options. Instead of continuing to swear by the receding dream of “European integrations” (not to mention the counter-productive “Atlantic” ones, that aim at NATO membership), Belgrade should make it clear to the West Europeans and to the U.S. that it can no longer be taken for granted. If the pleas and arguments based on legality, morality and common sense are ignored, Trifkovic asserted, then, perhaps, those based on Realpolitik will be heeded: Serbia is still the key to the region, and ignoring her interests will carry a price—yet to be determined and stated by Belgrade—for those who still think that they can carve the country up with impunity.

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