Yugoslav Secessions Testing U.S. Policy
by Stephen Schwartz
The outbreak of bloody fighting between the Yugoslav central government and the republic of Slovenia, at the end of June, seems in retrospect to have been one of those events that lights up, in bright colors, the contradictions of world diplomacy -- many of them unacknowledged since the Second World War.
Belgrade's military intervention has delivered a terrible blow to the Yugoslav federation. In its wake, the Yugoslav government has, for many, ceased to enjoy a claim to represent legitimately the several nations of South Slavs, and has been labelled by a large section of Western media and political leaders as an exclusively Serbian power.
The "new Balkan war" shows many features in common with the Balkan wars that directly preceded World War I, as well as the events that began the latter. In the present conflict, as in those wars, what appears an aggrieved and aggressive Serbian military has exploded in the region, seeking political aggrandizement through force.
But the new Balkan war has had other, more ominous effects. It has seriously challenged the credibility of U.S. foreign policy officials, particularly Secretary of State James Baker.
It has provided the first major test, not yet decided, for the peacekeeping capacities of the European Community. It has exposed weakness and strains among the European nations that are long suppressed. And it has offered numerous indications about the future of the Soviet Union.
U.S. GREEN LIGHT?
For Americans, the impact of this crisis on our policy elite must be of greatest importance. Baker travelled to Belgrade one week before the declarations of Slovenian and Croatian independence, and delivered an unambigous message: secession would be "neither encouraged nor rewarded."
Many observers maintain this statement gave Belgrade a green light to run tanks through the Slovenian villages. On Monday, July 8, the Madrid right-of-center daily ABC published the following comment on page 1: "It should not be forgotten that the initial closed- mindedness (of the U.S. and Western Europe to the independence declarations) was what encouraged the Belgrade government and frustrated the possibility of a negotiated dissolution of Yugoslavia or, what amounts to the same thing, its peaceful transformation into a Confederation of Sovereign States."
This comment is especially significant in coming from a traditionally pro-U.S. daily in Spain, a country that has its own national question, involving the Basques and Catalans, and which has been considered one of the Western European nations (like France and Britain) with most to lose from infection by the "separatist bug."
Yet in Spain as elsewhere in Europe, public opinion has run overwhelmingly against Belgrade.
Behind such comments lurks what seems an inescapable fact: this "green light" is not the first to be set up by American diplomacy. It is reminiscent of the chitchat between U.S. ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie and Saddam Hussein that has been intrepreted as a "green light" to invade Kuwait.
It is also reminiscent of Washington's handling of the Kurdish question in the wake of the Persian Gulf war. And it seems to have something in common with the U.S. policy of staunch friendship with Beijing, after the Tiananmen massacre of the Chinese students.
A YEAR LATE
Once the fighting started, Baker waffled. After a week of bloodshed, the U.S. position was that Slovenia and Croatia would be recognized if they attained such status peacefully. This should have been said a year ago. The previously-cited ABC article described such a belated posture as "dramatically ironic, when the Serbian army has announced its intention to suppress the independence movement by force."
U.S. position then swung to a reproof of Belgrade, and the stipulation that maintenance of Yugoslav unity by force was unacceptable. This also should have been said long before, not after, the events.
Baker and President Bush (on July 3 and 4, respectively) warned that Yugoslavia faces civil war. This was obvious long before fighting actually began, and should also have been said long before.
In fact, the Central Intelligence Agency delivered the same warning seven months in advance of the explosion.
CIVIL WAR PREDICTED
David Binder reported in the New York Times (reprinted in The Chronicle) on November 29, 1990, "U.S. intelligence is predicting that federated Yugoslavia will break apart, probably in the next 18 months, and that civil war in the Balkan nation is highly likely.
"The predictions, included in a lengthy National Intelligence Estimate produced under the auspices of the CIA, are unusually firm and sharp for such a document... The intelligence estimate runs counter to the State Department view of Yugoslavia's future... The authors of the intelligence estimate, and virtually every other U.S. official concerned, blame (Serbian leader Slobodan) Milosevic as the principal instigator of Yugoslavia's troubles."
The core of this statement is the reference to the gap between the CIA assessment and the official wisdom purveyed by the State Department.
The latter, which seems to believe in the status quo above all things, prevailed -- the warning was ignored.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, a former ambassador to Belgrade, in a CNN broadcast on July 3, said that there really wasn't much the United States could do about the Yugoslav situation -- if they wanted to have a civil war, they would.
QUESTIONS TO BE ASKED
The questions that need to be asked about Washington's handling of the Yugoslav crisis are obvious ones.
Why did the State Department ignore, and prevail over, the sharp warning of the CIA?
Why were we caught unawares by the wild action of the Belgrade army -- action that should have been predictable on the basis of a century of past Serbian military adventures of just this kind?
Yet another "dramatic irony" involves the conflict between the U.S. position of encouragement and solicitude for the Baltic republics struggling against Soviet control -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- and the rejection of the similar Balkan nations, Slovenia and Croatia.
On January 27, Marlin Fitzwater held a press conference in which he condemned the Soviet attack on a telephone building in Lithuania and then repeated the statement that "We will not reward unilateral actions" such as the Slovenian and Croatian independence declarations.
One (unidentified) reporter was heard to comment, "there is no logic in the U.S. policy."
This is not to say that America's politicians have made a complete mess of the Balkan crisis.
Ironically, Senators Robert Dole (R-Kan) and Don Nickles (R- Okla) both assumed and have maintained a forward position in defense of human rights in Yugoslavia. (I say "ironically" because neither Dole nor Nickles, both from farm states without Slovenian and Croatian American voting contingents, might have been expected to score so well on a foreign policy issue.)
Dole, on July 3, went much further than Bush or Baker in demanding that the United States "pressure, and if necessary, compel" Belgrade to stop its aggression against Slovenia.