On Kosovo's Fields
by Fouad Ajami
[CIP Note: Professor Fouad Ajami is not affiliated with our Center but is a distinguished scholar whose work we support and who has expressed an opinion similar to that of several of our leading personnel on Kosovo. ]
The mob that set the American embassy in Belgrade ablaze had that intuitive sense crowds of this kind possess: a feeling of persecution and a "knowledge" of the enemy. Grant the Serbian nationalists, with their narrative of victimization and belligerent self-pity, their due: It was American power, deployed in the Balkans since the mid-1990s, which rescued the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo from the dark threat of Serbian nationalism.
In the early 1990s, it was said that Europe would put out the flames of the Balkans and shelter the Muslims of that region. But Europe averted its gaze from the pitiless campaigns of Serbian nationalism (the Croats, too, had been no friends of tolerance), and it was left for American power to come to the rescue of the beleaguered Muslims. The angry crowd in Serbia had it right: This new, impoverished state of Kosovo would have never seen the light of day without American patronage.
The Ottoman Turks brought Islam to the Balkans, but their power receded in the middle years of the 19th century. In his celebrated and disturbing work of fiction, "Bridge on the Drina," (1945), Bosnian-born Ivo Andric prophesied calamities for the Muslims. The power of the Turks had vanished "like an apparition," he wrote, yet the children of Islam "remained here, deceived and menaced like seaweed on dry land left to their own devices and their own evil fate." Andric was prescient: The dark nationalisms of the Balkans would eventually heap on the Muslims of these lands bottomless sorrow.
Communist leader Josip Tito gave the Muslims and other nationalities of the south Slavs a reprieve from the battles of faith and nationalism. No sooner had the edifice he had maintained come apart, the Bosnians and the Kosovars would be hurled into a battle for their very survival.
On one cruel day in the summer of 1995, some 7,000 people, men and young boys, were herded out of the town of Srebrenica by General Ratko Mladic, of the Bosnian Serb army, and executed in cold blood. When it fell to the Serbs, the town was flying the flag of the United Nations, it was a "safe area," patrolled by Dutch troops. But the peacekeepers had simply handed it over to the Serbs and made their way to safety.
Srebrenica shamed Bill Clinton who had tried his best, over 30 long, bloody months, to stay out of the war for Yugoslavia. (Here he was true to the policy of his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, who along with his advisors, believed that America had no dog in that Balkan fight, as the inimitable James Baker so famously put it.)
After Srebrenica, appeasement of the Serbs came to a swift end, and America would give the Muslims of Bosnia a chance at some normalcy. America was now in the Balkans, the Muslim children of the Ottoman Empire had become wards of the Pax Americana.
And so a Balkan mantra would come to pass: "The Yugoslav crisis began in Kosovo, and it will end in Kosovo." It was on the outskirts of Pristina, Kosovo's principal city, on June 28, 1989, that Slobodan Milosevic, the arsonist who lit the fuse of Yugoslavia's wars, recast himself from a communist party hack into a great nationalist avenger. It was a day fraught with symbolism: the anniversary of what the Serbs take to be the central drama and epic of their history, their defeat in 1389 at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, on the Field of Blackbirds.
In their self-pitying epic, fate had been cruel to the Serbs -- their capital, Belgrade was destroyed 40 times, their holy lands in Kosovo lost to the infidels, overwhelmed by the Albanians. Kosovo may indeed have been the cradle of the Serbian Church: But in the 1980s and 1990s, the Serbs were deserting Kosovo by the day, and by the time it descended into mayhem, they accounted for less than 10% percent of the province's population.
It would have been the better part of wisdom to let well enough alone, but Serbia's grief over setbacks in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, and Serbia's vanity, broke the fragile peace of Kosovo. There had been autonomy for the Kosovars, the regime in Belgrade annulled it. There had been a constitution that gave the Kosovars a measure of protection within Serbia, but the Milosevic regime shredded all that.
Then the Kosovars declared their own independence in 1990. That declaration was in vain, only Albania recognized the new entity.
It would take an American-led NATO campaign, an air war of 11 weeks, in 1999, to make Serbia abandon its project of conquest and tyranny in Kosovo. Milosevic had played cat-and-mouse with Washington and Brussels, and had bet on the Russians coming to his rescue. He was in for the surprise of his life: The air campaign was a substitute for a ground war that American and European leaders were eager to avoid.
The Serbs (and the Croats) had been warning of an "Islamic crescent" in the Balkans; they had depicted themselves as standing at the ramparts of Christendom, fighting the wars of the West. This was bigotry and delusion: Islam of the Balkan variety was tolerant and pluralistic, the religion of people who had an enlightened view of their faith, and who lived at the crossroads of civilizations.
Some jihadists, it is true, made their way to the Balkans from the Middle East and North Africa but their zeal was alien to these secularized children of Islam. In the most telling metaphor of this civilizational drama, some jihadists brought the seeds of the palm trees of their habitat. Those seedlings would not take and died. Only apple trees grew here, said a man of the Balkans.
The air war launched by NATO ended the Serbian reign of terror in Kosovo, and made that province a NATO protectorate. The day of reckoning was put off -- but the declaration of independence by the Kosovars on Feb. 17 has now resolved the ambiguity of Kosovo's status.
There are no angels in the Balkans, and the Albanian inheritors of Kosovo who were forged by a bitter military struggle against the Serbs will have to tread carefully. They will have to show qualities of mercy and moderation that have not been in ample supply on the Balkan soil. Too much history, too little geography, it has been said of the Balkan Peninsula and its terrible wars.
And in Muslim lands? There has been silence about American deeds in the Balkans. The drums of anti-Americanism are steady, and no one has stepped forth to acknowledge American mercy and American protection. Precious few, even in "moderate" Muslim lands, own up to the fact that Islam survived in Sarajevo only because American power rescued it from the Serbo-Croat campaign of the 1990s.
And yet today, in this tale of Kosovo, the willfulness in Muslim lands is easy to see. Whether Muslims acknowledge it or not, whether Americans themselves admit it or not, the Pax Americana is the provider of order of last resort in the lands of Islam.
In less than two decades, there have been American campaigns of rescue in Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Two of these American wars, the ones in the Balkans, were on behalf of Muslims stranded in a hostile European landscape. In its refusal to acknowledge the debt owed American power, Muslim society tells us a good deal about its modern condition, and about that false, mindless anti-Americanism on the loose in Muslim lands.
Mr. Ajami, a Bradley Prize recipient, teaches at the School of Advanced International Studies, the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of "The Foreigner's Gift" (Free Press, 2006).
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