The world is never properly grateful for the services we do
it. We throw cruise missiles into Belgrade and bring Milosevic to heel. But
then the gallant Kosovars, whom we saved from ethnic cleansing, turn around and
start cleansing Slavs over the border in neighboring Macedonia. Why won’t these
swarthy peasants read their Federalist
Papers and behave?
The best story The
New York Times has run on the latest
crisis was not on the front page but in the B section, where Chris Hedges
reported on recruiting efforts for the Macedonian front in an Albanian
nightclub on Staten Island (most Kosovars are ethnically Albanian). “I called
my father in Macedonia,” one 33-year-old told Hedges, “and told him we were
coming. He does not want us to come …. He wants to fight himself, but he is 59.
This is our job.” As New Yorkers, we hope the job goes well, because if the
Albanian guerrilla bands operating in Kosovo and Macedonia were wiped out, we
wouldn’t have a super left here. But their neighbors-in the Balkans, not Staten
Island-will think differently.
The Albanians of Macedonia-a former republic of Yugoslavia,
now independent-allege that the government, which is dominated by Slavs,
ill-treats them in a variety of ways. They do not claim that they are being
murdered and expelled, as was happening in Kosovo, because they are not. The
Albanian insurgency in Macedonia is not a struggle born of desperation, but a
power grab, an effort to rip off a chunk of the country and graft it onto an
There are two prisms for viewing such wars. The first is
idealistic. Most people in the world want to make money and live in peace.
Wicked men sometimes rise to positions of power in which they oppress or
beguile them. But when the people rise up, we owe them sympathy, if not actual
help. When the Greeks began their war for independence against the Ottomans in
the early 19th century, Henry Clay, an idealist to the core, praised them in
Congress as “a nation of oppressed and struggling patriots in arms.”
The other prism is Tory-cynical. Civilization is a rare
thing; most people are brutes, and happy to be so. Everyone beyond the English
Channel, or the Atlantic Ocean, is funny, when they are not dangerous. George
Orwell once collected a list of stereotypes of foreigners found in English
boys’ fiction of the 1930’s: “FRENCHMAN: Excitable. Wears beard, gesticulates
wildly. SPANIARD, MEXICAN, etc.: Sinister, treacherous. ARAB, AFGHAN, etc.:
Sinister, treacherous.” A massacre here, a pogrom there, is just another
dust-up among wogs.
Americans have viewed the violence that has wracked the
Balkans since the last Bush administration through the first prism. Most
Americans, including the American government, took the side of the countries
and ethnicities that wished to break away from Yugoslavia: Croats, Bosnian
Moslems and Kosovars. The oppressive villains in this view were the Serbs, who
were trying to hold Yugoslavia together, and especially Slobodan
Milosevic-rebaptized by the tabloids, with their perfect instincts in these
matters, as “Slobbo.” Americans of this view wrote what a multicultural
paradise the Bosnian city of Sarajevo was; one friend told me that ethnic
cleansing in Kosovo “shocked the conscience”-not just his, but the world’s.
There was also a minority view, held by Pat Buchanan
supporters, the Eastern Orthodox and A.M. Rosenthal, who, so far as I know, is
neither of the preceding. In this view, the Serbs, who had been our allies in
two world wars, were struggling gamely against fascist and Islamic gangsters
who had contrived to win the sympathy of clueless European and American elites.
Almost no one said, “A pox on all their houses.” James
Baker, Secretary of State in the first Bush administration, did say, as
Yugoslavia was breaking up, that we didn’t have a dog in that fight. But, as
with so many of his utterances, this one had all the charm of a bandsaw, and it
didn’t carry conviction.
When the Balkans sank into the abyss, journalists turned to
Rebecca West’s 1942 travelogue Black Lamb
and Grey Falcon as a primer. I found a shorter one in the article on “ALI,
known as Ali Pasha” in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica . Ali
(1741-1822) was an Albanian warlord nominally serving the Sultan, and he
explained his little corner of heaven thus to a visitor: “You are not yet
acquainted with the Greeks and Albanians. When I hang up one of these wretches
on the plane-tree, brother robs brother under the very branches; if I burn one
of them alive, the son is ready to steal his father’s ashes to sell them for
money.” This practical sociology served Ali well until, as an octogenarian, the
Turks besieged him, pardoned him, then stabbed him in the back and cut off his
It is a hard thing to consign a region to violence.
Certainly most people in the Balkans do not behave as Ali described, or did
himself. But the fighting in Macedonia shows that there is enough material for
score-settling to produce frequent eruptions whenever ideologues or bandits
desire. Americans know that race relations are a long, twisted crack in our
character. If they do not make us as bad as the rest of the world, they often
maroon us short of our own ideals. Why is it so hard for us to understand that
ethnicity plays the same role in the Balkans?
underlying situation is not the same as having a policy, and policy must change
with circumstances. Serbia needed to be rebuked, not because its behavior
shocked the conscience-it was disgusting, not surprising-but because their
Russian allies might have been tempted to horn back into the region. Macedonia
shares borders with Greece, which is a member of NATO, so there may come a time
when we will be obliged either to defend Greece or call it off. Until then,
it’s hard to see why we should be involved. Although our intervention in Kosovo
helped create the Albanian gang that’s now shooting up Macedonia, one hopes
they can be frustrated by some means short of intervening again.