In the Balkanized Balkans, Intervention Is a Last Resort

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

expanded Albania.

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

head.

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?

Understanding the

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.