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Jewish World Review Oct. 12, 2000 / 11 Tishrei, 5761

Philip Terzian

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Now comes the hard part -- THE CIVIL UPRISING that compelled Slobodan Milosevic to abandon the office he had already lost reminded me of the fable about the wind and the sun. Observing a man wearing an overcoat, they vie to force the coat off the man's back. The wind howls and blows, rages and screams to exhaustion; but the man clutches the overcoat tighter around himself. Then it's the sun's turn. By merely raising the temperature, and turning up the heat, the sun gets the man to remove the coat himself.

It's difficult to say what the Clinton/Gore administration has learned from the fall of Milosevic, but it's fair to assume that humility is not among the lessons.

Bill Clinton ran for president by condemning George Bush for "kowtowing" to China. But once in office, Clinton showed a healthy penchant for deference as well. He not only declined to turn around the Bush policy on the People's Republic, he augmented it by transforming Beijing into a "strategic partner." When genocide erupted in Rwanda, Clinton invented ways to avoid U.S. involvement, and 2 million Tutsis died. When Yugoslavia imploded, and Bosnia was devoured by ethnic cleansing and reprisals, Clinton held the coat for our European allies.

During much of this time, his second secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, was touring the world describing the United States as the "essential superpower." At some point, presumably, somebody told Mrs. Albright that essential superpowers don't prevail by inertia, and so America got active. We brokered a settlement in Bosnia, the Dayton Accords, which has kept the antagonists from killing one another by stationing NATO troops there as constables. And while Milosevic was pleased at Dayton to abandon the Bosnian Serbs, the accords said nothing about neighboring Kosovo. So when the dictator proceeded to massacre Albanians in Kosovo, and CNN broadcast tearful refugees, the Clinton/Gore administration intervened.

Three months of bombing Belgrade yielded no American losses -- a feat that still impresses Vice President Gore -- but left Yugoslavia in considerably worse shape than before. The Albanians we had come to rescue fled largely to Greece, and when the bombing stopped, those who returned to Kosovo started killing resident Serbs. So while no American blood has been shed, American troops enforce an uneasy Balkans peace. And the bombing campaign, which devastated one of Europe's least prosperous nations, left Milosevic in office, and his countrymen desperate.

Fortunately, Milosevic was unwise enough to submit to an election, and Serbia's fractious opposition suddenly united. The fact that a majority of Serbs voted against their dictator, and that the Serbian army and police lost confidence in their patron, owes little to us. A combination of sanctions and diplomatic isolation no doubt subtracted from the government's popularity, but nearly half his countrymen cast their ballots for Milosevic. The civic revolution that swept the streets of Belgrade was not an endorsement of NATO and the West, but a swift repudiation of corruption and privation.

At this juncture, therefore, some caution is in order. The Serbs have rid themselves, more or less, of Slobodan Milosevic, but the structure he constructed won't be easily dismantled. There is widespread resentment toward Western Europe and the United States, and not without reason. Having demonized the Serbs, we transformed the Croatian Milosevic, Franjo Tudjman, into another strategic partner, and made common cause with bloodthirsty Marxist guerrillas, the Kosovo Liberation Army. The newly elected Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica, is a Serbian nationalist, and no particular admirer of the West. Not least, people who have been bombed by the world's essential superpower seldom harbor feelings of affection for the bomber.

Which is to say that the United States and its NATO allies should not now descend on Serbia with visions of political and economic sugarplums. We tried that in Russia -- shock treatment and aid packages pocketed by oligarchs -- and the results have been disastrous. Serbia is not on the verge of becoming the next Vermont; it is a natural Russian satellite, finally emerging from decades of repression.

What Serbia needs is not the United States descending upon Belgrade like Big Brother, but the freedom to choose a direction worth following. As Jeffrey Gedmin has pointed out in The Wall Street Journal, the salvation of post-communist Eastern Europe has been the work of "non-governmental organizations" (NGOs), encouraging the liberalizing elements in society, and private investment. The European Union can play a constructive role by integrating Belgrade into regional initiatives, and guiding Serbia toward political liberty and economic freedom. Russia has a role to play in all this, as George W. Bush suggested in debate; but the key is broadening Europe, not rebuilding Greater Serbia.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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09/18/00: Today, Dr. Laura. Tomorrow ...
09/12/00: What passes for knowledge
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08/31/00: A Golden Age that never was
08/28/00: Blame communism, not Russia
08/24/00: Social progress on one front, regression on the other
08/21/00: The beat goes awry
08/17/00: The unwelcome democrat

© 2000, Philip Terzian