By Dan Schauer
The Spectator: University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire
On Feb. 17, the world witnessed the birth of a new nation in the Balkans. In a matter of days, the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, was surrounded by an angry crowd and up in flames. American leaders were quick to condemn the aggression. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, stated he was, "outraged by the mob attack," and went on to remind the Belgrade government that "The embassy is sovereign US territory. The government of Serbia has a responsibility under international law to protect diplomatic facilities."
While the actions of a destructive mob are, by their very nature, usually inexcusable, one can forgive the Serbs, including the vast majority of the 250,000 protesters in Belgrade who took to the streets peacefully, if they turned a deaf ear to Khalizad's condemnations. Sovereignty, after all, is a two-way street. The protesters were voicing their indignation because the international community, led by the United States, had just recognized the independence of Kosovo, effectively carving off a significant part of Serbia. To get a sense of what this means, imagine how enraged the U.S. would have been had Britain recognized the independence of the Confederacy in 1861.
The history of the Balkans is as complex as it gets, and usually complex means violent. Also, as is too often the case with convoluted historical realities, U.S. involvement in the Balkans has been akin to trying to repair an antique pocket watch with a hammer, anvil and chain saw. That is to say, you can shape something with sheer might but that does not necessarily you mean you should, nor does that make it right.
To be fair, NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 in response to persecutions being committed by Serbian forces under Slobodan Milosevic in his campaign against the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army which was composed of ethnic-Albanians residing in that part of Serbia. The fact that atrocities were committed by all sides in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s does not make any of them justified nor does it diminish the tragedy. Still, punishing only Serbia for the violence which came in the wake of the breakup of Yugoslavia, and aspects of the NATO bombing, such as refusing to halt attacks on Serbs despite pleas for an Easter cease-fire, the fact that the air-campaign accentuated the refuge crisis in Kosovo, and the general notion that war was the best tool for bringing peace and progress to the region, served only to give unsatisfactory answers to unsettling questions.
To examine some earlier history, while western civilization developed, Serbia had stood like a sentry at the gates, holding the line on the frontiers of Europe against the unassailable power of the expansion-minded Ottoman Empire. In 1389, in Kosovo, Serbian knights fought an epic last-stand battle against the invading Turks. Were it not for the tenacity of Serb resistance then, Europe as we know it today might be a starkly different place. In more modern times, Serbs were a staunch ally of the United States during both World Wars. Scores of downed U.S. pilots were rescued and sheltered by Serbian partisans who put up a dogged resistance against Nazi occupiers despite brutal reprisals.
Just as the history is more multifaceted than it seems, so is what Kosovo's independence will mean for the future. If the United States is simply imposing a doctrine that shifting demographics plus a violent history are a firm enough foundation on which to build a new nation, Basque, Kurd, Scot and Palestinian separatists take note. Kosovo's independence is called a "special case" by the U.S., though the only thing special about it would seem to be that unlike the aforementioned groups, ethnic-Albanians already have a homeland nation-state, Albania.
Furthermore, America's relations with Russia, Serbia's most adamant ally, have been severely harmed. I would hate to believe that the U.S. political establishment is simply caught in a Cold War mentality of taking Serbia down a peg in an effort to stick it to the no longer existent Soviet Union. It is rather difficult to see just how America's foreign policy benefits from trying to take the Cold War into extra innings for the sake of creating an unstable state in a volatile part of the world. Unfortunately, popular and political mindsets alike seem to be all too malleable to being shaped by the image of Serbs as politically correct bad-guys. The Clinton's and alumni of their administration have proven to be very quick to lambaste Serbs. Meanwhile, Hollywood films such as "Behind Enemy Lines" and "The Hunted" have them sporting the ominous Kalashnikov Rifles and thick Eastern-European accents of the old red menace but lacking the sort of international clout that would make it difficult for elite teams of U.S. special ops guys to rappel in and clean house every time they stepped out of line.
It is said that at the end of the Punic Wars in 146 B.C. the triumphant Roman legions decided that their defeat of their Carthaginian enemies would be so complete that they salted the very earth around where Carthage stood so nothing would ever grow there and the city could never be reborn. As the Serbs in the Kosovo region are supplanted by Albanians, the ancient Serbian Orthodox churches are razed and Kosovo's leadership, NATO, the United Nations and the European Union, despite occasional statements to the contrary, seem distressingly unconcerned as to the fate of the remaining Serbian minority. The Serbian heritage and people of Kosovo are being shoved aside. The underlying message seems to be that there is no place for an attachment to one's history, culture and land in the transnational, globalized world. It would be rather cynical to say that we are witnessing a modern salting of the earth today; however, there is precious little to indicate otherwise.
Schauer is a senior history major and guest columnist for The Spectator.