Drawing the Line

Future historians studying the decline and fall of the American Empire will probably focus on George W. Bush’s disastrous Iraqi adventure – the modern-day equivalent of Alcibiades’ Sicilian expedition – to explain the pathology of a global hyper-power. However, while Iraq has been, beyond any doubt, a significant factor in depleting Imperial power, it is arguably not the conflict that destroyed the Empire’s authority. Since it is the authority that marks the difference between the State and a gang of street thugs (i.e. the perception of legitimacy in the use of force by the populace against which it is being used), its loss is much harder for an Empire to recover from.

Before there was Iraq, there was Kosovo – another "war of choice," another war of aggression against all international law, national constitutions and alliance charters, waged to show the world that the United States and its NATO military arm asserted the right to attack anyone, anywhere, for whatever reason. It was packaged and sold as a "humanitarian" war, waged to "prevent genocide" and "stop ethnic cleansing." There was nothing humanitarian about targeting civilian infrastructure. There was no genocide. And the ethnic cleansing that ended up taking place was the expulsion of Serbs, Jews and Roma from the "liberated" province – much as the Jews, Christians, and others who ended up in the "wrong" areas became refugees from "liberated" Iraq.

A Hollow Victory

After eight years of triumphalist lies, it is easy to forget how the war itself went badly; not only did Belgrade not surrender after a day or two, but its stubborn resistance for almost 80 days nearly fractured the Alliance on its 50th anniversary. Only after deceiving Belgrade into accepting a compromise armistice (which was supposed to include a substantial Russian role and a return of Serbian police and border patrols to the province) did NATO manage to declare victory and turn Kosovo over to Albanian separatists. Yugoslav Army casualties were much lighter than estimated, the world’s foremost air power foiled by improvised decoys and camouflage. The war was generally considered a failure until October 2000, when Serbian opposition parties – with U.S. training, funding and propaganda aid – organized mass demonstrations and compelled Slobodan Milosevic to resign from office.

Kosovo returned to the Imperial agenda in 2004, following an Albanian pogrom of Serbs; with the presidential election coming, Democrats played up the "success" of Kosovo against the failure of Iraq that was already becoming apparent. By the spring of 2005, the Bush regime adopted their line, and set forth to resolve the province’s "final status" by making it an independent Albanian state.

Two years of propaganda, extortion, threats, and false diplomacy later, the Empire’s effort failed. The proposal for Kosovo’s independence penned by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari did not survive a showdown in the UN Security Council. Three new envoys were named to conduct further talks between the government in Belgrade and the provisional Albanian regime in Pristina. The Emperor and his top foreign policy operatives, who have openly and publicly declared that Kosovo’s independence was "inevitable," a "done deal," and "sooner or later," have found themselves painted into a corner, unable to deliver.

Moscow’s Red Line

Behind this defeat were two things: the unexpectedly firm opposition of the government in Belgrade, even its most quisling elements, to the independence of Kosovo, and Russia’s support for Belgrade’s position. Speculation by legions of Imperial commentators that Russia was just playing and would eventually go along was shattered at the Heiligendamm summit earlier this year. And this week, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov made it clear where Moscow stood: “There are so-called ‘red line’ issues for Russia… There we cannot fail to react and we must stick to our position to the end.” He identified Kosovo as one of those.

The Empire is now facing a difficult situation. The new Kosovo talks started smoothly, but no one really believes they would go anywhere. Russia won’t betray Belgrade, and Belgrade won’t accept Kosovo’s separation. Albanians, having been promised independence by Washington, refuse to negotiate entirely, and threaten new war if their demands are not met.

However, when the Albanian-dominated provisional government announced it would declare independence unilaterally, it was quickly told by its Western patrons to cease and desist. German and Swiss officials have already indicated that their troops would leave Kosovo under those circumstances. For all the blustering proclamations by the KLA, if they could have won a war against Serbia in 1998, they wouldn’t have needed NATO in the first place.

Europe Divided

With the U.S. tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, an independent Kosovo was envisioned as an EU protectorate, with the current UN viceroy replaced by one from Brussels, with authorities similar to the viceroys of Bosnia. But the EU is not at all eager to take this hot potato from Washington, and there is serious internal opposition to supporting a solution that would bypass the UN.

On Monday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (himself once a viceroy in Kosovo) appealed for European unity if the talks failed: "it is the unity of Europe that must be maintained, because it would be a real flaw for European and common defense policies to be divided between those who recognize Kosovo’s independence and those who don’t." (Reuters)

The current viceroy, Joachim Ruecker, also believes the talks will fail, judging by what he told Reuters recently. Ruecker, one of the most outspoken supporters of the Ahtisaari plan, repeated that the current status was untenable and that the EU ought to come up with a contingency plan, or deal with the rage of frustrated Albanians.

It is hard to say what is going on in the corridors of power in Brussels and other European capitals. However, this is not 1999, when the U.S. barely held the Alliance together through the war. Nor is it 1991, when the newly reunited Germany was able to pressure its partners to illegally recognize the secession of Slovenia and Croatia in exchange for Berlin’s support for the Maastrict Treaty that established the EU. A whiff of German skepticism can be seen in a recent report commissioned by the military (Bundeswehr), which paints the state of affairs in Kosovo as "unalterably grim."

Serbia Defiant

Worse yet for the Empire, its Kosovo policy has managed to alienate even some of its erstwhile allies within Serbia. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, hand-picked by the Americans as the most electable opposition candidate in 2000, is now preparing to make opposition to Serbia’s entry into NATO part of his party’s platform. One of the former senior negotiators on Belgrade’s behalf, Leon Kojen, sent shockwaves through the ranks of Serbia’s "democratic reformers" last month by arguing that if the EU persisted in advocating Kosovo’s separation, Serbia should shun EU membership as well.

Bismarck’s Prophecy

The Empire has blundered in the Balkans, and badly. Intoxicated with power and believing themselves able to change reality itself by force its rulers have stumbled into a trap of their own making. In 1999, Kosovo was made into a symbol of Imperial might; now it has become a symbol of Imperial weakness. By insisting on the impossible and rejecting reality, rulers of the Empire have wasted every pretense of authority. The Empire may have been bled dry in the sands of Iraq, but it will perish over some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.

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Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com debuted in November 2000.