The Enigmatic Proconsul

Former Ambassador Challenges Imperial Policy

Few things have been as constant and steadfast as the policy of the Atlantic Empire in the so-called Western Balkans for the past two decades. From the early recognition of separatist regimes in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia to last year’s proclamation of the "Independent State of Kosovo," the Empire has embraced and discarded logic and law, but maintained one ironclad rule: The Serbs always lose.

For many years, one of the foremost paladins of this policy was William Montgomery. A career diplomat, he was the U.S. ambassador in Bulgaria till January 1996, when he became the "Special Adviser to the President and Secretary of State for Bosnian Peace Implementation." In January 1998 he became the U.S. ambassador to Croatia. In that capacity, he played a key role in organizing Serbia’s "October revolution." He came to Belgrade in November 2000, as the head of the U.S. mission, and became ambassador the following year.

While in Belgrade, Montgomery easily imposed himself as the true ruler of Serbia, the Imperial proconsul, with Serbian "democratic reformers" (DOS) jumping at his every whim. Then, in February 2004, he abruptly resigned and left the Foreign Service. Rumor has it that this was a consequence of a scandal involving a secretary and a violent outburst by his wife, Lynn. Yet the timing of Montgomery’s sudden exit coincided with the demise of DOS.

Instead of returning to the U.S., Montgomery settled on the Croatian coast and became a columnist. Soon his commentaries became a regular feature in the pro-Imperial media (B92, Danas). These outfits, however lavishly funded by American taxpayers, don’t exactly have a history of paying a living wage. Doubts remained, therefore, as to whether Montgomery had truly become a simple private citizen.

Those doubts aside, Montgomery’s politics were never in question. Until June 5, 2009, that is, when he published an op-ed in the New York Times, titled "The Balkan Mess Redux" – a startling departure from everything he and the Imperial government had done for years.

Boxes, Old and New

The ex-proconsul called upon the new Emperor to think outside the established Balkans boxes, describing the attempts to bully the Serbs to submit to a centralized Bosnia or an Albanian Kosovo as "pound[ing] a square peg into a round hole." The belief that the U.S. could control the Balkans was a dangerous illusion, he cautioned, citing the examples of the original secession crisis in 1991 and the emergence of the KLA in 1997.

"[W]e simply cannot afford to become even more entangled in the Balkans," Montgomery argues, and it’s hard to challenge that point. These are not the 1990s; with the Empire stuck in the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan, vainly struggling to subdue its erstwhile allies, its power has considerably diminished. That’s even without taking into consideration the economic meltdown.

Montgomery thus proposes a compromise with reality, so the Empire can declare victory and go home. In Kosovo, that would involve "some form of partition between the Albanians and the Serbs combined with joint recognition, pledges of full rights for minorities and a variety of sweeteners from the EU." Translated from diplomatese, this would mean that Serbia would get back the northern sliver of the province in exchange for recognizing the rest as an independent state.

For Bosnia, Montgomery envisions "shaping a different relationship within [the country]. … This would have to include a lot of guarantees about future relationships, and be done as a complete package led and implemented by the international community." So, Serb autonomy would be guaranteed and Bosnia would remain a protectorate; how is this different from the Dayton peace agreement? Not by much – but after more than a decade of "reforms" that have bent Dayton out of shape attempting to create a central government, this is downright revolutionary.

Not Quite So Radical, Actually

While the English-speaking public pored over the New York Times op-ed, inhabitants of the Balkans got a more detailed account, courtesy of the Croat Web portal Poskok, whose reporter followed up on the story and interviewed Montgomery at his home. In the interview, published on June 8, the ex-diplomat offered expanded on some of his earlier points.

This was no radical turn, he insisted, but a "ripening" of his understanding after 15 years in the region. Besides, all he really proposed was a compromise with objective reality in order to achieve Washington’s objectives:

"This entire region has to be pacified once and for all. Every palliative solution is no solution at all. Dayton was a palliative solution. Kosovo likewise. People in this region simply need to do what Europe did several centuries earlier: finalize the national borders, so they can finally start working on cooperation and coexistence."

But wait, isn’t the Empire hastily trying to "finish the job" in the Balkans in order to focus its resources elsewhere? The only difference between official policy and Montgomery’s recommendations is that Imperial officialdom likes the Balkans borders just as they are, having bombed them into existence. For nearly 20 years now, the Empire has rejected any consideration of Serb interests, legitimate or otherwise, and demanded unconditional surrender from Belgrade. Montgomery’s "heresy" lies in the fact that he dared suggest any arrangement with the Serbs – even if just to "give" them the land they already own.

Stating the Obvious

Most of the Poskok interview focused on the position of Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Montgomery hardly minced words when he advised the Croats to stop taking orders from Zagreb and show some backbone. Croatia, he says, had sold them out in exchange for gaining "certain territories within the Croatian republic" (by this he could have only meant the Serb-inhabited regions such as Krajina and Slavonia). Now the Bosnian Croats are junior partners in a federation run by Muslims, and they have almost no political clout. The West ignores them, while the Muslims take them for granted.

Yet, Montgomery argued, the Croats could easily shift the balance of power in Bosnia if they endorsed the Serb proposal for the country’s reorganization, which would involve a Croat entity.

"The American project of the Bosnian Federation has failed. Creating a three-entity Bosnia from the start would have been a much more stable and sustainable solution for all Bosnians. […] It is impossible to talk of a citizen state in Bosnia, without resolving the ethnic issues."

To anyone actually familiar with Bosnia, this is stating the obvious. However, this is the very first time any senior American official, even if a former one, went beyond wishful thinking and recognized reality.

Questions That Remain

So, an op-ed and an interview, and a radical jolt to the Imperial Balkans policy; not bad for someone who is "retired." He has already drawn condemnation from the Muslims. But when the dust from the initial reactions settles, three serious questions remain unanswered.

  • Is Montgomery an ex-diplomat who "went native" and is now "off the reservation," or is he still serving the Empire in some capacity?
  • If so, could these texts represent a trial balloon, a back-channel offer by the Empire (since he can always be disavowed as a private citizen) to secure its Balkans project at the cost of some minimal concessions to the Serbs?
  • Why now? Has anything changed in Belgrade or Banja Luka that could compel Washington to abandon the policy entrenched of the past two decades?

On the surface, there haven’t been any developments that could have forced a change of policy. For all of Washington’s eagerness to declare a Balkans victory, Foggy Bottom continues to appear determined in its policy of demanding unconditional surrender of the Serbs and expecting jihadist gratitude.

Still, the inadequacies of Empire’s established policy have just been challenged by one of its own. Whether all this was just a former diplomat’s fancy, or an attempt by Washington to change the course of its policy Titanic, only time will tell.

Read more by Nebojsa Malic

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.