Empires and Balkans Don’t Mix

From riots in Basra to rumblings at home, it is becoming obvious that the half-witted "plan" to conquer Iraq is slowly smashing against the hard rock of reality. Unfortunately, evidence also indicates that Imperial leaders will not let something as irrelevant as reality disturb their march of power.

In an effort to ex post facto justify their "liberation," they are now cruelly mocking its victims. If a recent Reuters story is to be believed, young Ali Ismael Abbas "has no grudges" against America or Britain. Sure, they’ve killed his entire family – father, pregnant mother, brother, aunt, three cousins and three other relatives – and left him crippled. But see? He doesn’t mind! They are now giving him nifty new prosthetic arms, and with a Manchester United logo, no less! Alas, Beckham plays for Real Madrid now. Maybe the boy didn’t get the memo.

Crusading Conquerors…

Two weeks or so ago, British columnist George Monbiot wrote a compelling analysis of ideology behind the Empire, with a haunting conclusion: American leaders believe this country is Chosen of God, with a divine mission to "liberate" the world. This really is a Crusade. Well.

New York author John Zmirak contends that "America’s governing elites increasingly rule the American people as if they were an occupying army, dictating its ideology and imposing its raw power on a defeated, prostrate nation." If so, then why would they treat Iraq – or the rest of the world any different?

…And Their Vassals

This is certainly true in the Balkans. Last week’s announcement that Serbia offered troops for the occupation of Iraq was greeted with a mix of scorn and slander. The Empire might just need the troops badly enough to take them, but it is unlikely to express any gratitude to the Serbian regime. After all, vassals are supposed to offer troops, so why thank them for it?

After their groveling was "outed" in the American media, Serbian rulers busily spun the offer as support for "UN peacekeeping," not the actual occupation of Iraq. While it is possible some people may have believed them – that DOS is still in power proves the people will believe anything – at least one media commentator has asked if the troops intend to explain the difference to Iraqi fedayeen who’d try to shoot them.

Great Expectations

DOS leaders are probably thinking that being Empire’s most dedicated lickspittle will bring Serbia (i.e. them) some specific benefits. What exactly they are expecting isn’t clear. For example, the US continues to support the separatist regime in Montenegro, which is doing its best to sabotage the union with Serbia.

Though Belgrade may have finally formulated a policy on Kosovo that emphatically ruled out independence, there is no evidence the Empire’s position of supporting Albanians has changed at all. The pro-Albanian viceroy Michael Steiner was just replaced by Finn Harri Holkeri, but UNMIK’s policies have stayed the same.

In mid-July, a UN court found four KLA members guilty of war crimes against Albanian civilians. Albanian media immediately saw a "UN-Serb conspiracy." (!) KLA sympathizers struck back immediately, attacking police stations and even shooting UN personnel. But in keeping with their practice of never blaming the Albanians, UNMIK and NATO are still trying to play down the attacks. Even when confronted with raving accusations of its "partiality to Belgrade" (!), UNMIK merely gave them a polite dismissal.

On the other side of the occupation line, Albanians in Presevo valley are plotting to form a "National Council" that would work on the area’s annexation to Kosovo. The bandits who were "persuaded" by NATO to halt their attacks in 2001 are growing restless. Just to make sure the Serbs get the message, they fired at an Army outpost Sunday night – with US-made weapons.

As for the fanciful theory that the Empire wants to pull out of Kosovo or Bosnia in the near future, Washington’s recent nixing of a EU takeover of the Bosnia force clearly indicates otherwise.

If this is how the Empire treats is "allies" and "partners" – and it really does, across the board – it might just be better to be its enemy.

Empires’ Bane

At this point it might be appropriate to recall some history. With due wariness of flawed analogies, there is nonetheless an interesting pattern that emerges when empires get entangled in Balkans affairs.

The Ottomans first established their empire in the Balkans, and it was there that it started to unravel. For all its defeats at the hands of Austrian armies, the Ottoman Turks lost their grip only when their slaves revolted (Serbia in 1804 and 1815, Greece in 1820…). The infamous 1878 Congress of Berlin was called to decide the fate of Ottoman possessions in the Balkans. By 1912, defeated by a league of its former vassals, the Ottoman Empire was out of the Balkans – and six years later, out of existence.

Austria-Hungary, which vied with the Turks for domination of the peninsula, tried to step in, but Serbia stood in its way. After the Sarajevo Assassination, Austria relished the excuse for a short, victorious war. Though Serbia was reduced to ashes, the war was neither short, nor victorious. By 1918 Austria-Hungary was gone.

Its defeat did not escape the memory of an Austrian, Adolf Hitler, who twenty-some years later decided to make a stopover on his way to Moscow by punishing the defiant Serbs "with unmerciful harshness." This pushed the planned invasion of the Soviet Union from April 22 to June 22, 1941, and wrought havoc on Nazi logistics. As a result, Hitler’s legions bogged down in Russian mud and froze to death in Russian snows, in sight – but out of reach – of Moscow. Imagine the world in which Hitler had those extra eight weeks, and the importance of his Balkans blunder becomes more obvious.

Where It Began

There are conflicted theories as to when the United States became an Empire. Some say it was the 1898 Spanish-American War and the seizure of Cuba and the Philippines. Some go back to Jefferson’s 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Others, and with good reason, cite Abraham Lincoln’s War, or Woodrow Wilson’s entry into World War I, or Roosevelt’s meddling in World War II, or the Cold War…

America may have been an Empire from any point mentioned above. But its leaders made a clear choice to become The Empire in 1992, when they decided to meddle in the messy dismemberment of Yugoslavia. The First Gulf War was fought cautiously, largely within the boundaries of international law. Somalia and Haiti were sideshows. It was the "death by recognition" practiced in the former Yugoslavia, combined with covert and overt action in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, that established today’s Imperium, with its claim to absolute power and ultimate judgment.

The arming of Croatia, the strikes and occupation of Bosnia, the bombing of Serbia and occupation of Kosovo – each intervention built upon the previous and paved the way for the next. Without them, what His Confounded Majesty did to Iraq would have been unimaginable.

Where It Will End?

Today the Balkans may seem inconsequential – conquered, subjugated and broken. Certainly, the quisling regimes now running the shattered remnants of Yugoslavia appear to support such a conclusion. But they cannot outlast the rape of reason, the brute force that brought them to power. Once that force weakens – and it must, if not through counteraction, then through entropy – the unnatural edifice it has built will collapse. Along with everything else built on its foundations, including the hopes and dreams of various vassals.

The systematic violation of laws and principles that stood between a desire for civilized society and might-makes-right imperialism that was the Balkans interventions will eventually come back with a vengeance. Though it may be elsewhere the Empire actually stumbles hard enough to fall, it will be the Balkans that sowed the seeds of its destruction. As shown by history, it won’t be the first time. We can only pray it is the last.

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.