Washington’s role in the 1990s bloody breakup of Yugoslavia is the oft-forgotten prologue in the modern history of American empire. Though President Donald Trump promised to restore the US republic, his administration is quickly reverting to imperial form.
August 5 marked the 22nd anniversary of a Croatian offensive (Operation Storm) that obliterated the centuries-old Serbian community living in what was known as the Serbian Krajina. The Serbs of Western Slavonia had been driven out or killed in May 1995. Both operations were undertaken with tacit approval from Washington, after Croatian forces were armed and trained by US contractors in direct violation of a UN arms embargo.
In fact, US diplomat Richard Holbrooke recalled in his memoirs (To End A War, first published in 1998) how he and his colleagues would coordinate Croatian attacks while the State Department and the Pentagon officially spoke against them. Holbrooke also presented the US involvement in Croatia and Bosnia ‒ which resulted in the Dayton Accords of 1995 ‒ as a triumphant reassertion of American power in Europe, after the end of the Cold War led some on the continent to ponder the need for US dominance.
While it was tempting to dismiss Holbrooke’s characterization as self-serving in 1998, just a year later NATO began its drang nach Osten, adding the first Eastern European members even as it launched a war of aggression against the remnants of Yugoslavia. The latest shard of the former federation to join was Montenegro, in June 2017.
For the purpose of bringing all of Yugoslavia’s ruins into the alliance, in 2003 Washington sponsored the so-called Adriatic Charter, a sort of “Junior NATO” club anchored by Croatia and Albania. Though both were admitted into NATO in 2009, the organization’s purpose is not yet complete, US Vice President Mike Pence told the gathering of its leaders in Podgorica, Montenegro on August 2.
“For 15 years, the United States has helped guide your countries as you walk the path toward peace at home, unity in Europe, and allied for our common defense,” Pence said. “Take this opportunity, through your actions, to draw even closer to each other and to the West; complete the unfinished business of the Western Balkans; and finish the journey that we started together so many years ago.”
Holbrooke himself could have delivered Pence’s Podgorica speech, had he not died of a ruptured aorta in 2010. Likewise the former secretaries of state, John Kerry or Hillary Clinton. Sure, Pence made a couple of references to President Trump’s campaign rhetoric, but cast them as continued commitment to NATO rather than a re-examination of America’s attempt to rule the world through military force, as Trump’s keynote foreign policy speech in 2016 implied.
There were a number of cynical incongruities in Pence’s oratory. For instance, he praised the Balkan countries’ contributions in the fight against ISIS and “radical Islamic terrorism” even though many fanatical ISIS fighters are Muslims from Bosnia, the Albanian-occupied Serbian province of Kosovo, and even Albania proper ‒ all ruled by US-backed regimes. In fact, in 2007, a leading US congressman (Tom Lantos, a California Democrat) championed declaring Kosovo an independent state by saying it would send a message to “jihadists of all color and hue” that the US was not anti-Muslim.
“The United States of America rejects any attempt to use force, threats, or intimidation in this region or beyond,” Pence said. “The Western Balkans have the right to decide your own future, and that is your right alone.”
This after the US has spent 25 years bombing and occupying parts of the region, overthrowing governments it disliked via “color revolutions,” and having its ambassadors act like colonial governors rather than diplomats.
Pence also praised “free and fair national elections” in Western Balkans countries, “with the participation of all political parties, and with a result that reflected the will of your people.” Yet in Albania the opposition had to be talked out of boycotting the vote they called unfair, and in Macedonia the US ambassador pushed hard for a minority coalition that would include a bloc of ethnic Albanian parties, raising the eyebrows of some in the US Senate.
Though it was NATO that occupied Kosovo in 1999 and Washington that led the efforts to declare it an independent state in 2008, Pence accused Russia of seeking “to redraw international borders by force” and working to “destabilize the region, undermine your democracies, and divide you from each other and from the rest of Europe.”
Say again? Was it Russia that declared Yugoslavia “in dissolution” in 1991, or the European Community’s Badinter Commission? Was it Moscow that booted Yugoslavia out of the UN, though it was a founding member, and insisted on Serbia and Montenegro reapplying for membership, or Washington? Was it Russia that asserted the Communist-drawn borders of Yugoslavia’s republics were sacrosanct (except when it comes to Serbia) or the US and NATO?
In peddling this false history of “Russian aggression,” Pence sounds exactly like the empire-loving Washington establishment, the very “swamp” his boss swore he would drain. It makes one wonder who was the target of this speech, the ever-obedient client regimes of the “Western Balkans” he was addressing, or the swamp back in Washington seeking a suitable replacement for the president they loathe?
But wait, there’s more. At one point, Pence quoted a line from a famous 19th-century poem by a Montenegrin prince-bishop, about how adversity reveals true heroes. This suggests that whoever wrote his speech at least made an effort to look into the country’s history. That look must have been entirely cursory, however, as the poem in question celebrated Montenegro’s Serbian identity and the struggle against the Ottoman Empire and its “Turk converts” in the early 1700s. The current regime in Montenegro is working hard to assert a separate and openly anti-Serb national identity for the country, while Turkey is a major US ally in NATO ‒ for the time being, anyway.
Last, but not least, the very phrase “Western Balkans” is an attempt to erase the region’s history, culture, traditions and diversity that Pence facetiously praised in his remarks. It is a geographical term devoid of any meaning, a blank slate for US and NATO to project their fantasies, while the actual name for the region ‒ Yugoslavia ‒ seems to have been banished to the proverbial memory hole, lest its shade disrupt the self-righteous sleep of those that helped make it a desert and called it peace.