By Fedja Buric*
Last Thursday, the Serbian weekly Nedeljnik published a bombshell statement by Donald Trump in which the Republican nominee reportedly apologized to Serbia for the 1999 bombing campaign of the country conducted by the then President Bill Clinton, the husband of Trump’s nemesis.
Like everything else in this strange election season, the story quickly took on a carnivalesque character: the Trump campaign issued an immediate denial that its candidate had ever given such an interview and shortly thereafter, Nedeljnik issued an embarrassing retraction suggesting it had been duped by a Serbian expat with links to Mike Pence, Trump’s Vice Presidential pick and the current governor of Indiana.
The extent to which Trump’s candidacy has completely turned the tradition of American foreign policy on its head was made clear by the fact that initially, no one in the Republican or the Democratic establishment questioned the veracity of the statement.
After all, this is a candidate who had said things that were much more jarring: that the US should target families of suspected terrorists, that it should engage in medieval acts of torture, that it should impose a blanket ban on Muslims entering the US, and that it should look up to the authoritarianism of the Russian President Vladimir Putin as a role model of effective leadership.
Given that the Nedeljnik flap came in the midst of an avalanche of accusations of sexual assault levied against the Republican nominee by several women, and in the aftermath of the leak of the 2005 tape on which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women, no wonder that the story petered out even before it had been proven false.
Trump’s erratic style, his vitriolic demagoguery, and his disrespect for the basic norms of human decency have already caused considerable damage to American democracy, but, as the flap over his non-apology to Serbia shows, he has also distracted the American public from having serious discussions on important foreign policy issues, including the US role in NATO.
Had the issue of the Clinton-led bombing campaign of Serbia been raised by a “normal” candidate, the public may have had the opportunity to reflect on NATO’s history of involvement in the Balkans. It is up to academics to try and make themselves heard amidst all the sensationalist chatter at a time when NATO’s role in the world, and especially vis-a-vis Putin, is at a critical juncture.
With this in mind, I think it is important to look back to NATO’s first two major post-Cold War interventions, in Bosnia in 1995 and in Kosovo in 1999, in reflecting on the role of the alliance in stopping, or exacerbating, regional ethnic conflicts.
NATO vs. Radovan Karadzic
There are of course many reasons why the Bosnian war escalated into a full-blown genocide in Srebrenica in 1995.
There had been many missed opportunities at stopping the outbreak of the war in the first place: the premature recognitions of Croatia and Slovenia, the failure of the EC and its member states to speak with one voice, the indifference of the George W. Bush administration to the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the distraction of major European powers with the reunification of Germany, etc.
Even once the war in Bosnia started, there were many factors that had to collide, tragically, in order for the genocide to occur: the war had to have reached a point when one of the sides (the Bosnian Serbs) believed that they had one last chance to forcibly create a demographic map to their liking ahead of a peace deal; the leadership of all sides had to have become radicalized to such an extent as to view the war not as a political conflict, but an existential Darwinian struggle; and the paralysis of the international community in stopping the war had to have convinced the leadership of the strongest side that radical measures would go unpunished and that these measures were strategically worth it, and morally justified.
But no matter where one stands on these issues, one thing remains indisputable: in those scorching July days of 1995 there was only one force capable of stopping Ratko Mladic’s revenge-bent army from murdering the Srebrenica Muslims -NATO.
The story behind the genocide, and the failure to stop it, is of course well-known by now.
After years of half-hearted threats against Bosnian Serbs that were never followed up by action, the international community had by 1995 settled into a perverse wait and see approach.
Six towns in Bosnia that were surrounded by the heavily armed Serbs, including Srebrenica, were declared “safe areas” but everyone agreed that no one really knew what this meant and what kind of consequences the Bosnian Serb leadership would face if they overran them.
The UN had sent its lightly armed, poorly trained, morally disoriented, and mandate-less troops as keepers of the peace that did not exist; Bosnians responded to the fumbling response of the blue helmets in their characteristically humorous way – they nicknamed them the Smurfs.
For its part, the US threatened to use NATO as a hammer against the Serb artillery, but the Clinton administration, shell shocked by its disastrous intervention in Somalia, always found an excuse not to follow up.
Emboldened by their military superiority, the support from Belgrade, but also eager to make ethnically pure some 70 per cent of Bosnia they had occupied, the Bosnian Serb forces had by the spring of 1995 decided to embark on a major offensive to retake Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia.
Radovan Karadzic’s infamous Directive No. 7 ordered his forces to “create an unbearable situation of total insecurity, with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica or Zepa”.
On the eve of Mladic’s offensive against the enclave, the commander of the Dutch UN battalion in Srebrenica, Dutchbat, promised its lightly-armed Muslim defenders that NATO would light up the skies if the Serbs dared attack. Repeatedly, the commander called his superior in Zagreb to request air support.
Reportedly, at some point NATO-American planes were on their way to Srebrenica and were circling the Adriatic as they waited for the dual key to be turned. The latter was the institutional arrangement between the UN and NATO whereby the commanders of both organizations had to approve any military action.
Citing a wrongly filled-out form, the UN commander in Zagreb refused to sign off on it. The NATO planes above the Adriatic ran out of fuel and returned to Italy.
Ratko Mladic’s troops entered Srebrenica and in the next few days murdered most of its male inhabitants.
The failure of the dual key arrangement in Bosnia illustrates that NATO can be an effective force in stopping humanitarian catastrophes only when it is unencumbered by complicated institutional arrangements.
Once the Clinton administration finally decided to use NATO in August 1995, the three-week long bombing campaign of Bosnian Serb positions proved extremely effective in ending the war and bringing the parties to Dayton, Ohio.
However, the fact that the intervention came too late, and in the aftermath of a genocide the alliance could have stopped, caused NATO to overact the next time it was faced with a crisis – in Kosovo in 1999.
NATO vs. Slobodan Milosevic
It is my contention that precisely because it had failed to stop the Srebrenica genocide, NATO, and the Clinton administration in particular, overreacted the next time they had to deal with the man they blamed for denigrating the reputation of the alliance – the Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
There is no doubt that Milosevic’s actions in this province were atrocious. From the very moment he came to power, he stripped the local Albanian population of the autonomy they had long enjoyed under Tito, his policemen harassed Albanians, and Albanian language was effectively banned in public life.
Infamously, Milosevic stirred up ethnic tensions in the late 1980s in launching his metamorphosis from a Communist functionary into a nationalist populist.
But there is equally no doubt that the leadership of the shadowy organization, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), formed in 1998, cleverly exploited the pent-up aggression NATO, and Clinton personally, had against the Serbian president for thumbing his nose at the West.
Starting in 1998, the KLA abandoned the peaceful resistance campaign of the Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova and began to strike at Serbian police patrolling the province.
The killings of police officers predictably triggered a disproportionate response from the Milosevic government, which sent the army and its mercenary veterans from the Bosnian campaigns, to Kosovo to teach the Albanians a lesson.
By early 1999, the violence had escalated into an all-out war between the KLA and the Milosevic forces, with civilians, both Serbs and Albanians, caught in the middle.
Unencumbered by the prospect of another election during his second term, Bill Clinton acted decisively and pushed NATO to act aggressively against Milosevic.
The reasoning was muddy at best: to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians by Serbs, to prove that NATO mattered, to recover the legitimacy of the alliance, to oust the Serbian President, or all of these motivations combined.
The administration went through the motion of offering Milosevic a deal which no President would accept – besides agreeing to withdraw Serbian forces from the province, NATO demanded Milosevic allow unfettered movement of NATO troops on Serbian territory.
That the offer was meant to be rejected became clear after the campaign was over and NATO acquiesced to Milosevic taking the same deal absent the provision allowing NATO access to Serbian territory.
But as Samantha Power, the current US ambassador to the UN, has pointed out, the bombing campaign had the opposite effect: unable to retaliate against NATO, Milosevic did so against the Albanian population.
While NATO bombs rained down, Milosevic cleansed up to one million Kosovo Albanians creating a refugee crisis in the neighboring Macedonia. From their high altitude, NATO airplanes struck with deadly inaccuracy: they hit a column of Albanian refugees, killing many, the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists, a Serbian passenger train, and a hospital.
Milosevic refused to back down and NATO ran out of obvious military targets. As a result, its commanders began to strike at Serbia’s infrastructure – including its water supply systems, the electricity grid, and bridges – killing hundreds of civilians in the process.
Human Rights Watch estimates that up to 528 civilians, Albanians and Serbians, died in the bombings, but Serbian authorities put this number much higher. The number remains in dispute.
Almost three months later, Milosevic finally backed down. Serbian forces withdrew from the province, NATO moved in, and the Kosovo Albanians returned to their homes.
With NATO patrolling the province, the KLA and their auxiliaries exacted revenge on Serbian civilians: thousands were ethnically cleansed, some were murdered, and others pushed into the northernmost part of Kosovo where they have remained in what Samantha Power has called “a militant ethnic ghetto”.
Kosovo is independent today, but not recognized as such by Serbia, Russia and many of its allies. Violence still sporadically erupts between the majority Albanians and the minority Serbs particularly in the divided town of Mitrovica.
The point of this detour into recent history is that NATO is indeed an alliance with powerful implications for the US position in the world.
Since the Kosovo operation, it has grown to include 28 countries and has drawn the wrath of Putin who blames the enlargement for the recent tensions in the Ukraine and the Baltic states. NATO’s recent flexing of its muscle in Eastern Europe has stirred up further fears of Western encroachment on the Russian sphere of influence, but to many Eastern Europeans these moves were like Xanax at a time when they are increasingly frightened by Putin’s foreign policy.
The point is that Europeans generally tend to view the alliance through the prism of their view of America: if they think the US is essentially a force of the good in the world they tend to view NATO as an extension of that well-intentioned impulse; if, on the other hand, they see the US as an unredeemable force of imperialism they see NATO as a destructive force.
The American public deserves a discussion on this and many other foreign policy issues. However, Donald Trump’s candidacy has made any rational, informed, discussion of foreign policy (or of anything else not related to “Hillary’s emails”) impossible.
His ‘Sopranos ‘approach to foreign policy, his bull-in-a-china shop floundering on major issues – including on the use of nuclear weapons – and his uncanny ability to drive the media coverage of the campaign in whichever direction he decides on the spur of the moment, have caused considerable damage to civil discourse in the country with huge implications for the future course of American foreign policy.
Trump himself was surprisingly frank when he said, about his description of NATO as “obsolete”: “Big statement to make when you don’t know that much about it.” Finally, something we can all agree on!
NATO’s role in the region remains highly contentious and unsettled. Its legacy is as disputed as ever.
Bosnians remain divided over whether or not to join. The alliance’s recent invitation to Montenegro to join has, predictably, prompted the ire of Putin’s Russia.
One could even say that we are living in the age of a new Eastern Question but instead of the Ottoman Empire, it is the declining influence of the EU that is prompting the Great Power competition in the region.
Whichever turn this competition takes, it is highly likely that the next US administration will have to make some serious decisions about NATO’s continuing involvement in the region. But because of Donald Trump, it is also highly likely that when this moment comes, the American public will be caught unawares and without having had even a semblance of a debate on the subject. Such is the legacy of Trumpism.
*Fedja Buric is an Assistant Professor of History at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY. He specialises in modern European history with a focus on the former Yugoslavia. His writing has also appeared in Salon.