America’s Balkan Curse

How the Beltway Swamp learned the wrong lessons from our 1990s interventions and paved the way for our dismal 9/11 wars

The numbers keep coming in and they’re not pretty for the Biden administration. The president’s popularity has taken a steep tumble since the end of the summer. Biden’s precipitous drop among Independents bodes poorly for Democrats in the midterm elections which are now just 13 months away, while his stunning 22-point fall among African Americans, his party’s most loyal constituency, indicates how badly it’s going for the president.

There are many reasons for Biden’s big drop in the polls, including the seemingly never-ending Coronavirus pandemic, the lagging economy including rising inflation, plus the needless border crisis that the White House created with its unwise rhetoric about immigration, but it hardly seems coincidental that Joe’s numbers went off the cliff right after his pullout debacle in Afghanistan. However much Americans wanted an end to our 9/11 wars (at least symbolically: the Pentagon still has 2,500 troops in Iraq, plus thousands more still deployed in the Middle East), how the administration executed our shambolic withdrawal from Kabul is deeply unpopular with the public.

It doesn’t help matters that it appears the president lied to the public about the Pentagon advice he got before the withdrawal, which might have avoided the deaths of 13 American military members plus the terrible images of desperate refugees falling to their deaths from airplanes leaving Kabul. Nevertheless, the real problems we faced in Afghanistan cannot be placed on Biden’s doorstep, rather on the three presidents who preceded him in the Oval Office, all of whom contributed in their own fashion to our strategic defeat in Afghanistan after two decades of diffident, strategically meandering war-making.

While it seems indisputable that Biden made the worst of a bad situation in Afghanistan, once partisan embers cool (presuming they ever do), America needs to have an honest, soul-searching discussion about what went so wrong with our 9/11 wars, principally our invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. A good jumping-off point would be to ask: Who on earth ever thought this was going to work?

After all, you don’t need a deep knowledge of history to be aware that transforming foreign societies through military occupation is no easy task, particularly when those countries are far away in values from the occupier. While this can be done, on occasion Western militaries have succeeded in this tricky enterprise, the overall track record is one of failure, particularly when the occupier’s troop-to-area-and-population ratio is inadequate (as it was in both Iraq and Afghanistan). This might have been seen as a fool’s errand from the start, yet the Beltway Swamp, here meaning the bipartisan foreign policy elite that decides what Washington does around the world, and how, did not see it that way. Instead, that elite invaded Afghanistan and Iraq brimming with confidence that the Pentagon, assisted by other agencies of the U.S. government, could make those countries something radically different from what they had been since more or less forever.

Why did they collectively think something so misguided and false?

It is tempting to blame such foolish exuberance on our bloodless (at least at the end) Cold War victory in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Empire and then the USSR itself, which made the United States the global hegemon, yet that would be false. In truth, the George H. W. B. Bush administration, staffed with certified foreign policy mavens to include the president himself, approached military policy with a skepticism and wisdom that have been sadly lacking in every White House since. Bush 41’s cautious approach in such affairs avoided disasters that subsequent administrations did not avoid.

Take the case of Iraq. After the Pentagon crushed Saddam Hussein’s military over a few days in late February 1991, in a manner so lopsided that it resembled the 1898 Battle of Omdurman, the road to Baghdad was wide open, but the White House demurred, holding back U.S. ground forces even as Saddam’s remaining forces bludgeoned Iraqi Shia and Kurdish rebels who took advantage of the Gulf War to revolt against the murderous Ba’th regime. The Bush administration understood that taking out Saddam, ugly as he and his regime were, would merely create a power vacuum that would be filled by revolutionary Iran, which constituted a greater long-term threat to global order than Saddam ever could. That prescient assessment got mysteriously misplaced over the following dozen years, and in 2003 Bush the younger opted to take out Saddam, leading to the Iranian hegemony over Iraq that was easily predictable.

What happened?

Although it’s correct to point out that George W. Bush stood in the very American tradition of believing with messianic fervor that our military force should be employed to achieve the triumph of democracy around the world – there is a direct line from Woodrow Wilson to Dubya here – that’s not the full story. Over the decade between the Gulf War and the 9/11 attacks, the Beltway Swamp came to believe in the magically transformative power of the Pentagon not just to create peace but to transform societies very different from our own into something like us.

In a nutshell, the Balkans happened.

The unpleasant Wars of Yugoslav Succession that dominated 1990s headlines created in the Washington foreign policy elite a corrosive overconfidence not just in the benevolence and competence of our military power, but in its ability to politically transform other societies, even ones which don’t fit into the WEIRD paradigm that Americans consider normal. By the time George W. Bush entered the Oval Office, the Beltway Swamp, which was dominated by neoliberals and neoconservatives – whatever their domestic policy differences, their assumptions regarding foreign policy had become indistinguishable by the turn of the century – believed that our Balkan interventions proved that the Pentagon could accomplish almost anything, anywhere, anytime.

Hence the reported 2004 statement by Dubya’s policy guru Karl Rove regarding our 9/11 wars, “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” which sounds misguided, if not demented, in 2021, yet which reflected the attitudes of the high-on-its-own-supply Beltway Swamp at the time. How false that belief was is obvious now, yet the Washington elite only came to embrace such dangerous delusions because they profoundly misread our Balkan interventions of the 1990s, then applied that faulty template on a much bigger and tougher region, the Greater Middle East, with disastrous geopolitical consequences.

Let’s sketch how this all went so wrong on the Potomac. When Yugoslavia started falling apart violently in the summer of 1991, the cautious Bush 41 administration kept a safe distance. The United States wasn’t going to get involved, beyond diplomatic cautions, in the fighting between Belgrade and the independence-seeking republics of Slovenia and Croatia. Political pressure mounted in Washington in mid-1992, as Bosnia-Hercegovina’s effort to secede from rapidly shrinking Yugoslavia resulted in ugly fighting and a new term: “ethnic cleansing.” The Bush White House nevertheless remained noninterventionist, and the new Clinton administration followed a similar tack regarding the Balkans, at least at first.

Since the Clintonistas left office in January 2001 listing their Balkan interventions among their major foreign policy successes, it’s worth reminding that it took Bill Clinton several years to be convinced of the wisdom of using the U.S. military to fix the Balkans. Part of his timidity can be attributed to the Pentagon’s doomed humanitarian intervention in Somalia, under United Nations auspices, which Clinton inherited from the last days of the Bush administration, then devolved into disaster on Clinton’s watch one fateful day in October 1993.

All the same, the drumbeat from pundits and human rights activists regarding Bosnia, which they viewed through an oversimplified, CNN-driven lens that took scant account of on-the-ground realities, mounted until the Clinton White House could no longer ignore it, and in 1994 Washington brokered cooperation between Croatia and the Bosnian Muslims, who recently had been fighting each other, against the Serbs. This diplomatic deal bore fruit in mid-July 1995, when the Bosnian Serbs finally went too far, slaughtering several thousand Muslims around the Srebrenica enclave in eastern Bosnia, thus triggering American and NATO military intervention, what was termed Operation DELIBERATE FORCE. That three-week bombing campaign, led by the U.S. military, against the Bosnian Serbs influenced the outcome on the battlefield, at no cost in NATO lives, but the Pentagon overestimated its impact. In truth, the Bosnian Serbs were forced to the negotiating table more by Croatia’s successful ground offensive, Operation STORM, in early August, and by its follow-on offensives which lasted into October, than by any NATO airstrikes.

Nevertheless, American power and prestige circa 1995 were so great that Dick Holbrooke, Clinton’s Balkan fixer, locked the major Balkan players in an Ohio Air Force base and didn’t let them leave until they agreed to what Washington wanted for Bosnia. That deal, termed the Dayton Accords, was hailed as a great diplomatic and humanitarian victory at the time, yet looks like a decidedly mixed blessing when seen from 2021. In the first place, we shouldn’t be viewing it now at all: the Dayton Accords were sold as a transitional measure to bring war-shattered Bosnia back to something resembling normal political life. It was never meant to be a long-term solution, yet it’s still in place 26 years later, with no signs of any successor arrangement on the horizon.

Although none can deny that Holbrooke, backed by U.S. airpower, got a deal that ended Bosnia’s slaughter, Dayton’s other alleged achievements appear threadbare now (not that Holbrooke can see them: he died in 2010 while trying to “fix” Afghanistan like he supposedly did Bosnia). For all the confident talk about the “nation-building” that was promised to follow in Dayton’s wake, Bosnians today are no more politically united than they were when the guns fell silent in late 1995. Muslims, Serbs, and Croats still hate each other, living in parallel societies of mutual loathing, although the disarming of the warring factions and their replacement by a unified (if small and underpowered) Bosnian military, Dayton’s sole unimpeachable achievement, means it would be difficult for the war to restart now.

The Dayton Accords, adopting the approach of a Balkan porridge whose temperature is never right for anyone, enshrined permanent political paralysis by leaving a weak central government in Sarajevo, with much power being devolved to two entities: the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serbian Republic. This congenitally ramshackle arrangement birthed a bewildering maze of bureaucracy that Bosnia cannot afford: its economy, like its politics, has never recovered from the war, unemployment remains unfathomably high (functionally it’s 50 percent), and every level of society is mired in intractable corruption that Dayton has only made worse. The inability of the American-dictated solution to remake postwar Bosnia into anything resembling its prewar self was obvious to impartial observers even before Bill Clinton left office, but as is their habit, the Beltway Swamp had moved on to other wars by then, so nobody in Washington’s halls of power has much cared about Bosnia’s dysfunctions in over two decades.

The Bosnian Serbs’ dissatisfaction with Dayton has grown ominously over the years, and these days their leader, Milorad Dodik, speaks openly of succession from the country, since the system is unfixable and, they believe, biased against them. The 30-year anniversary of the last war’s outbreak approaches next spring, and the ethnic tensions which created that conflict remain, in essentially identical form. The only good news is that, without their own military, the Bosnian Serbs cannot easily secede from the country. Yet they may try, since Vladimir Putin stands behind them, as Dodik well knows. The big change compared to the 1990s is that Russia is back as a major influence in the Balkans, having resumed its traditional relationship with its Orthodox Slavic “brothers,” the Serbs.

The failure of Dayton-created Bosnia was simply ignored by Washington foreign policy mavens, even though the parallels with Iraq were obvious. Both countries were legacies of the Ottoman Empire which had been misgoverned by repressive socialist regimes in recent decades, and which possessed ethnically and religiously diverse communities that feared and loathed each other. There was no reason to think that the Pentagon-led “nation-building” that failed in Bosnia would work in Iraq, yet strangely that was exactly what the Beltway Swamp expected would happen in the wake of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. Since Bosnia (prewar, four million people in an area slightly smaller than West Virginia) was the easy case compared to Iraq (a California-sized country with 26 million people in 2003), that the Department of Defense bloodily failed to transform Iraq into a Western-style democracy with tranquil politics should be no surprise.

The Beltway Swamp lost interest in Bosnia in the late 1990s in favor of their next Balkan war, over the Serbian province of Kosovo, which is dear to Serbs for reasons of history and religion, yet which possesses an ethnic Albanian majority. Repressive policies by the Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević, the “Butcher of the Balkans” in Western eyes, against Kosovar Albanians eventually led to armed resistance. By 1998, that resistance crystallized around the Kosovo Liberation Army (UÇK), which grew out of Albanian criminal syndicates to become the most successful insurgent movement in modern times. Some of that story had to be whitewashed by the Clinton administration, such as the fact that the UÇK had been termed a terrorist group by senior U.S. government officials, but the cunning insurgents, employing classic guerrilla tactics, were adept at provoking Serbian police and paramilitary attacks against Kosovar Albanians, and that cycle of violence and counterviolence eventually exploded into all-out war.

Milošević had finally gone too far, American-led diplomatic efforts to end the Kosovo crisis peacefully failed, then Operation ALLIED FORCE commenced in late March 1999. That 78-day NATO bombing campaign against what was left of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) was a militarily lopsided affair. Belgrade’s air defenses were a generation behind NATO capabilities, and as a result exactly two NATO personnel lost their lives, in an accident, while ALLIED FORCE inflicted more than a thousand dead on the Yugoslavs, including hundreds of civilians.

Since Milošević threw in the towel in mid-June 1999 and allowed NATO forces to occupy Kosovo, ALLIED FORCE was hailed as a triumph for Pentagon war-making, a bloodless (for us) high-tech campaign that employed airpower alone to achieve decisive results on the ground. NATO, mostly American, airpower changed the map of Europe: Kosovo de facto gained independence from Serbia (official independence came in 2008, which is still not recognized by Belgrade). That optimistic take, which was hailed by the Beltway Swamp as a victory for how it wanted to employ Pentagon power in the future, omitted several important facts.

First, our airpower hardly acted alone, indeed it only worked because we had the Albanian fighters of the UÇK battling the enemy on the ground. Portraying ALLIED FORCE as the triumph of airpower by itself was dishonest. Second, our bombing campaign was much less effective than the Pentagon presented it. Yugoslav forces employed tactical deception with aplomb and a lot of our bombs blew up fake targets. The U.S. Air Force claimed to have destroyed over a hundred Yugoslav tanks in Kosovo: the real number was three (or, more optimistically, 14). Moreover, the bombing campaign, which dragged on for 78 days, took far longer to bring Belgrade to heel than anyone in Washington expected.

Then there’s the intelligence angle. In a manner which eerily presaged the infamous debacle surrounding the Intelligence Community’s assessment of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction just three years later, Operation ALLIED FORCE was sold to the public based on information that was, at a minimum, highly suspect. NATO told the West that military intervention in Kosovo was needed to stop the Milošević regime, which had a comprehensive plan to “ethnically cleanse” that province of its majority-Albanian population. After the nasty Bosnian war, the Western public was primed to believe this idea, but the evidence for it was remarkably weak. The foreign and defense ministers of Germany publicly explained, complete with maps, that Milošević possessed a military plan termed Operation HORSESHOE which was put in motion in late 1998 that aimed to expel the entire Albanian population of Kosovo, forcing it into neighboring Albania.

None of that was true. Operation HORSESHOE, at least as it was sold to the Western public, never existed. I was working for the National Security Agency at the time, and I never saw any evidence that the plan cited by NATO as justification for ALLIED FORCE was real (I would have: I was technical director of NSA’s Balkans Division). Long after the Kosovo war, the truth emerged. In 2012, Nadezhda Neynski, Bulgaria’s former foreign minister, admitted that she had provided her German counterpart with the publicly cited evidence regarding Operation HORSESHOE, which she explained was Belgrade’s plan to ethnically cleanse Kosovo. This single-source information came from Bulgarian military intelligence but, Neynski conceded, it was unverified. She shared it with NATO anyway, since “When there is such data, it is logical that we provide it to our partners. If they find it to be unconvincing, they have the right not to use it.”

Of course, Berlin did use it, so did NATO and Washington, even though Bulgaria’s information about Operation HORSESHOE was little more than Balkan hearsay (what spies call RUMINT). While Belgrade certainly did push about half of Kosovo’s Albanians, as many as 800,000 people, out of the province with its aggressive military and police operations against the UÇK, creating a humanitarian disaster, the vast majority fled their homes after NATO started its bombing campaign, as a United Nations study revealed. Once ALLIED FORCE kicked off, the Yugoslav military started pushing back against the UÇK harder, creating carnage, since Belgrade correctly viewed the Albanian insurgents as NATO’s ground army.

What exactly transpired in the messy Kosovo war was quickly forgotten in Washington, but others didn’t forget so easily. For Russia in particular, that conflict alarmed the military and security organs, including the head of the powerful Federal Security Service, one Vladimir Putin, who less than two months after NATO ground troops occupied Kosovo, entered the Kremlin as prime minister. He has remained there ever since, amid job title changes, and Putin viewed the Kosovo war as a wake-up call regarding America’s global intentions. If Washington, invoking human rights, took upon itself the right to hack away an internationally recognized province of Serbia, what were Washington’s intentions regarding, say, Chechnya? Moreover, for Putin, the Kosovo example provided a convenient cover for Russian malfeasance, for instance his 2008 aggression against Georgia and his 2014 theft of Crimea from Ukraine. After all, if the United States can forcibly alter the borders of countries thousands of miles away, why can’t Russia do the same to its neighbors?

While Moscow looked at Kosovo and saw Chechnya, Beijing ominously saw Tibet. Operation ALLIED FORCE jolted the People’s Liberation Army into seriously thinking about how to defeat the Pentagon. The PLA paid close attention to what American airpower accomplished against Yugoslavia, spurring Beijing to start investing heavily in a technologically first-rank military that could take on the United States with a decent chance of victory. Moreover, Communist China was infuriated by the U.S. Air Force bombing of their embassy in Belgrade during ALLIED FORCE, which killed three Chinese journalists. Nobody in China believed Washington’s claim that the attack was a mistake, and the incident caused a serious rift between Washington and Beijing that in many ways has never healed.

Our Balkan interventions of the 1990s belong to a now-bygone age, when American hegemony went unchallenged and humanitarian interventions seemed simple and low-cost. Our failed 9/11 wars put paid to all that, and today any efforts by Washington to employ military power in confusing ethnic conflicts around the world would likely receive significant pushback from Russia and/or China. Back in 1995, Dick Holbrooke could order around Balkan honchos as he pleased, forcing them to follow the Beltway Swamp’s dictates. That world is gone. Last week, Gabriel Escobar, a senior U.S. diplomat, attempted to get the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik to do what Washington wants regarding playing nicer with Sarajevo, yet Escobar’s sanctions threat backfired. Knowing he has Moscow behind him, Dodik literally told Escobar to fuck off, then leaked the transcript of their discussion to embarrass Washington.

We’re not in Dayton anymore.