The Policeman of the Balkans

by Patrick J. Buchanan – December 22, 1997

Those who warned that the U.S. troop commitment to Bosnia risked an open-ended entanglement in the Balkans were right. Bill Clinton has now confirmed that U.S. troops will remain indefinitely. No plan, no strategy, no timetable exists for their withdrawal.

What are the conditions the president has set before the United States can leave? Bosnia’s joint institutions must be “self-sustaining.” A civilian police force must be in place, large enough and sufficiently trained to keep order in the country. And Bosnia’s media should be “free of hate and venom.” This is a formula for permanent entrapment.

Bosnia is a fictitious country to which its Serb and Croat minorities give minimal allegiance. No civilian police force is going to quell an uprising by either to break free of Sarajevo when NATO departs. And since Clinton seems to think Rush Limbaugh, Ollie North and Gordon Liddy pour forth “hate and venom” on the airwaves, exactly what kind of Bosnian FCC does he have in mind?

Nations everywhere are breaking down into ethnic elements. No vital interest of ours is involved in the utopian task of trying to create a multiethnic state on a blood-soaked peninsula where every Muslim, Serb and Croat can personally recall ethnic atrocities. In our lifetime, British India broke up; Pakistan and Bangladesh divorced; Cyprus was divided. In this decade, Czechoslovakia split in two; the Soviet Union broke into 15 nations; Slovenes, Croats and Muslims broke away from a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. Why is it intolerable that Croats and Serbs should break free of Bosnia? And why commit U.S. troops to stave off the inevitable?

The White House argues that if we leave, the Europeans will leave, bloodshed will begin anew, and Iran may well fill the Bosnian vacuum. But that begs the question: If a united Bosnia is not a vital interest of Europe, why is it a vital interest of a United States that is on the other side of the ocean and has never cared a fig whose flag flew over Sarajevo? Why cannot the president tell our NATO allies that if they do not remain in Bosnia, we do not remain in Europe?

That American intervention has succeeded, as the president insists, is undeniable. The bloodshed is ended, the armies are largely demobilized, and roads and bridges have been repaired. But the permanent policing of the Balkans is not the business of the U.S. Army; it is the business of the rich and malingering nations of Europe.

Here we come to the heart of the matter. Half a century ago, when the United States first sent troops back to Europe, Americans were assured by such as Dean Acheson and Dwight Eisenhower that they would be there at most a decade. They stayed 40 years, until the Red Army, which they had been sent to contain, went home.

More than any nation, America won the Cold War. But the NATO allies, though they number 300 million of the richest people on Earth, refuse to shoulder responsibility for their own defense. Not only are Americans to be the policeman of the Balkans, we have been told that we must pay the lion’s share of the cost for the defense of Europe’s eastern frontiers, while protecting Europe’s oil in the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, the Europeans slash their defense budgets, to create a single currency and help them capture America’s markets around the world.

With the expansion of NATO to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic today — Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Slovakia tomorrow — America will have given war guarantees to every region of Europe from the Atlantic to the Russian border, and from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. Any war that breaks out anywhere on the continent in the 21st century will automatically involve the United States. Is this wise?

Yet, to suggest that this might be imperial overstretch is to be mocked as an isolationist by pundits who spent the 1970s bedeviling Richard Nixon on Vietnam and the 1980s bedeviling Ronald Reagan for trying to expel communism from Central America.

America is ceasing to be a republic; she is becoming an empire. We have undertaken the role of the old German empire in defending the ramparts of Europe, the Austrian empire in policing the Balkans, the Ottoman empire in pacifying the Middle East, the British empire in securing the Gulf, and the Japanese empire in containing China and defending Korea. Yet, as U.S. commitments grow, Americans appear less and less willing to fight abroad, and U.S. defense budgets recede to pre-Pearl Harbor levels.

America is inviting the same fate that has befallen every other 20th century empire that has refused to recognize the limits of its power.