Air Pressure

In the summer of 1971, my parents and I visited Yugoslavia. My father wanted to see the land that produced his parents, who were Serbs but who grew up in Croatia, maybe 40 kilometers outside Zagreb. We’d tracked down a relative in the city, who loaded us into his car and took us to a remote village, where we found more relatives – stultifyingly poor, living among the chickens who walked their dirt floor (in the interest of defeating cliché, I should note that our man in Zagreb had a fine home and ran some sort of trucking business).

Anyway, our country cousins pointed to a tiny house a couple of hills away; yes, they told my father, that’s the house where your mother was born. Turning around, they pointed to a small church in the other direction – my grandmother’s first house of worship. The terrain to the house seemed a stiff challenge, so we opted for a visit to the church. My baba,as Serbs call their grandmas, was and remains a devoted member of the autocephalous, as they say, Serbian Orthodox Church. So what was the first sight that hit us as we walked through the holy doors? A huge portrait of the pope. Dad couldn’t stop laughing. That, he knew, was life in the Balkans.

Being 10, I pretty much missed the joke, but I understood the gist of another one a man in Belgrade told us – the hoary old one about the Brit jumping off a building for duty, the Frenchman for love, the German because he was ordered, to which in Serbia it was added that the Serb did it because he wantedto. I learned a little something, too, talking over the years with my father, a man of profound tolerance and enlightenment whom I loved and admired immensely but who, when the subject moved to the Turks, suddenly started sounding like Barry Goldwater. Not everything about those old rivalries was to be laughed at.

Nor is it now. Bill Clinton is trying, albeit late and feebly, to do the right thing here. Serbs talk of Kosovo as holy land, and it is, but to claim their historic churches and their glorious “Field of the Blackbirds,” where the Ottomans overran them in June 1389, they really “need” only about 10 percent of present-day Kosovo. Yassir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, not to mention Tony Blair and Gerry Adams, have demonstrated that it’s possible to cut through history’s underbrush and strike such deals in the world, but not so a pan-nationalist madman like Slobodan Milosevic. If the NATO air campaign can bring Milosevic around to a territorial compromise and some approximation of the autonomy for Albanian Kosovars his government revoked in March 1989 – which sparked Albanian rioting, resulting in 24 “official” Albanian deaths (now, there’s police brutality for you) – it will have done its job. But as no less an authority on military might than Hitler learned, the Serbs aren’t put down easily.

It should also be said, in Clinton’s defense, that he came by this problem the old-fashioned way: He inherited it. If you want the folks who really blew it, seek out George Bush and James Baker and Helmut Kohl. Germany’s recognition of Croatia, and the Bush administration’s tepid reaction to that move, uncorked the bottle in the first place, and the always-fragile federation of Yugoslavia was doomed from that point. And let’s note: Serbs, too, were ethnically cleansed, at least 150,000 of them forced out of Croatia in the early nineties. The kinship felt between Germany and Croatia, as anyone knows who’s familiar with the practices of the Croatian S.S. during World War II, did not arise because they co-sponsored bake sales.

But Serbia has its kinships, too, and if it strikes the formal alliance with Russia and Belarus that the Yugoslav Parliament voted last week, the old clientelism that characterized the region in times past will reassert itself – this time, with the world’s two largest armies on opposite sides. The history gods are just mischievous enough to have waited until the Cold War ended to have Americans and Russians start shooting at each other.

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about America’s greatest generation, and as an indulged baby-boomer who’s donned fatigues only as a fashion statement, I don’t gainsay my elders’ sacrifices. But they weren’t always right. Yes, they won the Cold War, but millions of people rightly wonder whether the detours through Vietnam and the various Third World outposts where the U.S. government installed regimes completely antithetical to its principles were really necessary. The consensus of the political Establishment at the time was that, yes, they were, the consequent deaths of more than a million Vietnamese and 57,000 Americans notwithstanding. This consensus lent foreign-policy-making during the Cold War – the most uncertain period in modern history – a paradoxical certainty: If it blocks the Commies, just do it.

There’s no such certainty now, as Clinton has been learning. The problem with using foreign policy and military force as instruments of moral suasion is not that they must be universally applied or applied not at all, as some have argued. Moral revulsion and national interest meet more closely in some places than in others, and the Balkans are clearly such a place. The problem, instead, is that such a foreign policy ends up being largely gestural. Clinton was right to reinstall Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti – he was a popularly elected president, and it was one of Clinton’s finest moments. But what came after? The current president, Rene Preval, is back to ruling by decree, and just last month, the commander of U.S. forces in the Caribbean said the 500 American troops still there should come home.

Clinton’s foreign policy may be schizophrenic, and he undoubtedly missed some chances to build up anti-Milosevic forces within Serbia (whatever that might have accomplished). But it’s not as though there’s a sea of other people out there with better ideas. Baker, in begging off a U.S. commitment to Bosnia, told Congress in 1992 that “we’re not the world’s policeman.” That inaction didn’t help the situation in Kosovo today. At the other end of the lot, there isn’t much enthusiasm in this country for sending in troops – the polls that today show people supporting a possible ground war in Kosovo are based on the television pictures of the refugees, and once those television pictures start showing funerals of American GIs, the polls will change.

We’re living in a time of no easy answers. Heels firmly dug into hallowed soil won’t be yanked out quickly. It may be ten or twenty years before we’ll really be able to tell whether this war was worth prosecuting. So far, it sure hasn’t helped the Albanian refugees. It will be a success only if it gets everyone in the region to start thinking in post-nationalist terms. I know from experience that that won’t be easy with the Serbs, and the other fellows don’t look like pushovers, either.


Air Pressure