If the past can ever accurately serve as prologue, current events in the Balkans portend what could soon become a recurrent clash of civilizations for Europe and the United States. Recently, to reinforce that nightmare scenario, Dennis Blair, President Obama’s newly appointed Director of National Intelligence, warned that current events in Bosnia represent the greatest threat to stability in Europe today.
Throughout my own peacekeeping experiences in Bosnia commanding all special operations forces in the British and U.S. sectors, I recall the haunting feeling that we were simply placing a finger in the dike while flood waters approached. I did not base my opinions on diplomatic initiatives or power sharing arrangements. More compelling and disturbing to me were my own observations as I travelled the countryside and talked to the people. I saw Bosnian teachers and parents filing children past mass graves, being told “never forget.” I saw Serbs moving into homes in Srebrenica previously occupied by Bosnian Muslims. And I saw Bosnian Croats rioting to prevent other ethnic refugees from resettling in “their” towns. All were victims. All continued to perpetrate the same divisive, often violent, behavior.
Most troubling was that these events occurred as the United States was reducing its presence in Bosnia.
Twelve years later, Blair is reporting that tensions [in Bosnia] have reached the “highest level in years.” He recently warned Congress that Bosnia’s ability to survive as a single, multi-ethnic state is in grave danger.
We hear about restoring the “dream of Dayton” as if Dayton were a cure-all for an elusive disease. But today, the problem is Dayton. Over a decade later, the virus of ethnic hatred, economic turmoil and political entrenchment has mutated in Bosnia--the youngsters who were paraded by those mass graves fifteen years ago are adults today. If Dayton is to serve as an effective “vaccine,” it needs to be updated to account for both the progress that's been made, and those tasks that remain to be achieved.
Blair’s assessment focuses on political problems in the Balkans. To be sure, rather than focusing on reconciling differences and rebuilding, Bosnia’s leaders have instead chosen to fan the flames of ethnic prejudices. Haris Silajdzic, Bosnia’s Muslim co-president in the Dayton-directed power sharing arrangement has advocated for the Serb Republic in Bosnia to be abolished. In turn, the Bosnian Serb prime minister, Milorad Dodik is calling for all-out secession from Bosnia. All present zero sum solutions to complex variable-sum problems.
Lessons from the last war during the Bush and Clinton Administrations should offer stark lessons to the Obama Administration. One dynamic remains constant: when traditional family homes and gravesites risk permanent loss, security and stability become elusive and negotiable. If one region of the Balkans secedes, a secession of any kind, in any location, would be certain to result in a “domino effect” in the region. Bosnian Croats would make their bid to unify with Croatia. Violence in Kosovo between the Albanian-majority in the south and a Serb-majority in the north would re-erupt. Referendums for independence would spill over in countries like Montenegro and Macedonia. Swept up in the sheer momentum of events, Croats in the Vojvodina region of northern Serbia would demand their independence.
The spread of the radical version of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, Wahabism, is another substantive concern in Bosnia. Tremendous infusions of Saudi money since the war over a decade ago have contributed to rebuilding large mosques and homes throughout the country. During a recent visit to Bosnia, I noticed a dramatic increase in the number of young men sporting long beards, and women wearing black head scarves—far more than I had seen immediately after the war.
To improve any war-ravaged state, it is the economic ties that bind. And yet, this connective tissue is all but non-existent in the former Yugoslavia. Rampant organized crime, massive unemployment (roughly 40% and increasing), scant foreign investment, and high foreign debt define Bosnia right now. As a vestige of the Ottoman Empire, Bosnia truly is today the “Sick Man of Europe.”
It would be easy to focus elsewhere. After a decade long commitment to Bosnia and Kosovo, “Balkan Fatigue” is understandable. Ultimately, however, Bosnia may be the canary in the mineshaft. During the worst economic downturn since the 1920s, Bosnia is approaching a breaking point. Abraham Maslow taught us after World War II that when an entire population is reduced to a base struggle for survival, the outcome is likely to be both widespread and catastrophic. Bosnia’s breaking point could rapidly become Europe’s faultline.
Compounding that struggle and perhaps accentuating it are subterranean hatreds that linger between Bosnian “ethnicities:” the Serbs, Croats and Muslims. That enmity creates a far more worrisome picture for Bosnia’s future. Memories of the past war evoke volatile emotions. Those emotions cloud judgment and obstruct substantive dialogue.
The last Bosnian War taught us the costs of delay, risk aversion and equivocation. Comprehensive solutions require courageous leadership from the United States. Deliberately addressing the growing crisis in Bosnia now is the only way that the Obama administration can stop a bad situation from getting far worse. Political and economic solutions notwithstanding, confronting the undercurrent of hatred in Southern Europe is a long-term project that we must collectively undertake with Europe if our goal is to see an enduring culture of peace take hold in the Balkans.