250. A Congressional View of U.S. Policy in the Balkans

By
Robert A. Hand

The U.S. Congress is often an easy target for criticism, especially in foreign policy. This happened frequently during the 1990s, as Congress involved itself in the Yugoslav conflict and the U.S. response to it.

It is a well-known fact that some Members of Congress are motivated by a strong sense of partisanship; others are influenced by one ethnic constituency or another. Some have an instinct to support an underdog and hence favor the self-determination of a victimized people. Others view the abuse of self-determination by self-proclaimed representatives of people as the quicksand into which we too easily wade. Still others have strong links to the human rights and humanitarian assistance community, while their colleagues have equally strong links with those in the military or elsewhere who view narrowly defined interests and not broad moral questions as the determinants of policy. These latter also advocate strict criteria for U.S. engagement. Some have no particular interest in the Balkans or even foreign affairs at all, and may potentially tie their support or opposition regarding U.S. Balkans policy to issues of greater concern to them. This latter group is usually the majority.

Through all of the clashing motivations, intelligence and seriousness are both more widespread on the Hill than is often thought, and the action taken, more often than not, reflects a collective wisdom about what is the right thing for the United States to do.

The reality, of course, is that no parliamentary body, not even one with the powers and bureaucratic support of the U.S. Congress, can actually take the lead in foreign policy formulation. Foreign policy leadership must reside in the domain of the executive. That said, the bureaucracy of a Department or agency can easily lose touch with the reality that it exists in a democratic country. A foreign policy elite can formulate responses which the average American would not support, and the failure to understand a particular policy may not be the fault of the simple-minded citizen but of the convoluted and contradictory policy itself. Regarding Southeastern Europe, I was amazed at how some incredibly respectable minds in the field of foreign affairs could explain away the carnage in some fatalistic way when we had the means, interest and, perhaps, the obligation to stop it.

This is where, I believe, Congress did play a large role in developing a U.S. policy response to Yugoslavia's violent demise, not by formulating any coherent policy of its own but in getting the first Bush administration, and then the Clinton administration, to move toward starting a coherent policy. Unfortunately, it took a long time. It responded to what was a failed U.S. policy of non-engagement in the early 1990s, a policy which was based not so much on reality on the ground, but instead on some of the very myths being spewed forth by Balkan propaganda machines.

Generally, the Congress did press for the United States to become much more engaged than it had been, but, over time, it also set some limits on that engagement. I would only specifically mention, in light of recent news reports of Clinton-Milosevic telephone conversations, the role Congress played in questioning U.S. reliance on Milosevic for Dayton implementation, to the detriment of Serbian democracy, and turning that situation around.

Of course, one may disagree with one or more - maybe most - of the policy options, and certainly some Members of Congress did. I would argue, however, that Congress was fairly correct and consistent in its views. The Congress certainly seemed to have a better handle on what the United States, as a superpower, had some obligation to do, as well as on the threat conflict posed, not only for the region through spillover potential, but to the NATO alliance struggling for a post-Cold War purpose.

The Congress has, in the past two years, become less active on the Balkan front, quieting down even while the conflict in Macedonia was heating up. The events of September 11 reinforced but did not start this trend.

First, a sense of "Balkan fatigue" was setting in, even among those who were among the strongest proponents of U.S. engagement. There was a general admission that such engagement was a very, very expensive undertaking, mostly because real engagement had been undertaken so late that much of what was worth defending in lives and in ideals was already at least partially lost. The compromises made at Dayton are symbolic of this sense of loss, and this phenomenon can be traced back almost to that time. On the other hand, those who had argued against such engagement had ensured by calling for U.S. troops to withdraw from the region that the Clinton administration alone would be responsible for anything that would happen to them while they were deployed in the region. (Indeed, I sense that these same Members did not actually want to take the responsibility themselves for what might have happened had they succeeded in pulling our forces out of the Balkans and might not have taken the initiative had the chances of success been greater.) Added to all of this is the frustration caused by corruption, organized crime and bad governance.

Second, Milosevic was effectively removed from the scene in 2000, not to mention Tudjman in Croatia almost a year earlier. I think people recognized that not everything would return to normal once nationalist leaders are cast aside; there are still the legacies of their policies as well as the underlying problems which allowed them to come to power in the first place. In this sense, southern Serbia and, especially Macedonia, were wake-up calls in 2001. Still, it is undeniable that, especially with Milosevic gone, a major threat to long-term stability in the region has disappeared as well.

Third, the United States also got a new President. Rightly or wrongly, President Clinton had undeniably become a controversial figure, subject to partisan attacks and defense. Any new President will get a "honeymoon" period, but this one more so than most. While some expressed concern about withdrawing from the Balkans, potential fires were quickly doused with the "In Together, Out Together" approach espoused by Secretary of State Colin Powell. As Macedonia has shown, the Bush administration would draw some lines on additional commitments of forces, but it would also maintain existing commitments. By and large, the Macedonian situation was sufficiently messy to keep the Congress from questioning that position.

Finally, I sense that the American military establishment, had developed over the past 5 years some degree of comfort with its duties in Southeastern Europe that it originally did not have. Perhaps the comfort level is not the same as satisfaction, and a withdrawal would still be preferred, but the military may also have come to find this presence and duty useful in a strategic or military sense, as well as in terms of garnering sympathy and support on the Hill, including for its budget. Similarly, the military has had a more comfortable start with this Administration than with its predecessor, despite some policy disputes last summer. Many Members of Congress criticized President Clinton for his perceived misuse of our armed forces. Our military's apparent comfort level in the Balkans as well as with the current administration have led Congress to be quieter on this issue.

September 11, of course, sealed the fate of Southeastern Europe as an area of less priority for the United States. As has been noted, President Bush's State of the Union Address had more foreign policy content than any since the Vietnam period, and perhaps since World War II, yet there was no mention at all of Southeastern Europe, a region which had been a foreign policy priority just a year or two before, except for Bosnia's release to U.S. forces of six Algerians. Secretary of State Powell's statement before the Congress, presenting the FY '03 budget request for foreign affairs, only made brief mention of the region, and then, partly in terms of its value as an area for joint efforts with our friends and allies. Even if this downplaying is a mistake, which to an extent it is, few in the Congress would seriously question this sudden change in the current environment. The reality is that, while Southeastern Europe has not been abandoned, heads have turned to face a new threat to stability, more global in scope and more clearly linked to U.S. interests.

Having said that, there are at least six areas where the Congress may express its views on current U.S. policy toward the Balkans. This list is neither exhaustive, nor presented in any particular order.

  1. Troop Withdrawals: This is the issue which has received the most attention, but which also may have been over-exaggerated. The Bush administration may, however, decide that participation in Balkan peacekeeping operations has gone from a burden we had to bear to a luxury we can no longer afford. But it must keep in mind that anything but scheduled downsizing based on the situation on the ground can expect some congressional challenges. Senator Joe Biden, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been the most outspoken on this issue, but he is not alone. At the same time, I think those from the region that want U.S. and other troops to stay the course need to explain more precisely what would happen if, for example, SFOR were to leave Bosnia, or if the U.S. were to hand its KFOR commitments to someone else. We assume disaster, but that assumption may be increasingly questioned. The efforts currently underway to revamp civilian policing in Bosnia are clearly linked to this issue, and General Joseph Ralston, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, actively seeks out Members of Congress traveling to Europe and refers to the need for better policing efforts in Bosnia.
  2. European Leadership: The European Union has taken new leadership responsibilities in Macedonia, Montenegro and, perhaps, in Bosnia regarding civilian policing. Burden-sharing was, rightly or wrongly, a popular word on the Hill in the late 1990s still is and the prevailing view is to wish the Europeans well with any newly undertaken responsibilities and support them as appropriate. However, if the EU flounders, voices in the Congress may again state that the Europeans living in the Balkans should not have to pay the price of other Europeans' incompetence. Calls for U.S. leadership will again be heard, especially if officials and activists in Southeastern Europe argue credibly that it is needed. It also will become an issue if European leadership begins to thwart U.S. participation, for example, in the realm of civilian policing in Bosnia and Kosovo as well as in southern Serbia and Macedonia. These are areas where the United States has by no means a monopoly on good experience but does have an ability and desire to contribute meaningfully.
  3. Democratic and Other Assistance: The President's FY '03 Budget request has a 20 percent or $126 million reduction in assistance to Eastern Europe and the Baltic States under SEED Act authority. The State Department has explained this as the result of some countries graduating from the program (desired for some time) as well as other reasons, and it is clear that part of the reduction is to help offset increased assistance to the "front line" states in the war on terrorism. While it will not make headlines, it might be that some Members of Congress will not want such a drastic drop, preferring to see SEED money redirected to the countries that continue to need it rather than reducing it by the amount graduated countries would have received. The amount appropriated for this fiscal year is, in fact, a bit higher than was originally requested. SEED money is about 2 percent of an international affairs outlay, which itself is only 1.1 percent of the total budget as requested.
  4. Conditionality on Assistance: Even with the general drop in assistance to the region, Yugoslavia - Serbia in particular - still ranks fairly high as a recipient, both this fiscal year and next. Last year, however, Congress provided some conditionality on assistance, which exists also this fiscal year, essentially linking continued assistance after March 31 (except for democracy-building and humanitarian aid) to full cooperation with The Hague Tribunal, the ending of support for the Republika Srpska army and Serb militants in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and, finally, progress in minority rights. Last year's certification was controversial, but there were subsequent improvements, especially with the delivery of Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague. There remains much to be done in these areas. Yet, if Congress did not want to provide the assistance, it would not appropriate it, but there is a feeling that conditionality must be applied. It is hoped that Belgrade takes this issue seriously. It makes no sense that so many persons indicted are still not in the custody of The Hague.
  5. Human Rights: The degree to which the Administration does or does not consider human rights performance in the development of bilateral relations is a global question. In light of September 11, this has particularly affected official U.S. views of the Central Asian and other states, but, ultimately, it will have some effect on the countries of Southeastern Europe as well. In hearings last Autumn, the State Department assured the Helsinki Commission that human rights remain central to U.S. OSCE policy. As someone working in the human rights field, I generally feel that close relations with undemocratic regimes ultimately are untenable or, at least, will come back to haunt you. That said, there are those who would argue the opposite, at least in a crisis period. If human rights, however, is to remain as important an aspect of foreign policy as it has in the past, it will be Congress or more specifically a few Members of Congress dedicated to the issue that will make the difference.
  6. NATO Enlargement: This is an issue which is on the minds of many of the Balkan countries, but, for now, it is only something on a future congressional agenda. We are not sure how many will be asked to join this November at the Prague summit, and we can only guess as to which of the Balkan countries might make a list of any given size. As this process develops, however, the Congress and the Administration alike must contend not only with accepting those asked to join but also with the impact made on those already unstable countries left out of the Alliance. Right now, I believe Congress and the Administration are in agreement in principle on NATO expansion. Whether Congress will agree with the Administration on the specifics, I cannot say.

In conclusion, those of us who follow the Balkans have to accept the reality of having less of the spotlight this decade than in the 1990s. To some extent, this may be good for the region. I do believe, however, that some Members of Congress, at least, will not allow less focus to mean abandonment. Troop reductions and democratic assistance issues will likely be highest on the agenda, and both issues are tied to the apprehension and delivery of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to the Hague. With less attention, there is the danger that a few Members of Congress might push status issues, relevant mostly to Kosovo and Montenegro. The debate might be worthwhile, but I would prefer that the international effort focus more on a fair and democratic process and less on the end result.

Robert Hand spoke at an EES noon discussion on February 13, 2002. The above is a summary of his presentation. These remarks are solely the viewpoint of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Helsinki Commission or any of its members. Meeting Report #250.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant