Why the Balkans Still Need NATO

Peacekeeping is working, and political reforms are beginning. Without the alliance's troops, the fragile stability could shatter

By Stan Crock

Ever since centuries-old bloodshed in the Balkans provided the spark that ignited World War I, foreign-policy analysts have been pessimistic about the prospects for peace in the area. When the U.S. agreed in 1995 to send troops there, many predicted the worst: hundreds of soldiers would come home in body bags. Similarly, when the U.S. sent peacekeepers to Kosovo in 1999, it was conventional wisdom that the Kosovo Liberation Army would avenge Serbian ethnic cleansing -- with peacekeepers potentially caught in the crossfire.

So what happened? Very little -- not a single U.S. combat casualty so far. The body bags have been kept in storage. In fact, the casualty rate is lower than for troops training in the U.S., according to Ivo Daalder, a Balkans expert at the Brookings Institution and a former National Security Council aide. And the reenlistment rate for Balkan-based troops is the highest in the Army. That provides a lesson for America about the risks and rewards of being a Global Supercop.

While Slobodan Milosevic unleashed "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo in the late '90s, Bosnia was peaceful. The reasons can be summed up with four Ws: weariness, weather, weapons, and wealth -- or at least the whiff of prosperity. By the time the warring factions in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia signed the Dayton accords, they were exhausted by the fighting and the atrocities. It didn't hurt that the Serbs, the aggressors in Kosovo, were on the defensive, having lost ground they had gained during the conflict.


  The harsh Balkan winters also helped. The weather had the benefit of preventing the Serbian antagonists from continuing to wage war and enabled NATO forces to set up operations without interference. Their weapons meant they could outgun anyone who challenged them.

The Americans brought along not just firepower, but also a taste for French fries and fried chicken. The hope for a better life and Western prosperity, which only peace could bring, was a key factor in persuading the adversaries to keep their powder dry.

Recently, the news has been even better. Yugoslavian voters ousted Milosevic, the cause of such grief and tragedy in the region. And Croatians got fed up with their nationalist leader, Franjo Tudjman, and sent his party packing. While Milosevic's replacement, Vojislav Kostunica, may not be particularly pro-American, he's a vast improvement. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, recent elections gave a non-nationalist coalition control of the lower house of Parliament. And the Cabinet in the Bosnian Serb Republika Srpska isn't expected to have a member of alleged war criminal Radovan Karadzic's SDS party.


  Meanwhile in Kosovo, while some violence continues, the skirmishes are few and far between, according to Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.), the ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who recently returned from a trip to the Balkans. He notes that the three leading Kosovar Albanian politicians -- Ibrahim Rugova, Hashim Thaci, and Ramush Haradinaj -- all have called for an end to attacks on Serbs living in Kosovo.

To be sure, much remains to be done. An economic-stabilization package for the region is needed. Endemic corruption must end. Government officials in Belgrade need to iron out their relationships with Montenegro and Kosovo. The alternative is almost unthinkable: A breakup of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia could be disastrous, igniting more warfare.

What must be remembered, however, is that the presence of American and NATO forces has been critical for the progress to date -- and can lay the foundation for future advances. As President Bush mulls what to do about the continued presence of GIs in the region, he needs to review what has happened so far, especially given the all the experts' pessimism. "It would be a disaster if the U.S. were to pull its troops out of Kosovo or Bosnia," says Biden. Yes, it costs NATO millions to keep troops in the Balkans. But peace is a lot cheaper than war.

Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views twice a month, only on BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.