I have just finished historian David Fromkin's Kosovo Crossing: The Reality of American Intervention in the Balkans. I've long been interested in Balkan history, particularly since reading Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in 1996.
So, I was pleased when this book began with a focus on West's book, her time in Yugoslavia before World War II, and the genuine attachment others who study and/or love this region have for her work and thoughts on the Balkans. Quoting Robert D. Kaplan, author of another well-known work on the region, Balkan Ghosts, Fromkin illustrates the influence West's work has had on writers following in her footsteps, when he writes that he would have rather lost his passport and his money than his copy of Black Lamb.
While all of West's information and her work on the subject is no longer accepted today, Fromkin's respect for this book that has so influenced me attracted to me to his work, and kept me very engaged in the few days it took me to read this 196-page book, which is really an extended essay on the ways in which World War I shaped the twentieth century in Europe, and how President Woodrow Wilson's response to "the Great War" has continued to shape American foreign policy in that same time period.
Copyrighted in 1999, this work does not report a resolution on Kosovo. (In the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, the Serbs initiated ethnic cleansing techniques to rid the Kosovo province of its majority of ethnic Albanians - of 2,000,000 residents of the region, only 200,000 were not ethnic Albanians.) But by the end of the book, this seemed secondary to the points raised and argued by Fromkin, and the reality of the situation today supports Fromkin's thesis. (The region is still being administered by the United Nations, or that human rights organizations are calling for continuing protection.)
In the line of this book, Kosovo (or Kosova, to its Albanian residents) is the latest iteration of Wilsonian foreign policy. The book begins with a retelling of West's experiences at Kosovo Polje (Field of the Blackbirds), at which she saw a sacrifice of a lamb by a father in thanks for the birth of his daughter. This place matters so much to the Serbs because it is the (mythical?) site of the 1389 decisive battle in which the Serbian leader, Tsar Lazar, bargained with heaven that he would lose the battle with the Ottomans and gain eternity in heaven. Such a sacrifice grated on West, who was looking in the late 1930s at another great war on the Continent. The lamb's sacrifice and Lazar's, whose personal aggrandizement for eternity left the Balkan peninsula submerged under Ottoman rule for nearly as long, was just wrong to West. She rejected the idea of sacrifice as necessary for good categorically.
And West wondered, pondering Kosovo, why the people who were good were reluctant to use their power to effect good in the world, while those willing to use power, rarely had good intentions. She wondered why the right would not impose their rightness through the use of their power.
Through his discussion of the twentieth century in Europe and America, including discussions of Vietnam, Iraq I and Korea, Fromkin frames his ideas under the Wilsonian doctrine of preserving existing national boundaries (even at the cost, it would seem, of his other overarching concept, self-determination for nations). My reading of Fromkin leads me to believe that George H.W. Bush didn't push on to Baghdad as part of this belief of preserving national boundaries, and using force to defend either the vital interests of the nation or the existing boundaries of another country. This seemed to structure the Americans' response in Korea, as well. The problem, Fromkin states, with this is that not only do you have to leave troops there to defend the borders once you fight to reinstate them, but also you end up subverting the natural flow of history by propping up nations who cannot do the thing that all self-sustaining nations do, which is protect their identity and boundaries successfully. (In Kosovo, a foreign power could conceivably have found itself fighting both sides of a civil war by disagreeing with the Kosovars about independence and disagreeing with the Serbs about allowing the Albanian Kosovars to live there.)
Studying the Balkans has taught me how fluid national boundaries are in our world, and that the region is a fascinating illustration of the forces of European politics and power in microcosm. Fromkin seems to share this view. But in his examination of what the answer to the Kosovo ethnic cleansing crisis might have been was where we parted ways, though I was absolutely enamored of his study of the century and the political realities and ideologies that shaped our responses to foreign aggression since World War I.
Fromkin writes that it is possible that if there had been no intervention, the Serbs would have banished and murdered the Kosovar Albanians, and though horrible, the issue would have been settled and "it would all be over."
Fromkin apparently advocates a "Red Cross" approach to human catastrophes, including genocide, by praising the organization for not taking sides, caring for the needy, resettling them where they are allowed to go (instead of where force has disallowed them). While he found Americans willing to send million-dollar bombs to crush $10,000 Serb tanks, he found them less willing to help individual Kosovar families. He says that it is "morally inconsistent" to use force on humanitarian grounds but not allow Kosovars to settle in our neighborhoods when what they most need is a place to live freely. However, I think, to stand aside and watch while a government machine displaces 90 percent of a region's long-time population through systematic murder and rape, is not humanitarian either. While I don't think Fromkin's solution would be successful in the world (it wouldn't be "over," would it?), he successfully illustrates a dark side of the problem, that we are more willing to use force for goodness than goodness for goodness. We are asserting our power for good, but we are not being really good doing it.
This book is a useful tool to understanding U.S. foreign policy around the globe, not just in Kosovo, and it is more about the twentieth century iterations of that policy (and its birth) than about Kosovo alone. I recommend it.