Ive had a number

March 6, 2002 11:07 a.m.

I’ve had a number requests, actually a number of demands, over the last few days that I address the criticisms, which appeared on another website, of this earlier post of mine on Croatia.

You can read the criticisms for yourself. But, as I read them at least, the criticizer, Ms. Radic, takes issue with me on three basic grounds. 1) What the UN peacekeepers did or didn’t do in Croatia’s Krajina region. 2) Whether Croatia had a right to retake the Krajina. And 3) whether the Croatian government had a right to attempt to influence the American government to attain its objectives.

The first criticism seems easiest to deal with. Radic says the UN peacekeepers had nothing to do with ending the fighting in the Krajina. Rather, it was a product of a stalemate between JNA forces (the Yugoslav national army under de facto Serb control) and the nascent Croatian army. Is this true? Absolutely. But I never said otherwise. I said they were brought in to “maintain” the peace. And for better or worse the way peacekeeping always works is that a cessation of hostilities — arrived at by whatever means — has been arrived at before peacekeepers arrive. So here, we don’t disagree. Radic has simply — and I say with all due respect — misunderstood what I said.

The second two points are more complex and also related to one another.

It’s always difficult to say that one or another state has a “right” to this or that strip of land. But to the extent that any state has such a right, I believe Croatia had such a right with regards to the Krajina. (I welcome anyone to find anything in the original post to the contrary.) Only it’s not quite so simple. The Croat reconquest of the Krajina has always been a point of controversy and conflicted opinions for the following reasons …

The Croats have always had the reputation as relative good guys in the 1990s Balkan wars. And, by and large, I believe this is an accurate perception. But the reconquest of the Krajina was the one instance in which they took actions not that dissimilar to those of their enemies. To the best of my knowledge nothing occurred in the Krajina truly equivalent to the worst excesses that occured in Bosnia. But it wasn’t pretty either. A number of high-ranking Croat military officers are now under indictment by the Hague war crimes tribunal for things that occurred during the offensive. And contrary to what Ms. Radic says, most experts do not believe that the misdeeds that occurred were simply the work of a few rogue commanders.

So you have a military action that was largely justified in general terms but in which a number of bad acts did occur.

Now let’s discuss a few other areas of complexity. What happened in the Krajina raises the following question. If country A has already attacked country B and employed criminal measures (as the Serbs had) what standards do we apply to country B if they fight back? Do we demand that country B follow all the niceties of the rules of war in fighting back, even if we were unwilling or unable to save them from the first assault? On the face of it that doesn’t seem fair. (I think this question raises itself even more forcefully in the case of Kosovo, which hopefully we’ll discuss at a later point.)

There’s also another point which should be raised. In the early and middle 1990s the US government, through indirect means, provided substantial assistance to the Croats in their efforts to build a modern army. And when the Croats did actually go into the Krajina the US government decided essentially to turn a blind eye. There were a number of reasons for this. But the most important was that the strength of the empowered Croat army bloodied the nose of the JNA and got Milosevic et.al. to come to the Bosnian bargaining table. The US very much wanted some other serious army on the ground in the former Yugoslavia and it ended up being the Croats.

Finally, the whole UN regime in Yugoslavia in the middle 1990s did range from the useless to the scandalous, with UN officials making demands, while not having the authority or the nerve to back up their points with force. One need only read one of the countless books on the crisis in Bosnia to see many examples of this. The US of all countries is least on the line for this, since in the end it was American leadership and American arms which eventually shut down the JNA and Milosevic.

So where does this all leave us? Did the Croatians have the right in the abstract to retake the Krajina? Yes. In the actual circumstance? Yes, but it was a complicated matter and in the event it was not done without significant numbers of war crimes, atrocities and instances of ethnic cleansing. For my part I am quite comfortable calling these “quite ugly consequences.” Looked at from a distance, and taking into account the totality of the Balkan War of the 1990s, I’d say that the reconquest of the Krajina was more part of the solution than part of the problem. But that doesn’t absolve what occurred there. And it’s a close run thing in any case.

Now to the final point, did the Croats have the right to try to influence American policy?

This point brings all the other ones together. Because, properly read, I don’t think my post expresses an opinion on this at all. The confusion here may be partly the result of writing by an American being read (for which I’m very glad) by people overseas. But the whole thrust of the post was not aimed at the Croats but rather the American consultants who were working for them.

The Croats can do whatever they believe is in their national interest, especially if it does not violate American law, which this did not. My beef is with Americans who — for money — are willing to take a hand in — however indirectly — actions which are not only frowned upon but which are violations of the rules of war. The Croats live in a dangerous neighborhood. Well-paid consultants in DC don’t.

If you go back and read the documents I posted, I think readers will see quite clearly that the authors of the consulting proposal knew what they were talking about — ethnic cleansing type activities — and used euphemisms and talk-arounds to describe them. Is this illegal? No. But I think Americans should know that these are the types of services which foreign countries can buy in Washington, DC. For a price.

So, to sum up a long-winded response … Radic misunderstood me on certain points. And on others she was expressing understandable outrage — just not at anything I actually said. If anyone has any questions, I’d recommend that they read my comments and her response.

P.S. To those who sent in some of the more strident comments, I’d recommended you be more civil and — even more — important, read more carefully. It’ll save you endless embarrassment.

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