A Failure with Bloody Consequences

David Hume Kennerly/Archive Photos

TPM Reader HL has a more negative take on President Bush’s management of the end of the Cold War. The point about Bush’s stance during the disintegration of Yugoslavia is well taken. It was also deeply rooted in his foreign policy Realism. Two rejoinders. One is that as horrific as the Yugoslavs wars were, they were more or less contained. Second, relatedly, I’m not sure it’s a low bar, given the downside risks of what could have happened during the collapse of the Soviet Union and the security structures would undergirded it. But this is a good point and these were fairly conscious and considered decisions on Bush’s team’s part.

Reading the comments on Bush’s legacy, I must beg to differ with the many commentators who have praised Bush’s management of the end of the Cold War. Agreed things could have gotten much worse, but that is a fairly low bar.The fact that Bush was concerned about the corrosive power of nationalism in the Soviet Union an Yugoslavia, is simply not enough, when he didn’t just fail to offer a viable alternative, as John Judis says. but he and his team made decisions that virtually guaranteed Yugoslavia’s drift into civil war. After all, it was the Bush team’s idea to relegate the Yugoslavia crisis to a European affair made public with James Baker’s regrettable line “We don’t have a dog in that fight.”

The premise of that decision was that the conflict would provide the chance for the European Economic Community, then on the verge of becoming the European Community, to begin exercising a larger political role. This may have sounded good, but it demonstrated little grasp of the very different perspectives on Yugoslavia among the main shakers in the European Community grounded in history, Britain and France tended to be sympathetic towards the Serbs that went back to the establishment of the Serbian Kingdom, while the Germans and Austrians had historical ties with the Croats and Slovenes, as became disastrously evident when the latter chose to recognize Slovenian, Croatian, and later Bosnia-Herzegovina’s independence. In short, the Yugoslav crisis was precisely the wrong conflict for which to take Europe’s training wheels off, and not only did tens of thousands of Yugoslavs suffer, but it hurt the EC’s development of a coherent and unifying foreign policy. We will, of course, never know if more direct involvement in the Yugoslav crisis could have prevented the civil wars there, but Bush and his team were far from innocent bystanders.

It is tempting to view Bush’s decision to cede management of the Yugoslav crisis to Europe as a cynical ploy to insure the dominance on the world stage, but I tend to think the Bush team sincerely and naively believed Europe could manage that problem. Instead, the heart of the matter was that the Bush team was unable to see beyond the bi-polar order of the Cold War that privileged the US and the USSR, later Russia, as superpowers, even if they not inaccurately called the USSR as a third world country with a first world army. For a man of Bush’s generation that worldview was entirely understandable, but measured against the people that created the postwar order, most have whom had had come of age intellectually before World War I, Bush’s failure to rise to the occasion and map out a new path that embraced the multi-polarity of the coming era, plays an important role in why we are where we are now.

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