Wed, 31 Mar 1999

Europe and Asia make same mistake

As news of Serbian massacres of Kosovo Muslims increasingly percolates through the news blackout, the chance that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic will easily accept autonomy, let alone independence, for the Kosovo Muslim majority of Albanian ethnicity becomes increasingly remote. The Jakarta Post's Asia correspondent Harvey Stockwin argues that the European and American reluctance to make hard choices makes it unlikely that this latest Balkan tragedy will be easily resolved.

HONG KONG (JP): Europe is making the same mistake as Asia: insufficient self-reliance in relation to, and therefore over- reliance upon, the United States.

With Asia it is largely a matter of trade -- casually allowing the United States to run up ever-escalating politically unsustainable trade deficits, while Asian nations, notably Japan and China, pocket huge surpluses.

With Europe, it is usually a matter of power politics, involving the United States in military operations which Europe ought to be able to manage quite comfortably by itself.

In both Asia and Europe the political failing is the same: leaders think only of what America can do for them, and seldom stop to consider -- what can we do for America? can we do without America?

In Europe, the intellectual elites are not above being snidely anti-American when it suits them -- but that is as far as independence goes.

Fifty four years after the United States helped to rescue Europe from two major dictators, sizable U.S. forces are still required to rescue Europe from a minor dictator in Belgrade who has proved adept only at dividing what was once a single ethnically diverse nation, as he tries to make it over into a Serbian state.

The fact that President Slobodan Milosevic has already got away with so much brutality is a terrible reflection on the ineptitude of European leadership. A display of raw power years ago, combined with shrewd statesmanship, could have nipped this protracted Balkan tragedy in the bud. Instead, after much fratricide and an extended crisis, Americans troops are still involved with the Europeans in keeping the peace in Bosnia. Now Americans are providing the backbone for this current operation.

The military operation should be aimed at solving the Kosovo tragedy once and for all.

Instead, the operation aims at degrading Milosevic's armed forces so that he will have an incentive to be a good boy in future. But a dictator like Milosevic will only behave with minimum decency if he sees the Europeans spending far more on defense than they have any inclination to do, and displaying the tough-mindedness which is the only language he understands.

There is little doubt that U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke is capable of the kind of power play that Milosevic will respond to: but Milosevic also knows that Holbrooke works for a President who reserves tough minded power plays for domestic politics. Sadly, and this makes the European reliance on the Americans even more questionable, the dictators and totalitarians of this world all know, by now, that President Bill Clinton has an opinion poll implanted where his convictions ought to be.

Clinton has almost certainly read the polls recently conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.

These showed, among other findings, that a majority of Americans were disinclined to send U.S. ground troops to defend Saudi Arabia against an Iraqi invasion, to defend Israel against an Arab invasion, to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, or to defend South Korea against a North Korean invasion.

Clinton would see an isolationist poll finding like this as a fact that he had to accept, rather than as a reality he ought to change.

So, 24 years after the end of the Vietnam War, the Americans are still committing one of the cardinal errors of that war: the over-reliance on air power as an instrument of power politics. Under Bill Clinton's non-leadership, as a Financial Times commentator put it this week, "the United States is a very reluctant global policeman, unless it can do it with cruise missiles". Air power is preferred because it creates fewer body- bags.

The computers of the Tomahawk cruise missiles may be fed with masses of relevant information, so that they go down the right street and hit the right house, and the smart bombs may land right in the targeted areas, the eight-engined B-52s may fly non stop from bases in the west of England, while the stealthy B-2s fly non stop for 30 hours to and from their base in Missouri --- but all these technical marvels can no more stop Serbians massacring Albanian Muslims in Kosovo than they could halt the recent outbreak of communal conflict in Ambon and Kalimantan.

To halt inhumanity, human beings are required. That means troops on the ground. That means a willingness to take casualties. That means politicians who know instinctively that massacres, brutality, complete disregard for human rights -- none of these things will be ended by taking the line of least resistance. But that is the line to which too many European and American leaders adhere.

This frame of mind was perfectly illustrated by the German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer who was quoted as saying, as the air war began, "We have done everything conceivable to avoid this confrontation". That's precisely why the confrontation cannot now be avoided.

There are NATO troops standing by in Macedonia. They will only enter Kosovo if Milosevic lets them in. He is unlikely to send an invitation. When the smoke of the air war clears, it will probably be found that the Serbian massacres of the Kosovo Albanians have even increased rather than diminished as the air war began. There is already grim and mounting evidence that this is so.

Without the Americans, the Europeans would not be tackling the Kosovo problem at all. But with the Americans, there is still no guarantee that the fundamental problem will be tackled.

Asian allies of the United States have an additional worry --- that when a real crisis hits at the Asian end of the Eurasian landmass, the U.S. armed forces will be over-preoccupied in some distant corner of Europe. It is not only that the Americans are reluctant global policeman. Europe and Asia are too willing to assign the American cop more tasks than he can possibly handle.

At least this week the Obuchi Administration seemed to read this lesson from Yugoslavia right as it moved purposefully, though also tentatively, to put more substance in Japan's defense posture.

March 24 marked a fascinating historical coincidence.

It was not merely the day when destroyers of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force fired their guns towards a foreign ship for the first time since World War II, as the Japanese Cabinet invoked Article 82 of Japan's highly restrictive Self- Defense Law also for the first time, allowing the Navy ships to act in this way.

The coincidence lay in the fact that the Japanese Navy was back in action for the first time since 1945 on the very same day that the Luftwaffe, the air force of Japan's wartime ally, was given its first combat orders since World War II in relation to action over Kosovo.

It was the Luftwaffe which first taught me the limits of air power as I spent long hours as a child in bomb shelters in 1940. When the Luftwaffe indiscriminately bombed London and other cities, it didn't make the British think of changing their minds. It merely made them more determined to persist.

The fact that today's bombing is far more precise does not make it any more likely to compel Serbs to see the error of their ways.