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Belgrade: Iraq Through A Balkan Lens 
Past U.S. Efforts Shed Doubt On Post-War Rebuilding Of Iraq

Published: Nov 14 2002

New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning journalist who covers politics and media.

Is the Bush administration's promise to create a democratic paradise in a post-Saddam Iraq for real -- or just more salesmanship for war? To answer this crucial question, we would do well to examine recent experiences elsewhere. Afghanistan could still surprise, but so far, the country's intractable societal problems seem utterly unmatched by U.S. vision and commitment, financial or moral. For now, a better predictive model might be the former Yugoslavia, a fundamentally modern country with a decent infrastructure and relatively educated populace where Washington has now had several years to institute reforms. Yet, if this place is indicative of the U.S. commitment after the bombs stop falling, the future Iraq won't be a pretty picture.

On almost all fronts, peace and prosperity, transformation and transparency, democracy and public confidence seem as far away as ever. So few Serbs turned out for the first post-Milosevic presidential elections, held in October, that the runoff results had to be nullified. Neither of the two top candidates talked honestly about war crimes or discussed ways to secure a lasting regional peace. Along with apathy and skepticism, nationalist rhetoric carried the day. The military retains undisputed power and autonomy. Former cronies of Milosevic suspected of complicity in war crimes remain in positions of power. The effort to create a free market is led by a prime minister widely suspected of enriching himself and his friends. Monopolies and mafia-esque businessmen dominate many industries.

In Bosnia, instead of guaranteeing peace and security, U.S. troops were directed to focus on so-called "force protection." The military brass can point with pride to the fact that this policy has, to date, resulted in not one attack on U.S. soldiers. But what else has the mission accomplished? The first U.S. commander of joint forces on the ground there declared that the troops' only responsibility would be separating combatants, and claimed (incorrectly) that he had no mandate to capture war criminals. With a few notable exceptions, troops in Bosnia repeatedly balked at taking meaningful actions. They were even sent into retreat by rock-throwing crowds. Foreign Muslim fundamentalist units operated in the U.S. sector from at least 1995 until Sept. 11, 2001 but American troops refused to patrol villages or take action against them -- least of all to kick them out, as they should have, under the Dayton Accords.

Despite the creation, on paper, of a multiethnic central government, today the "country" of Bosnia is effectively governed by three separate, nationalist governments, one Serb, one Croat, one Muslim. The bad guys, warlords and sectarians were left largely in place. Local elections have been shams. And without military protection, little progress has been made toward returning refugees to their homes, an essential ingredient if the region is to be stabilized.

In recent months, a vigorous U.N. high commissioner has been trying to rectify matters, and, in Kosovo, there appears to be a concerted effort to learn from mistakes in Bosnia. But in both places the same political problems remain, structures for modernization are absent, there are virtually no prospects for economic reform, and resources are running out. Most importantly, in light of discussions of emulating in Iraq a post-World War II Japan-style military occupation, Washington's interest in the Balkans seems to be fading fast. While U.S. diplomats and international NGOs on-site are making a creditable effort, without the full commitment of the White House it's hard to move forward.

Based on the experience here, can anyone believe that U.S. forces are any more likely to locate and remove the "war criminals" who helped perpetuate Saddam's reign of terror? Will the United States do what is necessary to replace regional and local officials who ally themselves with criminal elements for personal gain, much less prevent remnants of Saddam's elite military unit leadership and secret police from establishing fiefdoms and blocking change? Iraq, a country with a Shiite Muslim majority, is controlled by its Sunni minority; the long suppressed Kurds want their own homeland. What will it take to suppress the religious and ethnic rivalries that are likely to emerge in the vacuum created by Saddam's fall?

The evidence from the Balkans and Afghanistan suggests that Washington will not carry the ball. Can we depend on the Arab League? At least in Serbia, a vigorous opposition existed. But nothing of the sort is to be found in Iraq, and the émigré community leadership inspires grave doubts among knowledgeable observers. If the Bush administration is not willing to focus on the hard work to be done in the former Yugoslavia, who believes for a second it will make the kind of commitment to transform Iraq into a success story?


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