Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

John McCain would be best for South East Europe

mccainThe democratic choice is an easier one for progressives to make in the UK than it is in the US. Over here, the ruling Labour Party is more progressive than the Conservative opposition on both foreign and domestic issues. But in the US, things are not so simple. Were I an American citizen, I would be inclined to vote Democrat over domestic issues – abortion, taxation, etc. But I have no doubt that the interests of South East Europe would be better served by John McCain as president than by either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

Bill Clinton bears a very large share of responsibility for the problems faced by the Balkans and Caucasus today. These are, in particular, a dismembered, non-functioning Bosnia; an anti-Western, disruptive Serbia; and a dismembered Georgia. The problem was not that Clinton was a particularly reactionary president in world affairs, but that he simply was not very interested in them, something that resulted in a failure of leadership. The mess in Bosnia is above all the fault of the former British Conservative government of John Major and the former French Socialist regime of the late Francois Mitterand; they were the champions of appeasement and the architects, along with Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman, of Bosnia’s dismemberment. Clinton could and should have insisted upon a change in Western policy vis-a-vis Bosnia upon becoming president. Instead, he chose to defer to his pro-Belgrade European allies, Britain and France, not wishing to fall out with them over something trivial like genocide in the heart of Europe. This was not only a moral failing, but a betrayal of US interests; the disastrous Anglo-French policy and Clinton’s vacillating support for it greatly damaged both transatlantic relations and the Balkans. There are times when Europe needs American leadership; Bosnia was one of them.

After the initialling of the Dayton Peace Accords in November 1995, Clinton continued to neglect Bosnia, allowing the indicted war-criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to escape arrest – primarily because he did not want to risk American casualties in arrest operations. Nor does Clinton deserve particular credit over Kosova; it is highly questionable whether the US would have acted to prevent the genocide there in 1999 had not Major and Mitterand been replaced in the meantime by Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac. NATO’s liberation of Kosova should have been followed up by the prompt recognition of its independence, while the Russians were in no position to cause such trouble for us as they are today. We could have ‘punished’ the Serbia of Milosevic with Kosova’s independence, instead of the Serbia of today, led as it is by the relatively pro-Western President Boris Tadic. But that problem, too, was allowed to fester; its resolution today is proving much more difficult than it need have been.

Over Russia and the Caucasus, too, Clinton, like George Bush Snr before him, showed a disastrous failure of leadership. With Russian politics in a state of flux, with the pro-Western Boris Yeltsin in power in Moscow and financially dependent on the West, a golden opportunity existed to push Russian policy in the Caucasus in a less imperialistic direction. The Western powers should have acted decisively to halt the dismemberment of Georgia in the early 1990s and prevent the break-away regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from falling under Russia’s exclusive control. We should have recognised the independence of Chechnya, preempting Yeltsin’s violent assault on the country in 1994. But as is so often the case, the dovish policy is the one most likely to lead to confrontation in the long-run – think of Neville Chamberlain and Munich. Our failure to engage in the Caucasus, and Blair’s shameful support for Vladimir Putin over Chechnya in 1999, have been richly rewarded: Georgia, an aspiring NATO member, faces perpetual dismemberment, while an aggressive, ungrateful Putin has reentered the Balkans with a vengeance with the deliberate aim of derailing the region’s Euro-Atlantic integration. Chechnya proved to be the poison of Russian democracy and Russian-Western friendship; a Russian president willing and able to use weapons of mass destruction against his Chechen citizens is unlikely to respect democratic freedoms in Russia proper, and an undemocratic, authoritarian Russian regime is more likely to be hostile to the West.

In fairness, Russia is not solely responsible for the mess in the Caucasus; Georgia’s brutally chauvinistic former president Zviad Gamsakhurdia was one of the architects of his country’s dismemberment, as was the Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, who supported the Abkhazians. The people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia had legitimate grievances against Gamsakhurdia’s regime and its successors in Tbilisi. These are all issues that a more forward-looking US policy could have helped to resolve, but did not. 

I fear, therefore, the consequences for South East Europe of a US president who is dovish, uninterested in or unserious about foreign policy. Hillary Clinton has always worked hand-in-glove with Bill in the political sphere, and should share responsibility with him for his disastrous Bosnia policy. Indeed, the story is that her influence made it worse; that she read Robert Kaplan’s truly dreadful book ‘Balkan Ghosts’ and passed it on to her husband; this book, filled as it was with crude stereotypes about the Balkans (along the lines of ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’), encouraged the perception of the Bosnian war as an expression of intractable ethnic conflict in which no moral issues were at stake, militating against any intention Bill might have had to resist Serbian aggression. Be that as it may, Hillary was more frank in welcoming Kosovo’s independence than Obama, who appears to see Balkan politics largely through the prism of his need to win the goodwill of the Serbian and Greek lobbies in the US. Hence his letter to the Serbian Unity Congress, in which he stated: ‘I support and shall help in every possible way development of the dialog between all sides in Kosova because I believe that peace and stability can be reached only by solutions acceptable for all sides’ – not far from an endorsement of the Serbo-Russian position on Kosova, which insists on a Serbian veto on any settlement. Hence also Obama’s endorsement of the Greek-nationalist position on Macedonia. These acts may be motivated by simple electoral opportunism, but they do not bode well for a principled and forward-looking US policy toward the Balkans should Obama become president. In flirting with the US’s Serbian and Greek lobbies, Obama is flirting with groups that encompass ultra-right-wing, Christian-fundamentalist, Muslim-hating bigots.

There are several reasons to believe that McCain would follow a more serious and principled policy toward South East Europe than either Clinton or Obama. He is aware of the importance of what he calls a ‘progressive Turkey’ as a strategic partner of the US and a beacon of Muslim democracy, and of the mutual inter-relatedness of democracy and stability in Turkey and Iraq. Turkey is both the most important Balkan country in world affairs and a state that borders on Iraq; the Balkans and the Middle East are adjacent, interlocking regions; McCain’s commitment to staying the course in Iraq is therefore most likely to promote stability in the Balkans.

McCain was correct to oppose Congressional recognition of the Armenian Genocide (here I break ranks with Norman Geras). The Ottoman Empire in 1915 was undoubtedly guilty of genocide against the Armenians, and Turkey should recognise this genocide. But it is not for an outside power like the US to single out this historic crime as uniquely totemic and worthy of recognition, particularly given that the US Congress has taken no parallel steps to recognise the genocidal crimes carried out by Russia and the Balkan Christian states against Ottoman and Caucasian Muslims during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Why should the US recognise the Ottoman genocide of one million Armenians, but not the Balkan Christian genocide of over six-hundred thousand Ottoman Muslims in 1912-13, when the latter crime was an immediate catalyst of the former ? The Turks would be entirely justified in taking offence at such double standards, and McCain is entirely correct that the US should be developing its relationship with Ankara, not creating new barriers to it – though he is also far from uncritical in his support for Turkey.

McCain was an early supporter of Kosova’s independence. He stood by the oppressed Kosova Albanians before it became fashionable in Washington to do so, and continued to do so despite the support given by many right-wing Republicans – largely for anti-Clinton and anti-Islamic reasons – to the anti-Albanian policies of Milosevic and subsequent Serb-nationalist politicians. A Republican president who is ready to put a combination of US strategic interests and morality above petty sectarian domestic feuds and religious hatred is more likely to act in South East Europe’s best interests.

Finally, McCain led a delegation of US senators to Tbilisi in August 2006, to express unconditional support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and to challenge the presence of Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, suggesting they be replaced by a UN or OSCE force. Although Moscow likes to draw a false parallel between Kosova and South Ossetia, in reality, secessionist South Ossetia is more like the Serb-controlled enclave in northern Kosova – an expression of the imperialism of a larger neighbour that seeks to punish a former colony for seeking independence by dismembering it. Georgia is not Russia’s backyard, and any policy that treats it as being so will only bolster the anti-Western Russian neo-empire that has arisen under Putin to become a dangerous enemy of the West. McCain is entirely correct in his belief that in defending Georgia, the West will be defending itself. His suggestion that Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia be replaced by a UN force should be welcomed by all multilateralist opponents of unilateral intervention by great powers in the internal affairs of other countries. But don’t hold your breath.

Thursday, 20 March 2008 - Posted by | Abkhazia, Balkans, Bosnia, Caucasus, Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia, Georgia, Greece, Iraq, Islam, Kosovo, Macedonia, Middle East, Russia, Serbia, South Ossetia, Turkey

3 Comments

  1. […] Hoare thinks McCain would be best for South-East Europe. He dismisses Hillary as a continuation of Bill […]

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  2. […] Surbiton has “no doubt that the interests of South East Europe would be better served by John McCain as president than by either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.” Share […]

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  3. […] Hoare thinks McCain would be best for South-East Europe. He dismisses Hillary as a continuation of Bill […]

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