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Jewish World Review April 9, 1999 /23 Nissan 5759

Thomas Sowell

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Russia and the Serbs

(JWR) ---- (
RUSSIA HAS GONE TO WAR over the Balkans three times within the span of one century. Yet our politicians and media pundits seem to pay little attention to the danger that Russia will escalate its military aid to the Serbs --- even though there have already been rumblings out of Moscow about sending "volunteers" to fight against NATO and about the possibility of equipping the Serbs with tactical nuclear weapons.

The Russians have already equipped Serbian forces with surface-to-air missiles more deadly than anything American pilots have had to confront in Iraq. Russia can send in other sophisticated weapons, as well as "volunteers."

American policy wonks and media pundits can point out how none of this is really in Russia's national interest, because the Russians have all sorts of internal economic and political problems. They don't need a military confrontation with the United States in the Balkans.

We don't need a military confrontation with the Russians in the Balkans either, but our troops are there and we are dropping bombs. In both countries, "national interest" can be redefined to mean the interests of whatever politicians are in charge.

The most important interest of leading Russian politicians is in who succeeds Boris Yeltsin when his term expires -- or when he expires, given his fragile health. Their next most important political interest is in how a successor can rally the demoralized Russian people around a new regime. Inflicting a military or political defeat on the American-led NATO forces in the Balkans could be just what the doctor ordered to meet these political goals. Yeltsin himself could use such a victory over the United States to become a national hero again and refute the claims of his political enemies that he is an American puppet.

Even more would such a victory serve the interests of potential successors who are waiting in the wings, many of them with far more strident nationalistic aims and rhetoric.

Let us never forget that the Russians got into the First World War because a Serb shot an Austrian archduke in Sarajevo and the Germans backed Austrian retaliation.

Was this in Russia's national interest? It turned out not even to be in the interest of the czar who backed the Serbs, for it led ultimately to the Bolshevik revolution and the slaughter of the czar and his family. For Russia, it led to a nightmare under the Communists that lasted nearly three-quarters of a century.

But history cannot be controlled like a machine and the forces of war cannot be measured out by the teaspoon. The emotional and political ties of the Russians to their fellow Slavs in the Balkans go back for centuries. No Russian leader -- whether czarist, Communist or democratic -- can ignore those ties and any of them can exploit such ties for his own political ends.

The Russians today are not happy campers about the expansion of NATO eastward, into what would otherwise be their own sphere of influence.

Administering a bloody nose to NATO in the Balkans would be a strong reassertion of Russian power and influence in the region, as well as a domestic tonic politically.

Maybe Yeltsin won't go this route. But, even if he does not, we would be fools to rely on his successors having similar forbearance for years to come.

Although Bill Clinton is a classic example of the "me generation" and the "now generation," what he is getting us into in the Balkans can last long after he is gone. American troops have already been in the Balkans for years, even though they were supposedly sent there only for a few months.

Two armed giants, groping around in a fog, are a danger to themselves and to the world. Some dangers must be faced, when the stakes are high enough. But there were no stakes for Americans in the Balkans, except the stakes that we have created by intervening.

Humanitarian concerns are not national interests. If we wish to send young Americans off to die for humanitarian causes, then at least we need to face that fact and have a specific policy for going in and getting out. But all that this administration has is a feckless "do something" habit, combined with lots of political spin.

In the Balkans we have all the classic ingredients of historic tragedies -- short-sightedness, feckless groping, and an arrogant assumption that we can handle whatever happens.


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01/26/99:Moral bankruptcy in the schools
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01/11/99:Trials and tribulations
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12/03/98: The health care "crisis"
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11/09/98: Moral outrage
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11/02/98: A voter's duty
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10/27/98: "Partisan" and "unfair"
10/23/98: Ed-u-kai-tchun
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8/31/98: The twilight of special prosecutors?
8/26/98: "Doing a good job"
8/24/98: America on trial?
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8/17/98: A childish letter
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7/14/98: Race dialogue: same old stuff
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7/02/98: Gun-safety starts with
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6/15/98: A changing of the guard?
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5/22/98: The lessons of Indonesia
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5/14/98: Monica Lewinsky's choices
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5/7/98: Media obstruction of justice
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5/1/98: Abolish Adolescence!
4/30/98: The naked truth
4/22/98: Playing fair and square
4/19/98: Bad teachers"
4/15/98: "Clinton in Africa "
4/13/98: "Bundling and unbundling "
4/9/98: "Rising or falling Starr "
4/6/98: "Was Clinton ‘vindicated'? "
3/26/98: "Diasters -- natural and political"
3/24/98: "A pattern of behavior"
3/22/98: Innocent explanations
3/19/98: Kathleen Willey and Anita Hill
3/17/98: Search and destroy
3/12/98: Media Circus versus Justice
3/6/98: Vindication
3/3/98: Cheap Shot Time
2/26/98: The Wrong Filter
2/24/98: Trial by Media
2/20/98: Dancing Around the Realities
2/19/98: A "Do Something" War?
2/12/98: Julian Simon, combatant in a 200-year war
2/6/98: A rush to rhetoric

©1999, Creators Syndicate