European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently called for creating an army for the troubled European Union. Noting accurately that the EU isn’t “taken entirely seriously,” Juncker suggested standing up its own army “would convey to Russia that we are serious about defending the values of the European Union.”
Juncker’s comments got considerable attention, as he is the top bureaucrat in Brussels and his suggestions carry weight, although he is a high-flying Eurocrat from central casting who lacks any strategic or military background.
Moreover, the notion that what the EU lacks is an army is misguided, since what an increasingly disarmed Europe is actually short on is the will to defend itself, as demonstrated by deficits in spending and thinking seriously on defense. What EU countries lack is political will and seriousness about defense matters, not a common army. Since the EU cannot manage to assemble a coherent foreign policy on any matter of substance, one wonders what an all-European defense ministry in Brussels would actually do
Read the rest at The Federalist ...
Today’s news beings word of the arrest of four Islamist terrorists by Bosnian authorities. The four men, three Bosnians and one Swedish national, were planning to carry out terrorist attacks in a Scandinavian country, presumably Sweden. Three men were arrested by authorities while trying to leave Bosnia by car — a bomb was found in the trunk — while the fourth man was picked up in Sarajevo.
Details remain sketchy at this hour, but the Bosnian State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA) admits to two raids on Sarajevo locations subsequent to the arrests. The improvised explosive device had been requested by radicals in Scandinavia for use there. Think of it as a bespoke bomb.
The multinational and interagency effort to round up this terror cell before they were able to launch an attack — left of boom as counterterrorism professionals like to say — was termed Operation BENELUX. It was led by SIPA in coordination with Dutch and Swedish authorities, as well as the Bosnian intelligence service, OSA.
The Bosnian daily Avaz has details on the arrested terrorists: Osman Abdel Salah (the Swedish citizen, born 1962), Adis Ramić (born 1979), Amar Šljivo (born 1975) and Enver Džanko (born 1973).
This is a developing story….watch this space for more information. This seems to be another case where intelligence-led terrorism prevention and security collaboration worked in saving lives … but in Bosnia there’s usually a complicated, and not always edifying, backstory too.
UPDATE (13 Mar, 1700 EST): Sarajevo media are reporting the arrest of a fifth member of the terrorist ring today in Sarajevo, but his name has not been released.
UPDATE (13 Mar, 1710 EST): Swedish police are expressing skepticism that the arrests are related to jihadist terrorism. They believe the plot stems from a Balkan gang war in the southern Swedish city of Malmö which has gotten ugly of late.
UPDATE (14 Mar, 0945 EST): The Sarajevo daily Avaz has identified the fifth suspect in SIPA custody as Željko Malenica (which is not a normal name for Bosnian Muslim, FWIW).
UPDATE (14 Mar, 1010 EST): SIPA is not commenting on Swedish reports that police there consider this to be a gang-related case. Sarajevo considers this to be a case of terrorism, per the SIPA spokeswoman, as reported today by the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje.
This blog has reported prodigiously on Bosnia’s connections to transnational jihadism and terrorism; here are some recent highlights, which may help with the background to this breaking story.
And if you want the full background to this messy story — it’s got spies, Bin Laden, Iranians, plus terrorists from a couple dozen countries — there’s a detailed book you should really read.
For the last couple weeks, Hillary Clinton’s budding 2016 presidential race has been buffeted by revelations she used her own private email account exclusively when she was Secretary of State during President Obama’s first term. Her ham-handed effort to make this rising scandal go away with a controlled press conference did Hillary no favors. At this point, EmailGate seems to have legs and may pose serious problems for her aspirations to move back into the White House in January 2017.
Let me get out up front that I’m no Hillary hater. I share much of the view of the late Christopher Hitchens that Bill and Hillary are, at root, political grifters, but I prefer corruption to fanaticism. I thought she was a far better choice for the Democratic nomination in 2008 than Barack Obama was, and I still believe that. I also think, security and email issues aside, Hillary was a pretty good Secretary of State. The country could have a lot worse outcome in a couple years than Hillary as our first female president.
That said, EmailGate reminds everyone who’s not on the Clinton payroll what they dislike about Bill and Hillary. The routine, indeed quotidian lies and dissimulations about, well, practically everything. The sense of entitlement that leads to hate campaigns against anybody who dares to ask awkward questions about Clinton family finances or business ventures. Predictably, talk of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy has returned among the Usual Suspects. It’s hard to miss a whiff of the late 1990’s again, by which I don’t mean peace, a robust economy and solid Federal finances. It’s good to recall that Clintonian mores became tiresome even to many of their supporters by the time Bill and Hillary moved out of the White House at the beginning of 2001.
We can dispense with several of the notions already proffered by Hillary and her media minions to make EmailGate go away, especially the idea that Hillary never got near classified information in those tens of thousands of private emails she sent as Secretary of State. Since she wasn’t using the proper email channels for such things, we can dismiss out of hand the fantasy that Hillary kept every whiff of classified information out of her clintonmail account. Anybody who so flagrantly disregards the most basic Federal rules and regulations about record-keeping and control of sensitive information should be presumed guilty of a wide range of what spies term Security Violations, until proven innocent.
Every Hillary email she sent as Secretary of State was a Federal record and by using her private email, then destroying tens of thousands of those emails because she felt like it, transparently seems to be a criminal act, and perhaps several of them. Not to mention the archival implications surrounding the mass destruction of such Federal records. Good luck to future historians who have to reconstruct what was going on at Foggy Bottom between 2009 and 2013.
I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll leave the legal implications of Hillary’s misconduct in EmailGate to others. But when the former senior Federal official who administered the Freedom of Information Act for nearly two decades calls bullshit on Hillary’s excuses, we should listen. “What she did was contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the law … There is no doubt that the scheme she established was a blatant circumvention of the Freedom of Information Act, atop the Federal Records Act,” explained Daniel Metcalfe, who established the Department of Justice’s Office of Information and Privacy in 1981, and headed it until 2007. In other words Metcalfe, who’s a Democrat in case you wondered, was the top official in Washington, DC, on FOIA matters, so he is the expert on this one.
Legalities aside, we also need to discuss the grave security implications of what Hillary was up to. EmailGate establishes, even based on the partial view we’ve seen to date, that Hillary willfully violated a whole raft of State and U.S. Government rules and regulations regarding information security. Such rules are cumbersome and sometimes look silly to those not versed in security issues, but INFOSEC policies exist for valid reasons, above all the reality that others are listening in.
The communications of America’s foreign policy boss rank among the top espionage priorities anywhere for literally dozens of intelligence agencies worldwide — and all of our enemies. “On a [target] scale of 1 to 10, she’s a 10 … When you think of treaties, trade negotiations, any thing that the secretary of state would be involved in, she would be an incredibly lucrative target — maybe even more so than the president,” explained Richard Schaeffer, NSA’s former INFOSEC boss. The latest revelation, that for the first three months of Hillary’s tenure as Secretary of State her jury-rigged “private” email system had no encryption at all, indicates that this was a SIGINT bonanza for the other side.
Intelligence services like the Russians and Chinese look for high-level U.S. Government communications with intense interest, and their technical acumen is impressive. Kremlin spy penetration of the White House is not a new problem, but it has taken on new angles in the Internet age. Smart counterintelligence officers assume that all unclassified .gov networks are compromised — many have similar doubts about more secure networks too — and anything sent out unencrypted, with the Clinton name right on it, could be intercepted by many intelligence services with ease.
We are at the point now where, thanks to Team Clinton’s destruction of tens of thousands of “private” emails, the American public will never know what the Secretary of State was up to — but the Kremlin surely does. Kudos to the Associated Press for suing to see what can still be seen, but anybody acquainted with Clintonian ways should not expect much to emerge, ever. If Hillary was up to anything shady in those destroyed emails — and given recent revelations of foreign fundraising by the Clinton Global Initiative that appears at least unethical, anyone sentient must wonder — people in Moscow who do not like us will be aware of it. The word you are looking for is kompromat.
The Snowden Operation was a bonanza for Russian intelligence and it hardly seems a coincidence that Vladimir Putin became much more audacious in foreign affairs, including his theft of Crimea and his resulting aggression against Ukraine, once the Kremlin knew exactly what U.S. intelligence was capable of, technically. Yet in light of EmailGate, it’s worth pondering whether Kremlin confidence in assessing — correctly — that the Obama administration would sit idly by as Moscow restarted the Cold War, had something to do with their excellent SIGINT look into American foreign policy-making at the highest level.
Someday, perhaps decades off, the public may be able to answer that important question. For now, the relevant question is whether Hillary, who at the very least broke all sorts of Federal rules and regulations that would destroy the careers of mere mortals, can be trusted with such authority ever again. The real issue isn’t what we know about EmailGate and the invariably tangled finances of Clinton, Inc. — it’s what the Russians and others may know.
An exposé published today by the Czech news magazine Respekt has blown the lid off a major spy scandal that played out in Prague over the last few months. The report, based on sources inside the Security Information Service (BIS), the Czech counterintelligence agency, reveals that no less than three Russian intelligence officers have been declared persona non grata by Prague in the last nine months.
The first case involved a Russian diplomat who was not accredited to the Prague embassy, rather he had recently come from another (unidentified) country, but was in the Czech Republic when he wound up on BIS radar. Czech counterintelligencers determined that the “diplomat” was engaged in espionage — exactly what he was doing was unclear — and he was sent on his way.
More serious was the case of two Russian diplomats whom BIS determined were engaged in espionage on Czech soil. One was accredited to the Russian Embassy in Prague, while another was soon headed there: the Czech Foreign Ministry PNG’d the diplomat who was already in Prague and informed Moscow that his co-worker was not welcome and should not report to the embassy.
The current Czech center-left government has been cautious in its dealings with Moscow, preferring not to anger the Russian bear, so this spy affair was kept out of the media — until today. Sensibly, Czech officials have declined to comment on these linked cases. However, today’s report indicates that two Czech diplomats have been PNG’d by Moscow, in customary tit-for-tat retaliation for the BIS operations that unmasked the three Russian spies.
The Respekt report notes Russia’s unusually large diplomatic presence in the Czech Republic, with a total of 125 accredited diplomats — by comparison Beijing has twenty-eight diplomats in Prague while the Americans have seventy — of whom something like thirty are assessed to be intelligence officers by BIS.
And that high number may be an major understatement. In its annual counterintelligence report released last October, BIS stated that the number of Russians spies in the country was “extremely high,” and they were actively targeting several sectors of politics, security, and the economy. Both Russian agencies that conduct espionage abroad, the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the military’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), are active in the Czech Republic, and both send illegals — that is, officers operating without official cover, i.e. they’re not pretending to be diplomats, what Americans term non-official cover or NOCs — so the real number of Kremlin spies in Prague may be far larger than BIS is aware of.
A Central European senior counterintelligence officer told me, with regard to today’s news from BIS, that the Czech Republic continues to be a “Bohemian playground” for the SVR and GRU, despite BIS efforts, and notwithstanding the fact that in recent years the Russians are the Czechs’ top counterintelligence problem. The problem is mostly political, since Prague does not want to cause a full diplomatic war with Moscow over aggressive Kremlin espionage in the country, preferring to handle matters discreetly, if at all.
Recent years have seen several Russian spy scandals erupt in the Czech Republic. Back in 2009, two Russian diplomats who were caught spying on NATO were PNG’d, and two Czech diplomats were promptly thrown out of Russia in return. Not long after, three generals in the Czech military resigned when their tawdry involvement in a Russian spy game was revealed: one was Prague’s representative to NATO. The implications of the case for the Atlantic Alliance were troubling, and led to concerns in NATO capitals that Prague was falling under the Kremlin’s spell.
In response, reluctant Czech politicians authorized BIS to go harder on the outsized SVR and GRU presence in the country. Today’s report in Respekt tells part of that clandestine tale. Old CI hands in the Danubian region tell me that there’s more going on in the Czech-Russian SpyWar than just this episode, but certain operations remain on-going and the public might not be informed about them for some time. As Russian espionage against the West ramps up to levels last seen at the height of the Cold War, you can be sure there’s a lot going on in the dark streets of Prague, as well as in many NATO capitals, that the media hasn’t been told about quite yet.
As we are now in a lull in Russia’s war against Ukraine that Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin began one year ago, it’s time to assess how Kyiv can do better at war-fighting. Not for want of courage, Ukraine’s efforts to defend its territory and sovereignty from Russian aggression have been failures, as I’ve explained many times. I’ve repeatedly counseled Ukraine to emulate how Croatia in 1991 lost one-third of its territory to Serbian rebels, only to regain almost all that territory through quick, decisive military operations in 1995. As a template for strategic success against a more powerful enemy at a reasonable cost in lives and treasure, Zagreb’s model from the early 1990’s cannot be improved upon.
This has been met with whining from supporters of failing President Petro Poroshenko that 1. War is hard, and 2. Russia isn’t Serbia. The latter is true, but it’s also worth noting that Ukraine is ten times Croatia’s size in population, and even more so in area. Kyiv has ample resources to conduct defensive war, it just doesn’t seem to want to. National strength and honor seem lacking to a worrisome degree. Furthermore, if Poroshenko is not up to the difficult job of saving his country from Kremlin aggression, he needs to return to the candy business without delay and make room for a leader who actually wants to fight.
Emulating Croatia today means several specific actions that must be taken, and soon. The current lull in the Russo-Ukrainian War is temporary. Since people often ask for specifics, I’m giving them to you. Here is what Ukraine must do if it wants to not lose even bigger swathes of the country to the Russians, and eventually regain the land it has already lost to Putin.
Think strategically: This means looking at a map and noting that Ukraine is a very big country by European standards. Kyiv can certainly trade space for time, and in the long run time is not on Russia’s side in this war of choice. This means halting idiotic military moves like “last stands” at places of no strategic significance like Donetsk airport and Debaltseve, where Kyiv sacrificed motivated defenders for no reason except Poroshenko, a strategic illiterate, said so. Any Russian drive to make its Novorossiya fantasy a reality must be stopped — in practical terms this means turning Mariupol into Vukovar-on-the-Azov — but this is an achievable strategic goal for Ukraine’s hard-pressed armed forces. If the Russians can be halted at Mariupol, they can be halted anywhere. If not, Ukraine is lost. Act accordingly. Zagreb won big in 1995 because it played the long game, both diplomatically and militarily. Eventually the Kremlin will tire of its noxious proxies in Eastern Ukraine: be ready to pounce when that happens.
Take intelligence seriously: At present, Kyiv cannot do much of anything in secret. Moscow’s spies, deeply embedded during the Yanukovych era, when Ukraine’s SBU was in effect a subset of Russia’s FSB, know all, or nearly so. Operational security in the Western sense hardly exists. Rigorous counterintelligence is needed without delay. This task seems daunting but, given patience and discipline, it can and must be done. In 1991, Yugoslavia’s military intelligence alone had almost 1,800 agents in Croatia — counting Belgrade’s civilian security service the true number of Serbian spies easily doubled — but Zagreb eventually won the all-important SpyWar by taking counterintelligence seriously. There are other pressing intelligence needs, especially in the area of electronic warfare, where Moscow’s dominance on the battlefield is almost total, costing Ukraine’s military many lives, and here Western aid can help significantly. But there’s not much point in giving Kyiv sensitive gear that will be passed to the Russians. Ukraine cannot win the war until it bests the Russians in espionage, and time is wasting.
Fight corruption hard: Ukraine’s fighting troops are already disgruntled by the fact that their political masters in Kyiv, to include the military’s famously corrupt generals, are living well while they are dying in misguided operations that seem doomed to fail. This is recipe for political disaster for Ukraine in the long run. The situation is so bad that Western charities supporting the military go around the General Staff and the official chain of command, which they know steal aid that is intended for the front. Ukraine’s overall corruption problem is staggering, but institutionalized theft in the defense sector must be beaten down if Ukraine wants to stop losing lives and territory to a rapacious Russia. Executions of corrupt generals and politicos, in Beijing style, pour encourager les autres, would send an indelible message. Rooting deep corruption of out of the military would have a salutary effect on the whole country. Spreading the message that corrupt officials are helping Moscow, and should be dealt with as traitors, is a necessary start.
Quantity has a quality all its own: Ukraine’s military is far too small to defend the country against Russian aggression, much less win back lost territory. In the more than two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s military devolved into an embarrassing morass of theft and laziness with little combat capability. This erosion of basic competence in battle has been laid bare by events around Donbas in recent months. Additionally, Ukraine’s fighting forces are simply too small to defend the country. Belated efforts to raise the active military to 250,000 troops, approved in Kyiv this week, are both unconscionably late and inadequate. Putting anything less than one percent of the country’s population in uniform, when Ukraine is at war, is frankly a joke and indicates Poroshenko wants to lose. In the second half of 1991, Croatia mobilized nearly 200,000 troops from a population of not much more than four million. That Ukraine is having a hard time coming up with a similar number of troops from a population that’s ten times Croatia’s speaks volumes about what’s wrong here.
But quality counts too: Ukraine certainly needs more troops to prevent further Russian aggression, but it also needs better troops. Some of the volunteer battalions have shown impressive grit in battle against the Russians, far more than most regular army units, and properly handled, they might form the core of Ukraine’s new, improved army. Here the Croatian model again informs. Starting from basically nothing beyond disarmed Yugoslav-era Territorial Defense structures, Zagreb built an effective three-tiered army. At the top stood seven mechanized Guards brigades, staffed with professional soldiers and equipped with the most modern weaponry the Croats possessed. They were the tip of the spear in Operation STORM, the biggest European military undertaking since 1945. At the other end were Home Defense regiments, part-time troops that were intended for mopping up duties, not high-intensity combat. The bulk of the army consisted of infantry brigades, a mix of conscripts and reservists, intended for defense and limited offensive missions. Together, this three-level system restored Croatian independence and sovereignty, making efficient use of Zagreb’s limited stocks of modern weaponry. The only thing stopping Ukraine from doing something similar is a lack of will and imagination.
To sum up, the Russo-Ukrainian War is Kyiv’s to win, if it approaches the future wisely. The last year has been one of defeat after defeat for Ukraine, sometimes needlessly. Vladimir Putin has opted for war against Russia’s vast neighbor, the second biggest country in Europe, and this is now a conflict that Russia cannot win without a massive invasion and mobilization that would be politically and economically toxic to average Russians. Therefore the initiative has passed to Kyiv, if it has the strength and honor to use it. That will require thinking strategically, turning the espionage tables on Moscow, and building the right military machine for the war at hand. All this can be done, but every day that Kyiv does not change course is a further indication that the Poroshenko government does not really want to win.
Whether or not Edward Snowden actually wants to return to the United States to face a raft of espionage-related charges stemming from his unprecedented theft of classified materials and subsequent defection to Moscow, as his FSB-supplied lawyer maintains, the Snowden Operation keeps rolling on with revelations of alleged misdeeds by Western — and only ever Western — intelligence.
The latest target is, believe it or not, New Zealand. Yes, that tiny, peaceful country in the South Pacific stands accused of violating the privacy of its own citizens and that of its even smaller Pacific neighbors such as Samoa, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands. The basis of this claim, per usual, is Ed Snowden’s cache of stolen documents from the National Security Agency and its closest partners, the Five Eyes of the Anglosphere, of which New Zealand forms a part.
The report published in Glenn Greenwald’s Intercept, with assistance from the Kiwi activist Nicky Hager, portrays New Zealand’s SIGINT agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), in sinister terms, alleging a wide array of misdeeds. In its customary fashion, the Snowden Operation has taken purloined Top Secret documents and PowerPoints, spinning them dishonestly — not to mention that some of the stolen information is seriously out of date — for maximum political effect. The overall presentation is dishonest to its core.
None of this smear bears much resemblance to the actual GCSB which is part of the actual Five Eyes SIGINT alliance. In truth, GCSB is a small, efficient intelligence service that delivers excellent information to New Zealand and its allies, at modest cost. It is such a pleasant place that, some years ago, NSA’s liaison officer to GCSB, who found the organization and the country most congenial, refused to return home at the end of his tour and joined New Zealand intelligence at a senior level.
Fortunately, Prime Minister John Key is pushing back, as have some other countries who wisely chose not to take the Snowden smears lying down. Much of what has been presented is “just plain wrong,” the prime minister explained, filled with outdated information and half-truths. Key cut to the real issue, which is the Snowden Operation aims not to protect the privacy of anybody — one might think Ed would say something about the serious lack of privacy in Putin’s Russia, his new home — rather to injure Western intelligence agencies and to delegitimize foreign intelligence itself, at least when undertaken by free and democratic countries. As Key stated concisely:
But we do have the GCSB and it is a foreign intelligence service and it does gather foreign intelligence that is in the best interests of New Zealand and protecting New Zealanders.
If I was a New Zealander and the New Zealand prime minister got up and told me we had a foreign intelligence service that wasn’t gathering some foreign intelligence I’d ask him ‘what the hell are we paying the money for? And what the hell are you doing?’
Nicky Hager, who is at the center of this latest Snowden-derived operational game, has a long history of lies and dissimulations about GCSB, as Prime Minister Key hinted at. Hager has been disseminating anti-GCSB and anti-NSA propaganda for more than two decades. Indeed, his 1996 book Secret Power, which presented the Five Eyes SIGINT Alliance in a slapdash yet sinister manner that Greenwald and others have subsequently adopted in their discussions of Western intelligence, kicked off the large anti-NSA propaganda operation known as “ECHELON,” which was actually a Kremlin active measure.
Hager’s involvement in the Snowden Operation does not surprise, since it has previously activated other veteran anti-NSA activists who were behind the “ECHELON” operation. Hager is opposed to the very notion of foreign intelligence, at least when conducted by Western countries. As reported in Russia Today — the Kremlin’s state network which, Glenn Greenwald assures us, is no more biased than the BBC — Hager considers that New Zealand has no legitimate reason to spy on its Pacific neighbors, notwithstanding the fact that New Zealand is the major aid donor to these little countries and at times has had to restore order in some of them, by force, to prevent bloodshed. Instead, Hager offers the usual overheated rhetoric (“The Five Eyes countries led by the US are literally trying to spy on every country in the world”) that will be familiar to anyone who has read anything about the Snowden-Greenwald show.
Most of New Zealand’s little neighbors seem unfazed by the Snowden-Hager revelations — Samoa’s foreign minister blew it off as merely normal diplomacy — but Samoa is not the audience for the Snowden Operation. Western countries are, particularly ones that are in any position to resist Russia’s aggressive designs in Europe and elsewhere. Attacking the enemy’s alliance is as old as Sun Tzu because it works. The top U.S. Army general in Europe is on record stating that the Kremlin seeks to splinter the Atlantic Alliance without full-scale war. Here propaganda is of the utmost importance. Unless you favor Putin’s hegemony over Eastern Europe, it’s time to start paying attention.
That America is in trouble, and headed for more of it, is becoming received wisdom across the political aisle. For many on the Right, the Obama presidency heralds a new political age which they don’t like, just as many on the Left believed that the presidency of George W. Bush indicated that the end of the American experiment was nigh.
While the right-wing media regularly includes warnings that Obama has ushered in politico-economic trends that bode ill for America’s future, their counterparts on the Left are beginning to admit their doubts about our whole enterprise. Today, over at Vox, Matt Yglesias confesses that American democracy may well be doomed after all.
Yglesias is hardly a fringe character, rather an embodiment of Millennial liberalism. Once a mover and shaker over at the influential (and notorious to conservatives) JournoList, Yglesias has undeniable cachet among Beltway influencers, so when he says the country is pretty much cooked, it matters.
As usual over at Vox, his argument has a lot of flashcard-friendly facts and figures to back it up, and his conclusion — that political paralysis rooted in deep partisanship is only getting worse and threatens America’s constitutional democracy — is difficult to refute entirely. That said, Yglesias’ prognostications about America’s future course, including that the United States may turn into a gigantic, nuclear-armed Honduras, seem far-fetched, notwithstanding the apparent desire of Vox writers and readers to invite all of Central America to live in this country.
Yglesias gives short shrift to notions of a military coup or even a second American Civil War, and I don’t think he’s correct here. While it is difficult for anybody who knows the Pentagon well to imagine American generals and admirals getting together to overthrow the civilian government — that would require obscene amounts of PowerPoint and might endanger top brass golden parachutes with Beltway Bandits — the notion of a Civil War 2.0, however terrifying it may be, needs to be faced squarely, if we wish to avoid that awful fate.
America in the 21st century runs little risk of becoming Honduras Grande, but if current politico-economic trends continue much longer, we might well wind up a lot like Yugoslavia. That statement is sure to be controversial, since few Americans, citizens of the global hegemon and to many of them a most exceptional country, like to be compared with a relatively small Balkan federation that collapsed into wars and genocide a generation ago.
Yet the collapse of Yugoslavia offers several cautionary tales to Americans today, and if they are wise they will heed them and set the United States on a correction course before it is too late. As one who witnessed the dreadful collapse of Yugoslavia and its terrible aftermaths — including the seemingly permanent impoverishment of Southeastern Europe, mired in crime, corruption, and extremism — I would very much like America to discover a far happier fate.
However, some of the parallels are eerie and troubling. The differences must be explained up-front. Yugoslavia at its collapse had less than one-tenth of America’s population now, and its system of government was a socialist dictatorship, albeit one of a relatively enlightened kind. Notwithstanding a very nasty secret police force, Yugoslavia as nurtured under the charismatic Tito was a good deal more pleasant place to live than anywhere in the Soviet Bloc. Yugoslavs were free to travel abroad and, after the early 1950s, the repressive state apparatus didn’t have to throw many dissidents in prison, as public shaming, including threats of unemployment and loss of housing, cowed most would-be complainers into towing the party line, at least in public.
The root of Yugoslavia’s collapse was economic, particularly its parlous state finances. During the Cold War, Tito, who broke with Stalin in 1948 and thereby shattered Communist unity in Eastern Europe, was able to get big Western loans, since NATO viewed Yugoslavia as a necessary anti-Soviet bulwark in Europe, and with these billions of dollars, at low interest rates, the country developed a wide array of industries under its unique market socialist model.
Unfortunately, the oil shocks of 1973 ultimately undid this Balkan ponzi scheme, and as the cost of borrowing foreign money became prohibitive, Yugoslavia’s economy began to creak. At root, the country’s current operations, including funding the bloated state sector, depended on borrowed foreign money that Yugoslavia could no longer afford.
After Tito’s death in 1980, amid Western fears that Yugoslavia might implode to Moscow’s benefit, NATO signaled to Belgrade that, if they got their fiscal house in order, the money might keep flowing. In response, the Communist Party ordered Sergej Krajgher, a party stalwart from Slovenia, to see what had to be done to repair the country’s mounting socio-economic mess.
After two years of study, Krajgher’s commission in 1983 released its report, which correctly assessed that Yugoslavia needed to get its economic house in order to avoid financial, and then political, collapse. Specifically, Krajgher recommended the sell-off of unprofitable state enterprises, allowing more market forces to work, and above all comprehensive fiscal reform to get Yugoslavia off the drug of foreign loans. This was all excellent advice.
Its effect, however, was zero. The report was ignored, and Communist officials never made any effort to seriously implement any of Krajgher’s solid recommendations. It was too politically painful to make cuts, so the government pretended there was no problem. Until it was too late.
Comparisons to Obama are unavoidable. Early in his first term, he empowered a bi-partisan board, known colloquially as the Simpson-Bowles commission, to investigate improving the long-term condition of America’s state finances. The commission’s findings were thorough and persuasive, and they offered a way out of the country’s fiscal morass. At a minimum, Simpson-Bowles set the terms for a necessary debate. But Obama inexplicably pretended that his own commission ever existed. No debate ensued, since discussing cuts of government benefits to voters is electorally toxic — Republicans are no more eager to talk about this pain than Democrats — and nothing happened.
America, possessing the global reserve currency, has a margin for fiscal error enjoyed by no other country, but at some point the game of borrowing vast amounts of foreign money to fund our government will end, and end badly. The U.S. national debt now exceeds $18 trillion, which given the fact that only a little more than 120 million Americans actually pay federal taxes, amounts to almost $150,000 of debt per taxpayer. To say nothing of ballooning state and local government indebtedness. Rhode Island, where I lived for many years, witnessing its love of other people’s money to pay for an unsustainable welfare state, is so deeply in debt that it’s as bad off as Greece, as even the mainstream media admits.
There is no reason to think this will end pleasantly, given the track record of every other country that has gotten itself deeply into long-term debt and dependency on borrowed foreign money to pay for current liabilities. Once doubts of any sort emerge about the U.S. dollar’s status as the global reserve currency, the rot will emerge rapidly and America’s fiscal nightmare will be here, with a vengeance. That reckoning can be delayed for years, even decades, but when it comes, as it eventually will, it will come suddenly, at which point there will be no palatable remedy.
Possessing only the weak dinar, Yugoslavia had no such margin for error or avoidance, and the party’s punting on economic reform meant that the fiscal collapse would come sooner than later. By the late 1980s, interest rates and unemployment were both sky-high and Belgrade was running out of hard (i.e. real) money. Repeated devaluations of the dinar did little good, and even a belated IMF effort in 1988 to float Yugoslavia a bit longer, in exchange for promises of real market reforms, could not stave off disaster. It was too late. Political dysfunction had become fatal, making economic reform impossible.
Worse, economic problems, including unemployment and inflation that impoverished Yugoslavs rapidly — by the time the country went over the cliff in 1991, real incomes were half what they had been a generation before — exacerbated the country’s serious ethnic grievances. When combined with economic emergency, Yugoslavia’s ethnic politics proved a lethal combination that led directly to wars and genocide.
Yugoslavia was a very diverse country, ethnically and religiously, and the divisions between groups were real and serious. Unlike 21st century Americans, Yugoslavs were under no illusions that “diversity is our greatest strength” — they knew the opposite was the truth — and the Communists went to great lengths to keep ethnic peace by banning what we would term “hate speech” while mandating that the official doctrine that Yugoslavia’s diverse peoples really loved each other deeply be placed at the level of quasi-religious dogma.
Rewriting history, to show certain ethnic groups as victims and others as perpetrators of race-based crimes, took its toll, since Yugoslavs knew this was too simple, and was being used as a political weapon by the authorities. Aggressive “affirmative action” in education and employment — Belgrade termed it the “ethnic key” — was another perennial sore-spot for many citizens, since ethnic status and ties often mattered more than competence. Needless to add, this hardly helped the economy either.
Perhaps worst of all, by preventing any honest discussion of ethnic matters, the Communists had a perverse knack of making each of Yugoslavia’s many ethnic groups feel that it was uniquely aggrieved. Thus any Serb or Croat or Albanian or Bosnian Muslim, could look at similar events and quietly determine that his group was really the persecuted one in the Communist-mandated racial games that were enforced by the authorities.
When the Communist monopoly on power began to wane in the mid-1980s, as across Eastern Europe, and the Yugoslav media began taking on taboo topics, nothing was more discussed than ethnic politics and their messy history. It quickly became a firestorm. To cite the most damaging example, around 1985 the Serbian media began reporting violent crimes committed against Serbs by Albanians in Kosovo, which was a majority-Albanian province that enjoyed self-government under Tito’s system.
While Albanians did commit crimes against Serbs, the opposite was also true, yet the Belgrade media focused on the former while ignoring the latter. Accounts of rapes of Serbian women — some real, many imagined — served to whip up nationalist fervor. The press, with Serbia’s Communist Party increasingly behind them, since they realized that nationalism was a powerful motivator for potential voters, indulged in regular accounts of lurid Albanian crimes against Serbs.
A classic case was that of Djordje Martinović, a Serb in Kosovo who in 1986 claimed he had been brutalized by Albanian thugs, including being anally raped with a bottle, in a horrible hate crime. The Serbian media went wild with the story, which inflamed rising nationalist passions. Albanian protests that the media was wrong made no headway with Serbs, who preferred what I have elsewhere termed The Narrative over facts. The subsequent revelation that Martinović had faked his attack, having injured himself in an act of self-pleasuring gone seriously wrong, got a lot less media attention than the initial story.
By then the damage was done, as anybody familiar with Yugoslavia’s tragic demise knows. A colorless Communist functionary on the make, Slobodan Milošević, realized that nationalism was the ticket to political success as Communism waned. He made the fate of Serbs in Kosovo, real and imagined, his major plank, and he exploited this toxic environment created by the media to whip up a frenzy that he could exploit, and he did.
By 1989, Milošević was the master of Serbia, and he promptly cancelled Kosovo’s autonomy, reducing the Albanians there to second-class status under the Serbs. This was payback for all the crimes perpetrated by Albanians against innocent Serbs. Of course, radicalization inevitably begets counter-radicalization, and before long Croats, Albanians, and all the non-Serbian groups in Yugoslavia were digging up their own nationalist grievances and skewed history to counter the Serbs. War and genocide were soon to follow, in a tragedy that was especially poignant because it was eminently avoidable.
Playing political games with race and ethnicity in any multinational society is a dangerous thing. Obama, by promising that he wanted to be president of all Americans, then governing as a highly partisan Democrat, has laid the groundwork for a hazardous future for the United States, hardly helped by his public indulging of black nationalism, particularly his incautious discussion of crimes both real and imagined against African Americans. However verboten discussion of white nationalism is at present among polite Americans, it is unavoidable that this will become an issue in the future, with potentially explosive consequences — to say nothing of the rise of Hispanic and Asian nationalisms too, as the United States becomes even more diverse than Yugoslavia was.
Managing this increasingly fissiparous country as economic prospects diminish will challenge the most gifted politicians. Indulging in ethnic resentments as a substitute for solutions to vexing politico-economic problems only makes things go from bad to worse, sometimes rapidly and painfully. With both our parties increasingly beholden to Wall Street at the expense of Main Street, average Americans of all backgrounds will not be happy that they are bequeathing a life of less affluence and opportunity to their children. In such a time of troubles, playing ethno-racial political games as a substitute for reform is deeply irresponsible.
It would be nice if Democrats and Republicans played better together, particularly on the budget and borrowing money. It would be especially nice if they seriously addressed issues of rising economic inequality and diminishing opportunities for average Americans. But it is imperative that they not fan the flames of ethnic and racial resentments if they wish to avoid a terrible outcome for our country.
The fate of Yugoslavia was anything but preordained. The United States, whatever its problems, is a far richer and better-run state than anything created by Tito. But the same threats lurk, particularly those of economic degradation caused by debt and made impossible to fix thanks to toxic racial politics. America need not become a vast Balkan horror show — I think it’s more likely in coming decades to become a huge nuclear-armed Brazil, with entrenched economic inequality, often among racial lines, that I find noxious and unworthy of our country — but the fate of Yugoslavia must be avoided at all costs. Our next Civil War would be much more vicious and protracted than the last one, have no illusions.