Seldom have events more dramatically demonstrated that it is better to be lucky than smart. The popular uprising that ousted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic happened despite, not because, of Clinton administration policy. A U.S. foreign policy based on humility, as suggested by Republican presidential contender George W. Bush, rather than on hubris, as advanced by Vice President Al Gore, would promote a safer, more stable world.

The Balkans has long been in turmoil. Thirteen years ago, Milosevic used Serb nationalism to catapult into power. Never a full dictator, he maintained control through domination of the media, manipulation of the electoral system, and exploitation of a divided opposition.

And by playing on nationalist sentiments. In this he was not alone: His Croatian counterpart, Franjo Tudjman, was equally opportunistic.

Once Yugoslavia started to split apart, the West encouraged its dissolution, recognizing Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. Yet when Serbs sought to secede from the latter two nationalist enclaves, the West demurred, calling their efforts “aggression.” The United States, which itself had refused to allow secession at a cost of 630,000 lives, criticized Belgrade for doing the same.

Rather than promote a peaceful resolution, through, for instance, the so-called Lisbon Accord early in the conflict, Washington fomented war. It encouraged Bosnia to fight and Croatia to conduct the region’s largest campaign of ethnic cleansing — kicking hundreds of thousands of Serbs out of the Krajina region.

Then the U.S. began bombing Serb insurgents in Bosnia to compel them to accept the bizarre Dayton Agreement, which purports to preserve a multiethnic Bosnia. This artificial state survives only through Western military occupation.

Then NATO decided to intervene in Kosovo, a civil war of modest proportions compared to a score around the world. The administration attempted to impose the Rambouillet agreement on the Serbs; it required Yugoslavia to allow Western forces free access throughout the entire country, as if it was conquered territory.

Belgrade understandably said no, so the West launched a war of aggression against a state that had neither attacked nor threatened the U.S.; Clinton began bombing without congressional or U.N. authorization. The victorious West then presided over the ethnic cleansing of a quarter of a million Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and non-Albanian Muslims. Only military occupation preserves the status quo — autonomy within Serbia, which neither Albanians nor Serbs desire.

Washington, along with the Europeans, also intermittently imposed economic sanctions on Yugoslavia. Yet Milosevic and his allies enriched themselves on the black market.

In contrast, the middle class was devastated. Zoran Djindjic, head of the Democratic Party and adviser to newly elected President Vojislav Kostunica, complained to me two years ago that “sanctions lead to centralization of the management of the economy.” He said his followers couldn’t even afford gasoline to drive to a rally.

The allied bombing worsened the problem. Milosevic blamed the West — and the Western-backed opposition. Observed Kostunica: “Western policy, above all the American policy” has been “more helpful to Slobodan Milosevic than to his opponents.”

Nor is Kostunica any friend of Washington. He is a staunch nationalist, who criticized Dayton as a sellout. He opposes relinquishing Serb sovereignty over Kosovo.

He denounced NATO for its aggression, which he termed a “criminal act” and “America’s private war.” That intervention, he wrote, “caused the humanitarian catastrophe.”

He criticized the West for “flagrant interference” in Yugoslavia’s affairs by subsidizing Milosevic’s opponents. And he refuses to turn over Milosevic or others to NATO’s lap-dog, the Hague war-crimes tribunal.

In short, he won because the elite believed they could deal with him and the public recognized that he was no Western lackey.

Kostunica is likely to be a far more formidable opponent of Washington. He will be more popular with his people and more difficult to demonize abroad. When he demands that the West live up to its promises in Kosovo, America’s hypocrisy will be harder to ignore. Russia will feel few qualms in supporting him.

This is a successful Clinton-Gore policy? Seldom has an administration generated more chaos and war.

Democracy has come to Yugoslavia through the efforts of common Serbs, not Western policymakers. The next American president should recognize the obvious limits of U.S. influence.

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