Accessibility links

Yugoslavia: Analysis From Washington -- When The Personal And The Political Collide

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 3 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The release of three American servicemen in Yugoslavia as the result of an unofficial and unauthorized mission to Belgrade highlights the sometimes inevitable conflicts between personal feelings and political goals.

No one in the United States was unhappy to see the three U.S. soldiers released from their captivity yesterday. But many -- including senior officials in NATO capitals -- were concerned by the way in which this happened and by the near certainty that Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic will try to exploit this situation to advance his political goals.

A spokesman for U.S. President Bill Clinton, for example, reflected these divided feelings. While acknowledging that Washington was "obviously" pleased that the soldiers would now be free to return home, Joe Lockhard said on Saturday that it was "not appropriate" to discuss the Clinton Administration's original -- and, according to press reports, largely negative -- attitude to American civil rights leader Jesse Jackson's trip to Belgrade.

There are three reasons why governments almost invariably oppose such efforts at private diplomacy, particularly during military conflicts. All three are rooted in the fact that such actions can undercut official policy and may give aid and comfort to those the governments are fighting against.

First, leaders like Milosevic can exploit such events for their own purposes. Not only did Milosevic have the chance to present himself as a peacemaker -- Jackson told him that releasing the soldiers would constitute "a bold move" for peace -- but they also allowed the Yugoslav leader to turn the tables on NATO.

Following his sessions with Milosevic, Jackson said that he hoped "the bombers will take a day off and give peace a chance." Moreover, the American civil rights activist -- who has often engaged in such unofficial diplomacy in the past -- said he would carry a Milosevic letter to Clinton proposing a face-to-face meeting at which the two could discuss ways to end the conflict.

Because of the attention these statements have received in the Western press, there can be little doubt that such steps complicate rather than advance the cause of stopping the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and giving the Kosovars the chance to return home with security, NATO's two primary goals.

Second, actions not only highlight but exacerbate divisions within the populations of countries who are fighting to oppose Milosevic's policy of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. That Americans, like the citizens of other NATO countries, are divided on the Kosovo crisis is well-known. But this latest exercise in private diplomacy is likely to make such divisions deeper and more obvious to Milosevic.

This mission precisely because of the enormous media attention it has received, may have the effect of making such splits deeper, obscuring the all too real fact that Milosevic is releasing three Americans -- something that grabbed the headlines yesterday -- while NATO is trying to stop him and his forces from killing, raping or driving out thousands of Kosovars.

That in turn has made these divisions more obvious to Milosevic, possibly encouraging him to resist NATO demands, in the hope that the citizens of NATO countries will eventually force their governments to change course.

And third, such actions, especially in a media age, often deflect the national purpose of governments. While the Clinton Administration opposed this latest exercise in unofficial diplomacy, it will now have to respond to the consequences of that trip. There is already speculation that President Clinton may meet the three soldiers who have been released when he travels to Europe this week. He will likely meet Jackson as well. And on both those occasions, the American leader will find himself responding to a situation created not by his own policies and diplomacy or by the actions of his opponents but rather by a private American citizen who acted without the sanction of his own government.

In the short term, most people in the United States and elsewhere are likely to take pleasure simply in seeing the three American soldiers return from captivity. But over time, ever more may see their happiness tempered by a reflection of what can happen when private citizens attempt to engage in diplomacy.