To get some perspective on Iraq and Afghanistan, let's revisit the previous decade's big nation-building project. Eleven years after U.S.-led forces went into Bosnia and seven after Kosovo, the Balkans remain prone to violence and riven by sectarian tensions. The scale of the difficulties wasn't appreciated at the start. Yet the alternative to the uneasy peace there today was -- and remains -- misery and instability on Europe's southeastern flank.
Tough decisions now loom for the Balkans, testing nerves and American leadership. By year's end, Kosovo is to move toward "final status," which to everyone but Serbia and Russia means independence. This will take finesse, so as not to push Serbia into the wilderness or rattle the weak multi-ethnic constructs in Bosnia and Macedonia. The U.S. and Europeans are also sure to come into conflict with Russia over Kosovo.
This tussle is Slobodan Milosevic's last gift to the world. In suing for peace with NATO in 1999, the late strongman made sure Kosovo stayed Serbia's on paper, and the U.S. and the Europeans let him get away with it. Though NATO troops and a U.N. government set up camp, and Belgrade no longer held sway, Serbians could indulge the fantasy that Kosovo wasn't gone for good.
The problem has festered for seven years. A U.N. negotiator, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, tried and failed to negotiate a solution. Milosevic's democratically elected successors aren't willing to take the blame for the loss of Kosovo, and Kosovar Albanian expectations were raised so high about sovereignty that their leaders had nothing left to negotiate. Mr. Ahtisaari called off the talks, and went to work on a plan for the Security Council.
The open secret is that the Finn will propose independence, but the timing and details are contentious. Both are worth sweating over. In an unstated quid pro quo, the internationals will hold off on Kosovo until Serbia holds parliamentary elections and gets a government with a four-year mandate, presumably enough time for voters to forget the loss.
But the Serbs must first call the poll, probably slated for early December, after this weekend's referendum on a new constitution, which was drawn up when Montenegro left their rump union earlier this year. (Shrinking is a Serbian speciality.) Though the constitution reasserts the claim to Kosovo, that clause is hardly legitimate, not least since the Kosovar Albanians didn't have a say in its drafting or ratification.
Any delay beyond early December risks the renewal of ethnic violence last seen in the spring of 2004, when the Kosovar Albanians rioted. In a telephone interview this week, U.S. envoy for Kosovo, Frank Wisner, told us by phone from Pristina that America remains committed to bringing the issue before the Security Council by the end of December.
Our sources tell us that the Ahtisaari plan takes inspiration from the sovereignty with strings attached granted Germany in 1949. Kosovo may not get a U.N. seat or a standing army for a while. It won't be called "conditional independence," but it'll be conditioned. Though Belgrade wants to carve away the Serb-dominated regions of northern Kosovo, partition is not on the table. It is, however, the reality on the ground and minority Serbs, the victims of ethnic cleansing since 1999, deserve reassurances about security. As do Serbs in Serbia proper about their religious sites in Kosovo.
Structured this way, with doors kept open to the EU and NATO on the ground, an independent Kosovo could thrive as other small, new European countries have. The wild card is Russia. Vladimir Putin recently tied the fate of Kosovo to unresolved territorial disputes in his own backyard. If Kosovo wins independence, he asked, why not the Russian-run breakaway regions of Georgia -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia? (By this reasoning, Russian Chechnya should also be a candidate for a U.N. seat but by now we shouldn't expect this Kremlin regime to be rational.)
So add Kosovo to Iran, Sudan, the Caucasus and other flashpoints where Mr. Putin works overtime to sabotage American policy. Russia may find an ally in China, nervous about "precedents" for Tibet and Taiwan. With Europe preferring to react than act in the Balkans, as in general on foreign affairs, Washington will be charged with pushing any resolution through the Security Council.
Of all the arguments thrown in the way of Kosovo independence, the territorial-integrity one holds up least well. Kosovo is a unique case -- a U.N.-run region that once belonged to a now defunct state, Yugoslavia. Serbia has little legal, much less moral, claim on Kosovo. Milosevic's ethnic cleansing campaigns struck the final nails in that coffin. The "threat" to Bosnia and Macedonia is another canard. Both countries have legitimate constitutions that prohibit secession.
As ever, Balkan politics are a mess, and loud nationalists grab a lot of the attention. In the West's 12 years in the region, lots of money went to waste, empowering extremists and fostering corruption. Mass murderers like Radovan Karadzic are on the lam. NATO will need to stay on in Kosovo for many years, and the U.S. and Europe will have to remain engaged in other ways. But who can reasonably claim it's not worth it?
No two conflict zones are the same. By quirk of timing, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan are all now at turning points. If the world has learned anything in the past decade plus, it's that trying to rebuild war-torn nations takes great amounts of perseverance, hard work -- and most of all time. In 1995, Bill Clinton promised to bring the GIs home from Bosnia within 12 months. The last U.S. troops left earlier this year.