Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic's acceptance of an international peace plan to end the Kosovo conflict and allow the return of Albanian refugees to their homes was greeted with cautious optimism in the West.

Yet for many in the West, the roots and reasons that triggered NATO's air war remain vague.

In a May 6 Wall Street Journal article, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher reprised the rationale for NATO's war against Yugoslavia in a way that is worth examining because it is shared by so many.

She draws an exact parallel between “Milosevic's Serbia” and the “madness of Nazism,” and insists that an appeasement policy failed in both instances. Thatcher has been joined in invoking Hitler's name by many NATO leaders, including President Clinton. They have used it to explain the morality and purpose of the current military campaign. Also, George Melloan, in his May 11 “Global View” column in The Wall Street Journal, identified Milosevic's government as “just such a murderous regime as Hitler headed.”

Such statements evoke Winston Churchill's pronouncements about Nazism and the insatiable ideology that drove its onslaught. Is this what existed in nascent form in Yugoslavia eight years ago, and is this what had come to fruition in the brutal ethnic cleansing in Kosovo?

The use of Nazism to explain events in the Balkans is a visceral response to the horrible atrocities there. But selectively concentrating on atrocities can incapacitate the kind of thinking needed to discern the underlying political reasons that gave rise to them in the first place.

This article is not meant to exculpate Serb authorities for their barbaric acts, but to examine the political conditions behind the conflicts and the Western role in igniting them. Also, the military means employed by NATO must be used to further political ends. If we mistake the political origins of the problems in the Balkans, we can bomb forever and miss the real target.

On the face of it, the Nazi analogy immediately runs into problems. Nazi Germany steadily grew through its acts of aggression until it nearly conquered the Soviet Union, and thus all of Eurasia. Yet throughout every act of “Serbian” aggression that Thatcher lists, Yugoslavia has become smaller. What kind of Hitler could this be, if through “unop-posed” aggression his country has been successive ly diminished over the past eight years?

By 1993, there were already 600,000 Serb refugees who had fled to Serbia and Montenegro from other parts of Yugoslavia. Also, no one has produced a Serbian document faintly resembling Mein Kampf, spelling out an insidious totalitarian ideology of unlimited goals.

Rather than implementing a master plan of Serbian race supremacy, Milosevic, a clever Leninist tactician, has been improvising in the midst of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. That disintegration, aided and abetted by Western powers, set off a contest over sovereignty. In the ensuing struggle, it is difficult to assign blame to only one side. Without a framework within which to decide it otherwise, that contest has been conducted by force of arms. To understand it otherwise invites further disaster than has already been caused by Western intervention.

‘Why should I be a minority in your state when you can be a minority in mine?’

Before the Balkans Were a Verb

Thatcher starts with the proposition that “the West could have stopped Milosevic in Slovenia” in 1991.

This would have been difficult since, in 1991, the collective presidency of Yugoslavia was in disarray and the prime minister was a Croat, Ante Markovich. Milosevic, then the new president of Serbia, was not in the chain of command.

The Yugoslav federal parliament ordered Defense Minister Veljko Kodijevic to secure the country's borders with Italy and Austria. For 10 days, the Yugoslav People's Army offered what was essentially symbolic resistance to Slovenia's secession from the Yugoslav Federal Republic.

After encountering armed resistance from the Slovene home defense forces, Yugoslavia called it a day and withdrew. There were fewer than 70 fatalities. Slovenia had invoked its constitutional right to secede. The Yugoslav People's Army had exercised its constitutional duty to preserve the territorial integrity of the country.

Who was right? Since the right and the duty collide within the same constitution, the legality of the secession and the action against it are both legally ambiguous. In any case, it is hard to imagine how Serbia could have been “stopped” here, as Thatcher suggests, since it had not yet started anything.

Blood and Power

The bloodier case of Croatia more clearly illustrates what has driven the fighting since the beginning of Yugoslavia's breakup — something far more parochial and less ambitious than a thousand-year Reich. Yugoslav political theorist Vladimir Gligorov expressed this driving force succinctly in the form of a question: “Why should I be a minority in your state when you can be a minority in mine?”

Croats no longer wished to be a minority in the larger Yugoslav state, so Croatia declared its independence in 1991. If one accepted the unilateral Croatian declaration, the Yugoslav People's Army forces stationed in Zagreb were already, by definition, “aggressors” on the territory of a sovereign state. But what of the nearly 600,000 Serb civilians living in Croatia and their wish to remain part of Yugoslavia? Was Croatia only for the Croats?

Changes in the Croatian constitution in December 1990 led the Serbs to think so, as did the purges of Serbs from police and other civil functions. In reaction, the Serbs in the Krajina area of Croatia attempted what the Kosovar Albanians would themselves try to do — to establish autonomy. While the Croats declared that no Yugoslav federal law conflicting with Croatian law would be enforced on its territory, the Krajina Serbs declared the opposite, that no Croatian law in conflict with federal law would be enforced in their domain.

Here were the makings of the civil war that ensued.

The final outcome of that struggle came in 1995, when Croatian military forces cleansed 150,000 Serb civilians from Croatia by roughly the same means the Serbs are now employing in Kosovo. According to The Hague war crimes tribunal report on “Operation Storm,” these included indiscriminate shelling of the Serb civilian population, looting, burning, summary executions and numerous disappearances. In all, since 1991, Croatia purged over 10% of its population. It is hard to comprehend this conflict simply as an act of Serb aggression.

The Gligorov Principle

Thatcher also states that the West could have stopped Milosevic in Bosnia in 1992. However, this tragedy can also be understood as a struggle over sovereignty, though it is far more complex, because no nationality in Bosnia enjoyed a majority.

The fundamental political problem in Bosnia was that the majority of its people did not accept it as a sovereign entity. Nonetheless, it was constituted as one by a unilateral declaration of independence and by international recognition. The question then arose: On what basis could those Bosnians who did not accept the sovereignty of Bosnia be forced to accept it? And who would do the forcing?

To put the case abstractly, let us say a territory had gained its independence from a foreign power. Within its territory, one-third of the people said they would consent to a joint confederation only if provided local autonomy and the possibility of some form of future association with a neighboring country. Let us say that, without the consent of this one-third, the other two-thirds declared the existence of a unitary state that included all of them.

This newly declared state is then recognized as sovereign by some supranational power and by other nations. If the one-third then takes up arms in the name of its own independence, by what moral right can external powers force it to become part of a state to which it had never given its consent?

After all, political legitimacy is morally constituted by consent, not by the recognition of foreign powers. If foreign powers then attacked the recalcitrant one-third for its refusal to submit to the new state, who would be the aggressor?

Before Bosnia was declared an independent, unitary state, the Bosnian Serbs made the above-mentioned demands. If these conditions were not met, the Bosnian Serbs warned that they would fight for their independence.

The trip wire for such a fight would be a Bosnian declaration of independence without Bosnian Serb consent. Some may argue that the March 1, 1992, referendum in Bosnia democratically decided the issue of its independence since the vote was overwhelmingly in favor.

However, the Bosnian Serbs did not participate in this vote because it presumed the existence of a state that they had not yet agreed to be part of. They also knew the Bosnian Croats and Muslims, who at that time were allied, could easily outvote them.

The democratic principle of one man, one vote, does not help much here because the argument is over the legitimate entity in which it is to be exercised.

Is it Yugoslavia, or only part of Yugoslavia? Is it Bosnia, which had never before existed as a state, or only part of Bosnia? Is it all right for Yugoslavia to disintegrate into ethnically denominated republics, but not all right for one of its regions to fracture further into smaller ethnically designated entities?

As stated to a U.S. correspondent before the breakup of the Yugoslav federation, Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian Muslim leader, said he was willing to apply one man, one vote, within Bosnia. But he was not willing to accept this principle within the larger Yugoslavia. According to the Gligorov principle, the reason is simple. In Yugoslavia, the Serbs enjoyed a plurality, while in Bosnia the Muslims do.

The Leverage of Recognition

However, Izetbegovic, as well as the Macedonians, made a futile attempt to persuade the Europeans not to recognize Croatia and Slovenia because that would oblige Bosnia and Macedonia to seek independence, and that, in turn, would provoke Serbia. They knew their real safety lay in being part of a multinational state. Recognition of anyone in the former Yugoslavia should have been withheld until the Serbs and Croats stopped fighting and agreed to leave Bosnia alone.

The leverage of recognition should have been used to promote a comprehensive settlement. This was the explicit understanding with which Lord Peter Carrington began his mediation efforts for the European Community in 1991. This chance was squandered when Germany went ahead in December 1991 and recognized Slovenia and Croatia, even though Croatia had not met the minority rights test required by the European Community for such recognition.

The other European Community governments followed, and then the United States. As Carrington said of the effect of the recognition, “I had no leverage at all.” He told Le Figaro(July 13, 1993), “I warned the responsible Europeans against this decision which ruined all efforts for peace.”

After the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia, Izetbegovic told Carrington, “I must demand the independence of Bosnia. If I do not, I will have my throat cut. But I must tell you that such a declaration will end in civil war.”

Izetbegovic was right. It did.

Next week: The West, anxious to head off a bloody conflict in the Balkans, chose one of three possible options and decided to “internationalize” the problem.

Robert Reilly, a former special assistant to President Reagan, writes from Washington, D.C.