Maud Beelman
Maud Beelman

Fellowship Title:

Hear No Evil, See No Evil: Early U.S. Policy in Yugoslavia

Maud Beelman
October 26, 1996

Fellowship Year

Note: This article contained pictures that were copyrighted and could not be published on this Web page.

The small group of American diplomats were gathered in the secure room of the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, debating what was holding Yugoslavia together and what threatened to tear it apart.

It was an intellectual exercise that had gone on in U.S. diplomatic, military, and intelligence circles since the 1980 death of Josip Broz, “Tito,” the Communist dictator who battled the Germans in World War II, distanced the Soviets in the Cold War, and kept Europe’s most multiethnic country intact.

Beelman01.jpg Photo by AP/Wide World Photos

Slovene soldiers flash victory signs in July 1991 in front of tanks captured from the Yugoslav federal army, the JNA, at a checkpoint on the Yugoslav-Austrian border. The fighting in Slovenia, the northern and most western of Yugoslavia’s six republics, lasted less than a month and paled in comparison to the war that erupted later in Croatia and Bosnia.
Photo by AP/Wide World Photos
U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III met with Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader, and other top officials of Yugoslavia on June 21, 1991 in a last-minute and unsuccessful attempt to keep Yugoslavia united. War erupted less than a week after Baker’s visit.

This time there was a sense of urgency. It was 1988, and a new breed of Yugoslav politician, named Slobodan Milosevic, had already taken over the Serbian republic’s Communist Party and was well on his way to consolidating control elsewhere.

Milosevic rose to power on the ruins of Tito’s mantra of “Brotherhood and Unity,” in which postwar Yugoslavia suppressed its regional and religious differences to the greater goal of statehood. Amid the upheaval of a failing state-run economy – rising unemployment, three-digit annual inflation, and $21 billion in foreign debt – Milosevic used nationalist rhetoric to galvanize masses of Serbs, the largest ethnic group in Yugoslavia. His arrival on the national political scene had come in 1987, when he railed against the alleged oppression of Serbs in Kosovo, a southern Serbian province that had been the heart of their medieval empire but was now about 90 percent ethnic Albanian.

Ambassador John D. Scanlan’s advisers warned him that Milosevic had become a dangerous threat to Yugoslavia’s stability. But Scanlan was unconvinced. Milosevic was an economic reformer, had been an investment banker, often doing business in New York City, he argued.

“Mr. Ambassador, he is not an economic reformer. He’s a dangerous human being!” one of the advisers shot back angrily.

A participant at the meeting, held three years before war ripped through Yugoslavia, recalled that Scanlan “just blew it off. He said, ‘I know him, Sloba’s a good man.”‘

The meeting stands out in time, the diplomat added, because it crystallized the difference between Scanlan and his advisers’ attempts to “report the rise of a very different type of communist official, who was using nationalism in a very dangerous and potent way.”

“The ambassador just didn’t get it,” the diplomat continued. “He refused to see that Milosevic had already changed tracks, that no longer was he going to go on this plank of economic reform, but he’d already realized that the nationalism card was far more successful for him.”

Ambassadors have the final say on all reports to Washington, and cables leaving Scanlan’s embassy were “watered down” during the years of Milosevic’s rise to power, several U.S. diplomats have said.

“There was a tremendous degree of skepticism about Scanlan, that he was basically not just pro-Serb, but pro-Milosevic, to a degree that was entirely inappropriate to his position,” said another State Department official, at the time a junior-level analyst in Washington. “I remember one famous line in a Scanlan cable about Milosevic, saying that even though one might see much to complain about, he got Yugoslav politics off dead-center. That was widely jeered and derided among our level.”

The diplomats agreed to discuss policy in the years leading to the 1991 outbreak of war in Yugoslavia only on condition they not be named. Publicly criticizing U.S. policy on Yugoslavia and Milosevic, whose persona has ranged from alleged war criminal to alleged peacemaker in Bosnia, can be (as it has in the past) detrimental to successful State Department careers.

Scanlan, a career Foreign Service Officer, became ambassador to Yugoslavia in 1985 after his nomination to Poland was withdrawn during tense U.S.-Polish relations. He served in Belgrade four years, his second tour of duty in the bustling East European city that was capital to both the Serbian republic and Yugoslavia. He had been the embassy’s No. 2 man in the late 1970s under then-Ambassador Lawrence Eagleburger.

Scanlan retired from government service in May 1991 and immediately went to work for Milan Panic, a Serbian-American pharmaceuticals mogul who was investing in Yugoslavia and who briefly was the premier of the rump federation. The same month, in a speech to the Canadian Serbian Council, Scanlan accused Western media of failing to recognize Serbia’s democratic tradition and pro-democracy movement and of portraying Serbia as “the problem” in Yugoslavia, The Toronto Star reported at the time. It was a charge frequently heard in state-run Serb media.

Noting he had “criticisms” of his own, Scanlan nonetheless declined to be interviewed.

Photo by AP/Wide World Photos
Warren Zimmerman was the last U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia before war broke out. His arrival in Belgrade in March 1989 came after Slobodan Milosevic had seized virtually all power in the Serbian republic through a terror campaign, based on nationalist rhetoric and scare tactics. Milosevic, emboldened by his free reign, refused to receive Zimmerman for nearly a year.

By the time Scanlan’s successor, Warren Zimmerman, arrived in Belgrade in March 1989 with a tougher U.S. tone, focused on human rights and democratic reform, an emboldened Milosevic had already ousted the previous government of Vojvodina, a Serbian province with a large Hungarian minority, and revoked Kosovo’s autonomy, replacing it with virtual martial law.

While refusing to discuss the Scanlan embassy, Zimmerman said it was clear Milosevic “noticed there was a change” in U.S. policy, and refused to receive him for almost a year.

“His priorities in those days were to establish himself as the apostle of Serbian nationalism,” Zimmerman said in an interview. “He undoubtably regretted that the United States more or less threw itself athwart that position, but I don’t think he was going to be deterred from it by anything.”

Milosevic’s use of nationalism as a path to power appeared aimed at a Serb takeover of Yugoslavia and alarmed Slovenia and Croatia, the other two major republics, fueling their own brand of nationalism that led to secessionist movements.

It is unclear if events would have been altered had Scanlan advocated an early and tough stand on Milosevic. There was little inclination back in Washington to hear bad news from Belgrade, which had been useful to the United States in its Cold War powerplay with the Soviet Union.

That decades-long role as a counter to Soviet-style communism earned Yugoslavia goodwill, focused largely on the Serbs, who were most familiar through their dominance of the military and because the foreign diplomatic community was headquartered in Belgrade, the Serbian capital.

“The (defense) attache corps in Belgrade seemed to find it difficult to look critically at the JNA (Yugoslav Peoples Army).

I think they took at face value what the JNA told them. The JNA looked like a professional military,” said one American who served in Belgrade.

Photo by AP/Wide World Photos
Soldiers loyal to the newly secessionist Croatia show their guns shortly before fighting broke out with Serbian nationalists, opposed to the break with Belgrade, in the Croatian village of Majur in July 1991.

Additionally, he noted, “People who were assigned to Belgrade tended to like Belgrade, and their friends tended to be Serbs.”

But many diplomats also felt the Serbs had a legitimate complaint with the way the federal government was structured in the 1974 constitution, part of Tito’s ethnic balancing act to keep the dominant Serbs in check. In addition to Yugoslavia’s six republics, the constitution gave equal voting rights on the federal presidency to Serbia’s two provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo. Serbia was the only republic with such an internal legislative carve-up.

“It was fairly proven that Tito did everything he could to keep them down and to keep them out of power,” said a former Belgrade diplomat. “So there was a tremendous amount of goodwill toward the Serbs in Belgrade. They had to use up all of that goodwill over the next few years before anybody realized that something completely different was going on, that they weren’t just trying to equalize, but that they were trying to take over.”

Trouble in Yugoslavia was unwelcome news also because the likely consequences of its breakup were so well plotted.

“It simply was the most widely predicted war of the late 20th century,” said Jim Meyer, a retired U.S. Army colonel, who was part of a Pentagon war-gaming exercise on the demise of Yugoslavia in 1983. “Everybody knew it was going to come apart, and it was going to get nasty.”

Because of its importance vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, the breakup of Yugoslavia had been studied for years by the CIA and the departments of defense and state. A 1989 war game, said another Pentagon officer, looked at how the Soviet Union would react if Yugoslavia came apart through internal divisions and the possibility of Moscow instigating a breakup to deflect U.S. attention from other areas of Soviet interest.

Ironically, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia started coming apart simultaneously as communism collapsed throughout eastern Europe, thus robbing Yugoslavia of its strategic importance for the Americans and setting the stage for the hands-off approach that followed.

The “competing currents” in U.S. government policy that developed as Milosevic pursued his Greater Serbia essentially mirrored the split between lower-level State Department officers and the senior foreign policy advisers of the Bush administration, many of whom had served in Belgrade.

They included former Secretary of State Eagleburger, who was first posted to Belgrade in 1962 and who served on the U.S. board of the now-defunct Yugo automobile manufacturer after temporarily leaving government service in the mid-1980s. Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft had been a defense attache in Belgrade.

Together, Eagleburger and Scowcroft, backed by a military opposed to any intervention in the Yugoslav conflict, formulated a U.S. policy that left the increasingly obvious breakup in the hands of a nascent European Union, whose members had their own historical biases in the Balkans.

“Who knew Yugoslavia better than Eagleburger?” asked one State Department official. “The problem was not that we didn’t know how bad things were, but that we didn’t want to hear about it. The old system was breaking up and we just didn’t have a coherent view, and maybe we still don’t, of what’s important, what’s our bottom line.”

National Archives Photo
John D. Scanlan, former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia.

The policy split became so deep after war began that junior State Department officers would joke blackly about not using “the M word” in arguing U.S. involvement with senior department officials, whose approach was more ‘realpolitik.’ M stood for morality and the argument that stopping civilian slaughter in the heart of Europe was in U.S. interests as a superpower.

Preoccupied with the Gulf War and concern over the future of the Soviet Union, the United States did not deploy its diplomatic big guns until June 1991, just days before the long-announced secession of Slovenia and Croatia and the outbreak of war.

Secretary of State James Baker flew to Belgrade for a one-day marathon of meetings with the leaders of federal Yugoslavia and the various republics. Baker declined to be interviewed, but in his autobiography, “The Politics of Diplomacy,” he said his message was clear.

“While we supported the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia and existing republic borders and would not accept unilateral changes, the international community, of course, recognized that if the republics wanted to change borders by peaceful, consensual means, that was an altogether different matter,” he wrote.

A U.S. diplomat with Baker said the Serbs took his comments as a green light for sending in the federal army, while all the Croats and Slovenes heard was democratize. War erupted in less than a week.

Pointedly, Baker did not threaten any U.S. intervention should the Serbs use the army to quell secessionist attempts, only “ostracism” for the Serbs and a refusal by the West to recognize breakaway republics.

International isolation was hardly a threat to Milosevic, whom Baker noted was “a tough and a liar,” and the Croats and Slovenes were confident of support for independence from the Germans, whose recently reunified state had great clout in the European Union.

The United States, which Germany then considered its closest ally, tried formally only once to dissuade Bonn from pushing ahead with diplomatic recognition of Croatia and Slovenia.

“I don’t think there was a strong American push, and I think the reason was that Baker had felt burned by his visit to Belgrade and felt that this was a can of worms and something that probably we should stay out of,” Zimmerman said.

“Please remember we were just coming off Iraq, the whole question of involvement in places like Panama and so forth was in our heads,” Eagleburger said in an interview. “How many times can we go to the well for dispatch of troops?”

Photo by AP/Wide World Photos
Milan Panic, a California businessman and Serbian-American, served briefly as Yugoslavia’s prime minister in 1992 in an attempt to counter the war-mongering of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. But Panic, center, surrounded by supporters, was ousted as federal premier in late December 1992 after losing to Milosevic in Serbian presidential elections. Panic’s political advisor was John D. Scanlan, the former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia who had served in Belgrade during the years of Milosevic’s rise to power.

“I misjudged Milosevic for a long time,” Eagleburger readily conceded. But the bigger questions in 1991 that were never answered, to his satisfaction, were what are the strategic interests to justify U.S. military intervention, what is the political objective, and what is the exit strategy.

“We may have been misled. We may not have judged it early enough,” Eagleburger said. “But I don’t think it is likely we would have done things differently.”

©1996 Maud S. Beelman

Maud Beelman is an Associated Press foreign correspondent on leave who is researching U.S. foreign policy in the former Yugoslavia.