The NATO That Never Was

By Andrej Mrevlje |

On April 6, 1992, the European Union (then called European Community) recognized the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the former republics of Federal Yugoslavia. The young independent republic was one of the last to follow the path of the eventual breakup of Yugoslavia,  a socialist multi-ethnic country of 20 million, that grew from the ruins of WWII. On that day in 1992, the capital of independent Bosnia was the scene of a great peaceful demonstration. But not for long. While thousands of Bosnians brandished the portrait of the late Tito, a symbol of ethnic tolerance, the Serbian snipers started to shoot, targeting an unarmed and peaceful crowd that never wanted to separate from Yugoslavia. Single sniper shots soon turned into mortar fire from the hills that surround the city. It was a massacre and the beginning of the longest siege in modern human history. In those first hours of panic and fear, when people were running for shelter to save their lives from invisible killers, they were screaming, asking: “Where is NATO? They said they would come and protect us.”

NATO came much, much too late. In the next three years, 12,000 among the 200,000 people who decided to stay or could not leave Sarajevo were killed. The war in Bosnia was the bloodiest and cruelest campaign on European soil after WWII. The Serbs opened concentration camps and effectively systematized the terrorization of Muslims and Croats alike. It is estimated that 100,000 people died during the war, of a population of four million. Half of the Bosnian population was displaced or exiled. So where was NATO? What took so long for it to stop the murdering and ethnic cleansing caused by the cohorts of that insane man, Slobodan Milošević?

A recent Thursday, May 25, was a crystal clear day in Brussels. The capital of the EU and the Headquarters of NATO was the fourth stop of President Trump’s first foreign tour. While Washington D.C., with the President away, breathes relief, Trump follows an intense schedule of visits abroad, the beginning of a new geopolitical horizon designed to his taste.

On his tour, the American president first stopped in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia; the first visit always has unique political significance. In Europe, by comparison, a newly elected leader would first visit neighboring countries. It would be an effort to consolidate the relationship, but also to inform on the country’s intention following the transfer of power. It’s a good custom, a matter of common courtesy and mutual trust. For example, the new French president Emmanuel Macron did not go and visit Great Britain or for that matter Algier, the former French colony.He visited Germany first, a strong indication that he is putting Europe ahead of everything. So what Trump did by putting Saudi Arabia in front of everybody else was without precedent; visiting Riyadh is a disruptive move. It is to say, “Watch me, look my moves.”

Saudi Arabia is a tyrannical regime that the U.S. sponsored and tolerated for many years because of the cheap oil they got from them. The country, of absolutist power, is the only one in the world whose name includes the name of the dynasty that rules it, one which was sidetracked by the Obama administration. In search of a new strategy for the solution of the perpetual Middle East crisis, Obama, who doubted Saudi honesty and friendship, tested the possibility of leaning on an alliance with the Shias–an agreement, therefore, with Tehran, and disengagement with Riyadh. Same goes for Israel; Obama and Netanyahu openly disliked each other. That dispute is now settled, a new honeymoon between Tel Aviv and Washington has been announced and Saudis, too, are eager to prove that they know how to lull the unpredictable and erratic real-estate-president.

I don’t remember ever before seeing a more lavish and pompous reception of an American president on Arab soil. The parade and reception, to apparently make Trump feel like the King of the World, was a back payment for an almost $110 billion arms sales deal that will cause Saudi neighbors fear. But with the check and the disposal of military might, also came a message to Iran, with whom Saudis are only a step away from armed conflict. The message: America and Saudi Arabia are again big friends forming a chain of the alliance to which Trump can now add tamed and again-obedient Netanyahu.

But what is this new strategy Trump is proposing? More than geopolitical strategy (which the current President of the U.S. has little clue about), it is about greed and money. His signature on the arm sales contract with the Saudis is the “perfect deal,” something he can proudly proclaim as a result of his business expertise but that, once again, blindly acquiesces  to simple facts of bad policy: the Royal family finances not only Washington D.C., but also international terrorism, as in case of Al Qaeda.

And Russia? Besides the frozen $500 billion deal because of sanctions against it, the payment for opening the gates to Russia’s expansion might be more costly still. But, making some political calculations and summing up deals, it seems to me that Trump is much less about the figures than about the scent of the money, which requires the moral discretion of a canine. We will see it later but watch carefully because more is coming from this president.

In outlining his “new geopolitical horizon,” Trump landed in Brussels where he found a different picture and a more disobedient group of leaders. Some of the leaders of the 28 member countries of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation even giggled and whispered to each other when the President of United States was scolding them for being wrong allies because they are not paying their dues. The summit of NATO in Brussels was not supposed to be an easy one; even before elected, the 45th president of the United States made it clear that he considered  NATO an obsolete organization, arguing that member countries should open their wallets if they wanted to keep American protection and friendship. America first–Trump’s slogan from day one.

And the President still sticks to it. Standing in the huge hallway, speaking during the inauguration of the new NATO headquarters, Trump said: “I never asked once what the new NATO headquarters cost. I refuse to do that. But it is beautiful.” What Trump meant to say was something like this: How is it possible to spend $1.2 billion for new headquarters when you have no money to pay the bills? Again, it was about the money.

Back home, here in the U.S., the Republicans, not to mention Democrats, are perplexed by Trump’s behavior at NATO headquarters. The fact that Trump did not say that the U.S. intends to respect Article 5 of the Alliance is considered a disaster, something that in the long run will do damage to the country, as Tom Wright, quoted by the Daily Kos, says:

“The White House told the NYT yesterday Trump would finally endorse Article 5,” Wright wrote on Twitter. “The fact that he did not is astonishing and shows that someone in the White House or [Trump] himself took it out. This will come as a huge shock to NATO members.”

Trump’s speech was not only demeaning to the nations that came to help the US when we needed them, it continued to display a basic lack of understanding about how NATO works. But then, ignorance was the least of the problems with Trump’s speech, somewhere after his belligerent tone, chiding remarks, and generally behaving like a strident jackass.

But let’s go back to the time when humiliated Bosnia was hoping that NATO would come and help and protect it from further torture. The hopes of Bosnians endangered by Serbs, who were armed with extreme nationalism and the weapons of the once-federal army, was based on the belief that the North Atlantic Alliance was still a synonym for the armed forces that defend democracies. But, born to create a counterweight to Soviet armies stationed in central and eastern Europe after World War II, NATO by the end of the Cold War -1989- lost its purpose and therefore its identity. So when Bosnians acted heroically and defended its democratic values by demonstrating peacefully, they thought that they did enough to be accepted into the family of Western democracy, expanding ever eastward. Little did they know that NATO and the EU were negotiating with Milosević, seeking a pragmatic solution: finding a new strong man who would guarantee stability in the area.

However, regardless of the naive expectations of a Bosnia that believed in the straightforwardness of NATO and the EU, the two in 1992 were still walking hand in hand in agreement over non-interference in the most brutal genocide of its day. Was it for the sake of the good old times, or was it just the mental laziness of Europe that kept them from aiding the spiraling country and its people?

The first time that America wanted to pull its troops out of Europe was a year after the massacring siege of Sarajevo had started. In 1993, during the first year of his presidency, Bill Clinton wanted to pull NATO troops out of Europe. It was the first warning. But a year later, after Clinton settled into the White House and got familiar with his foreign policy, Europeans thought that the U.S. turned back to reason. Under Clinton, Washington started to expand NATO’s roots deeper and deeper into Eastern Europe. Then, under George W. Bush, the warnings returned in earnest as the neocon president tried to divide Europe by giving new democracies like Poland a key command position in the Allied forces in Iraq. It was an effort to disjoin the old continent in the midst of the process of integration, according to America’s democratic mandates. But these days, and looking all away back to Sarajevo, the most cosmopolitan city in Europe, a quarter of a century has passed, and Europe still does not get it.

☆ Support this work via Venmo

Yonder is a weekly newsletter from Andrej Mrevlje that connects global events in the news, delivered every week. Learn more »