What can you learn about non-interventionist foreign policy from a former NBA player? Surprisingly, a good bit. This past weekend I happened to watch another installment of ESPN's excellent documentary series 30 for 30, the subject of “Once Brothers” were Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic. The two were stars of Yugoslavia's national basketball team and were both trying to break into the NBA in the early 1990s at the same time as their country was coming apart. Divac, a Serbian and Petrovic, a Croatian, had been extremely close, but their relationship ended as Serbian-led Yugoslavia went to war with Croatia and Slovenia after the two former republics declared their independence from Yugoslavia. Divac inadvertently became Public Enemy #1 in Croatia for refusing to take a Croatian flag during a post-victory celebration for the Yugoslav national team a few months earlier, an act that would help to drive him and Petrovic apart. Petrovic's untimely death in a car accident ended any chance of reconciliation between the two former friends. “Once Brothers” featured the story of Divac's first trip back to Croatia in 20 years to visit Petrovic's parents.
The Yugoslav War also came up in discussions about the legacy of recently-deceased former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. Though he no longer served in government, the jowly, bespectacled Eagleburger was a frequent guest on the news-talk circuit, speaking on issues of US Foreign Policy. In the 1990s, Eagleburger had been adamant about the US not intervening in the Yugoslav conflicts. From a humanitarian standpoint it was a tough call. The Yugoslav War was the worst conflict in Europe since the end of World War II, civilians bore the brunt of the fighting, and thanks to advances in satellite technology and the birth of 24-hour news outlets like CNN, images of the war were beamed into homes around the world. But Eagleburger argued that Yugoslavia wasn't America's fight and that we would be quickly drawn into a conflict that would last for years. The United States stayed out of the conflict – for awhile at least; by 1995 the US-led peace talks resulted in the Dayton Accords that ended fighting in Bosnia, the United States was also later the driving force in a NATO bombing campaign that brought about an end to the last stage of the Yugoslav conflicts, the fighting between Serbia and its breakaway region, Kosovo in 1999.
You could probably write a series of novels on what might have happened if the US hadn't followed Eagleburger's advice and had intervened in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. If current examples are any indication, we'd likely still be engaged in the region in a big way. Eight years after the start of Gulf War II, the United States is still in Iraq and is arguing to stay for awhile longer to support the fragile Iraqi government; ten years after going into Afghanistan to get Osama bin Laden, the US is still there as well, fighting the insurgent Taliban even after the death of OBL and with plans to stay until 2014, at least; and coalition forces seem to be getting more deeply involved in Libya, with NATO stepping up airstrikes against Gadhafi's regime. This last one is probably the best analogy to what could have happened in Yugoslavia – it is easy to see the US (and maybe a reluctant coalition of European nations like France and Great Britain) going in to set up “safety zones” for civilians and quickly being drawn into the fighting on the side of the Croats/Slovenians against the Soviet/Russian-backed Serbs, just as NATO is now supporting the Libyan rebels against Gadhafi in that supposedly “humanitarian” intervention.
It's no doubt that the fighting in Yugoslavia was bloody, resulting in far too many civilian deaths, but the countries that emerged seem to be doing pretty well today: Slovenia is a member of the European Union and a prosperous and popular tourist destination; Croatia too is doing well after recovering from the war and is in the final stages of becoming an EU member; even Serbia is emerging from almost two decades of largely self-imposed isolation from Europe, thanks to the policies of nationalist leaders like Slobodan Milosevic, and is now looking towards a future in the EU. Conversely Bosnia, where the warring Bosnian, Croat and Serb factions were wrestled into a peace deal in the Dayton Accords 15 years earlier, remains a deeply divided state; about once a month an op-ed will appear with a dire warning about Bosnia's impending collapse. Kosovo meanwhile is fairing little better – its independence is still not recognized by more than half of the members of the United Nations and their government is alleged to have more in common with the Sopranos than the Founding Fathers.
“Once Brothers” ended with Divac traveling to Zagreb, Croatia. Many of the Croats recognized him, but few approached, still apparently harboring ill-feelings towards him from two decades earlier. But the streets themselves were peaceful and well-kept, and Divac himself was warmly greeted by Petrovic's parents. A post-script to the story said that he was slowly rebuilding his former friendships with other Croats from the former Yugoslav national team like former NBA-er Toni Kukoc. Perhaps the message here is that intervention, however well-intentioned it may be, in the long run isn't the best course of action and that warring people need to find their own ways to peace.
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