If the people of Yugoslavia succeed in their courageous attempt to depose Slobodan Milosevic from power, their success will be in spite of U.S. policy and not as a result of it. Even President Clinton has tacitly acknowledged that reality by his understated support for the Yugoslav opposition during the current crisis. In fact, yesterday the President cautioned “. . . I don’t believe that the United States should say or do anything which would only strengthen Mr. Milosevic’s hand.”

The low-key approach is necessary because past U.S. policy toward Yugoslavia has been so heavy-handed. Not surprisingly, last year’s U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign merely strengthened Milosevic‘s position at home. Vojislav Kostunica—Yugoslavia’s opposition leader and apparent winner of last month’s presidential election—condemned NATO’s blitz as a “criminal act“ and alleged that the muscular U.S. tack only helped Milosevic remain in power. In August, when a U.S. office in Hungary was opened to support democratic forces in Yugoslavia, Kostunica denounced the United States for “flagrant interference” in Yugoslav affairs. Add to this almost 10 years of grinding international economic sanctions aimed at punishing Yugoslavia and the source of anti-western sentiments among the Yugoslav people is easily discerned. Whether or not the American people give Bill Clinton high approval ratings, they would loathe any foreign power that bombed them, attempted to impoverish them using economic coercion and tried to manipulate the U.S. political system.

U.S. policy made the petty dictator Milosevic into a Hitleresque monster and has an obsession with removing him from power. The implicit assumption is that stability will miraculously return to the Balkans once he is ousted. But Kostunica is a also a nationalist who backed the Kosovar Serbs in their attempt to keep the province within Serbia and supported the Bosnian Serbs during their war of secession from 1991 to 1995.

The conflicts in the Balkans are driven by intractable ethnic rivalries that go back hundreds of years and are probably immune to changes in leadership. Yet U.S. interventionist policy (bombing, sanctions, peacekeeping, and nation-building) ignores that the people of the Balkans will ultimately have to solve their own problems.