02/22/2008 05:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hillary's Other Foreign Policy Judgment Call

Hillary Clinton once again touted her foreign-policy experience in Thursday night's debate with Barack Obama, and once again found herself flat-footed by a very real instance of her own poor judgment. Iraq was the topic that Obama picked up on, for understandable electoral reasons -- her willingness to give George Bush the authority to invade back in 2002, and her refusal to acknowledge since then that she made a mistake.

But Hillary (unnoticed by most debate watchers, to be sure) also made a big hash of a much more immediate foreign-policy issue, Kosovo's declaration of independence.

In the immediate wake of the declaration last Sunday -- energetically embraced by the Bush administration -- Senator Clinton put out a statement calling it "a historic step that will allow the people of Kosova to finally live in their own democratic state".

She went on: "It will allow Kosova and Serbia to finally put a difficult chapter in their history behind them and move forward."

By the time she took the stage at the University of Texas, though, it was more than apparent that her vision of peace for the Balkans was, to coin a phrase, a big fairy-tale. Enraged Serbians -- now the disempowered minority in Albanian-majority Kosovo -- had set fire to the US embassy in the Serb capital Belgrade, besieged the British embassy, thrown stones and bottles at United Nations peacekeepers in Kosovo itself and attacked two guard stations in the ethnically tense north of the fledgling new state. So much for putting the past behind them.

Nowhere in her statement did she acknowledge that Kosovo is far from a viable democracy -- the writer John Laughland, writing in The Guardian this week, characterized it as a "mafia state" and a "sump of corruption and poverty" -- or that there is something clearly anomalous about the United States and the European Union recognizing the independence of a country, when that independence is vociferously opposed by a minority group that can now expect some degree of discrimination if not outright hostility.

The fact that she referred to the new state as "Kosova", using the Albanian rather than the Serbian spelling, only reinforced her lack of understanding about the rage the declaration, and US support for it, was likely to cause among Serbs in both Kosovo and Serbia proper. In other words, her cheerleading for independence and democracy wasn't just naïve. It was also a provocation leading directly to the sort of violence we've now seen.

Granted, there is nothing simple about the Kosovo problem. There's an argument to be made that independence is preferable to the state of limbo the province has lived in since NATO forces ended the Serbs' iron-fisted repression of the Albanian population there in 1999. But certain things need to be acknowledged: the risk that this will set a precedent for other dissident minorities like the Basques in Spain, the risk that it will play into the hands of hardline nationalists in Serbia, who came within a whisker of capturing the presidency there last month, and the risk that it could provoke another bout of deadly violence 17 years after the old Yugoslavia first went into its death spiral. Hillary acknowledged none of that -- offering only a bland line about guaranteeing the rights of the Serb minority left in Kosovo.

Here, by contrast, is Obama's statement, put out at almost the same time as Hillary's. It's much closer to the mark:

Kosovo's independence is a unique situation resulting from the irreparable rupture Slobodan Milosevic's actions caused; it is in no way a precedent for anyone else in the region or around the world.

Kosovo's independence carries with it important responsibilities. The international community has devoted enormous resources to Kosovo's political, economic and social development for nearly a decade, with results not always meeting expectations. I hope that Kosovo's government and people act with urgency to ensure that Kosovo becomes a positive example of democratic governance and the rule of law...

You can read the rest here.

The Clintons have been tone-deaf on the Balkans before. In the first few days of Bill Clinton's presidency in 1993, he had a chance to end the war in Bosnia, then a few months old, and establish a multi-ethnic independent state made up of 10 autonomous provinces. This was the scenario successfully negotiated by Cyrus Vance, the former US secretary of state, and David Owen, the former British foreign secretary. All President Clinton needed to do was to pressure the last hold-out to an agreement, the leader of the Bosnian Muslims, and the war would have been over.

Instead, though, Clinton decided the Vance-Owen plan was a de facto capitulation to ethnic cleansing by the Serbs, encouraged the Bosnian Muslims not to sign, and vowed to set out on a whole new peace process.

Bad mistake. Soon, a whole new front in the war opened up, pitting the Muslims against the Croats, and the Bosnian morass continued for another blood-soaked two and a half years. The peace deal Clinton brokered in Dayton, Ohio in 1995 ended up being a far greater capitulation to ethnic cleansing than Vance-Owen ever was. (The best account of this can be found here.)

Is this the sort of experience Hillary hopes will persuade the people of Ohio and Texas to vote for her on March 4? If so, a quick history lesson the Balkans and its tragedies might not be out of place.