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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Don't Leap Into Albania

It is now too late for the international community to abort plans for a police action in Albania. That is a shame, because we should have learned from mistakes in Bosnia that halfhearted ventures tend to evolve into longer commitments, to prolong local misery and exacerbate local political quarrels rather than resolve them. The best thing would be to leave Albania alone until it works out its internal problems.

The Albanian crisis exploded because of two convergent failures. The first, widely reported, was the dramatic collapse of several financial pyramid schemes, the largest of which involved senior government officials. This wiped out savings for a substantial part of the population, who sought rough justice. The second, unnoticed by sluggish reporters, was that Albanian President Sali Berisha's corrupt military had not paid army officers for some time. When riots broke out, the army was indisposed to help restore order. (In a positive sign of latent professionalism, army units did not join rioters.) Mob rule has since taken over many parts of the country.

At the root of the crisis, Berisha's regime long ago abandoned any pretense at democracy. And the Albanian people are no longer willing to tolerate an openly corrupt, repressive, undemocratic government. Until Berisha is gone and a representative system restored, most Albanians are likely to remain in armed revolt.

Washington supported Berisha's tenure for far too long -- well past his theft of the May 1996 election -- because of inertia (the United States favored Berisha when he seemed to represent a real democratic alternative after being elected president in 1992) and because he gave the United States useful bases for Bosnian operations. Although Madeleine Albright's State Department recently made muted appeals for Berisha to step down, it typically prefers the devil it knows to the devil it doesn't. Legitimate or not, by default he is the only internationally recognized Albanian interlocutor.

His international standing would not matter if the international community ignored him: Albanians would just proceed with his removal.

To the extent that countries engage in police actions and aid work, however, they must interact with Berisha. This is a situation he can greatly turn to his advantage by influencing distribution of international resources. Merely by manipulating Albanian expectations of international action (and handouts), Berisha has clung to power longer than most predicted.

As in Bosnia, "humanitarian'' emergency is the rationale for intervention. This is a poor argument, insofar as the limited good that intervention accomplishes must be offset against the longer period of instability it unintentionally creates by keeping Berisha on life support.

Also as in Bosnia, the actual reason for intervention has less to do with well-grounded humanitarian concerns than domestic political pressures: in this case, Italian fears of Albanian refugees swarming across the Adriatic. Hoping that aid and partially restored order will persuade Albanians to stay home, Italy pushed the hardest for intervention, pledged most of the troops and offered to lead the mission. Plans would not have gone forward otherwise.

The United Nations' initial intervention in Bosnia unraveled disastrously because participants had conflicting, often mutually incompatible, political goals. Then the West could not accept failure, having vested so much prestige in Bosnia relief. The United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had to salvage the UN venture with an even bigger effort -- one that has yet to secure a self-sustaining peace.

Italy has not provided a clear vision of what is to be accomplished in Albania, the rules of engagement for intervention forces or an exit strategy. Operating under a UN Security Council resolution -- with language nearly identical to the resolution that first provided for the use of force in Bosnia -- the Italians will command more than 6,000 troops; 2,500 from Italy, the remainder from France, Greece, Spain, Romania, Turkey, Denmark and Austria. Italy's partners have not spelled out a clear mission either. This seems depressingly familiar. If the Italian police action fails, the rest of Europe and the United States risk getting dragged in.

At the outset of this misadventure, Washington should publicly tell the Italians, the rest of the Europeans, the United Nations and the American public -- not necessarily in that order -- that the United States absolutely will not come to the rescue in Albania. The international community has spent about $20 billion on Bosnia, much of that from the United States. To repeat a mistake of that magnitude would be unforgivable.

George Kenney, the U.S. State Department desk officer in Yugoslavia during the Bush administration, is a writer in Washington. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.