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While himself was tramping atop the Great Wall, learning to use chopsticks, and lecturing the Chinese on any number of matters, I was fretting about the Balkans.

During the unpleasantness in Bosnia a couple of years ago, my pal "Hack," Col. David Hackworth, who was then doing military reporting for both Newsweek and Playboy, told me that what complicated matters over there, Serbs hating Croats, and Muslims and Croats hating Muslims, and Serbs and Muslims hating everyone, was that half the male populations of some of those embattled little mountain villages not only hated the neighbors, but they were roaring drunk by about 10 in the morning.

When you are armed with an automatic weapon and hate the people next door, and are also drunk, the incendiary possibilities would seem painfully obvious.

So we and our NATO partners put troops on the ground and declared no-fly zones and seized some weapons and for a couple of years now there's been an uneasy truce, not actual peace. A couple of cab drivers have been arrested on charges of genocide, but the same guys who ran Serbia before and killed all those Muslims are still running Serbia today. And I know no one who believes that if the NATO troops were pulled out tomorrow that there wouldn't be fighting by Wednesday. Thursday, at the latest.

Now it's the turn of Kosovo, a Serb province bordering on Albania, in which most of the people are ethnic Albanians though living in a Serb province. So this creates a bit of a problem because the ethnic Albanians also want to be political Albanians and to join up with the motherland. Or the fatherland. Or whatever land it is they call Albania. You do remember, don't you, that Albania was the last Stalinist state in Europe, is severely retarded in its economic development, and is, according to Tom Friedman of The New York Times, the stolen car capital of the Western world.

And so now we may (NATO and us) get dragged into a war between the Serbs, who have an outstanding track record as troublemakers, and the Albanians, who are broke and steal cars for a living, but are so proud of their country they want to expand it by taking over Kosovo. Their small rebel detachments, which don't seem to have the firepower to stand up to Serb regulars, have now started shooting Serb civilians to make up for it.

If serious fighting starts it is expected swiftly to spill over into places like Macedon. You know, where Philip of Macedon hailed from, the father of Alexander the Great. The complicating factor about Macedon is that there are two Macedons, one of them in Serbia and one in Greece. So the Greeks may become involved and if they do, you can expect the Turks to trot swiftly onstage. For, as you also know, the Greeks and Turks hate one another, although they are both gallant allies of ours and members of NATO.

Just a week or two ago tensions began to ratchet up in Cyprus, which is an island nation geographically hundreds of miles from Greece and right on Turkey's doorstep, but politically divided like North and South Korea along a sort of demilitarized zone left over from the fighting of 20 years ago.

So if the Greeks and Turks start up again, how can we send NATO in to break up the brawl? They are NATO, or part of it.

Why are the Balkans so difficult? Is it the drink? Is it that a thousand years ago the Turks romped through and the locals have never forgotten it? The First World War began in Sarajevo. A Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip shot the archduke of Austria-Hungary and his archduchess in order to manifest Serbia's desire for independence.

That inspired the Austro-Hungarians to mobilize. Which brought in Tsarist Russia on the side of the Serbs. Which brought in the Germans on the side of the Austrians. Which brought in England and France to encourage the Russians. Eventually Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary and then the Germans began sinking neutral ships and we got into the war. And so did Japan, but on our side.

And before it was over about 20 million people were dead. All because a Serb patriot shot a visiting dignitary in a tank town no one ever heard of. Years before, Bismarck had predicted the next great war would start over "some damned fool thing in the Balkans."

Today's "damned fool thing" seems to me to be Kosovo. And while Mr. Clinton was over there on the other side of the big blue marble, exchanging toasts and making speeches and walloping down the old egg foo young, kowtowing and being kowtowed to, I hope he just keeps his cool and doesn't start promising people that if necessary, he'll send in Americans to solve things in Kosovo between the Serbs and the Albanians.

Things have been a mess in the Balkans for a thousand years and any American president who gets us more than marginally involved in their troubles, is a fool.

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