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Another Course in Kosovo | The Nation

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Another Course in Kosovo

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There are principled differences within the progressive community about the war in Yugoslavia, including the use of ground troops. With the following, we offer another perspective in an effort to insure that such views are given fair voice.--The Editors

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Kai Bird
Kai Bird is a Nation contributing editor, a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and the author, most recently, of...

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Two decades ago, nearly one-sixth of the population was forcibly expelled. How did King Wangchuck escape any real censure?

How did Hosni Mubarak manage to stay in power for three decades?

Wars always bring unintended consequences. This bungled war has brought a host of calamities. Worst among them is that Slobodan Milosevic has won another round in his decadelong campaign of ethnic cleansing. President Clinton's inept response has been an air war in which any deaths of our combatants are deemed unacceptable, while the deaths of Serbian or Kosovar noncombatants are labeled "collateral damage." Clinton is on a slippery slope; it is wrong to pursue a just war with unjust means. But it would also be wrong to heed the siren song of appeasement by settling for anything short of the expulsion of all Serbian troops and police from Kosovo.

In the long run, an effective response to wars of ethnic cleansing will require Americans to build down our bloated, cold war-era national security state and build up internationalist mechanisms like a standing UN army and an international criminal court. In the meantime, the plight of a million victims of ethnic cleansing in the heart of Europe will serve as a painful reminder that US unilateralism has again failed to measure up to US ideals.

Nevertheless, it would be a colossal mistake if those of us who are searching for a foreign policy based on human rights were to oppose the idea of a truly international intervention in Kosovo. Paul Berman wrote more than four years ago in the context of Bosnia and Rwanda, "We who used to be the party of anti-intervention (because we were anti-imperialists) should now become, in the case of various dictators and genocidal situations, the party of intervention (because we are democrats)."

Here, then, is a principled position on Kosovo: End the bombing, and send in the ground troops. It is a coherent position, tactically, morally and politically. Such diverse and often contentious intellects as Stanley Hoffmann, Susan Sontag, Robert Dallek, Michael Ignatieff and Leon Wieseltier have all endorsed the notion that Milosevic cannot be stopped without a ground invasion of Kosovo. As Hoffmann concluded in the May 20 New York Review of Books, "If one believes that the heart of the issue is the toleration--or not--of genocide and of murderous forms of ethnic cleansing, and the establishment of a clear norm of international law against such acts committed either across or within borders, the choice for the first option [ground troops], demanding and dangerous as it is, seems to me the right one."

So how should this be done? The key is international law. Ground troops should be authorized by Congress and the United Nations. Milosevic should be indicted as a war criminal by the UN-sanctioned International Criminal Tribunal. (The currently indicted Bosnian Serb war criminals--particularly Gen. Ratko Mladic and the Serb leader Radovan Karadzic--should be immediately arrested by NATO troops.) The United States should announce the mobilization of a multinational invasion force of 250,000 troops. These troops should be positioned as rapidly as possible in Albania and elsewhere within NATO Europe. Over the next few months, President Clinton could go before the American people and Congress to make a coherent case for a declaration of war against Serbia.

Such a course of action--a public willingness to do in Kosovo for human rights what we did in the Persian Gulf for oil--is probably not going to happen. But it would be the right thing to do. A full-scale invasion of Kosovo with overwhelming military force could still be mounted late this summer. It would not be easy, but in the end the result would not be in doubt. The 40,000 Serbian troops would be routed from Kosovo. This alone might precipitate Milosevic's downfall. If not, we should be prepared for a long-term policy of armed containment of Serbia.

Some critics will object that such an intervention is strategically shortsighted, that our primary national interest in this crisis lies in maintaining good relations with the Russians. This is a spurious argument. The fate of Russian democracy will be determined by economic and political realities in Russia, not by the defeat and punishment of Serbia's war criminals. What the Russians rightly find objectionable is the unilateral US nature of the NATO action. If Clinton had spent months doing diplomatic spadework on the looming Kosovo crisis, it's possible the Russians could have been persuaded to join an international invasion force.

Others will contend that NATO is the wrong vehicle for such a humanitarian intervention. I agree. NATO is a creature of cold war America. One of the lessons of this crisis is that NATO must give way to a standing UN peacekeeping force. But the issue at hand is the fate of ethnically cleansed and homeless Kosovars in Europe who are not about to be rescued by a nonexistent UN army. (In fact, the blue helmets shamefully stood by in Srebrenica in 1995 when Milosevic's forces executed 6,000-7,000 Muslim Bosnians.) The hard truth is that ethnic cleansing in Kosovo will be reversed only if US troops spearhead the invasion. That means NATO--or preferably a UN-authorized collection of NATO, Russian and other Slavic troops.

Finally, there are those who will object that a war for human rights in Kosovo is hypocritical Eurocentrism in the light of Rwanda, Kurdistan, Tibet and a long list of other scenes of human suffering outside Europe. Clearly, we should have intervened in Rwanda to stop the genocide. And we should stop arming the Turks in their war against the Kurds. Whenever possible, we should link trade with China to democratization. In short, we should be pushing intelligently for gains on human rights wherever they can be sought--without, of course, making things worse.

But we must act in Kosovo precisely because it is in Europe, a Europe essentially occupied for fifty years by our own unilateral security organization, NATO. Kosovo is happening, so to speak, on our watch. NATO has been a colossal waste of taxpayers' money. Now, in the one instance in fifty years when NATO might serve a useful purpose, are we to stand aside and say there is nothing to be done? I think not. Indeed, if the West cannot stop these episodes of rolling genocidal warfare in Yugoslavia--the scene of horrific chapters in the Nazi-directed Holocaust less than six decades ago--how can we have the standing to say anything about human rights in the rest of the world?

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