President Clinton’s address attempting to justify–after the fact–the US-led NATO bombing of Serbia should set off alarms. After all, the ideas and concerns Clinton invoked–the notion of instability spreading from country to country (much like falling dominoes), the perception that world politics is a bipolar ideological confrontation between democracy and dictatorship, the obsession with reaffirming US leadership and resolve, the anxiety about the vitality of alliance commitments and the conviction that US security is tied to peace in an area of little inherent strategic importance–were all factors that led to the catastrophe of American involvement in Vietnam.
To be sure, presidential addresses are intended to persuade, but the American people have a right to expect their chief executive–even one with Bill Clinton’s track record–to avoid distortions and half-truths. Clinton’s statement to the nation fell well short of the mark. It also failed the test of logic. In trying to rally public support, Clinton apparently hoped that, although taken in isolation his points were suspect, if he somehow packaged them using an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach, the factual and logical flaws would be lost in the crowd.
Clinton’s explanation of the Kosovo conflict’s background was, to put it charitably, misleading. He glossed over the fact that the province of Kosovo (the cradle of Serbia’s cultural and national identity) is an integral part of Serbia’s sovereign territory. Far from being a case of one state committing aggression against another, this conflict is, of course, a civil war, the root of which is the province’s ethnic Albanians’ armed struggle to break free of Serbia and establish an independent state. Thus, as in numerous ethnic conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere, the opposing sides’ objectives cannot be reconciled.
Clinton was also misleading in placing sole blame for the breakdown of the recent NATO-brokered Rambouillet peace talks on the Serbs. The ethnic Albanians also refused at first to sign the NATO peace deal, because it failed to guarantee their eventual independence from Serbia. The United States finally induced them to sign by threatening to cut off the Kosovo Liberation Army’s access to arms and by reminding the KLA that without its assent to the agreement, NATO could not conduct airstrikes against Serbia. When KLA intransigence initially stalled the talks, US officials–especially Secretary of State Madeleine Albright–were palpably frustrated because they feared that their plans to bomb Serbia would be derailed.
The President’s description of the peace process also left out some important details. Essentially, the Serbs, who were given the choice of signing or being bombed, were “negotiating” with a gun at their heads. They saw the Rambouillet deal as one-sided because, although the plan provided that Kosovo would nominally remain a part of Serbia for three years, it also would have reduced the Serbian government’s actual control over the province to a nullity. Of course, the plan ostensibly would have disarmed the KLA in Kosovo, but because that group can operate out of neighboring Albania, it could have stockpiled weapons there. In fact, the KLA made its intentions quite clear: After the three-year transitional period, either Kosovo would become independent, or the KLA would resume the war. Furthermore, Serbia resented the provisions of the peace plan that would have required Belgrade to accept the presence of NATO forces in Kosovo.