The Case Against Intervention in Kosovo
Civil wars are notoriously brutal, and guerrilla wars are particularly hellish; the unconscionable acts that Clinton condemned are inherent to these conflicts. In the kind of guerrilla campaign waged by the KLA, civilians are inescapably targets of violence, because the insurgents draw their manpower, material sustenance and political support from the friendly population in whose name they fight. In a guerrilla war--any guerrilla war--the line differentiating fighters from noncombatants inevitably evaporates. The Serbs should be castigated for their brutal tactics in Kosovo, but the United States has no moral ground to stand on in such matters. For example, the United States designated wide areas of South Vietnam thought to be under Vietcong control as "free-fire zones." Rules of engagement were not restricted in those areas, because anyone found there was considered a Vietcong fighter or supporter.
Even on its own terms, the argument that we must intervene in Kosovo to stave off a humanitarian catastrophe is unconvincing. Although the Serbs have obviously committed atrocities, in the Balkan wars of this decade all the combatants have been guilty of acts of savagery. Indeed, several days before the NATO airstrikes began, the drama in Kosovo overshadowed the report by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague of the atrocities--massive ethnic cleansing, summary executions, indiscriminate shelling of civilian populations--the Croatian Army committed with the tacit blessing of the United States during its summer 1995 offensive against the Croatian Serbs. For its part, the KLA--whose goals include not only independence but the expulsion of Serbs from Kosovo--has kidnapped and executed Serb civilians and burned their villages.
And while Clinton has depicted Serbian actions in the most horrific light possible, he remains silent about the human rights atrocities perpetrated by America's NATO ally Turkey, which has been waging a decades-long military campaign of repression against its Kurdish ethnic minority. Like Serbia, Turkey has questionable democratic credentials. Like the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Kurds waging a guerrilla war demand independence. Turkey has responded to the Kurdish insurgency with the same tactics that Clinton has imputed to the Serbs: terror, "genocide" and suppression of human rights.
Yet the Clinton Administration does not propose bombing Ankara, which, of course, provokes the obvious question: Why intervene in Kosovo and not in Turkey--or Sudan, Rwanda, Congo or Sierra Leone, for that matter, where humanitarian intervention is at least as justified? The moral argument for intervention in Kosovo is cast in terms of universally applicable principles. But Washington picks and chooses its humanitarian interventions, inserting itself in some conflicts and ignoring others in which the reasons to act are at least as compelling. This leaves US policy-makers open to the charge that they are using humanitarian concerns as a pretext to mobilize public support for military interventions undertaken for other reasons.
The President asserted that America's vital interests are at stake in Kosovo. As he put it, the United States and the alliance must "defuse a powder keg at the heart of Europe that has exploded twice before in this century with catastrophic results." Here, Clinton's understanding of European history is particularly misguided. In arguing for intervention to prevent a wider war, he said that "Sarajevo, the capital of neighboring Bosnia, is where World War I began." But comparisons to the First World War actually point to a policy antithetical to the one he is pursuing. The fuse of that war was lit in Sarajevo not because ethnic conflict existed in the Balkans but because great powers meddled in those conflicts. (The Balkans do not have even so tenuous a connection to the origins of World War II.)
Clinton has also stressed the need to act to preserve NATO's credibility. The President argues that to let Serbian aggression go unpunished will encourage leaders in other troubled areas to pursue dangerous policies. But halting Serbian aggression is no more likely to deter future aggressors than US action in the Persian Gulf--which, after all, was defended as part of a new world order that would punish aggressors--deterred Serbia. In the world of statecraft, most crises are discrete, not tightly linked. The outcome of events in other potential hot spots will be decided by local conditions, not by what the United States does or does not do in the Balkans. Put another way, just as Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was not deterred by US action against Iraq; Saddam Hussein was not deterred by US action in Panama; Manuel Antonio Noriega was not deterred by US action in Grenada, Lebanon and Vietnam; Ho Chi Minh was not deterred by US action against North Korea; and Kim Il Sung and Joseph Stalin were not deterred by US action against Adolf Hitler. America's misplaced obsession with credibility will doom the United States to a string of military interventions in strategically peripheral regions.