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Reflections on the War | The Nation

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Reflections on the War

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What Could Have Been Done

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Richard Falk
Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law and practice at Princeton University, is the United Nations Human...

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By ignoring the UN Security Council resolution’s mandate authorizing intervention, NATO may have destroyed the prospects for future legitimate uses of the principle of “responsibility to protect.”

If both sides embrace the fragile cease-fire with leaps of imagination and faith, Israelis and Palestinians could chart an escape route from the inferno.

All along, there had been preferable policy initiatives that could have been taken, which, despite their risks and limitations, would have had a good chance of achieving some measure of success without causing the harm done by the policy relied upon. One would have been to support the political independence of Kosovo. Given the treatment of Kosovo by Belgrade and the evident political will of the overwhelming majority in Kosovo, this would have been a preferable option. It is true that the KLA has many dubious features, including a leadership drawn mostly from Fascist and Stalinist circles and a record of terrorism against Serb civilians, and that it earlier would not have been much of a match for the Yugoslav Army. But with outside support, a struggle for Kosovo independence might have been waged with reasonable prospects of success. The emergent Kosovo Republic would probably have taken the form of an authoritarian ethnic state, but it would have avoided a wider, illegal, disastrous war and yet expressed European support for self-determination and human rights. Such an approach would also have avoided undermining the authority of the United Nations and international law, and thus avoided setting a horrible precedent with respect to the use of force.

A second approach would have been to exhibit far greater diplomatic flexibility in dealing with Milosevic, accepting the Yugoslav resolve to retain Kosovo as part of its sovereign territory but obtaining concessions by Belgrade on other, related issues. Such an alternative would have avoided the sovereignty challenge contained in the central Rambouillet demand for a NATO peacekeeping force, relying instead on a UN force that included Russian participation. This manner of proceeding could also have included economic incentives for both Belgrade and the KLA. Moving in this direction would have meant giving up on the idea that NATO's future was as much at stake as the well-being of the Kosovars.

A third approach would have been to embark on the war under NATO auspices but with a serious prior attempt to secure some sort of UN authorization, or at least acquiescence, and with a credible ground dimension built into the operation from the start. The idea would have been to occupy Kosovo, expelling Serbian troops and police, and to remain there long enough to oversee a process of civil/military restructuring. Such an undertaking would probably have required a major ground operation on difficult terrain and in the face of armed opposition, but in the setting of a population welcoming the invasion as a liberation. If successful, it would eventually have removed the taint of illegality arising out of NATO's recourse to force, and it would have constructed a generally favorable precedent in support of humanitarian intervention under responsible regional auspices.

The refutation to these options is that they were not politically available at the outset. But with more skillful leadership, especially in Washington, they could have become real possibilities.

Kosovo Endgame

Milosevic's acceptance of NATO's terms cannot be assessed at this time. Even as a move to end the war it remains inconclusive. It is not certain that Belgrade fully controls the Serbian military commanders or that NATO's demands for implementation will not generate a second phase of Serbian sovereignty-oriented resistance. What is evident, even now, is that the outcome may well obscure the evil character of the NATO effort. Even when a policy fails utterly, as in Vietnam, democracies in general, and the United States in particular, have trouble admitting error, especially when a strong investment of political effort has been made. The NATO war exemplifies this pattern, although there are some potentially helpful features. For one thing, no allied blood has yet been spilled in combat. Furthermore, there is wide unspoken agreement, including among the original backers, that the policy badly backfired, even if it eventually yielded some political results. As well, the UN remains receptive to playing a constructive role, and even Russia and China appear inclined to go along with the imposed political outcome. At this point, the best result would be to transfer as much peacemaking responsibility as possible from NATO to the UN, coupled with assurances from the NATO countries that sufficient resources will be devoted to restoring normalcy both to Kosovo and the rest of Yugoslavia as quickly as possible, and to the economic reconstruction of the entire region of the southern Balkans. The highest priority should now be to resettle the Kosovo refugees on a genuinely voluntary basis, if possible by making Kosovo again an attractive homeland but if not, by providing humane alternatives on an emergency basis.

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