The Case Against Intervention in Kosovo

The Case Against Intervention in Kosovo

The Case Against Intervention in Kosovo

President Clinton’s address attempting to justify–after the fact–the US-led NATO bombing of Serbia should set off alarms.


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.

An analogy to America’s own bitter war of secession can illustrate what NATO is trying to compel Serbia to do. It is as if the nineteenth-century concert of Europe had forced President Lincoln to accept Southern independence and European troops on American soil to police the agreement, and had threatened to intervene militarily in support of the Confederate Army if Lincoln refused. After all, the unprecedentedly murderous American Civil War appalled Europeans just as much as the Kosovo conflict does US leaders today. And just as Europeans believed that North American “stability” (and access to Southern cotton) was vital to their prosperity, so US policy-makers today are convinced that European stability is essential to the United States’ economic well-being. (Of course, the social systems defended in Kosovo and the American South aren’t parallel.)

Clinton justified the NATO action as a “moral imperative” to end the killing of ethnic-Albanian civilians. Indeed, other US officials have gone even further, describing the Serbian campaign in Kosovo as “genocide.” Although this characterization is demonstrably false (and trivializes truly genocidal campaigns, like Hitler’s attempt to exterminate European Jewry), the President certainly is correct to observe that innocent civilians are dying in Kosovo (before NATO’s intervention, about 2,000 civilians, mainly ethnic Albanians killed by the Serbs but also Kosovar Serbs killed by the KLA, had perished there) and that the war is a humanitarian tragedy, with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Kosovo and Serbian killings of civilians. But this is only part of the truth.

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.

Paradoxically, unless Serbia quickly knuckles under to NATO bombing, the effect of Kosovo intervention may be to rupture fatally the very alliance the airstrikes were intended to solidify. If the Serbs refuse to capitulate, the alliance’s fragile unity will likely dissolve. Indeed, a bare forty-eight hours after the bombing commenced, Greece and Italy already were expressing unease with the air campaign.

The President’s argument that, absent US intervention in Kosovo, the war will engulf the entire Balkan region, pit Greece against Turkey and “destabilize” all of Europe is nothing more than a recycled version of the long-discredited domino theory. But, aside from the theory’s general flaws, Clinton’s specific application of it to Kosovo is problematic.

After all, the Administration’s grand strategy of “Engagement and Enlargement” is based explicitly on the convictions that democracies do not fight other democracies and that international institutions foster peace among their members. Washington considers both Greece and Turkey democracies, and both are members of the same institution–NATO. So, in essence, the Clinton Administration is waging war in Kosovo to forestall a Greco-Turkish conflict that, according to the Administration’s own core foreign policy assumptions, cannot occur. Also, to the extent that the Kosovo conflict does “spill over” into neighboring Macedonia and Albania, NATO’s attacks are likely to be the proximate cause. Rather than dampening Serbian military attacks against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians, NATO’s airstrikes have intensified Serbian aggression, which in turn has caused more Albanians to flee Kosovo. Meanwhile, the likelihood of cross-border clashes has increased, because the KLA will undoubtedly use refugee camps in Albania as bases of operations. The violent anti-US/NATO demonstrations in Macedonia in reaction to the bombing clearly illustrate how NATO intervention is contributing to regional destabilization, but even if war spreads to neighboring Albania and Macedonia, instability in those states poses no greater intrinsic threat to US interests than does the conflict in Kosovo.

President Clinton says that if the United States allows a fire to burn in the Balkans, “the flames will spread,” but one way to fight forest fires is let the fire burn itself out. Wars end when both sides are exhausted, or when one side realizes it has been defeated and abandons the struggle. In the other Balkan conflict, in Bosnia, the war might have ended with fewer dead if the Bosnian Muslims had tried to negotiate an accommodation with the Serbs much earlier in the conflict. One of the reasons they didn’t do so is that they believed NATO would eventually rescue them. But they did not simply rely on the natural course of events to bring NATO into the conflict. Rather, to create sympathy in the West for their cause, they manipulated the situation and engaged in clever propaganda. A decisive moment in the Bosnian conflict occurred in early 1994, when a mortar shell exploded in a crowded Sarajevo marketplace, killing and maiming scores of civilians. The Serbs were immediately blamed for this atrocity, and NATO’s intervention followed shortly thereafter. The evidence that the Bosnian Serbs were responsible is, at best, highly inconclusive. In fact, as former British foreign secretary David Owen reports in his account of his tenure as the European Union’s Balkan peace envoy, there is strong evidence that the Bosnian Muslims fired the offending mortar shell themselves to fabricate an incident that would spur NATO intervention to relieve the siege of Sarajevo. In Kosovo, as US and NATO officials have acknowledged off the record, the United States has been subject to similar provocations, as the KLA has maneuvered to bring NATO into the war as its de facto air force.

Clinton has also been unable to think through the short- and medium-term implications of NATO intervention. US and NATO officials say that air power will compel Serbia to abide by the alliance’s wishes. But as World War II, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War demonstrated, air power alone does not win wars. To prevail over an opponent, one must prevail on the ground. The Clinton Administration, however, has created its own mythology about air power’s efficacy, contending that the NATO bombing of the Bosnian Serbs in the summer of 1995 forced them to negotiate at Dayton. In fact, the decisive event that ended the Bosnian war was the successful summer 1995 ground offensive against the Bosnian Serbs launched by the Croatian Army.

So air power is highly unlikely to break Serbia’s will. The US Strategic Bombing Survey found that the Allied bombing of German cities during World War II actually stiffened German civilians’ will to resist. In the Vietnam War, the United States again tried unsuccessfully to use bombing to crack the North’s will to prosecute the war. The airstrikes against Serbia are no more likely to succeed in their objective than did those in Southeast Asia. In World War II, of course, even the awesome military power of Nazi Germany could not subdue the (mostly Serb) Yugoslav resistance. And throughout the cold war, the Serb-led Yugoslav Army prepared to resist a possible Soviet invasion with the same tactics, and tenacity, it had employed successfully against the Nazis.

American policy-makers notoriously misread the psychology, the history and the nationalism of other nations. For all Clinton’s talk about vital interests, the struggle in Kosovo is only of the remotest geopolitical consequence to the United States. For Serbia, however, it involves the highest stakes for which a nation can fight: the defense of its sovereign territory. In conflicts like those in Vietnam or Kosovo, the interests of US adversaries clearly outweigh US interests–which means that an opponent’s resolve is likely to outlast America’s. Indeed, far from turning against the popularly elected Serbian president, Serbs of all political stripes have united against NATO. And should US troops ever be deployed in Kosovo as peacekeepers, they would almost certainly be targets of revenge-seeking Serb terrorists (US troops in neighboring Bosnia will similarly be at risk).

Clinton’s policy is likely to have other, even more important and unfortunate, strategic consequences. Intended or not, US actions–including NATO expansion, and now the intervention in Kosovo–have gravely offended and alarmed Russia. American policy-makers suggest that NATO’s military intervention troubles only “extremist” Russians. But Washington should have no illusions: Opposition to NATO’s attacks and its expansion is probably the one major foreign policy issue on which virtually the entire Russian political class is united. NATO, after all, was supposedly designed as a defensive alliance to repel a military attack on its member states, but in Kosovo it has radically extended its writ by intervening in a state unconnected to it. Furthermore, from Moscow’s perspective, the United States, by bringing its powerful military alliance to Russia’s borders, has reneged on a bargain it struck with Russia at the end of the cold war.

At that time Moscow agreed to quit Eastern Europe and to allow German unification. Moreover, Russia acceded to the continued existence of an alliance that had been hostile to it and even agreed to the inclusion of newly unified Germany in that alliance. In return, Moscow received assurances from the United States and its allies that they would not take advantage of this situation to tip the geopolitical balance in a way that would potentially threaten Russia’s security.

Russians have good reasons to worry about NATO expansion, which, as Clinton has acknowledged, is a means to consolidate and extend America’s military and political leadership in Europe. Great powers have always been more concerned about competitors’ capabilities than about their intentions–because intentions can change quickly. In the post-cold war era, NATO remains the most powerful military alliance the world has ever seen. Even those Russians who are not closet aggressors are anxious about having such an impressive military association poised on their frontier. NATO’s expansion, coupled with its intervention in cases in which the alliance’s security is not threatened, could lead to a nationalist backlash.

Russia may be down now, but because its history as a great power is cyclical, there is every reason to assume that it will recover. American actions make it more likely that a resurgent Russia will harbor deep and justifiable resentment toward the United States. A hostile Russia not only could create trouble in Europe but could also undermine the US strategic position globally by aligning with China. At a time when many American strategists are concerned about a future great-power threat from China, a wise long-term US strategy would aim to insure Russian partnership with Washington. It is the height of folly to follow a policy in the Balkans that can only have the effect of pushing Russia more closely into Beijing’s embrace.

In his address to the nation Clinton also briefly invoked another, particularly disturbing argument for intervention. In a speech the previous day, he had discussed this rationale at greater length, declaring that “if we’re going to have a strong economic relationship that includes our ability to sell around the world, Europe has got to be a key…. That’s what this Kosovo thing is all about.” He thus seems to argue that the United States is fighting a war in Kosovo to make the world safe for capitalism. In fact, the President and other policy-makers have long been making similar arguments. In explaining its global strategy, for instance, the Pentagon declared in 1993 that “a prosperous, largely democratic, market-oriented zone of peace and prosperity that encompasses more than two-thirds of the world’s economy” requires the “stability” that only American “leadership” can provide. In the debate over US intervention in Bosnia, leading foreign policy figures, including the former head of the National Security Agency and Senator Richard Lugar, asserted that, left unchecked, the war there could lead to “national parochialism” in Europe, threatening global economic interdependence and US prosperity.

The air war against Serbia is just the latest installment in what appears to be Washington’s quest to make the world safe for America’s investors and exporters. Last year, speaking to the Boston Chamber of Commerce, Defense Secretary William Cohen justified NATO expansion as a way of “spreading the kind of security and stability that Western Europe has enjoyed since after World War II to Central and Eastern Europe.” And, in an observation certain to resonate with his audience, he noted: “And with that spread of stability, there is a prospect to attract investment.” No doubt the Administration is moved by the human tragedy of Kosovo. Clearly, however, its perception that US economic interests are indirectly at stake is at least as important. As Cohen has said, the Administration’s strategy seeks to “discourage violence and instability–instability which destroys lives and markets.” Clinton recently exhorted Americans to accept the “inevitable logic” of globalism and free trade. But the Administration’s Balkan policy shows that globalization is not inevitable–it depends on America’s overseas military commitments and its willingness to wage war if necessary.

What is most frightening about this economic rationale (which amounts to an imperialist argument) is its open-endedness. According to US policy-makers, the logic of global economic interdependence leads inevitably to a proliferation of US security commitments: Instability and aggression, virtually wherever they occur, are regarded as a threat to America, because they would disrupt the global stability upon which the United States purportedly depends for its prosperity. This thinking is, again, similar to the domino theory: Instability in even economically unimportant areas (like Kosovo) could “spill over” and infect other areas regarded as essential to global economic interdependence.

The US action in Kosovo should give Americans considerable pause as they contemplate their nation’s role in international politics. It is one thing to oppose, as the United States did in the Persian Gulf, an aggressive attack by one state against another. It is something else entirely to proclaim, as Washington has, that the United States now reserves the right to use military force to alter another state’s internal political arrangements when Washington finds that these offend its ever-shifting political sensibilities. It indeed is quite fantastic to find the United States taking military action against a sovereign state in Europe that poses no threat to America’s security or to its interests. If the United States is not the aggressor that Russia says it is, at the least it is displaying the arrogance of power common to imperial states.

We should know, of course, the trouble in which this arrogance of power can mire us. It is too early to tell if the Clinton Administration’s policy will ultimately lead to the use of US ground troops in the Kosovo conflict. But there is ample reason to fear that this could happen.

Vietnam showed that once the decision to use military force has been made, policy-makers are under almost irresistible pressure to escalate to win–or to avoid failure. Anyone familiar with the history of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations’ step-by-step descent into the Vietnam quagmire must have been chilled in recent days by the statements of many members of Congress and foreign policy analysts. Even many of those, like Senator John McCain and Henry Kissinger, who were initially skeptical of intervention now contend that, once committed, the United States has no choice but to do whatever is necessary–including using ground forces–to prevail.

If any clear lesson emerges from Vietnam, it is that it makes no sense to compound a mistake by digging oneself more deeply into a strategic morass. The questions that policy-makers must ask now are: What does “victory” in Kosovo mean, and can victory be attained without incurring costs disproportionate to the US interests at stake? Astonishingly, an Administration led and staffed by opponents of the Vietnam War is now compelled by the same concerns that drove, and blind to the same obstacles that confounded, the architects of that conflict.

Representing one foreign policy tradition, John Quincy Adams admonished America to “go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” The US intervention in Kosovo should prompt Americans to heed his warning. During the 1992 election campaign, Clinton said the United States should play a lofty global role; it would be “intolerable” for the United States to act as if it were “simply…another great power.” But rather than have the United States pursue grandiose visions pleasing to its self-image, followers of Adams’s tradition–like Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams on the left, as well as such thoughtful conservatives as George Kennan and Walter Lippmann–accept that there are not and need not be US solutions to the world’s myriad problems. They understand that balancing costs and benefits, resources and commitments, is a moral as well as strategic imperative. States that fail to do so run the risk of political and economic ruin.

Instead of crediting Clinton’s notions of the intolerable, post-cold war America should attend to Lippmann’s sobering injunction: “A mature great power…will eschew the theory of a global and universal duty which not only commits it to unending wars of intervention but intoxicates its thinking with the illusion that it is a crusader for righteousness…. I am in favor of learning to behave like a great power, of getting rid of the globalism which would not only entangle us everywhere but is based on the totally vain notion that if we do not set the world in order, no matter what the price, we cannot live in the world safely…. We shall have to learn to live as a great power which defends itself and makes its way among other great powers.

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