The Kosovo settlement negotiated by the G-8 countries is cause for relief but not celebration. If the peace holds, it will end Milosevic’s criminal displacement and murder of the Albanian Kosovars, and NATO’s indefensible bombing of Serbia. Washington paints this settlement as a vindication of its air war and Balkan strategy. But only through gross revision of fact and history can the Clinton Administration and NATO claim a triumph, let alone a positive precedent for humanitarian intervention.

Start with the goal advertised by President Clinton himself as moral justification for the war. “Our mission is clear,” he declared on March 24: To “deter” a Serbian offensive against the Kosovars “and, if necessary, to seriously damage the Serbian military’s capacity to harm the people of Kosovo.” Instead, the provocative withdrawal of humanitarian observers and NATO’s bombing enabled Milosevic to accelerate the Kosovar expulsions radically. Now, under the G-8 agreement, the Kosovars are worse off than they were with Rambouillet, which granted a referendum on self-determination after three years. The new arrangement confers only a vague promise of “substantial autonomy,” and Yugoslavia retains sovereignty over Kosovo indefinitely. Even NATO’s promise to see the return of Kosovars by winter appears hollow: The UN’s refugee coordinator now says it will be “impossible” to return most Kosovars by then. NATO’s strategy sacrificed those it claimed to help.

It was at Rambouillet that NATO first revealed what turned out to be its goal throughout the war: to assert unilaterally military authority over Serbia while systematically excluding the UN. Belgrade never objected to UN peacekeepers on Kosovo soil. The downward slide to war began with NATO’s insistence on its stand-alone Kosovo force independent of the UN and, in particular, with the alliance’s demand to deploy troops anywhere in the Serbian statelet as well as contested Kosovo. The air war was launched with no UN authority and in contravention of the UN Charter. Washington and NATO continued this game through the final negotiations, demanding that Serbia admit troops prior to Security Council authorization. The one consistent aspect of Washington’s Kosovo strategy has been to relegate the UN to the sidelines and assert NATO’s right to wage war. It was Russia and Germany that finally forced the war back into the UN arena. Although the UN remains gravely, if not mortally, wounded, recent talk of a new European Union military, and divisions in the alliance over Kosovo strategy, thankfully suggest that the appetite for such NATO adventures has been dampened for quite a while.

There is a bill, both financial and political, to be paid for this war. The first seventy-one days of bombing cost the United States alone $2.6 billion, and that’s not counting the deplorable shift in military-budget priorities, for which this war is cited as Exhibit A. The pyrrhic nature of the war lies in the longer-term implications. It fueled anti-American anger in Russia, China and other countries, with negative consequences for disarmament, economic reform and democratization. Then there is the horrendous cost to refugees–not only Albanians but 500,000 ethnic Serb deportees from Croatia and Bosnia mired in desperate poverty in Belgrade and other urban centers. Albania and Macedonia struggle to maintain stability under pressure of both refugees and pan-Albanian nationalism. Add to that volatile mix the KLA, whose leaders publicly endorse the accord but whose rank-and-file fighters may be as difficult to win over to peace as any other nationalist guerrilla army. There is talk in some US circles of denying aid to Serbia while Milosevic remains in power, which would result in continued destabilization of the region. The Administration envisions the Balkans freed of ethnic hatreds, but the violence of the past months–or its continuation by means of economic strangulation–will only feed the cycle of retribution.

The Administration portrays Kosovo as a success for the “Clinton doctrine,” summarized as “limited force for limited goals.” Given the results of the bombing, a more accurate translation would be: “Shoot first, ask questions later.” Was it necessary to go to war to get an agreement that is more favorable to Belgrade than the one at Rambouillet? What goal was served by an air campaign that killed an estimated 1,200 civilians and more than 5,000 Serbian soldiers–including hundreds in carpet-bombing after the agreement had already been reached–while actually enhancing Milosevic’s campaign of expulsion? Let us hope the Kosovo peace holds. But do not be deceived by the triumphalist rhetoric from Washington. The Kosovo war is a resounding defeat for the aspirations of the Kosovars, for the cause of human rights, for the entire southern Balkans, whose people will spend decades picking up the pieces from Milosevic’s criminal clearances and NATO’s careless, cowardly and destructive war.