Destroying Kosovo

Destroying Kosovo

The catastrophic effects of the air war against Serbia subvert the Clinton Administration’s declared humanitarian intentions.


The catastrophic effects of the air war against Serbia subvert the Clinton Administration’s declared humanitarian intentions. Instead of tying Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s hands, the bombing encourages Serbian nationalists for whom no price is too great to pay to hold on to Kosovo, the symbol of Serbian national identity. It also provides Milosevic cover to evict foreign journalists, shut down independent Serbian media like Radio B92 and rid the country of international monitors. And instead of bringing Albanian Kosovars a measure of security, the bombing hands Milosevic a predictable strategic chance to implement his long-planned scheme to brutally remove Albanian Kosovars from selected areas. The bombing has left the Kosovars far worse off than before the NATO offensive: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that 115,000 refugees had been displaced in the last week of March as a result of the Kosovo conflict–the largest number of them scattered to Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro–with their homes torched and their leaders murdered.

With neither Europe nor the United States willing or likely to commit ground troops, this bombing campaign appears to risk little and has more to do with salvaging NATO credibility than saving Kosovar lives. The Administration and the allies have always been ambivalent about the Balkans. They want credit for ending ethnic violence but aren’t willing to pay the price for suppressing it. The contradiction is at the center of what US officials call “coercive diplomacy”–based on the threat of military force, limited by an unwillingness to sustain casualties. The shrewd Milosevic called the Administration’s bluff: If the alliance failed to follow through on its bombing threats, he’d be David to the NATO Goliath; if bombing began, his ground forces could accelerate the creation of Albanian-free zones. And while the Western news media focused on Kosovo, Milosevic could launch a second war–this one on dissent within Serbia. As Vojin Dimitrijevic, director of the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, reports, the bombing has wiped out ten years’ effort to lay the foundations of a Serbian civil society.

While the ordeal of Kosovar Albanians grows more alarming by the day, many in the Administration view the NATO war on Yugoslavia as the basis of what Michael T. Klare suggests, on page 5, is a new international military order. With this intervention, NATO is transformed from a defensive alliance to an offensive pact claiming the right to enforce continental stability. This contradicts the promises made to reassure Russia about NATO’s expansion into central Europe. To that add the Administration’s decision to act purposefully without UN sanction: In the run-up to the bombing, France sought a UN Security Council resolution to authorize NATO peacekeeping deployment; Washington refused, insisting that NATO has the right to act independently of the UN.

With this step, the Administration once again degraded the UN’s authority and marginalized Security Council members Russia and China as actors on the diplomatic stage. It was the latest in a series of ill-considered moves, including the new missile defense plan, that have pushed US-Russian relations to their lowest point since the end of the cold war. Without a cooperative relationship with a stable Russia, few large security questions–from the Balkans to nuclear perils–can be resolved. But by our policy in Kosovo, which has unified the entire Russian political spectrum in opposition, we have contributed to the further destabilization of that country at a moment when the post-Yeltsin succession struggle is under way.

With this intervention the Administration and NATO have abrogated many treaties and obligations of international law: Article 2 of the UN Charter prohibiting the use of force against sovereign states not engaged in outside aggression, for instance; the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties forbidding the use of force to compel any state to sign an international agreement; and the Helsinki Accord Final Act guaranteeing the boundaries of European states. Throw in the failure to invoke the War Powers Act and the constitutional requirement for a Congressional declaration of war. Such concerns are not just legal niceties; this “intervention” has established new parameters for the United States and NATO to make war without any of the checks and balances provided by US law, international agreements or even the realpolitik of the Security Council. Wars without borders, figurative or literal.

And all for what? As Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon admitted to reporters on March 30, “I think right now, it is difficult to say that we have prevented one act of brutality at this stage.” The crisis creates a profound dilemma for principled antimilitarists who do not want to turn a blind eye to ethnic cleansing but cannot embrace the NATO air war. With the governments involved proceeding along cynical and destructive lines, it is left to others to focus on preventing the massive flow of refugees from sinking to the even more powerless status of stateless persons.

Right now the best prospect for saving lives is for the United States and its allies to bring all parties back to the negotiating table. (“Rambouillet is dead,” says one Western official, probably reflecting the views of many within the alliance.) And now is the time to negotiate, with as few preconditions as possible, a halt to the bloodshed, an end to the bombing and an interim agreement that would allow Milosevic to withdraw his forces from Kosovo–and the creation of a UN peacekeeping force of Russians or a mixed force from Russia and other countries. The Serbs would likely feel less threatened by a limited Russian presence than by a NATO force–or a NATO war. And the Albanians’ suspicions could be eased by including with the Russian force troops of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe or from representatives of the European Union. Even more important, such a force would mean the return of relief organizations and the world press to the region. Above all, the purpose of intervention along these lines should be to protect Kosovar civilians. Once such a truce is in place, it is also worth considering an alternative form of negotiations modeled on the talks in Northern Ireland, that other supposedly ancient and irreconcilable ethnic conflict, involving not just the hopelessly polarized combatants but women, clergy and other moderating elements. Wars of ethnic nationalism are notoriously resistant to big-power force and traditional statecraft. And the usual expedient peace agreements imposed by big powers in such wars–negotiations limited to armed combatants leading to territorial partitions–tend to empower the most extreme voices on every side.

Heading into Easter, there was talk of a bombing pause in deference to the season. The search for a political solution is paramount if we are to heed those who will bear the consequences, just as they already bear the consequences of NATO’s misguided effort.

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