Reflections on the War

Reflections on the War

Only the most dedicated spinmaster at the White House would have the audacity to claim victory as the outcome of the NATO war, especially at this stage.


Only the most dedicated spinmaster at the White House would have the audacity to claim victory as the outcome of the NATO war, especially at this stage. Milosevic’s “surrender” may spare the country further devastation and enable an eventual restoration of normalcy for Kosovo, but it hardly vindicates the means used to reach such goals. If anything, it transmits the dreadful message that the United States and its main European allies are willing to bomb a small country ferociously and indefinitely so long as we don’t have to accept casualties on our side. Not since Vietnam has the West fallen so deeply into a black hole with regard to a major foreign policy initiative as it has in Kosovo. In Vietnam, however, once Washington had acknowledged its policy failure and withdrawn, the country was left geographically, ethnically and psychologically intact. Kosovo continues to offer a far more difficult challenge. Ethnic cleansing, which initially provided compelling grounds for intervention, became a full-scale onslaught with the onset of the war. After a week of bombing, the policy miscalculation in Kosovo became manifest; whether it is reversible remains unclear. There are lessons to be learned from Kosovo, most particularly as to whether “humanitarian intervention” is morally, legally and politically feasible in the post-cold war world.

Grave difficulties were present in the Kosovo situation, before the bombing, that made it extremely hard to intervene successfully in a diplomatic or military way. The United Nations Security Council was not politically available because of the positions of China and Russia in support of Belgrade’s “sovereign rights.” Besides, in Washington and the main European capitals, the UN had emerged from the Bosnia ordeal as a toothless tiger, while NATO was widely perceived as having finally induced the Serbs to accept the diplomatic solution that emerged from Dayton at the end of 1995.

Another set of difficulties concerned the choice of military tactics. Ever since the Vietnam War, political leaders in the United States have been determined to use force to promote their view of national interests, but to do so in a manner that minimizes the risk of death on the US side so as to avoid a political backlash. This Washington consensus was especially strong in relation to any US undertaking regarded as humanitarian. Such a political resolve was further strengthened by the angry domestic reaction to the death of eighteen US soldiers, operating under US command, in a 1993 firefight in the course of a UN peacekeeping operation in Somalia. Meanwhile, the Gulf War greatly encouraged the erroneous view that major warfare could now be effectively conducted with virtually no casualties to the technologically superior side.

An additional difficulty related to facts and the contradictory way in which they were reported in Belgrade and the West. Most Serbs believed that the Yugoslav action of the past year or so in Kosovo was provoked by the anti-Serb violence of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), whereas public opinion in the West attributed blame for the atrocities in Kosovo exclusively to Slobodan Milosevic. This disparity of perception continues to this day. The majority of people in Belgrade appear to regard the Hague indictment of Milosevic as confirming NATO’s anti-Serb vendetta, while the public in the rest of Europe and North America views the charges against Milosevic as a fully justifiable response to the criminal policies being pursued in Kosovo.

Finally, there was the issue of international law and human rights. The central undertaking of the UN Charter was to prohibit any international use of force that could not be justified as self-defense, unless it was undertaken with the explicit authority of the Security Council. But recently we have witnessed the emergence of human rights as a matter of international concern, especially in a setting where the abusive behavior amounts to the commission of crimes against humanity and has a genocidal quality. Such a pattern creates a moral and legal foundation for intervention under UN authority and, arguably, by any responsible outside forces.

The Hidden Agendas

In addition to these complexities, the NATO war was beset by subtexts having nothing to do with the actual Kosovo situation. One was a desire to validate the need for NATO. Ever since 1989, the rationale for maintaining an expensive defensive alliance, established four decades earlier to meet the threat to Europe posed by Soviet power, had seemed thin indeed. But there was always more to NATO than its cold war rationale: It was the means to insure a continuing US presence in Western Europe, which is widely believed on both sides of the Atlantic to be responsible for regional peace and prosperity, and which is contrasted with the unhappy European experience in the first half of the century, when the United States was not actively engaged. For many Europeans, support for reliance on NATO rested on this concealed premise that the alliance would soon wither away unless its existence could be revalidated in a dramatic way. Washington shared these sentiments, with the added worry that any further evolution of European regionalism could harm US economic interests.

Another subtext was the Pentagon’s desire to demonstrate how it could wage war without casualties by relying heavily on information technology for the precision targeting of missiles and bombs. It was part of the drive to maintain military budgets in an era in which there were no credible strategic threats to US security and in which it would be difficult to gain political support for military action if US lives were placed at risk.

Perhaps as important in terms of unspoken concerns, both Americans and Europeans were properly ashamed of their performance in Bosnia, especially that they had allowed Serbian forces to overrun the UN safe haven in Srebrenica; validated the main ethnic cleansing scenario at Dayton; and permitted Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the masterminds of Bosnian Serb criminality, to remain at large despite the Dayton commitment to prosecute war criminals. For many, an ethnic cleansing rerun in Kosovo was too much. Something needed to be done, and in a manner that would not reinforce the Bosnian image of futility.

All these factors led to, and were reinforced by, disastrous errors of judgment. The slide toward war seemed almost orchestrated by Madeleine Albright’s insistence that Belgrade swallow whole the Rambouillet accord, without adjustment, despite its blatant and extensive challenges to Yugoslavia’s sovereign rights. On one level, the war seemed to result from Richard Holbrooke’s theatrical diplomacy, which can only be defended on the false presupposition that Milosevic would back down at the last moment, thereby consolidating his image as an opportunist. That image was based on his acceptance in 1995 of the Croatian push against the Serbs in the Krajina and on his abandonment of the Serb cause in Bosnia that year in the face of NATO bombing in Bosnia. In effect, Holbrooke was playing a bluffing game of geopolitical poker with poor cards, relying on the false reading that Milosevic would in the end treat Kosovo as opportunistically as he had Bosnia and the Krajina. The fact that Milosevic has now “folded” doesn’t make the earlier bluff any more reasonable.

The situation was compounded by what were probably also miscalculations by Milosevic, who likely assumed on the basis of the Bosnian experience that calling NATO’s bluff would produce, at worst, a short-lived attack with relatively mild consequences. Milosevic probably believed (from past action and anticipated disunity among European governments) that even if NATO initiated bombing, it would be only a shallow commitment.

The result, predictably, was disaster. Not only did the bombing persist for many weeks but the NATO cure greatly worsened the Milosevic disease. Ethnic cleansing was accelerated, creating a massive refugee ordeal for both the Kosovars and neighboring Macedonia and Albania. Further, by opting for zero-casualty warfare, the entire burden of risk was shifted to the target society, including the supposed beneficiaries in Kosovo and innocent civilians throughout Yugoslavia. Kosovo has been substantially destroyed as a viable society, as has much of the civilian infrastructure of Serbia.

The absence of NATO casualties only accentuates the irresponsible character of this strategy, while the number of bombing mistakes, which included hospitals, villages, schools and refugee convoys, has caused the finger of criminality to be pointed in NATO’s direction. Recourse to bombing civilian targets such as water and electricity infrastructure, which was deliberately undertaken after the initial phase of bombing military targets failed to achieve “victory,” was a grave violation of the laws of war. In addition, the larger concerns of global stability were put in great potential danger due to the allegedly accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy and the seeming alienation of Russia.

What Could Have Been Done

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.

Learning From Kosovo

As we move forward from this uncertain point, it is not too early to learn from the Kosovo experience. To begin with, humanitarian intervention is notoriously difficult to carry out effectively. Governments with the capability, above all the US government, are not currently prepared to risk the lives of their militaries for such goals. At the same time, zero-casualty intervention is highly unlikely to achieve its objectives without imposing huge human costs on the civilian population of the target society. Such a reality is certain, as in Yugoslavia, to tarnish, if not entirely undermine, the fundamental humanitarian claim. It is not possible to take full account of the frequent unintended yet predictable civilian casualties produced by the tactics relied upon. Such a postmodern style of warfare leads to severe abuses of the community that is supposed to be rescued.

Humanitarian intervention, if viable at all, requires the most careful attention to the relationship of means to ends, along with a maximal effort to act in conformity with applicable international law, including respect for the UN and its charter. Whether such a stiff test can ever be met in a world of sovereign states that define their interests by reference to strategic concerns is admittedly questionable. It points to the need for structural reform, especially the creation of a volunteer and geopolitically independent UN Peace Force recruited on a professional basis. Even then, humanitarian intervention is problematic in the face of determined opposition and nationalist mobilization.

In general, humanitarian goals have to be pursued almost always by other means–through economic assistance, by UN preventive diplomacy and peacekeeping, and by support, in extreme circumstances, for movements of self-determination. It is not a matter of deferring unconditionally to the sovereign rights of an oppressive government, of the sort headed by Milosevic, that is subjecting part of its citizenry to unacceptable suffering; it is a recognition that even the smartest military technologies and tactics are often not able to provide relief in an acceptable manner.

There is a further element present in this NATO undertaking that applies to the United States in particular. The logic of war appropriately seeks warfighting doctrines and weaponry that keep US casualties as low as possible, while possessing the maximum capability to harm the enemy. By itself this is normal in a world that remains organized around the sovereign state. But carrying this logic to the extreme invites reckless and irresponsible recourse to force and gives rise to an alarming tendency of the Anglo-American public to convert warfare into a new kind of electronic bloodsport. It establishes a one-sidedness that resembles the structure of torture, with the perpetrator choosing the method by which to inflict pain and the victim helpless to retaliate. Probably no country has the maturity to use such a military option prudently and morally. Certainly the United States lacks this capacity.

A final, related observation. When the atomic bomb was initially developed, it was used against Japanese cities in a setting where there was no prospect of retaliation. I doubt very much that Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been attacked with such weapons if the Japanese had possessed atomic bombs of their own or if Germany had used them earlier in the war against British cities. During the cold war, massive mutually destructive capabilities existed. As a result, extreme caution was exercised by the nuclear weapons states, and no weapon of mass destruction was used–despite the pressure to do so in several crisis situations. If the Kosovo/Yugoslav ordeal leads to some fundamental rethinking about the role of force, it may at last bring the world closer to finding a way to respond to humanitarian crises without converting them into humanitarian catastrophes. At the very least, it might prompt humility in Washington.

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