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 In Vietnam, however, once Washington had acknowledged its policy failure and withdrawn, the country was left geographically, ethnically and psychologically intact.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.