The Choice in Kosovo


By Paul Starr
The American Prospect, July-August 1999

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans have been uncertain about the purposes that ought to guide our foreign policy, particularly our use of military power. Now that anticommunism no longer serves as an overarching cause, should we follow the dictates of national interest narrowly understood, or do democratic values and commitments to human rights oblige us to conceive of our role more broadly? Or is it a mistake even to distinguish sharply between national interests and humanitarian concerns because our security depends on an international moral order and the rule of law? And if we do intervene abroad with humanitarian aims, how far are we willing to go? Are we willing to put American soldiers at risk?

When the Serbs began their assault on the Kosovar Albanians this March, they posed a critical test for us, in some ways a more troubling one than Iraq did in 1991. In the Gulf War, we faced a clear act of international aggression that threatened to put vast wealth in the hands of a murderous and hostile regime. Our strategic interests and moral values favored the same course of action—reversing Iraqi aggression. But in Kosovo the situation was different. No obvious strategic or economic interest, in the usual sense, compelled the United States and NATO to intervene; unlike Saddam, Milosevic did not seriously threaten any nation outside his region. Although the flood of Kosovar refugees might destabilize neighboring countries and lead to further regional conflicts, the issue for the United States and NATO was fundamentally moral: Was the Serbian "ethnic cleansing" so deeply offensive to our values that we ought to go to war over it? Was it so abhorrent that, if left unanswered, it would threaten the moral basis of the international order?

Some critics of America and NATO argue that after ignoring comparable brutalities in Africa and Asia, we responded to the plight of the Kosovars, insofar as we did respond, only because they are Europeans. Race, religion, and geography doubtless do influence public and governmental reactions to events abroad. But if the American and western European response in this case depended entirely on common identity, the Kosovar Albanians—who are predominantly Muslims—might have been thought unlikely to receive our support at all. Ethnoreligious and historical ties were far more important to the Russians in their backing of the Serbs than the absence of those ties were to us in our backing of the Kosovars. Before the fighting began, what was Kosovo to us? What obligation did we feel we owed the Kosovars? The Kosovo crisis has been a particularly difficult test for us precisely because there haven't been either the clear strategic interests or the ethnic, cultural, or historical connections that would have tipped the balance in favor of whole-hearted engagement.

Like those who did nothing to help the Jews during the Holocaust, America and NATO could have ignored—or merely protested—the murder, rape, and expulsion of the ethnic Albanians. And that is most likely what the United States would have done if the majority in the Republican House had controlled foreign policy, as was apparent from their votes on April 28 failing to support not just the possible use of ground troops, but even the air war already in progress. After all, John Kasich said, the people of the Balkans have been fighting each other for centuries; we are unlikely to settle their differences. Others objected that the United States has no national interest at stake—presumably, if there were oil in the region, the situation would be different. The Balkans, they warned, could be a quagmire, another Vietnam, so we had best avoid getting further entangled and leave the Kosovars to their fate.

Yet as I write at the beginning of May, we are seven weeks into an air war with Yugoslavia, and the fate of the Kosovars hinges on our uncertain policy and leadership. So much doubt swirls about the strategic decisions made by NATO and the Clinton administration that it is easy to forget the root question: Was it right in the first place for NATO and the United States to try to stop Serbia from its campaign of ethnic cleansing?

The answer seems to me clear: it was right to try to stop Serbia. Just as it debases us to stand idly by while a family's home burns or people drown at sea, so it debases us collectively to ignore a genocidal assault on a people that recalls the most ghastly crimes of this century. This was evil on a monumental scale; ignoring it would have signaled a willingness to accept further assaults on peoples elsewhere. That we failed to act swiftly against similar crimes in Bosnia and Rwanda was no reason to do the same in Kosovo; one error does not demand another, and whether or not our earlier policies were right, each situation requires an assessment that reflects the particulars of the case. Force was justified in this instance both to help the Kosovars and to make it clear that the standards for human decency that we uphold aren't hollow.

And once we made a commitment to oppose Serbian ethnic cleansing, we had to be concerned with national interest in a very old-fashioned sense. For if NATO and the United States were first to threaten action and then to retreat, we would call the alliance and our own resolve into even more serious question than if we had never entered the conflict.

Above all, the war in Kosovo has been a humanitarian war, pardon the expression. And because its purposes have been humanitarian, we have had to be especially careful not to pursue it in morally reckless ways. Yet once the alliance became involved, we put our own security interests at risk and should have become firmly committed to succeed at what we had undertaken. The result has been an excruciating tension in choosing the right means—and even the right end—in a conflict where we have never had any good options and certainly none that were morally safe.


Subscribe to The American Prospect

But surely, however hard the choices, the United States and NATO have had the military power to prevail; the force at our disposal exceeds that of Yugoslavia by several orders of magnitude. Who ever thought of Yugoslavia as even a minimally plausible adversary for NATO? Writing in the New York Review of Books, William Pfaff points out that Serbia and Kosovo combined are the size of Kentucky; Kosovo alone is the size of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, traversable by a tank column in an hour. Nor is this an area where we would confront a hostile indigenous population; the indigenous people—at least those who used to be indigenous—are the ones we're defending, and if we arm them, their guerrillas will fight on our side. If the Serbs are able to hold off the United States and NATO, it can only be because of a failure of ours to mobilize and apply the force available to us.

Seven weeks into the war, that seems to be precisely what has happened—an apparent stalemate, as NATO has relied exclusively on air strikes that cannot reverse the situation on the ground. As a means of protecting the Kosovars from assault and exile, air power has conspicuously failed. To be sure, at the beginning of the war in March, there may have been no feasible short-term alternative. It would have taken at least two months to position ground troops, and the political obstacles to a ground invasion were staggering. There would have been problems in countries such as Macedonia, where the operations would have to have been staged; in other member countries of NATO, such as Italy and Greece, uneasy about war in their neighborhood; and at home in the United States, where public and congressional opinion was uncertain at best. Given these realities, air power was a reasonable gamble at the outset: Yugoslavia had a lot to lose from bombing. If its government acted in its national interest, it might have backed down—but it doesn't, and it hasn't.

The real question about NATO's strategy doesn't concern the initial resort to air strikes, but rather the repeated refusal during these past seven weeks to consider ground operations and the consequent assurance to the Serbs that they had nothing to fear from NATO troops. It would have drastically changed the Serbian calculus if we had immediately set in motion preparations for a ground invasion, instead of publicly ruling it out. The first weeks of the war provided an ideal moment for raising the stakes for Milosevic. Public support in NATO countries for military action had surged as a result of reports of Serbian atrocities and the massive exodus of the Albanians. But rather than capitalize on this support at its meeting in Washington in late April, NATO decided to reaffirm its initial decisions, and step up the air war.

Indeed, wary of any ground involvement and desperate to avoid failure, some would have dropped any restraint on bombing. Tom Friedman of the New York Times called for a "merciless war" from the air: "Every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road and war-related factory has to be targeted . . . the stakes have to be very clear [to the Serbs]: Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverizing it. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389."

But in a war that we entered with a humanitarian purpose, bombing the enemy back to the Middle Ages would undermine the original rationale. (And do we really want Yugoslavia in smoldering ruins, and the Serbs smoldering for decades as well?) As of the beginning of May, civilian deaths in Yugoslavia have already been mounting, and with supplies of smart weapons dwindling, NATO will necessarily turn to dumber ones, with greater likelihood of civilian casualties. These bombs, in fact, don't just hit the Serbs. As the news and images of Serbian civilian deaths are broadcast in NATO countries, the public support for the war is likely to grow more faint. The result is that the strategy adopted by NATO seems to be self-limiting: we can punish Serbia, but we cannot force it to budge. Thus does the world's most powerful alliance, led by the only remaining superpower, find itself apparently checked in a conflict with a minor regional power.

There was a better alternative, though not without risk. Compared to bombing without end, the mobilization of overwhelming force on the ground would have been far more likely to bring about a quick Serbian surrender, fewer civilian casualties, and full autonomy for the Kosovars within what would necessarily be, for some time, an international protectorate. In this regard, the choice between an inconclusive air war and a decisive ground invasion is similar to the one we faced in Iraq in 1991. In retrospect, does anyone seriously doubt that the world is a safer place now because Iraq was defeated in 1991? (The pity is only that Saddam survived in power; the world would be far more dangerous if he sat astride the Gulf today.) Similarly, the world would be a safer place in the future if Serbia were quickly and decisively defeated in Kosovo in 1999.

Yet there is little prospect of any such mobilization, and instead the air campaign continues. By the time this issue reaches readers, the war may be settled by negotiations (as I write, the diplomatic traffic is intense). Even so, our announced unwillingness to put troops in the field and the emerging limits of the air campaign will have consequences for an agreement, if there is one. The Serbian regime will not only survive to cleanse again, but will also likely retain effective control over Kosovo even after the depredations it has inflicted on the vast majority of the population. What does a regime have to do these days to lose the right to rule over a people? Apparently, mass murder isn't enough. Perhaps the best we can hope for at this point is a de facto partition of Kosovo with an internationally policed area for the ethnic Albanians where they can at least be safe.

If, as seems likely, a settlement fails to reverse the Serbian cleansing of Kosovo, it will be a severe reversal for NATO itself. Much of the blame will necessarily fall on Clinton. But it's unclear whether a Republican president would have acted more decisively in Kosovo; the Republicans in Congress have been severely divided during the entire crisis and far more prone than the Democrats to neo-isolationism. Moreover, Amer ica was unprepared for Kosovo partly because the Republicans subjected the country to the impeach ment process in the months leading up to the crisis. At the time, some observers said that Congress would never have conducted such an impeachment during the Cold War; only with peace and prosperity could we afford to turn the full attention of our government to a sex scandal. But perhaps that massive diversion has had a political cost, evident in the limited American response to Kosovo and perhaps in Milosevic's calculations months earlier. (Imagine, especially after Wag the Dog, if in the midst of the impeachment Clinton had called for sending ground troops to Albania to protect the Kosovars.)

But the larger lesson is far more bracing. I am not sure that any president could mobilize America for a humanitarian war in an area where we have no clear strategic interests or historical ties, even when the moral basis of that war is as strong as it is in Kosovo. I would have liked to see America bring overwhelming force to bear on Milosevic, but I am mindful that many Amer icans—probably a majority—are wary of such commitments. Those of us who believe that the United States ought to use its power to prevent genocide and other high crimes against human decency are going to have to work a lot harder to convince our neighbors.

-May 4, 1999

Copyright 1999 by Paul Starr. Preferred Citation: Paul Starr, "The Choice in Kosovo," The American Prospect, July-August 1999 . This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@prospect.org.