The Kosovo/NATO Conflict:
Questions and Answers

By Michael Albert and Stephen R. Shalom


1. What are the roots of the Kosovo conflict?

Ethnic Serbs and Albanians give extended historical arguments going back as far as 1389 or 1912 or World War II. The basic issue is that the Kosovo province of Serbia (called Kosova in Albanian) has a large majority -- as much as 90 percent -- of ethnic Albanians with a roughly 10 percent Serbian minority. The Kosovo Albanians, however, are only about 16 percent of Serbia's total population. The Kosovo Albanians claim to be an oppressed minority within Serbia and want self-determination. The Kosovo Serbs claim to be an oppressed minority within Kosovo, and want protection from the Albanians. For Serbs, Kosovo, particularly in the north, is the site of many historical events and locales, their Jerusalem and Alamo rolled into one.

Yugoslavia consisted of 6 republics (Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina) and in 1974 Tito gave autonomous status to two provinces of Serbia, Kosovo and Vojvodina. Kosovo autonomy allowed its ethnic Albanians to develop their own institutions, but angered Serbian nationalists. The Yugoslav League of Communists (LCY) under Tito and after his death in 1980, suppressed nationalist ideology and political dissent.

In 1987, however, Slobodan Milosevic used anger over Kosovo to take control of the Serbian branch of the LCY. The previous leaders, Milosevic charged, had appeased the Albanians and failed to defend Serb interests. In 1989, Milosevic revoked Kosovo's autonomy, encouraging forcible Serb repression of the Albanian majority ever since. Most Albanian Kosovars now want complete independence.


2. What is the KLA?

The Albanian Kosovars fought Serb control in 1989 by non-violent resistance: they elected their own leaders, refused to cooperate with the Serb authorities, and established their own counter-institutions. Their "president" was Ibrahim Rugova, a follower of Gandhi, who urged his people to reject violence while working toward independence. Serbian repression in Kosovo since 1989 didn't attract much concern from Washington. In 1995, when the United States sponsored talks in Dayton, Ohio to end the fighting in Bosnia, Milosevic was feted as the key to peace and Rugova was excluded from the conference. Thereafter repression increased in Kosovo and Rugova had little to show for his non-violent approach.

In 1996, an obscure organization appeared on the scene, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA, or UCK in Albanian), committed to armed struggle. They undertook some ineffectual attacks on police stations and sometimes Serb civilians, including Serbian refugees from the Yugoslav wars whom many Albanians viewed as colonizers intended to shift the demographic balance. In early 1998, Serbian special police assaulted three villages, killing more than eighty people, at least seventeen after they had been detained or surrendered. This attack drove thousands of Albanians into the KLA, and though still called terrorists by the Serbian authorities, they became a serious guerrilla army, with mass support. Over the next months the KLA took control of roughly 40 percent of Kosovo's territory. By late summer, however, Serbian forces retook most of the territory, their major tactic being to crush civilian support for the rebels by systematically destroyed towns and villages and forcing thousands of people to flee.

It is difficult to tell the KLA attitude toward Serb civilians. Human rights groups have accused them of serious human rights violations, including compelling Serb villagers to leave their homes, with some killings, though not approaching the scale of atrocities committed by Serbian forces. The KLA claims not to target civilians, while acknowledging that abuses are committed by fighters in the field.


3. Why does everyone talk about the conflict spreading?

Massive refugee flows have the potential to destabilize many surrounding countries where there is a delicate ethnic balance. In Macedonia, for example, commentators fear that Albanian immigration would provoke the Albanian minority to secede or would even make it a majority, which the Macedonian majority is determined to prevent. And having hundreds of thousands of Albanians living in refugee camps brings visions of the Palestinians, with all the instability their plight has caused the Middle East. In addition, Albania has warned that it will not sit idly by if its compatriots across the border are slaughtered, and Serbia has made incursions into Albania to prevent the flow of weapons and recruits to the KLA. Finally, Turkey and Greece, long-time enemies, and Bulgaria as well might get involved. (Of course, it is a little odd for NATO to launch a war in order to prevent two NATO members --Turkey and Greece -- from going at each other.)


4. Is the U.S. motivated by humanitarianism in the Balkans?

No. But how do we prove such a claim? Suppose the U.S. is motivated to wage war and drop bombs in this instance by humanitarian concerns. If so, that would mean that concern for the plight of oppressed minorities and populations ranked very high in U.S. policy-making calculations. We would then expect, it follows, that in any case where large populations are suffering horrible repression Washington would try to intervene to stop the repression.

Now consider the reverse claim that U.S. foreign policy is never motivated by concern for the well being of local constituencies but will only opportunistically use related rhetoric for rationalization purposes when possible. If this were true, in contrast, we would expect that the U.S. would intervene in the affairs of other countries only to serve domestic elites in the U.S. or to aid local elites in other countries on behalf of U.S. elites, or perhaps to influence or enhance policies undertaken by other countries thought to benefit U.S. government and elite interests -- but with the human costs to victims playing virtually no role in the calculations.

Now look at the evidence.

Investigation of all these cases and many more -- the Turkish treatment of Kurds in Turkey, for example -- reveals a consistent pattern which has nothing to do with concerns for repressed populations and everything to do with calculations of U.S. elite and geo-political interests. In every case policy would have been roughly opposite to what took place, if there had been humanitarian concerns. There weren't, and there aren't.


5. So why is NATO now bombing in the Balkans?

Just as killings by the (U.S.-trained) junta in Haiti did not concern U.S. policymakers until large numbers of refugees started fleeing to the United States, so too human rights abuses in Kosovo did not concern U.S. policymakers as long as they didn't threaten regional stability. But as the fighting in Kosovo escalated, with large numbers of displaced Albanian refugees, U.S. officials decided they needed to curb the problem--not to aid locally affected people, but to prevent losses to U.S. interests due to the conflict spreading into other parts of Europe.

In February and March at Rambouillet in France, the United States and its European allies invited the Albanian Kosovars and the Milosevic government to sign an agreement that provided for the withdrawal of Serbian security forces from Kosovo, the disarming of the KLA, autonomy for Kosovo, a NATO peacekeeping force, and follow-up final-status negotiations after three years. Milosevic said he was unwilling to accept foreign troops on his territory. NATO said it would bomb him if the Albanians signed and he didn't. (Compare this with U.S. mediation efforts in Northern Ireland where threatening to bomb a recalcitrant party was not part of the equation.) The Albanians reluctantly accepted the Rambouillet agreement and Milosevic refused.

Now the primary NATO goal became maintaining its credibility. The Clinton administration had invested heavily in expanding NATO, to make it a primary instrument of U.S. policy not only in Europe, but beyond. There is an elementary point of big power politics that no one denies: threats made need to be carried out if the credibility of future threats are to be maintained. And, likewise, threats carried out but not yielding total victory need to be escalated until the adversary is crushed.

So why make the initial threat to bomb? There is a predisposition in Washington to favor military solutions. A diplomatic approach would have strengthened the UN and international law and made Russia a player, all of which would interfere with U.S. freedom of action. Bombing, on the other hand, leads with the U.S. strong suit. It provides a rationale for U.S. domestic military spending, and an international arms bazaar. It tells the world that the U.S. response to problems with other nations is to bomb them. "What good is this marvelous military force," Albright asked Gen. Colin Powell a few years back, "if we can never use it?"


6. What effects do the bombings have?

In preparation for the bombing, relief workers (who might have continued to mitigate the suffering) and international observers (who might have continued to discourage the most blatant atrocities) were pulled out of Kosovo. The NATO bombing then provoked a horrific outburst of ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces as hundreds of thousands of Albanian Kosovars were driven from their homes. Because all reporters and international observers had left Kosovo, we do not know the human toll of Serb actions, but it surely considerably exceeds the toll for the previous year, during which some 2,000 ethnic Albanian civilians had been killed and about 250,000 ethnic Albanians had become refugees, most of them within Kosovo.

Even without the bombing, a Serbian offensive was likely imminent, but it is hard to believe it would have been as ferocious as what has occurred. The bombing incensed many even in Serbia's democratic movement, so one can only imagine how it must have affected Serb security forces in Kosovo. Unable to retaliate against NATO missiles and warplanes, they could be expected to lash out at those most vulnerable, ethnic Albanian civilians. Of course, none of this mitigates the responsibility for the atrocities on the part of those who carried them out. But if someone is holding a person hostage and you recklessly charge forward, leading to the death of the hostage, you also bear some responsibility -- all the more so if you rush in not out of true concern for the hostage, but for other reasons entirely. Many U.S. officials have acknowledged that they thought the bombing might well lead to a paroxysm of violence from Milosevic and that air power, the NATO tool of choice, could do nothing to stop that violence in the short run.

Bombing, of course, has had other implications as well. Within Yugoslavia the population has rallied to its leader, Milosevic. The democratic opposition, previously challenging Milosevic, now appears to be either dismantled, jailed, or, most chillingly, supporting him. As Zorin Djindjic, the leader of Serbia's Democratic Party and an organizer of pro-democracy demonstrations in 1996-97 put it, the "bombs have marginalized any dissenters here." Washington, he said bitterly, has spent more on one day's bombs than it ever spent helping the democracy movement in Yugoslavia. Montenegro, the smaller of the two Yugoslav republics, had previously passed a resolution questioning Milosevic's Kosovo policy, but the bombing has quieted its opposition as well. These results were predictable. And the level of hostility and tension in the whole region has climbed dramatically, making negotiations and a lasting peace, eventually obviously required, that much more difficult.

And then there is the horrible loss of life and means of sustaining life that mounts with each new raid of Belgrade and Yugoslavia as a whole. Bombing has a deadly logic of its own. What begins as "surgical" attacks inevitably expands. "We have to drop the bridges and turn out the lights -- there should be no more outdoor rock concerts in downtown Belgrade," Sen. John McCain told Newsweek. "Twelve days of surgical bombing was never going to turn Serbia around," wrote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. "Let's see what 12 weeks of less than surgical bombing does. Give war a chance."


7. But even if badly motivated, and even if they have some bad effects, won't the bombings at least restrain Milosevic?

Restrain him from what? The idea that doing something necessarily improves a situation is, of course, quite false. Some things may be beneficial. Others not. Yes, even an ill-motivated action can sometimes have a desirable effect and therefore deserve support, but in this case the bombing is not only ill-motivated, its effects are horribly detrimental as well. It has worsened the plight of the Albanian Kosovars, vastly increasing the flow of refugees and, due to the scale, created a catastrophe of the first order. It has diminished the internal opposition to Milosevic, and if reports are accurate perhaps destroyed it. It has undermined the UN, turned NATO into an offensive, interventionary institution, played havoc with international law, and further projected the U.S. as a country eager and willing to punish any deviations it discerns from its will with bombs, thus acting as a threat against countries throughout the world. All these effects are horribly negative and then there is the devastation of Yugoslavia itself, the immediate expansion of deaths and casualties, and the future expansion due to the wrecking of a country's infrastructure.

The remarkable thing is that there is little dispute about the above. Yes, our formulation has a moral tone that many others lack when recounting these facts, but the facts are not in doubt.


8. But can the U.S. really be that vile? Isn't this just left cynicism and a knee-jerk rejection of all U.S. actions?

Sometimes when a person or group holds roughly the same position repeatedly in different contexts it indicates that the person or group is gravitating to it reflexively or has lost touch with reason and is bending reality to fit his or her prejudices. And yes, there are likely critics of the bombing who have adopted a stance based not on evidence and sound reasoning, but on a pre-determined mindset, with facts bent to fit.

But, the facts of U.S. international relations, and of the limited options available in this case are really not in dispute. And the judgment drawn by critics of U.S.. policy are not leaps from those facts or distortions of those facts or subjective impositions on those facts, but rather very simple deductions from the facts, which, were the culprit any other nation, would be obvious to all.


9. How come there are conflicting viewpoints among leftists and progressives, some favoring bombing, some opposing it?

There has been an avalanche of media commentary emphasizing the immense and grotesque crimes in the Balkans for nearly a decade. It is natural that some folks, including many on the left, have become very impassioned about wishing to see those crimes curbed. This desire, perfectly reasonable on the face of it (though at times ignoring other and often worse cases of repression and violence in the world), has left some folks blind to the reality that just saying that a policy helps people doesn't mean that, in fact, the policy does help those people. The desire not to ignore the plight of the Kosovars is worthy. But to advocate policies that end up hurting the Kosovars, Yugoslavia as a whole, international law, the UN, and by the threat-effect all who might oppose U.S. pursuits, on grounds that at least it is doing something, is unworthy.


10. Why do many leftists inside Serbia deny that the Serbs have committed atrocities? Are we being misled about that?

There are many factors at work, no doubt. Ethnic conflicts frequently find leftists on opposite sides, swept up in the myths and distortions of their own ethnic group. (Think of the Palestine-Israeli or the Turkish-Greek conflicts.) Having bombs drop in your neighborhood and nation, which destroy the daily functioning of your society, has, we know from history, a tremendously galvanizing and homogenizing effect on people's views. More, there is likely also honest confusion. Facts available outside Yugoslavia may not be available inside, or at least may not be comprehensible there.

In matters such as this, testimony from people on the scene, from whatever persuasion, must be understood in context. Single events can be elaborated into whole theses, a common trick of the mass media, but in chaotic situations there are single events demonstrative of pretty much any kind of behavior one might wish to find. What matters most is not single examples or events, but widespread patterns of behavior and broad policies and their broad implications.


11. How come many right-wingers are against this action?

Some rightwingers reflexively oppose anything Clinton does (a draft-dodger can't lead us into war, etc.) But there are two other sources of rightwing opposition. One is the general point that elites can differ in their views as to what best serves U.S. elite interests. If it doesn't work as planned, which is certainly a reasonable projection of likelihoods, this operation may in fact leave NATO and the U.S. in a worse place than at its outset. Therefore, for those who doubt the bombing's capacity to lead to stable results that legitimate NATO, reduce risk of spreading conflict, etc., there is reason to oppose the policy.

Moreover, to some rightwingers, multilateralism -- even if it's NATO rather than the UN -- is suspect because it reduces to some extent U.S. freedom of action. If the situation in Kosovo might cause a crisis in southeastern Europe, let the Europeans deal with it. The right opposes peacekeeping operations ("the United States needs to husband its resources for great exertions, not dissipate them in a thousand stagnant fens" [Charles Krauthammer]). And where left critics of the bombing argue that it will not achieve -- and will in fact exacerbate -- any humanitarian objectives, the right is about as concerned about the suffering in Kosovo as it is about the suffering in America's cities.


12. What is the role of law in international relations and in this crisis? Where is the UN in all this?

U.S. officials frequently proclaim their adherence to international law, except when they don't want to. So, Washington ignored a ruling by the World Court on Nicaragua, vetoed a Security Council resolution calling on all states to obey international law, and more generally acts unilaterally whenever it feels like. The same pattern pertains in this case, too.

The Charter of the United Nations -- which is a treaty signed by the United States and thus part of the "Supreme law of the land" -- prohibits the use or threat of force against other nations except in self-defense to an armed attack or if authorized by the UN Security Council. When the United States can bring along the Security Council it is delighted to do so (for example, during the 1991 war against Iraq), even if it takes blatant bribery to pressure other states to assent. But where such consensus is impossible, Washington has been happy to simply ignore the Security Council, claiming that it has authorization from previous Council resolutions, even though most other countries see no such authorization (the U.S.-British bombing of Iraq in December 1998, for example) or else advancing ludicrous claims that it is acting in self-defense (as in its recent missile strikes on a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant).

Regional organizations like NATO simply do not have the right to act on their own. Article 53 of the UN Charter states that "no enforcement action shall be taken under regional arrangements or by regional agencies without the authorization of the Security Council." So in the case of Kosovo, the U.S. and NATO, confronting a problem, turned not to the UN but to the Pentagon. The UN is not entirely under U.S. auspices and could, conceivably, act independently and in a humanitarian manner which would frequently conflict with U.S. interests and require changes in U.S. policies.


13. But aren't borders an abstraction? Shouldn't we be concerned with people rather than with nations? Why does it matter that Yugoslavia is a sovereign nation and that this is an internal conflict rather than between nations?

Borders exist. And the reason to be concerned about their violation even with good motivations much less by a unilateral and illegal force uninterested in the plight of the suffering, is because respect for borders is one of the few impediments to the mighty doing whatever they please with the weak. To establish the precedent that national sovereignty is inconsequential is to remove perhaps the major impediment to one nation sending troops, bombers, or missiles into another. Once that is done, there remains only debate over what is warranted, and in the world as we know it such debate is dominated by the most powerful states and their massive media machines, most particularly the U.S. (Military intervention, Richard Falk has reminded us, is like the Mississippi River: it only flows from North to South.) Thus, to deny the validity of national sovereignty is to effectively give the U.S. carte blanche to intervene when and where it decides -- which is, of course, from the U.S. perspective, a delightful by-product of the current events.


14. What is the right way to deal with crises like this? There are two questions: How can we reduce violence and get settlements, and what rights are national minorities entitled to?

Crises inside sovereign nations are complex problems on the international scene. Should Japan bomb Washington out of solidarity with blacks subjected to horrible conditions and violence in our inner cities? Would that improve or worsen the plight of blacks, have ancillary affects that were positive or negative from the point of view of justice and self-determination? The major means of impacting relations ought to be diplomacy, international opinion, and domestic movements. In some instances (as in the case of apartheid in South Africa) these may be rightly augmented with economic sanctions which are supported by the internal opposition. In other instances, however, sanctions can amount to a deadly and immoral weapon, having as their chief consequence huge and criminal casualties among civilians, as in Iraq in recent years. And yes, one can certainly imagine situations where a powerful state or community can and will devastate a minority ethnic group if there is not some form of more powerful intervention -- but this does not mean bombing by interested parties not seeking true peace and which will only aggravate crimes and divisions.

Most world problems, including most humanitarian crises, don't call for military solutions, but non-pacifists believe that there are some situations where force is the only option. If that force is wielded by the United States, however, it will be used to further U.S. elite interests rather than any humanitarian objective. Other countries, too, look out for their own elite interests, so the way to minimize the influence of the elite-serving agendas of individual governments is to put a humanitarian military force under democratic international control. International control must mean the UN General Assembly, not the Security Council which is set up in the most undemocratic way imaginable, with five countries (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China) having veto power.

Even the General Assembly does not represent real democracy. There's no relation of votes to population, many members states are themselves undemocratic, and even those that are formally democratic are dominated by elites with money. True democratic control of a humanitarian force must await global social change, but in the meantime the General Assembly provides the best approximation.

Thus, in extreme cases, what is needed to prevent human travail is no doubt a true peace-keeping force, under the auspices of the General Assembly of the UN, prepared to stand between combatants and, if necessary, to defend itself and those being abused, to create conditions for negotiations.

What rights are national minorities entitled to? As a basic position, we must support self-determination as a fundamental democratic right. But there are some tough questions. What if a minority wants to secede, but within their territory live other minorities? Such situations have no simple solution, especially if the minority does not live in contiguous territory. What if a minority wishes to leave a country and take with it the bulk of the country's resources or assets, leaving a majority behind bereft of the means to sustain themselves?

A proper policy regarding national minorities requires a flexible mechanism of international law and adjudication, respected by the peoples and nations of the world, with binding powers that all abide, and with priority attention to ensuring that the powerful do not subjugate or otherwise delimit the options of the weak within or between countries. We are far from having any such mechanism, but U.S. flouting of international law moves us in precisely the wrong direction.


15. What should we demand for the Balkans?




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