Bill Clinton, Aggressor
by Ted Galen Carpenter

March 23, 1999

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author or editor of 10 books on international affairs.

There are some occasions when one should not mince words, and the spectacle of U.S.-led air strikes on Serbia is one. Put bluntly, if President Clinton orders an assault on Serbia, the United States will be guilty of committing a flagrant, shameful act of aggression. U.S. forces will be attacking a country that has not attacked the United States, a U.S. ally, or even a neighboring state. That is the very definition of an aggressor.

Belgrade is guilty of nothing except attempting to put down a secessionist rebellion in one of its own provinces. Nearly a dozen other countries have done the same thing in this decade alone -- often with far greater bloodshed. Russia's war in Chechnya, Sri Lanka's conflict with Tamil rebels and Turkey's suppression of the Kurds are merely a few examples.

The Clinton administration's spinmeisters insist that Serbia is the aggressor in the current confrontation, but that argument twists language in a manner reminiscent of characters out of George Orwell's novels 1984 and Animal Farm. "Aggression" is a long-standing concept in international relations, and it has a very specific meaning: unprovoked cross-border warfare -- an unwarranted attack by one state on another. A country cannot commit aggression in its own territory any more than a person can commit self-robbery.

The argument that Serbia has committed aggression in Kosovo, thereby justifying military intervention by NATO, is not only an Orwellian distortion, it sets an extremely dangerous precedent. The traditional standard that developments within a country, however sad and tragic, do not justify military intervention by outside powers is one that should not be cast aside lightly. Without that limitation, weak and imperfect as it may be, the floodgates are open to intervention by an assortment of countries for any number of reasons -- or pretexts.

Before the proponents of NATO intervention in Kosovo cheer too loudly, they ought to consider the potential ramifications. For example, might Russia and its ally Belarus someday cite the Kosovo precedent for attacking Ukraine because of the latter's alleged mistreatment of Russian-speaking inhabitants in the Crimea? Could China and Pakistan argue that India's suppression of secessionists in Kashmir is a humanitarian tragedy and a threat to the peace of the region, justifying joint military action against that "aggressor"?

Of course, the Clinton administration contends that the events in Kosovo are not really an internal Serbian affair, because the conflict might spread southward in the Balkans. According to that scenario, the fighting threatens to draw in Albania and Macedonia and, eventually, NATO members Greece and Turkey. That argument is a refurbished version of the old domino theory, and it is dubious on two levels.

First, it is curious (if not nauseating) to see Clinton, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and other alumni of the anti-Vietnam War movement make that argument. They ridiculed the domino theory when Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon invoked it during the conflict in Southeast Asia. They were even more scornful when Ronald Reagan invoked it with regard to the communist insurgencies in Central America and the Caribbean during the 1980s. Now, suddenly, they believe the theory has indisputable validity in the Balkans in the 1990s. At the very least, they owe the American people an explanation of their dramatic change of perspective.

Second, even if one accepts the dubious domino theory, the administration's policy is making the spread of the Balkan conflict more rather than less likely. The Serbs are not the party with expansionist ambitions in the southern Balkans; the Albanians are. Kosovo Liberation Army commanders have stated that their ultimate goal is, not merely an independent Kosovo, but the creation of a Greater Albania. Nationalist groups in Albania openly circulate maps of Greater Albania -- an entity that includes not merely Albania and Kosovo but an additional slice of Serbia, all of western Macedonia and a large chunk of northern Greece.

By facilitating Kosovo's secession -- and the NATO-imposed peace settlement is nothing more than Kosovo's independence on the installment plan -- the United States and its allies would be strengthening the very faction that is the most likely to stir up additional trouble in the southern Balkans. Thus, the administration's policy lacks even internal coherence.

War against Serbia is unwarranted on strategic, legal and moral grounds. If air strikes take place, Serbia will be the fourth country Bill Clinton has bombed in the past seven months. That record is one of a trigger-happy administration that is creating an image of America as the planetary bully. Decent Americans need to make a stand when it has reached the point of a full-scale war of aggression against a country that has done us no harm.

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1999 The Cato Institute

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