Finding a solution to the Kosovo crisis must begin by rejecting false analogies to the traumas of the past

By Henry A. Kissinger

The war in Kosovo is the product of a conflict going back over centuries. It takes place at the dividing line between the Ottoman and Austrian empires, between Islam and Christianity, and between Serbian and Albanian nationalism. The ethnic groups have lived together peacefully only when that coexistence was imposed—as under foreign empires or the Tito dictatorship. President Clinton has asserted that, after a brief period of NATO occupation, the ethnic groups will reconcile. There is no realistic basis for that assumption. Ethnic groups in Bosnia have not reconciled after three years of NATO peacekeeping.

When American forces are engaged in combat, victory is the only exit strategy. And that requires a definition of issues that can survive scrutiny. The Administration, in pursuit of symbols that resonate with the public, has put forward three categories of argument. The most convincing is that suffering in Kosovo is so offensive to our moral sensibilities that we will use force to end it even absent traditional considerations of national interest. But since this leaves open the question of why we do not intervene in East Africa, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Kashmir and Afghanistan—to name just a few of the places where infinitely more casualties have been incurred than in Kosovo—the President has invoked historical analogies or current threats that are extremely dubious. Where he does injury to history:

  • Slobodan Milosevic is not Hitler but a Balkan thug, and the crisis in Kosovo has no analogy to the events preceding World War I. Neither Milosevic nor any other Balkan leader is in a position to threaten the global equilibrium, as the president constantly asserts. Milosevic bears a major responsibility for the brutalities in Bosnia, and I strongly supported the American deployment there. But unlike Bosnia, Kosovo is a war for territory considered by the Serbs as a national shrine. This is why there have been few, if any, signs of opposition in Belgrade to Milosevic's Kosovo policy.

  • World War I started in the Balkans not as a result of ethnic conflicts but for precisely the opposite reason: because outside powers intervened in a local conflict. The assassination of the Crown Prince of Austria—an imperial power—by a Serbian nationalist led to a world war because Russia backed Serbia and France backed Russia while Germany supported Austria.

  • The Second World War did not start in the Balkans, much less as a result of its ethnic conflicts.

  • It is absurd to allege that the economic well-being of the European Union, with a GNP exceeding America's, depends on the outcome in impoverished Kosovo. This is even more true of Atlantic prosperity.

  • The cohesion of NATO is threatened primarily because it was staked on the unsustainable Rambouillet agreement. It remains to be seen how long it can be maintained when public reaction to the scale and duration of the bombardment sets in, and when it becomes apparent that the long-term consequences of the present campaign have to be policed by NATO ground forces.

    I respect the humanitarian motive for intervention. But this does not absolve the democracies from the necessity of coming up with a sustainable solution. The Rambouillet agreement does not meet that test. Conducting a negotiation based on an agreement drafted entirely in foreign chancelleries and seeking to impose it by the threat of air bombardment has only exacerbated the crisis in Kosovo. The Rambouillet text was sold to the Kosovo Liberation Army—which initially rejected it—as a device to bring the full force of NATO to bear on Serbia, and it may have tempted Milosevic into accelerating the repression of the KLA before the bombs fell. Now it risks involving NATO and U.S. ground forces in policing an agreement neither side really wants. It was a grave error to abandon any effort to strengthen the observers already in Kosovo in favor of NATO peacekeepers who will find no peace to keep.

    President Clinton, in a speech to the Serbian people, has declared: "The NATO allies support the Serbian people to maintain Kosovo as part of your country." He added that the agreement would "guarantee the rights of all people in Kosovo—ethnic Serbs and Albanians alike within Serbia." This is why the Rambouillet agreement provides for the KLA to surrender its arms to a NATO force. Some ten thousand Serbian policemen are to maintain security; some fifteen hundred Serbian soldiers are to safeguard the frontiers.

    None of this is achievable by agreement, only by imposition. The Serbs have rejected the Rambouillet agreement because they see in it a prelude to independence for Kosovo. They also see the presence of NATO troops as the sort of foreign occupation Serbia has historically resisted against the Ottoman and Austrian empires, Hitler and Stalin. Even if they are bombed into capitulation, they can hardly be expected to be willing supporters of the outcome.

    As for the KLA, its goal is independence, not autonomy; it acceded to Rambouillet as a tactical device to unleash NATO air power against the hated Serbs. The KLA is even less likely to agree to autonomy under Serbian rule now that Serbia has been so weakened by the NATO air campaign. The KLA will not turn in its weapons to NATO forces. And NATO forces will have no domestic support if they fight the KLA to impose disarmament. Nor will the KLA acquiesce to Serbian forces policing its frontiers. The role of Serbian police and military forces in the proposed agreement is both unclear and incapable of being implemented.

    The ironic outcome of the Rambouillet agreement, in the name of which the NATO air campaign is being conducted, is that the NATO peacekeepers will replace the Serbs as obstacles to the national aspirations of the Albanians—especially if Serbia is too weak to provide a counterweight. Moreover, as Kosovo moves toward independence, the pressures on Macedonia, a third of whose population is Albanian, will increase. Why should they not be granted the same self-determination as their brethren inside Serbia? And that will risk expansion of the conflict as Bulgaria claims its own ethnic nationals in Macedonia, comprising at least a third of the population, and Greece perceives an opportunity to curtail—or to eliminate—a state whose very name it has rejected.

    As the war continues, the Administration must redefine its objectives. NATO cannot survive if it now abandons the campaign without achieving its objective of ending the massacres. The Rambouillet agreement should therefore be stripped of its more esoteric components. The terms for ending the air war should be: an immediate ceasefire; the withdrawal of Serbian forces introduced after the beginning of the negotiations at Rambouillet, and the immediate opening of negotiations over autonomy for Kosovo. These negotiations are likely to be prolonged and bitter. But, at their end, Kosovar independence in some form is inevitable unless NATO insists by force on the kind of Serbian suzerainty which the President has promised—a course neither the alliance nor the American public will support.

    If a ceasefire on such terms is rejected by Milosevic, there will be no alternative to continuing and intensifying the war, if necessary introducing NATO combat ground forces—a solution which I have heretofore passionately rejected but which will have to be considered to maintain NATO credibility. Whatever the outcome, stationing of some NATO ground forces in either Macedonia or Kosovo will be necessary, to serve not so much as peacekeepers as to prevent the Balkan conflict from widening. I have consistently warned against such an outcome. But, as a result of hesitations and confusions, NATO now has little choice if it wants to avoid a larger war.

    For someone who has supported every military action of the Clinton Administration—or who has criticized it for acting too inconclusively, as in Iraq—the war on Yugoslavia inspires profound ambivalence. Serbia fought at our side in two world wars, and stood up to Stalin at the height of his powers. We cannot ignore Milosevic's brutality, yet the disappearance of Serbia from the Balkans equilibrium may tempt eruptions in other neighboring countries containing ethnic minorities. Even more importantly, the problem of Macedonia's integrity will be upon us, threatening a wider Balkan war. Let us hope that it will be handled with greater foresight than the prelude to the current crisis.

    Newsweek International, April 5, 1999

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