April 19, 1999 

The Case Against Intervention in Kosovo 


President Clinton's address attempting to justify--after the fact--the
US-led NATO bombing of Serbia should set off alarms. After all, the ideas
and concerns Clinton invoked--the notion of instability spreading from
country to country (much like falling dominoes), the perception that world
politics is a bipolar ideological confrontation between democracy and
dictatorship, the obsession with reaffirming US leadership and resolve, the
anxiety about the vitality of alliance commitments and the conviction that
US security is tied to peace in an area of little inherent strategic
importance--were all factors that led to the catastrophe of American
involvement in Vietnam. 

To be sure, presidential addresses are intended to persuade, but the
American people have a right to expect their chief executive--even one with
Bill Clinton's track record--to avoid distortions and half-truths.
Clinton's statement to the nation fell well short of the mark. It also
failed the test of logic. In trying to rally public support, Clinton
apparently hoped that, although taken in isolation his points were suspect,
if he somehow packaged them using an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink
approach, the factual and logical flaws would be lost in the crowd. 

Clinton's explanation of the Kosovo conflict's background was, to put it
charitably, misleading. He glossed over the fact that the province of
Kosovo (the cradle of Serbia's cultural and national identity) is an
integral part of Serbia's sovereign territory. Far from being a case of one
state committing aggression against another, this conflict is, of course, a
civil war, the root of which is the province's ethnic Albanians' armed
struggle to break free of Serbia and establish an independent state. Thus,
as in numerous ethnic conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere, the opposing
sides' objectives cannot be reconciled. 

Clinton was also misleading in placing sole blame for the breakdown of the
recent NATO-brokered Rambouillet peace talks on the Serbs. The ethnic
Albanians also refused at first to sign the NATO peace deal, because it
failed to guarantee their eventual independence from Serbia. The United
States finally induced them to sign by threatening to cut off the Kosovo
Liberation Army's access to arms and by reminding the KLA that without its
assent to the agreement, NATO could not conduct airstrikes against Serbia.
When KLA intransigence initially stalled the talks, US
officials--especially Secretary of State Madeleine Albright--were palpably
frustrated because they feared that their plans to bomb Serbia would be

The President's description of the peace process also left out some
important details. Essentially, the Serbs, who were given the choice of
signing or being bombed, were "negotiating" with a gun at their heads. They
saw the Rambouillet deal as one-sided because, although the plan provided
that Kosovo would nominally remain a part of Serbia for three years, it
also would have reduced the Serbian government's actual control over the
province to a nullity. Of course, the plan ostensibly would have disarmed
the KLA in Kosovo, but because that group can operate out of neighboring
Albania, it could have stockpiled weapons there. In fact, the KLA made its
intentions quite clear: After the three-year transitional period, either
Kosovo would become independent, or the KLA would resume the war.
Furthermore, Serbia resented the provisions of the peace plan that would
have required Belgrade to accept the presence of NATO forces in Kosovo. 

An analogy to America's own bitter war of secession can illustrate what
NATO is trying to compel Serbia to do. It is as if the nineteenth-century
concert of Europe had forced President Lincoln to accept Southern
independence and European troops on American soil to police the agreement,
and had threatened to intervene militarily in support of the Confederate
Army if Lincoln refused. After all, the unprecedentedly murderous American
Civil War appalled Europeans just as much as the Kosovo conflict does US
leaders today. And just as Europeans believed that North American
"stability" (and access to Southern cotton) was vital to their prosperity,
so US policy-makers today are convinced that European stability is
essential to the United States' economic well-being. (Of course, the social
systems defended in Kosovo and the American South aren't parallel.) 

Clinton justified the NATO action as a "moral imperative" to end the
killing of ethnic-Albanian civilians. Indeed, other US officials have gone
even further, describing the Serbian campaign in Kosovo as "genocide."
Although this characterization is demonstrably false (and trivializes truly
genocidal campaigns, like Hitler's attempt to exterminate European Jewry),
the President certainly is correct to observe that innocent civilians are
dying in Kosovo (before NATO's intervention, about 2,000 civilians, mainly
ethnic Albanians killed by the Serbs but also Kosovar Serbs killed by the
KLA, had perished there) and that the war is a humanitarian tragedy, with
hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Kosovo and Serbian killings of
civilians. But this is only part of the truth. 

Civil wars are notoriously brutal, and guerrilla wars are particularly
hellish; the unconscionable acts that Clinton condemned are inherent to
these conflicts. In the kind of guerrilla campaign waged by the KLA,
civilians are inescapably targets of violence, because the insurgents draw
their manpower, material sustenance and political support from the friendly
population in whose name they fight. In a guerrilla war--any guerrilla
war--the line differentiating fighters from noncombatants inevitably
evaporates. The Serbs should be castigated for their brutal tactics in
Kosovo, but the United States has no moral ground to stand on in such
matters. For example, the United States designated wide areas of South
Vietnam thought to be under Vietcong control as "free-fire zones." Rules of
engagement were not restricted in those areas, because anyone found there
was considered a Vietcong fighter or supporter. 

Even on its own terms, the argument that we must intervene in Kosovo to
stave off a humanitarian catastrophe is unconvincing. Although the Serbs
have obviously committed atrocities, in the Balkan wars of this decade all
the combatants have been guilty of acts of savagery. Indeed, several days
before the NATO airstrikes began, the drama in Kosovo overshadowed the
report by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague of the
atrocities--massive ethnic cleansing, summary executions, indiscriminate
shelling of civilian populations--the Croatian Army committed with the
tacit blessing of the United States during its summer 1995 offensive
against the Croatian Serbs. For its part, the KLA--whose goals include not
only independence but the expulsion of Serbs from Kosovo--has kidnapped and
executed Serb civilians and burned their villages. 

And while Clinton has depicted Serbian actions in the most horrific light
possible, he remains silent about the human rights atrocities perpetrated
by America's NATO ally Turkey, which has been waging a decades-long
military campaign of repression against its Kurdish ethnic minority. Like
Serbia, Turkey has questionable democratic credentials. Like the ethnic
Albanians in Kosovo, Kurds waging a guerrilla war demand independence.
Turkey has responded to the Kurdish insurgency with the same tactics that
Clinton has imputed to the Serbs: terror, "genocide" and suppression of
human rights. 

Yet the Clinton Administration does not propose bombing Ankara, which, of
course, provokes the obvious question: Why intervene in Kosovo and not in
Turkey--or Sudan, Rwanda, Congo or Sierra Leone, for that matter, where
humanitarian intervention is at least as justified? The moral argument for
intervention in Kosovo is cast in terms of universally applicable
principles. But Washington picks and chooses its humanitarian
interventions, inserting itself in some conflicts and ignoring others in
which the reasons to act are at least as compelling. This leaves US
policy-makers open to the charge that they are using humanitarian concerns
as a pretext to mobilize public support for military interventions
undertaken for other reasons. 

The President asserted that America's vital interests are at stake in
Kosovo. As he put it, the United States and the alliance must "defuse a
powder keg at the heart of Europe that has exploded twice before in this
century with catastrophic results." Here, Clinton's understanding of
European history is particularly misguided. In arguing for intervention to
prevent a wider war, he said that "Sarajevo, the capital of neighboring
Bosnia, is where World War I began." But comparisons to the First World War
actually point to a policy antithetical to the one he is pursuing. The fuse
of that war was lit in Sarajevo not because ethnic conflict existed in the
Balkans but because great powers meddled in those conflicts. (The Balkans
do not have even so tenuous a connection to the origins of World War II.) 

Clinton has also stressed the need to act to preserve NATO's credibility.
The President argues that to let Serbian aggression go unpunished will
encourage leaders in other troubled areas to pursue dangerous policies. But
halting Serbian aggression is no more likely to deter future aggressors
than US action in the Persian Gulf--which, after all, was defended as part
of a new world order that would punish aggressors--deterred Serbia. In the
world of statecraft, most crises are discrete, not tightly linked. The
outcome of events in other potential hot spots will be decided by local
conditions, not by what the United States does or does not do in the
Balkans. Put another way, just as Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was
not deterred by US action against Iraq; Saddam Hussein was not deterred by
US action in Panama; Manuel Antonio Noriega was not deterred by US action
in Grenada, Lebanon and Vietnam; Ho Chi Minh was not deterred by US action
against North Korea; and Kim Il Sung and Joseph Stalin were not deterred by
US action against Adolf Hitler. America's misplaced obsession with
credibility will doom the United States to a string of military
interventions in strategically peripheral regions. 

Paradoxically, unless Serbia quickly knuckles under to NATO bombing, the
effect of Kosovo intervention may be to rupture fatally the very alliance
the airstrikes were intended to solidify. If the Serbs refuse to
capitulate, the alliance's fragile unity will likely dissolve. Indeed, a
bare forty-eight hours after the bombing commenced, Greece and Italy
already were expressing unease with the air campaign. 

The President's argument that, absent US intervention in Kosovo, the war
will engulf the entire Balkan region, pit Greece against Turkey and
"destabilize" all of Europe is nothing more than a recycled version of the
long-discredited domino theory. But, aside from the theory's general flaws,
Clinton's specific application of it to Kosovo is problematic. 

After all, the Administration's grand strategy of "Engagement and
Enlargement" is based explicitly on the convictions that democracies do not
fight other democracies and that international institutions foster peace
among their members. Washington considers both Greece and Turkey
democracies, and both are members of the same institution--NATO. So, in
essence, the Clinton Administration is waging war in Kosovo to forestall a
Greco-Turkish conflict that, according to the Administration's own core
foreign policy assumptions, cannot occur. Also, to the extent that the
Kosovo conflict does "spill over" into neighboring Macedonia and Albania,
NATO's attacks are likely to be the proximate cause. Rather than dampening
Serbian military attacks against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, NATO's
airstrikes have intensified Serbian aggression, which in turn has caused
more Albanians to flee Kosovo. Meanwhile, the likelihood of cross-border
clashes has increased, because the KLA will undoubtedly use refugee camps
in Albania as bases of operations. The violent anti-US/NATO demonstrations
in Macedonia in reaction to the bombing clearly illustrate how NATO
intervention is contributing to regional destabilization, but even if war
spreads to neighboring Albania and Macedonia, instability in those states
poses no greater intrinsic threat to US interests than does the conflict in

President Clinton says that if the United States allows a fire to burn in
the Balkans, "the flames will spread," but one way to fight forest fires is
let the fire burn itself out. Wars end when both sides are exhausted, or
when one side realizes it has been defeated and abandons the struggle. In
the other Balkan conflict, in Bosnia, the war might have ended with fewer
dead if the Bosnian Muslims had tried to negotiate an accommodation with
the Serbs much earlier in the conflict. One of the reasons they didn't do
so is that they believed NATO would eventually rescue them. But they did
not simply rely on the natural course of events to bring NATO into the
conflict. Rather, to create sympathy in the West for their cause, they
manipulated the situation and engaged in clever propaganda. A decisive
moment in the Bosnian conflict occurred in early 1994, when a mortar shell
exploded in a crowded Sarajevo marketplace, killing and maiming scores of
civilians. The Serbs were immediately blamed for this atrocity, and NATO's
intervention followed shortly thereafter. The evidence that the Bosnian
Serbs were responsible is, at best, highly inconclusive. In fact, as former
British foreign secretary David Owen reports in his account of his tenure
as the European Union's Balkan peace envoy, there is strong evidence that
the Bosnian Muslims fired the offending mortar shell themselves to
fabricate an incident that would spur NATO intervention to relieve the
siege of Sarajevo. In Kosovo, as US and NATO officials have acknowledged
off the record, the United States has been subject to similar provocations,
as the KLA has maneuvered to bring NATO into the war as its de facto air

Clinton has also been unable to think through the short- and medium-term
implications of NATO intervention. US and NATO officials say that air power
will compel Serbia to abide by the alliance's wishes. But as World War II,
Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War demonstrated, air power alone does not win
wars. To prevail over an opponent, one must prevail on the ground. The
Clinton Administration, however, has created its own mythology about air
power's efficacy, contending that the NATO bombing of the Bosnian Serbs in
the summer of 1995 forced them to negotiate at Dayton. In fact, the
decisive event that ended the Bosnian war was the successful summer 1995
ground offensive against the Bosnian Serbs launched by the Croatian Army. 

So air power is highly unlikely to break Serbia's will. The US Strategic
Bombing Survey found that the Allied bombing of German cities during World
War II actually stiffened German civilians' will to resist. In the Vietnam
War, the United States again tried unsuccessfully to use bombing to crack
the North's will to prosecute the war. The airstrikes against Serbia are no
more likely to succeed in their objective than did those in Southeast Asia.
In World War II, of course, even the awesome military power of Nazi Germany
could not subdue the (mostly Serb) Yugoslav resistance. And throughout the
cold war, the Serb-led Yugoslav Army prepared to resist a possible Soviet
invasion with the same tactics, and tenacity, it had employed successfully
against the Nazis. 

American policy-makers notoriously misread the psychology, the history and
the nationalism of other nations. For all Clinton's talk about vital
interests, the struggle in Kosovo is only of the remotest geopolitical
consequence to the United States. For Serbia, however, it involves the
highest stakes for which a nation can fight: the defense of its sovereign
territory. In conflicts like those in Vietnam or Kosovo, the interests of
US adversaries clearly outweigh US interests--which means that an
opponent's resolve is likely to outlast America's. Indeed, far from turning
against the popularly elected Serbian president, Serbs of all political
stripes have united against NATO. And should US troops ever be deployed in
Kosovo as peacekeepers, they would almost certainly be targets of
revenge-seeking Serb terrorists (US troops in neighboring Bosnia will
similarly be at risk). 

Clinton's policy is likely to have other, even more important and
unfortunate, strategic consequences. Intended or not, US actions--including
NATO expansion, and now the intervention in Kosovo--have gravely offended
and alarmed Russia. American policy-makers suggest that NATO's military
intervention troubles only "extremist" Russians. But Washington should have
no illusions: Opposition to NATO's attacks and its expansion is probably
the one major foreign policy issue on which virtually the entire Russian
political class is united. NATO, after all, was supposedly designed as a
defensive alliance to repel a military attack on its member states, but in
Kosovo it has radically extended its writ by intervening in a state
unconnected to it. Furthermore, from Moscow's perspective, the United
States, by bringing its powerful military alliance to Russia's borders, has
reneged on a bargain it struck with Russia at the end of the cold war. 

At that time Moscow agreed to quit Eastern Europe and to allow German
unification. Moreover, Russia acceded to the continued existence of an
alliance that had been hostile to it and even agreed to the inclusion of
newly unified Germany in that alliance. In return, Moscow received
assurances from the United States and its allies that they would not take
advantage of this situation to tip the geopolitical balance in a way that
would potentially threaten Russia's security. 

Russians have good reasons to worry about NATO expansion, which, as Clinton
has acknowledged, is a means to consolidate and extend America's military
and political leadership in Europe. Great powers have always been more
concerned about competitors' capabilities than about their
intentions--because intentions can change quickly. In the post-cold war
era, NATO remains the most powerful military alliance the world has ever
seen. Even those Russians who are not closet aggressors are anxious about
having such an impressive military association poised on their frontier.
NATO's expansion, coupled with its intervention in cases in which the
alliance's security is not threatened, could lead to a nationalist backlash. 

Russia may be down now, but because its history as a great power is
cyclical, there is every reason to assume that it will recover. American
actions make it more likely that a resurgent Russia will harbor deep and
justifiable resentment toward the United States. A hostile Russia not only
could create trouble in Europe but could also undermine the US strategic
position globally by aligning with China. At a time when many American
strategists are concerned about a future great-power threat from China, a
wise long-term US strategy would aim to insure Russian partnership with
Washington. It is the height of folly to follow a policy in the Balkans
that can only have the effect of pushing Russia more closely into Beijing's

In his address to the nation Clinton also briefly invoked another,
particularly disturbing argument for intervention. In a speech the previous
day, he had discussed this rationale at greater length, declaring that "if
we're going to have a strong economic relationship that includes our
ability to sell around the world, Europe has got to be a key.... That's
what this Kosovo thing is all about." He thus seems to argue that the
United States is fighting a war in Kosovo to make the world safe for
capitalism. In fact, the President and other policy-makers have long been
making similar arguments. In explaining its global strategy, for instance,
the Pentagon declared in 1993 that "a prosperous, largely democratic,
market-oriented zone of peace and prosperity that encompasses more than
two-thirds of the world's economy" requires the "stability" that only
American "leadership" can provide. In the debate over US intervention in
Bosnia, leading foreign policy figures, including the former head of the
National Security Agency and Senator Richard Lugar, asserted that, left
unchecked, the war there could lead to "national parochialism" in Europe,
threatening global economic interdependence and US prosperity. 

The air war against Serbia is just the latest installment in what appears
to be Washington's quest to make the world safe for America's investors and
exporters. Last year, speaking to the Boston Chamber of Commerce, Defense
Secretary William Cohen justified NATO expansion as a way of "spreading the
kind of security and stability that Western Europe has enjoyed since after
World War II to Central and Eastern Europe." And, in an observation certain
to resonate with his audience, he noted: "And with that spread of
stability, there is a prospect to attract investment." No doubt the
Administration is moved by the human tragedy of Kosovo. Clearly, however,
its perception that US economic interests are indirectly at stake is at
least as important. As Cohen has said, the Administration's strategy seeks
to "discourage violence and instability--instability which destroys lives
and markets." Clinton recently exhorted Americans to accept the "inevitable
logic" of globalism and free trade. But the Administration's Balkan policy
shows that globalization is not inevitable--it depends on America's
overseas military commitments and its willingness to wage war if necessary. 

What is most frightening about this economic rationale (which amounts to an
imperialist argument) is its open-endedness. According to US policy-makers,
the logic of global economic interdependence leads inevitably to a
proliferation of US security commitments: Instability and aggression,
virtually wherever they occur, are regarded as a threat to America, because
they would disrupt the global stability upon which the United States
purportedly depends for its prosperity. This thinking is, again, similar to
the domino theory: Instability in even economically unimportant areas (like
Kosovo) could "spill over" and infect other areas regarded as essential to
global economic interdependence. 

The US action in Kosovo should give Americans considerable pause as they
contemplate their nation's role in international politics. It is one thing
to oppose, as the United States did in the Persian Gulf, an aggressive
attack by one state against another. It is something else entirely to
proclaim, as Washington has, that the United States now reserves the right
to use military force to alter another state's internal political
arrangements when Washington finds that these offend its ever-shifting
political sensibilities. It indeed is quite fantastic to find the United
States taking military action against a sovereign state in Europe that
poses no threat to America's security or to its interests. If the United
States is not the aggressor that Russia says it is, at the least it is
displaying the arrogance of power common to imperial states. 

We should know, of course, the trouble in which this arrogance of power can
mire us. It is too early to tell if the Clinton Administration's policy
will ultimately lead to the use of US ground troops in the Kosovo conflict.
But there is ample reason to fear that this could happen. 

Vietnam showed that once the decision to use military force has been made,
policy-makers are under almost irresistible pressure to escalate to win--or
to avoid failure. Anyone familiar with the history of the Kennedy and
Johnson administrations' step-by-step descent into the Vietnam quagmire
must have been chilled in recent days by the statements of many members of
Congress and foreign policy analysts. Even many of those, like Senator John
McCain and Henry Kissinger, who were initially skeptical of intervention
now contend that, once committed, the United States has no choice but to do
whatever is necessary--including using ground forces--to prevail. 

If any clear lesson emerges from Vietnam, it is that it makes no sense to
compound a mistake by digging oneself more deeply into a strategic morass.
The questions that policy-makers must ask now are: What does "victory" in
Kosovo mean, and can victory be attained without incurring costs
disproportionate to the US interests at stake? Astonishingly, an
Administration led and staffed by opponents of the Vietnam War is now
compelled by the same concerns that drove, and blind to the same obstacles
that confounded, the architects of that conflict. 

Representing one foreign policy tradition, John Quincy Adams admonished
America to "go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy." The US
intervention in Kosovo should prompt Americans to heed his warning. During
the 1992 election campaign, Clinton said the United States should play a
lofty global role; it would be "intolerable" for the United States to act
as if it were "simply...another great power." But rather than have the
United States pursue grandiose visions pleasing to its self-image,
followers of Adams's tradition--like Charles Beard and William Appleman
Williams on the left, as well as such thoughtful conservatives as George
Kennan and Walter Lippmann--accept that there are not and need not be US
solutions to the world's myriad problems. They understand that balancing
costs and benefits, resources and commitments, is a moral as well as
strategic imperative. States that fail to do so run the risk of political
and economic ruin. 

Instead of crediting Clinton's notions of the intolerable, post-cold war
America should attend to Lippmann's sobering injunction: "A mature great
power...will eschew the theory of a global and universal duty which not
only commits it to unending wars of intervention but intoxicates its
thinking with the illusion that it is a crusader for righteousness.... I am
in favor of learning to behave like a great power, of getting rid of the
globalism which would not only entangle us everywhere but is based on the
totally vain notion that if we do not set the world in order, no matter
what the price, we cannot live in the world safely.... We shall have to
learn to live as a great power which defends itself and makes its way among
other great powers. 


Benjamin Schwarz is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and former
executive editor of The World Policy Journal. Christopher Layne is a
MacArthur Fellow in Peace and International Security Studies. For more
information, go to www.thenation.com.

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