Commentary

Clinton’s Kosovo Confusion

By Gary Dempsey
February 11, 1999

Once again, President Clinton is preparing to play foreign policy Russian roulette, inserting 2,000 to 4,000 U.S. soldiers into a conflict that poses no threat to the territorial integrity, national sovereignty or general welfare of the United States. This time it’s a full-scale NATO ground operation in the embattled Serbian province of Kosovo.

The president says U.S. troops won’t be committed to Kosovo unless there is a well-defined mission and a clear exit strategy. But Americans have heard that one before. In his November 1995 address making the case for sending U.S. troops to Bosnia, Clinton assured the American public that the operation he was proposing had a “clear, limited and achievable” mission and that the total deployment “should and will take about one year.” Since then, the president has twice reneged on his own exit dates and Washington now has an open-ended troop commitment that has already cost American taxpayers $10 billion, with no end in sight.

It should also be recalled that the Clinton administration claimed that Bosnia mission would be a strictly military operation. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott declared in November 1995, “There will be no ‘mission creep’ — from purely military tasks into ‘nation-building.’” But today the president says multiethnic political institutions, an independent judiciary, and a free press must be created in Bosnia before he will withdraw U.S. troops. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) says that policy “reads more like a nation-building strategy” than a military operation; it is “a formula requiring the completion of a new integrated democratic state. That is what nation-building is.”

Mr. Clinton is undeterred. He contends that U.S. troops should be sent to Kosovo because a war there “could spark tensions again in Bosnia and undo what we just spent two [it’s actually three] years trying to do.” But that is only half the story because NATO intervention in Kosovo could itself cause the peace in Bosnia to unravel.


Sending U.S. troops to Kosovo is fraught with serious pitfalls that the president has yet to acknowledge.


Many Serbs consider Kosovo the cradle of Serbian history and their Christian Orthodox faith. In fact, Kosovo is where Serbia’s medieval Nemanjic Dynasty fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1389 and is the home of the Pec Patriarchete, one of Serbia’s oldest and most cherished religious sites. If it appears that Washington is facilitating Kosovo’s secession, Bosnian Serbs may decide that the West has an anti-Serb agenda. Not only would that expose NATO troops stationed in Bosnia to possible acts of violent retribution; it would also threaten to undermine the fragile U.S.-brokered peace there by re-radicalizing the Serb population.

President Clinton also contends that U.S. troops should be sent to Kosovo because the conflict there could spill over into neighboring Albania and Macedonia. But again, that is only half the story.

Another plausible scenario is that NATO intervention inadvertently leads to Kosovo’s independence. That could spell disaster for the Balkans. The Kosovo Liberation Army has made it abundantly clear that its goal is not simply to break away from Yugoslavia but to forge a Greater Albania, uniting the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece and Albania. If successful in Kosovo, the KLA could well decide to move on to a new target. It is for that reason that Macedonia’s foreign minister, Blagoj Handziski, and Greece’s foreign minister, Theodoros Pangalos, put aside their differences last summer and issued a joint statement opposing air strikes against Serbia because they feared strikes would bolster the KLA’s campaign.

Last, President Clinton contends that “if a settlement is reached, a NATO presence on the ground in Kosovo could prove essential in giving both sides the confidence they need to pull back from their fight.” But once more, that’s only half the story. Indeed, after U.S. troops are deployed, Kosovo could degenerate into a military snake pit, with venom coming from any direction.

For example, if it appears that NATO troops are facilitating Kosovo’s slow-motion secession from Yugoslavia, Serbs may conclude that NATO is in league with the ethnic Albanian separatists. U.S. troops stationed in Kosovo would then be exposed to attacks by government, paramilitary or irregular Serb forces. On the other hand, if NATO appears to be forestalling Kosovo’s independence by enforcing some sort of autonomous status within Yugoslavia, U.S. troops could find themselves trying to contain a still-independence-minded KLA or be exploited as strategic shields in an ongoing guerrilla campaign. The most ominous prospect is that Belgrade and the KLA become dissatisfied with NATO’s presence and U.S. soldiers find themselves fighting both.

Sending U.S. troops to Kosovo is fraught with serious pitfalls that the president has yet to acknowledge. The American people deserve a clear explanation of the risks and a vigorous congressional debate now over the wisdom of such a deployment. Once the troops are there, it’ll be too late.

Gary Dempsey is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.