Commentary

Hurtling into the Kosovo Quagmire?

A brutal civil war is raging. Innocent civilians are dying. The international community is outraged. NATO has authorized military action to enforce a cease-fire.

Well no. Never mind. This is Sierra Leone. A brutal civil war is raging and innocent civilians are dying — more than 4,000 people over the last month, 4 or more times as many as were killed in Kosovo all last year.

But the international community is not outraged. And NATO has not authorized military action. Indeed, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said nothing about Sierra Leone’s plight. Of course, there are no white Europeans dying there.

A brutal civil war is raging. An oppressed ethnic group is seeking the right of self-determination. The international community is outraged. NATO has authorized military action to force negotiations.

Well, no. Never mind. This is Turkey. A brutal civil war is raging, and some 37,000 have died over the last decade. An oppressed people, the Kurds, is seeking the right of self-determination.

But the international community is not outraged. And NATO has not authorized military action. Indeed, Mrs. Albright has said nothing about the Kurds’ plight. Of course, it is an American ally that is doing the killing.


If the Europeans nevertheless want to go to war in Kosovo, let them. Washington should say no thanks.


A Balkan nation threatens to break apart. An oppressed ethnic group is seeking the right of self-determination. The international community is outraged. NATO has authorized military action to impose a system of regional autonomy.

Well, no. Never mind. This is Macedonia. A quarter of the population is Albanian, many of whom want to join with other Albanians in Kosovo and the nation of Albania.

But the international community is not outraged. And NATO has not authorized military action. Indeed, Mrs. Albright has said nothing about forcing Macedonia to grant Albanians local autonomy. Of course, Macedonia is friendly to the West.

Like all civil wars, the fighting in Kosovo is ugly, the differences are widening, and the issues are complex. For precisely these reasons the conflict is not susceptible to a NATO solution.

The Clinton administration and other leading European governments are normally willing to tolerate genocide and mass murder around the globe, and brutal civil wars and anti-secessionist campaigns conducted by allies. But they are offended when other nations play by the same rules.

So in 1991 the West encouraged the break-up of Yugoslavia. Then the NATO states decided that Serbs were not entitled to likewise secede from Croatia and Bosnia, the latter of which burgeoned into a particularly bloody conflict. The United States and other NATO nations eventually lent their air forces to Bosnia and helped impose the bizarre Dayton accord, under which three antagonistic groups are supposed to live together in an artificial state ruled by international bureaucrats.

Although Western intervention exacerbated the Bosnia imbroglio, it is Bosnia that “animates our policy toward Kosovo,” explains Nicholas Burns, U.S. ambassador to Greece, the NATO nation which most opposes military action. Mr. Burns says the Clinton administration “learned a very bitter lesson in the Bosnian war, that if diplomacy is not often coupled by the threat of force or the willingness to use force in an unstable environment like this, diplomacy is often ineffective.”

Yet a skeptical Greek Foreign Ministry official counters that the “timing is very relevant.” By the time of Dayton, “everyone had become war weary” and the Croats and Muslims had gained the weapons necessary to match the Serbs on the ground.

Moreover, even though the United States has spent $12 billion and occupied Bosnia for more than three years, the Dayton scheme is a bust. As my Cato Institute colleague Gary Dempsey put it in arecent analysis of Dayton, “Re-integration is grinding to a halt.”

Nationalists dominate politics and refugees are not returning home; “economic growth is artificial, privatization has stalled,” he adds. In response, “The West has begun resorting to increasingly high handed measures to force Bosnian Croats, Serbs and Muslims to live under the fiction of one government.” Naturally, the administration says the United States can’t leave, lest fighting break out again.

Intervention in Kosovo, essentially lending NATO’s air force to the Albanian Kosovars, would be even more perverse. Not only does the West have no answer — its autonomy proposal satisfies no one and could be enforced only through yet another Western occupation — but the two sides are not ready to quit fighting. The only thing worse than bombing Serb military units would be patrolling Kosovo’s border with Albania in an attempt to cut off guerrilla arms shipments.

Civil wars are never pretty. For good reason the West usually stays out of them.

If the Europeans nevertheless want to go to war in Kosovo, let them. Washington should say no thanks.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is a nationally syndicated columnist.