Commentary

NATO’s Disastrous Victory in Kosovo

A year ago the Clinton administration was beating the war drums in the Balkans. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright seemed more interested in bombing Serbia than encouraging a peaceful settlement.

And bomb the United States did, for 78 days. The result, evidenced by the call for more U.S. troops for Kosovo, is a policy failure veering toward disaster.

NATO’s attack was supposed to bring peace to this territory of Yugoslavia. But immediately after Washington’s “triumph” came the mass flight of ethnic Serbs.

Those who did not run, including Croats, Gypsies, Jews and even non-Albanian Muslims, have been bombed, shot, kidnapped, beaten and robbed. Scores of orthodox churches, monasteries and other religious sites have been despoiled.

Gen. Klaus Reinhardt, head of the NATO “peacekeeping” force (KFOR), admits that Kosovo remains too dangerous for the 150,000 to 250,000 refugees to return. Reports the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe: “House burnings, blockades restricting freedom of movement, discriminatory treatment in schools, hospitals, humanitarian aid distribution and other public services based on ethnic background, and forced evictions from housing recall some of the worst practices of Kosovo’s recent past.”

The situation deteriorates daily, especially in the mixed city of Kosovska Mitrovica. Although leading Albanians formally disavow the violence, most do nothing to stop it. Those who speak out on behalf of tolerance are themselves threatened; local officials allied with moderate Ibrahim Rugova have been murdered.

The Kosovo Liberation Army has disarmed in name only, formally transmuting into the Kosovo Protection Corps. Armed thugs rule the night and organized crime is spreading.

The police and courts don’t function and no one is safe. Reports Steven Erlanger of the New York Times: “robberies, apartment thefts, extortion and even murders take place with near impunity.”

Human rights abuses by the Serbs were bad enough. Now the same practices are being carried out under the West’s authority. NSC adviser Sandy Berger’s response: to threaten ethnic Albanians with the loss of the “support of the international community.”

But more than a few Kosovars don’t care what the “international community” thinks. A United Nations bus was hit by an anti-tank rocket. Albanian snipers in Mitrovica have injured French peacekeepers. Halit Barani, head of the Human Rights Council, says the French are “the same as the Serb soldiers.”

American and German troops have also been deployed to Mitrovica. When U.S. forces searched apartments for weapons, breaking down doors along the way, they were met with a hail of stones, bottles and ice by Serbian crowds. German soldiers were also attacked.

Thus, the Kosovo civil war rages on, with only a temporary lull in the worst violence. The United States must decide whether it is prepared to maintain its occupation for years, if not forever, or to do what it should have done last year leave the Balkans to the Europeans.

NATO’s decision to intervene looks ever worse as hindsight lengthens. Kosovo never represented a special humanitarian crisis: More people had died in a score of conflicts around the world. The only difference was that none of the other victims were white Europeans.

Nevertheless, NATO launched what by any criteria was a war of aggression. Instead of saving lives, Washington sacrificed them.

As many Serb civilians died under NATO bombs as ethnic Albanians had died during the preceding year. And it was allied bombing the sparked the mass expulsions from Kosovo.

Washington did eliminate Serb authority in the province. But having allied itself with the KLA in war, the West now upholds formal Serbian rule, refusing to allow either independence or union with Albania. Only the Clinton administration could concoct such an incoherent policy.

As a result, NATO faces a choice between policy failure and policy disaster, as my Cato Institute colleague Gary Dempsey puts it.

If the alliance acknowledges reality and gives up on its objective of preserving a multi-ethnic Kosovo under Serb suzerainty, it will have failed. If NATO attempts to achieve its objectives and stave off failure, the consequences will be far worse.

In the latter case, the ethnic Albanian majority is likely to turn on allied forces. The possibilities range from overt hostility and sporadic sniping to a serious guerrilla campaign against the NATO occupiers. Imagine explaining to American audiences that their sons and husbands are dying to defend Serb sovereignty over Kosovo.

Allied policy has failed. Washington’s objective today should be to forestall disaster. The United States should get out. Now.

The Balkans is in Europe, not North America. The Europeans are about to take over command of KFOR and claim to be serious about creating an independent military capability. Leave them responsibility for Kosovo.

A year ago the administration was set on making war. Now it should make peace. Instead of augmenting U.S. forces in Kosovo, Washington should tell the Europeans that U.S. forces are coming home. Then it should bring them home.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.