Commentary

The War against Serbia: Illusion Versus Reality

By Ivan Eland
May 3, 1999

The war against Serbia is being billed as a humanitarian attempt by NATO to impair and reverse Slobodan Milosevic’s brutal ethnic cleansing of Albanian Kosovars. That spin creates an illusion that obscures the real motivation behind the war. In fact, the war is really a U.S.-dominated military operation designed to safeguard perceived U.S. interests in the Balkan region. The illusion is perpetuated by several myths.

Myth 1: The war against Serbia is being spearheaded by NATO.

Although NATO headquarters in Brussels is buzzing with activity, the forces engaged in battle are primarily American. U.S. aircraft have been flying 90 percent of the combat missions. That percentage will increase further after the current buildup of aircraft, which involves a disproportionate number of American planes, is completed.

Any ground force used to attack Kosovo or Serbia would also be dominated by Americans. American units have the best equipment, training, doctrine, communications, intelligence and logistics. Furthermore, NATO would not demand that the three NATO countries closest to Serbia — Hungary, Greece and Italy — send ground forces to fight there. Even though Hungary is a new member of the alliance and should be eager to show its support for NATO activities, the Hungarians claim that they cannot be expected to send troops to fight against a Serb army that includes a significant Hungarian minority. Greece, with a population that is orthodox Christian and pro-Serb, and Italy, which has a left-leaning government that is squeamish about NATO military actions, have pledged humanitarian and logistical support but would not be expected to help with the ground attack. Curiously, the United States — half a world a way — is more concerned about Milosevic’s actions in Kosovo than are his neighbors.

Myth 2: Humanitarian concerns are driving the war against Serbia.

Although the recent case of genocide in Rwanda claimed the lives of almost a million people, dwarfing the number killed in the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the United States did not intervene. Moreover, the United States regularly, if tacitly, accepts brutal conduct by other regimes against their own people if it coincides with perceived U.S. interests.

The United States tacitly accepted Russia’s attempt to brutally suppress the Chechen rebellion because of fears that Russia would disintegrate if other minority groups imitated the Chechens. In the Krajina region of Croatia, the United States tacitly accepted Croatia’s ethnic cleansing of 300,000 Serbs because the killing weakened the Serb position in that country and in neighboring Bosnia. Because Turkey is a U.S. ally, the United States not only accepted the Turkish regime’s brutal repression of the Kurdish minority (another conflict in which casualties have been much greater than those in Kosovo) but actively aided Ankara by helping apprehend the Kurdish leader Mohamad Ocalan.

In reality, the ostensible humanitarian justification for the war is secondary at best. It’s the underlying perception that European security is threatened that’s really driving this military intervention. The United States rarely intervenes militarily when there is no perception that its interests are at stake. So the military operation advertised as a NATO mission to relieve human suffering is actually a ham-handed U.S. attempt to defend perceived American security interests.

Those perceived interests flow from the Clinton administration’s domino theory of instability and concerns about preserving NATO’s credibility.

Instead of a fear of communism spreading from country to country, the administration’s refurbished domino theory sees “instability” — unless checked — spreading and engulfing large parts of Europe. Instability has always existed in the volatile and remote Balkan nations, but it hasn’t spread outside the region since 1914. The administration constantly alludes to the specter of World War I. But in the events leading up to that war, two powerful and hostile alliances exploited instability in the region — a situation much different from the one that exists today. At present, instability in the Balkans has no relationship to American vital interests.

And getting into a war to preserve “NATO’s credibility” sounds eerily like the “peace with honor” justification that kept the United States bogged down in Vietnam for an extra five years. In Vietnam, over a seven-year period, the average tonnage of bombs dropped per month was almost double that dropped per month during Desert Storm, which was in turn much greater than the tonnage dropped on Serbia and Kosovo during the past month. Seven years of pounding from the air did not dissuade the North Vietnamese from their battle to unify Vietnam (nor did an air onslaught alone persuade Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait). It’s doubtful that a few months of far less intense attacks on Serbia will stop the Serbs’ nationalistic effort to maintain the unity of Serbia.

In the end, the United States would have had more honor had it withdrawn earlier from Vietnam. Similarly, NATO will retain at least some credibility if it drops the pretenses, cuts its losses and negotiates a settlement with Milosevic before many more lives are lost in a ground war for dubious goals in a remote land.

Ivan Eland is the director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.