Policy Analysis No. 357

Faulty Justifications and Ominous Prospects: NATO’s “Victory” in Kosovo

Executive Summary

With the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo, President Clinton triumphantly proclaimed, “We have achieved a victory.” Yet the Clinton administration’s ill-conceived Kosovo policy has habitually failed to meet its objectives.

The threat of air strikes failed to get Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic to sign the Rambouillet peace accord. Once the air strikes began, the unintended consequences were horrific. Not only did the bombing trigger a refugee crisis, but U.S.-Russian relations were driven to a post-Cold War low—a development that makes Europe and the world more dangerous.

Even the various rationales for NATO intervention offered by the administration were faulty. Those rationales included assertions that (1) genocide was occurring in Kosovo; (2) if the United States did not intervene, American credibility would be lost and dictators around the world would assume that they had a free hand; and (3) NATO’s role as the guarantor of European security would be discredited, thereby increasing the risk that Europe would be drawn into its third Continent-wide war this century.

The humanitarian situation in Kosovo prior to NATO bombing, however, was not unusual in the annals of counterinsurgency wars. NATO member Turkey has been for years waging a similar war against Kurdish separatists. Moreover, the conflict in Kosovo was not a test of American credibility—the stakes were both murky and meager—until Washington needlessly transformed the situation into a test of American resolve. The Kosovo war was a challenge not to NATO’s traditional role as a collective-defense alliance but only to its new and dubious role as a post-Cold War crisis-management institution. Furthermore, history shows that conflicts in peripheral regions such as Kosovo do not inevitably escalate to Europewide wars that imperil American interests. The two world wars involved exceptional breakdowns of the European balance of power.

NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia killed hundreds of civilians and exacerbated tensions throughout the region. Moreover, Belgrade’s headache may soon become Washington’s. U.S. and other NATO troops already have a tense relationship with the Kosovo Liberation Army, which still demands independence, not merely autonomy, for Kosovo. In short, NATO’s “victory” means deploying U.S. troops on yet another multi-billion-dollar, open-ended peacekeeping and nation-building operation.

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Christopher Layne is a visiting scholar at the Center for International Studies at the University of Southern California and a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in Global Security.