An Accomplice to War in Kosovo?

August 5, 1998 • Commentary

In its latest foreign policy scramble, the Clinton administration is trying to reverse the perception that it favors independence for Serbia’s embattled Kosovo province, where more than 300 guerrillas, policemen and civilians have been killed since February. Making its first public criticism of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, the Contact Group (representatives of the United States and five European nations) issued a statement recently admonishing the KLA and stressing that “violence is inadmissible and will not solve the problem of Kosovo.” The Contact Group also announced that it will seek a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on the insurgents and the Serbian government to agree to a cease‐​fire.

But talk is cheap. Washington’s actions tell a different story. Despite its claim to the contrary, the Clinton administration doesn’t consider violence “inadmissible.” In fact, U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke recently rewarded and legitimized the KLA’s violence by offering KLA representatives a spot on the Kosovar Albanian negotiating team. At the same time, Holbrooke is unwilling to expand the Serbian side’s negotiating team to include nonviolent opposition leaders like Democratic Party president Zoran Djindjic and Serbian Orthodox bishop Artemije. Djindjic wants a Kosovo solution that establishes equality under the law and regional stability. Bishop Artemije leads a two‐​year‐​old peace movement that espouses a federalism plan that would simultaneously ease tensions in Kosovo and reduce the power of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Moreover, inviting the KLA to join the Kosovar Albanian negotiating team is downright hypocritical. In February, U.S. special envoy Robert Gelbard asserted that the KLA “is, without any questions, a terrorist group.” But now Washington wants the Yugoslav government to bargain with the KLA. That is a policy Washington would never consider for itself — negotiating with a group that it had identified as a terrorist organization.

Even if Washington wanted to coerce the KLA, it would be extremely difficult to do so.

The Contact Group’s promise to seek a UN Security Council resolution calling for a cease‐​fire from both sides is equally empty. It sounds evenhanded, but in reality, only one side –the Yugoslav government — has the threat of sanctions, military strikes and other punishments hanging over its head. The KLA has no comparable incentives for restraint.

Even if Washington wanted to coerce the KLA, it would be extremely difficult to do so. There are no pressure points to push: no KLA government to sanction, no KLA installations to threaten with NATO air strikes. That problem was underscored recently when Washington “warned” the KLA against launching a new offensive. But the warning was nothing more than a statement of the obvious: that new attacks, in State Department spokesmen James Rubin’s words, are “a sure‐​fire way to give President Milosevic another pretext to kill innocent [ethnic] Albanians.” Of course, that’s just what the KLA could use: more fodder for CNN that brings NATO one step closer to intervention.

It’s time for the administration to admit that the dynamics of the Kosovo dispute make it quite impossible to be evenhanded. It’s also time for the administration to admit that if it continues its current policy, the KLA will not be deterred from waging war for an independent Kosovo. In fact, the opposite will happen. The rebels will be encouraged further by the fact that there is a shield of U.S. threats protecting them against the full force of the Milosevic regime.

Warring factions will not stop fighting until a cease‐​fire presents a better option than violence. But as long as American threats can only apply to one side, a cease‐​fire will not seem a better option to the KLA; they will have everything to gain by exploiting the strategic opportunity the Clinton administration has effectively created for them. The result: Washington could find itself an unwitting accomplice to another Balkan war.

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