Kosovo Is America’s War, America’s Pain

May 21, 1999 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Los Angeles Times on May 21, 1999.

A visitor to London today makes a remarkable discovery about the events in Kosovo. Far from being “Madeleine’s war,” as suggested by many American observers, the British media present the war as an almost exclusively British affair, with responsibility for strategy firmly located in Downing Street. Prime Minister Tony Blair wins huzzahs for his fulminating calls for “his generation” to stand up to tyranny. The reality, of course, is very different.

As shown by historian Niall Ferguson in his new book, Pity of War, World War I was the last European war in which the Europeans put more men into the field and deployed greater financial assets than the United States. In Kosovo there are fewer than 50 British aircraft in theater. Without the U.S., the British and wider European ability to deliver a punch is nil.

The imbalance on military inputs is an open scandal. What is less noticed is that the actual and potential downsides of the Kosovo operation accrue disproportionately to the U.S. This is because, unlike the United States, Europe no longer has global strategic interests. Take China, for example, in the wake of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Now that there are virtually no European forces in Asia, Europe’s relationship with China is confined to commerce. What is important to Europe is how many shirts, tractors or power stations can it sell to what by the mid‐​21st century will be the world’s largest economy. Whether China is politically pro‐ or anti‐​European makes little difference for this basic traffic in goods. As a European, therefore, NATO Secretary‐​General Javier Solana can content himself with an apology for NATO’s mistakes and think nothing more of it.

The situation for the U.S. could not be more different. Of course, the U.S. also has a pressing interest in trade with China, but its interests extend far beyond this. As what former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has called the “balancer of the last resort in Eurasia,” the U.S. has a vital stake in how it is perceived in China. If the Chinese authorities adopt a strategically benign view of the U.S. and its intentions, then the way is open to peaceful resolution of such potential conflicts as Taiwan and the South China Sea. If they take the opposite view, then not only will these problems become more acute, but there are plenty of other ways for China to extract a price from the United States. Intensification of nuclear cooperation with Pakistan or North Korea, mischief‐​making in Indonesia, strategic cooperation with Russia, an anti-U.S. rapprochement with India–the Chinese are subtle strategists who plan for the long term. All these possibilities are open to them. And all would be very damaging to U.S. interests.

The same is true of Russia. Despite the current fashion in Washington to scoff at Russia’s financial hard times and thus to deride Russian retaliation capabilities, there are several pressure points available to Russia. Caspian oil, defense technology cooperation with Iran, assistance to the Kurds in Turkey, fanning the flames of nationalism in eastern Ukraine and the Baltic republics–the list is not insignificant. Finally, if the Russians conclude en masse that America’s word cannot be trusted, then Europe may be headed for a new Cold War. Good friends of the U.S., such as Russian reformer Anatoly B. Chubais, have warned of a growing wave of anti‐​Americanism in Russia.

Which brings us back to our entry point. Advocates and opponents of the Kosovo war can agree that, for every day that the war continues and the mistakes multiply, the geostrategic damage to the U.S. grows exponentially. The hemorrhage to the United States’ moral credibility is palpable. The war party disregards this wider damage and focuses narrowly on Kosovo, arguing that, despite all the mistakes, now is the time to “stay the course.” This is the message borne by British Foreign Minister Robin Cook in his visit to Washington. But American decision‐​makers need to remember that while the European interest is provincial, theirs is global. If Blair and company feel so strongly about Kosovo, let them take the lead.

The U.S. cannot afford a “win” in Kosovo that sows the seeds of new geostrategic conflicts a few years down the road–particularly as it is sure that these conflicts will be fought exclusively by the United States.