Policy Forum: “The Balkan War: What Do We Do Now?”

July/​August 1999 • Policy Report

On May 18 the Cato Institute held a conference, “NATO’s Balkan War: Finding an Honorable Exit.” Among the speakers were Doug Bandow, syndicated columnist and Cato senior fellow; Alton Frye, presidential senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations; John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago; and Rep. Curt Weldon, Republican from Pennsylvania. Excerpts from their remarks follow.

Doug Bandow: NATO has destroyed China’s embassy in Belgrade, dropped cluster bombs on a Serbian market, shredded relations with Russia, blasted the Yugoslav economy into rubble, triggered escalating violence against Kosovars, created massive refugee flows, killed Kosovar refugees, and destabilized all of southeast Europe. The administration calls that success. One hates to imagine what it would call failure.

Bill Clinton’s war has proved to be one of the worst foreign policy debacles in American history. The president launched an unprovoked war of aggression against a small, distant state. He cynically wrapped his campaign in humanitarianism while ignoring worse slaughters elsewhere. He arrogantly assumed that foreign officials would genuflect before him. He attacked their nation when they didn’t.

How to justify it? President Clinton tried in his recent speech at National Defense University. He likened events in Kosovo to those in Nazi Germany: a “vicious, premeditated, systematic oppression fueled by religious and ethnic hatred.”

That is pure cant. The administration has nothing against “vicious, premeditated, systematic oppression” if committed by allies, like Croatia and Turkey. Or if committed against black Africans. Moreover, as ugly as the Kosovo conflict was, it was no Nazi Holocaust but a minor civil war, with casualties a fraction of those occurring in such places as Kashmir and Sri Lanka. President Clinton studiously averts his gaze from places, like Rwanda, where real genocide occurs.

Once it became clear that the administration was intent on effectively stripping Yugoslavia of the province of Kosovo, however, the Yugoslavians, unsurprisingly, lashed out. Indeed, allied bombing turned all Kosovars—whose leaders publicly lobbied for NATO intervention—into enemies of the Serbs.

Belgrade wasn’t gentle before. It certainly wasn’t going to be gentle after being pounded from the air. Before the bombing there were about 45,000 refugees in Albania and Macedonia. Afterward there were 640,000.

The allied war quickly turned into a war on civilians. Never mind the accidental bombings of hospitals, markets, and refugees. Accidents may be unavoidable, though they are least excusable in a supposed humanitarian war. But NATO is now striking everything from bridges to electrical plants to television stations. NATO is dismantling Yugoslavia’s civilian infrastructure, building by building.

Having spent nearly two months attacking a small country, NATO can continue to intensify the bombing only by widening its target list. And that means more dead civilians. Even that isn’t enough for some observers. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman ranted: “Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverizing you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too.” How many innocent Serbs deserve to die in the attempt to enable refugees to go home? Ethnic cleansing is ugly; premeditated murder is worse.

Bill Clinton also argued in his speech that reducing Yugoslavia to ruins “is the right thing for our security interests over the long run.” But few serious people believe that. The conflict in Kosovo, however messy, was contained until NATO began bombing. The Serbs were attempting to hold onto what they had, not expand. Yugoslavia’s earlier civil war did not explode Europe because none of the major powers had any interest in intervening and making it a wider war.

But the administration’s maladroit attempt to impose a solution unwanted by either side sparked the Serb crackdown, followed by mass refugee flows that destabilized Yugoslavia’s fragile neighbors.

To the extent that NATO successfully “degrades” Yugoslavia’s military, it will dangerously reshape the region’s balance of power. Albania, Bosnia, and Croatia all have potential territorial designs on one another and Serbia. As a result, the conflict in Kosovo is likely to be just one more, rather than the last, Balkan war. NATO countries have confronted Russia in a region it considers important for its interests as it slides toward political chaos. President Clinton has spilled gasoline across Europe.

Alton Frye: The calculus of war is more than mathematics. Sorties count, weapons count, targets count, casualties count. But what counts most lies beyond the numbers. In Kosovo the balance sheet is increasingly grim. As we pursue a compelling moral aim, the United States and our NATO allies face excruciating tradeoffs. The hope of demonstrating NATO’s will and capacity to protect the victims of ethnic cleansing is dissolving into anguish and futility. The political price has been staggering. The intervention has fortified a fierce Serbian nationalism and rallied millions of people who otherwise would not have been there to a tyrant’s side. Bombing has been highly destructive of the democratic forces on whom the country depends for a less malevolent future.

Similar results are clear in Russia. Anti‐​Americanism is rampant. Democratic reformers face gloomy prospects. The war has confirmed Russia’s worst suspicions of an expansive NATO. It has placed in jeopardy the crucial goal of neutral restraints on nuclear arms. And it has diverted us from what should remain the central priority of Western foreign policy: forging a sound relationship with post‐​Soviet Russia.

Even before the accidental attack on the Chinese embassy, the Balkan intervention was breeding a new accommodation between Beijing and Moscow. NATO’s evasion of United Nations authority is bound to make achieving Security Council consensus in future crises even more difficult. In geostrategic terms, we are sowing problems for ourselves far beyond the Balkan nightmare. The intervention in Kosovo sprang from moral conviction. Humane leaders launched this effort out of profound moral outrage and a desperate desire to relieve the suffering of the Kosovars. Those admirable, earnest qualities deserve respect. But that respect will endure only if the leaders retain their moral perspective on the campaign that is actually unfolding.

We now face not one, but three, humanitarian catastrophes: the massive waves of terrified human beings expelled from their homeland, the ethnic Albanians still hovering in a decimated Kosovo, and the millions of people throughout Kosovo and the rest of Serbia suffering from heavy NATO bombardment.

It must be made clear to Milosevic that, for an indefinite period of transition, NATO will maintain armed aerial surveillancethroughout the area. Both fixed‐​wing aircraft and helicopters should be on call to support any UN element resisted by Serb paramilitary groups or other hostile forces. The feasibility of a quick insertion of a relatively light multinational force depends critically on the thoroughness of Serbian withdrawal. It also depends on ridding the terrain of mines and booby traps. That’s one reason why some Serbian military personnel should remain in Kosovo to work with the arriving international force. To reduce the risk to international forces and humanitarian teams, Serb assistance will be needed to locate the hazards that have been planted and to de‐​mine the area.

There’s another reason to retain a limited Serb presence in Kosovo. It has nothing to do with making a concession to Milosevic. Substantial numbers of Serb Kosovars will remain in the province. The bloodlust this war has spawned marks them as prime targets for revenge. In addition to the likelihood of personal vendettas, it’s exceedingly doubtful that the international force will disarm the Kosovar Liberation Army. If all the residents of Kosovo are to feel a degree of security, there is a case for some level of Serbian police presence and perhaps border guards.

Finally, none of these ideas is definitive, or immune to rebuttal. But what is beyond dispute is that the proportions of this war are now out of kilter. As we could not justify destroying a village to save it, we cannot protect the victims by prolonging the conflict. We did not instigate this horror. We cannot end it by ourselves. The premium now is on urgent diplomacy to conclude what military force cannot compel: a prompt truce in Kosovo to permit help to reach the invisible victims. People often quote MacArthur’s famous maxim that “there is no substitute for victory,” but in this case, ultimate victory is no substitute for immediate compassion.

John Mearsheimer: Partition is really the only viable strategy for having anything that resembles peace in the long term. Partition is the best of a handful of really lousy alternatives. There are two broad choices. One is autonomy for the Kosovars, which basically means keeping Kosovo and the Albanians in Kosovo inside a Serb‐​dominated Yugoslavia. And the other alternative is to partition Kosovo. You can draw the line in any number of places, but the basic principle is that you separate the Kosovars and the Serbs. You get them on opposite sides of a border, and you in effect create two ethnically homogeneous states.

The Clinton administration and many people in Congress have been wedded to the autonomy solution. And for the life of me, I don’t understand why, because it’s not going to work. It probably won’t work in the short term, and it surely isn’t going to work in the long term.

Why do I favor partition? The fact is that multiethnic states don’t survive in Europe. If you look all over Europe in the 20th century, what you see is lots of examples of multiethnic states breaking apart and being replaced by ethnically homogeneous states. And when they break apart, they usually break apart in a very bloody fashion. This is regrettable but true.

Consider Poland. It used to have lots of Jews, Germans, Belarussians, Ukrainians. They’re basically all gone. Poland is now full of Poles. That is for the best. When I hear Americans saying how wonderful it is that Germans are moving back into Poland, I ask myself, what world are these people living in? If the Clinton administration had been around in 1918 instead of the Woodrow Wilson administration, it probably would have tried to hold the Austro‐​Hungarian Empire together. It probably would have tried to hold the Ottoman Empire together.

What about the Soviet Union, another multiethnic empire? That’s gone. Czechoslovakia? That’s gone.

Now, let’s talk about Yugoslavia. In the summer of 1991 the Slovenians and the Croats declared their independence. You had a very brief war involving Slovenia. You had a much longer war involving Croatia. April 1992 you had a war over Bosnia. Why? Because the Serbs and the Croats did not want to be part of a multiethnic Bosnia. The Serbs did not want to be part of a multiethnic Croatia. They wanted to be part of a greater Serbia. The Serbs in Bosnia still want to be part of a greater Serbia. The Croats in Bosnia want to be part of a greater Croatia. This is not surprising. This is perfectly consistent with what has happened in Europe over the course of this century. In Kosovo you have a population that is about 90 percent Albanian all concentrated in one area. It’s almost axiomatic that they are going to want their independence.

The Clinton administration won’t be able to keep Bosnia together unless we stay there forever. Remember, the administration said U.S. troops were going to be there for 12 months. I said at the time, don’t believe that; they’re going to be there forever. After 12 months, the administration said we only need 18 more months. I said, don’t believe that; they’re going to be there forever. After 18 months, the administration said we are going to be there forever. And of course what they want to do in Kosovo is going to keep us there forever. Because that’s the only way you can force people to live together—at the end of a rifle barrel, a NATO rifle barrel.

Basically, the administration is trying to force the Kosovars and the Serbs to live together in one state. The administration believes that it can jigger the political system in ways that both the Kosovars and the Serbs will accept. But is that realistic? The Kosovars, even before all of this killing, were deeply committed to gaining their independence. Now you have all the hatred and fear on top of that. Does anybody seriously believe at this point in time, given the power of nationalism, given all the killing that has taken place, that you can create a political system under which the Kosovars and the Serbs can live together? I find it almost unfathomable.

I think there’s a much easier and more attractive solution that is more likely to work in the long term. It’s not one that warms my heart. I like the idea of multiethnic states, but I am not willing to put my son and daughters in harm’s way to force those people to live together. So what we ought to do is partition Kosovo. We ought to separate the Albanians and the Serbs. We need to recall Robert Frost’s famous line that “good fences make good neighbors.” Let the Albanians have their independence; give the Serbs some part of Kosovo, maybe the northeastern fifth. And then if the Albanians want to become a part of a greater Albania, so be it. Who cares? The idea that a greater Albania is a threat is laughable.

Partition is not a terrific solution; but when you look at the alternative, partition sure looks like a good option.

Curt Weldon: It was just two weeks ago that I had one of my colleagues and friends, who’s a member of the Russian Duma, at a press conference here in Washington. I want to paraphrase what he said to the media. He said, you know, for 70 years the Soviet Communist Party spent billions of dollars trying to convince the Russian people that America was evil, and they never succeeded. In 45 days of bombing, your president has done what the Soviet Communist Party could not do. Your president’s bombing and refusal to give Russia a role in solving this situation are causing a serious problem that will last long beyond the solution of the Kosovo crisis.

That is the reason I got involved in this conflict six weeks ago. I believe to the innermost core of my body that we must engage Russia in a way similar to the way Ronald Reagan engaged the people of the former Soviet Union. I have two primary objectives in dealing with Russia. One is to help increase the visibility and the stability of the parliament as a part of democracy in Russia, to have it understand that it must be responsible in its actions. And number two, to help Russia develop a middle class.

I wasn’t surprised six weeks ago when I got a series of frantic calls from pro‐​Western elected Russian leaders. They said, you have to understand what’s happening. Your country’s been bombing now for three weeks. You’re causing terrible problems in our country, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Cold War. People who were your friends are now turning away from you because the ultranationalists are telling the public that America is out to kill innocent Serbs. And you must know that Serbs have always been close allies and friends of the Russian people. And if you don’t get your government to begin to bring us into the process to help you solve this crisis, you’re going to hand the Duma elections, now scheduled for December this year, to the ultranationalists and the communists.

I think we ought to demand that Russia be involved. We give Russia a billion dollars a year of U.S. taxpayers’ money.

Many of us have suggested that perhaps Milosevic ought to be confronted and made to agree to the terms up front. The key business people in Yugoslavia, who are having their businesses torn apart, want this war ended. They are prepared to put tremendous pressure on Milosevic himself. The Russians are ready. I’m convinced they have the leverage over Milosevic to have him accept the basic terms of what the administration has asked for.

This crisis in Kosovo has been wrongheaded from the beginning, and it must end on honorable terms. We’ve managed to turn all the Serbs who were about ready to dump Milosevic into his biggest cheerleaders. We’ve managed to exacerbate a problem so that we now have a million refugees we can’t account for. And we’ve managed to turn the Russians against us at a time when they and the Chinese are coming together. I can’t think of a worse scenario that this administration could have engineered for our country. And it troubles me greatly.

This article originally appeared in the July/​August 1999 edition of Cato Policy Report.