Even though, for the moment, it seems to have led to a military victory with no U.S. combat fatalities. High purpose, even a genuine concern for the Albanian Kosovars, was not a sufficient basis for bombing a country, the military forces of which did not attack or threaten the United States, any overseas U.S. force or installation, or any U.S. ally.
First, the U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign undermined the fragile basis for a rule of law among nations. President Clinton initiated the bombing campaign without authority from Congress, the NATO Charter, or the UN Security Council. Although Congress has acquiesced to many prior U.S. military actions without a declaration of war, in this case there was no dramatic provocative incident—no invasion of an allied or neutral country, no attack on U.S. forces, no bombing of a U.S. embassy. The Serbian forces had been engaged in a brutal and sometimes indiscriminate campaign to suppress an internal insurrection by the Kosovo Liberation Army, but the State Department had properly described the KLA as a terrorist organization until shortly before the NATO bombing campaign. Americans should reflect how we would have reacted if the British navy had shelled our ports in support of Confederate forces during our Civil War. Moreover, NATO was established as a defensive alliance; its charter does not authorize out-of-area offensive actions. And our occasional practice of end-running the UN Security Council only reenforces the impression that the U.S. government does not regard itself as bound by the UN Charter.
Second, especially for those who view the relations among nations only from the perspective of realpolitik, the bombing of Serbia reflects a very strange set of priorities. As a rule, there are 30 or more significant military conflicts somewhere in the world at any given time. Why intervene in a Serbian civil war but not, for example, in Colombia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Kashmir, or East Timor? (For the moment, the United States has committed only several hundred logistics troops in support of the UN intervention in East Timor.) Some of those other conflicts are in countries that are closer to the United States, involve far higher humanitarian threats, or are more distant from some other potentially countervailing power. If Serbia is a threat to other countries in the region, there are a half dozen governments in Europe with more than enough forces to counter that threat, acting alone or in concert but without U.S. forces.
Although bombing Serbia, by narrow standards, led to a military victory, the bombing campaign jeopardized several more important interests. Support for NATO was probably weakened by this campaign, especially support of the new member governments that thought they were joining a defensive alliance only to find themselves pressured to support an out-of-area offensive action within days of joining. The major strategic opportunities of the early 21st century are to reduce the large nuclear arsenals and to integrate Russia and China in an international rule of law. The major strategic threats of this period are an alliance of convenience between Russia and China and terrorist threats based on a proliferation of grievances against the United States. All of those interests were seriously threatened by the bombing of Serbia. U.S. relations with Russia and China are worse now than at any time since the end of the Cold War. And the governments of many smaller countries are learning that their only defense against the militant Wilsonianism of the U.S. government is the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and the threat of terrorist attacks.
Finally, any war, even with modern precision-guided munitions, puts the lives and property of innocent people at risk. That is not an argument against all wars, because there are some values for which that outcome is a tolerable, however undesirable, side effect. That is an argument, however, for a genuinely humanitarian people to set a very high threshold for the use of military forces, one based on a narrow interpretation of vital U.S. national security interests. The bombing of Serbia did not meet that test. The bombing of Serbia was a tragedy, even though it led to a military victory.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 1999 edition of Cato Policy Report.