The U.S. Role in Kosovo

March 10, 1999 • Testimony


I want to thank members of the Committee for the opportunity to testify on the Clinton administration’s plan to intervene in the ongoing civil war in Kosovo. There may be no more important foreign policy issue today.

Despite the administration’s best intentions, its proposal to bomb Serbia and initiate a long‐​term ground occupation of Kosovo is misguided in the extreme. The administration would attempt to impose an artificial settlement with little chance of genuine acceptance by either side. It would attempt to micromanage a guerrilla conflict, likely spreading nationalistic flames throughout the region. It would involve America in an undeclared war against a nation which has not threatened the U.S. or any U.S. ally. It would encourage permanent European dependence on America to defend European interests with little relevance to America. It would turn humanitarianism on its head, basing intervention on the ethnicity of the victims, allied status of the belligerents, relative strength of the contending political interests, and expansiveness of the media coverage. Most important, it would put U.S. troops at risk without any serious, let alone vital, American interest at stake.

Why Kosovo?

It has oft been said that the world is a dangerous place, and it certainly is. But not particularly to the U.S. Most members of the industrialized West, and especially America, are at peace.

Unfortunately, conflict wracks many other countries around the world. There has been mass murder in Burundi, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan, and Uganda; brutal insurgencies in Angola, Congo, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, and Sri Lanka; bloody wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Ethiopia and Somalia, India and Pakistan; endless civil war in Afghanistan; violent separatist campaigns in Iraq (Kurds), Mexico (Chiapans), Northern Ireland (Irish Catholics), Russia (Chechens), Spain (Basques), and Turkey (Kurds); and varying strife in Burma, Georgia, India, Indonesia, Tajikistan, and elsewhere.

Then there is Kosovo. Without doubt, the situation is tragic. Yet the one constant of guerrilla insurgencies and civil wars is their brutality. By both sides.

Slobodan Milosevic is a demagogic thug, but, in fact, the behavior of his government towards Albanians looks not unlike that of the more democratic Turkish regime towards Kurds. The Serbian government has caused untowards civilian casualties in Kosovo, but its conduct does not exist in a vacuum. Last June a U.S. diplomat in Belgrade told me: “If you’re a Serb, hell yes the KLA is a terrorist organization.” Even ethnic Albanians admit that the KLA had targeted Serb policemen and other government employees, Serbs viewed as abusing Kosovars, as well as Albanian “collaborators.” Each cycle of violence has spawned another.

The resulting suffering of Kosovars is obvious. Yet the fighting in Kosovo barely rises to the status of atrocity in today’s world. It certainly does not constitute genocide, a term now routinely tossed around with wild abandon. At least twice as many people died in January alone in Sierra Leone than in Kosovo last year. As many people died in one three‐​day battle between Tamil guerrillas and the Sri Lankan government last fall as in Kosovo in all of 1998. By any normal standard events in Kosovo are less important than those in many other nations around the world.

Indeed, the administration appears to be driven by what former British diplomat Jonathan Clarke has termed the “instinct for the capillary.” Developments in China and Russia will have a significant impact on shaping the future world order. The U.S. remains at risk of being sucked into a war on the Korean peninsula. American economic prosperity could fade if Japan’s economy collapsed. All of these issues deserve the administration’s focused attention. The course of yet another third‐​rate civil war does not.

Nor is the administration acting on humanitarian concerns, given the many worse conflicts which it currently ignores. Indeed, contrast U.S. policy towards Turkey. A brutal civil war is raging, and some 37,000 have died over the last decade. An oppressed people, the Kurds, is seeking the right of self‐​determination. The central government engages in a variety of murderous practices, including destroying Kurdish villages, and ruthlessly restricts civil liberties and political freedoms of Kurdish sympathizers.

But the administration has voiced no outrage, proposed no bombing, demanded no occupation. To the contrary, Washington supplies the weapons Ankara uses to repress Kurdish separatists and apparently helped Turkey capture rebel head Abdullah Ocalan. There is much to criticize about Ocalan’s PKK, of course, but one could make similar judgments regarding the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Hypocritical is perhaps the most charitable characterization of the administration’s policy.

In such a circumstance, what could warrant U.S. intervention? All of the proposed justifications fall far short.

The administration would attempt to impose an artificial settlement with little chance of genuine acceptance by either side. The administration has developed a nearly 100‐​page agreement setting forth a variety of complicated government institutions and convoluted enforcement processes. It may represent a creative response to a law school final exam question; it does not represent the aspirations of the Albanian or the Serbian people. As such, the system would be inherently unstable and could be sustained only with a permanent foreign occupation.

If Belgrade refuses to sign, air strikes might damage military assets, but attacks anything short of catastrophic are unlikely to change Yugoslavia’s policy towards the province. Slobodan Milosevic may be an ineffective nationalist, but his ascent to and hold on power has always been based on nationalism. He has already lost the Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia. The loss of Kosovo would be far more threatening to his political future than NATO attacks, which would allow him to pose as Yugoslavia’s defender against the aggressive West.

Even in the unlikely event that NATO action drove him from power, his successors are likely to be no less committed to maintaining Yugoslav sovereignty over Kosovo. Even Western oriented opposition figures, such as Vesna Pesic and Zoran Djindjic, believe Kosovo to be part of Serbia. Moreover, though they would undoubtedly rule with a far gentler hand, most Albanians appear to have moved beyond the point of accepting Serbian sovereignty in any form under anyone.

The experience in Bosnia, a nation which exists only in the imagination of Western officials, should serve as a caution. It is Bosnia that “animates our policy towards Kosovo,” Nicholas Burns, U.S. ambassador to Greece, told me during a recent trip to Athens. Burns said that the Clinton administration “learned a very bitter lesson in the Bosnian War, that if diplomacy is not often coupled by the threat of force or the willingness to use force in an unstable environment like this, diplomacy is often ineffective.”

Yet Washington encouraged the Muslims to kill the Lisbon accord, which would have settled the conflict before the worst of the fighting. And a skeptical Foreign Ministry official in Greece, the country closest to the Balkans wars, privately counters Burns, observing that “timing is very relevant.” By the time of Dayton “everyone had become war weary” and the Croats and Muslims had gained the weapons necessary to match the Serbs on the ground.

Moreover, even though the U.S. has spent $12 billion and occupied Bosnia for more than three years, the Dayton scheme is a bust. As my Cato Institute colleague Gary Dempsey puts it, “Reintegration is grinding to a halt.” Nationalists dominate politics and refugees are not returning home; there is little home‐​grown economic growth.

The kind of democracy being taught by the West more represents Boss Tweed than George Washington, as the West simply forces Bosnians to live under under a government that represents none of them. The High Representative in Bosnia, Carlos Westendorp has chosen the so‐​called country’s currency and flag. Only last week Westendorp dismissed the elected president of the Serbian republic. Not surprisingly, there is no local support for this “country” imposed from outside and there is no end in sight for a mission which was originally supposed to last just a year. The withdrawal of U.S. troops, warns the Clinton administration, would lead to Bosnia’s collapse.

Intervention in Kosovo, would be even more perverse. Not only does the West have no answer — its autonomy proposal satisfies no one and could be enforced only through yet another interminable occupation — but the two sides are not ready to quit fighting. The only thing worse than occupying Bosnia would be bombing Serb military units and patrolling Kosovo’s border with Albania in an attempt to cut off the insurgents’ arms shipments.

It would attempt to micromanage a guerrilla conflict, likely spreading nationalistic flames throughout the region. The administration obviously believes that NATO can push Yugoslavia hard enough to force autonomy, without pushing so hard as to yield independence, for Kosovo. This is an illusion. If the U.S. effectively provides the KLA with an air force by bombing Serb forces if Belgrade says no, or largely eliminates Serb authority within Kosovo and creates a military shield for slow‐​motion Albanian secession if Belgrade says yes‐ -or both, should Belgrade’s acquiescence be acquired through military action — the result is likely to be increased pressure for not only an independent Kosova, but a larger Albania, incorporating Kosovo, the nation of Albania, western Macedonia, and perhaps much more.

When I visited Kosovo last June, I did not find a single ethnic Albanian interested in autonomy. Although many were cautious when discussing the possibility of a greater Albania — obviously the question arises, which group would end up in charge? — they freely criticized Macedonia’s treatment of its Albanian minority. And virtually every television satellite dish was turned towards Tirana.

The KLA’s agenda is clear. Last year spokesman Jakup Krasniqi said his organization was “was fighting for the liberation of all occupied Albanian territories,” including the western section of Macedonia, whose population is one‐​fourth Albanian, “and their unification with Albania.” The KLA may sign on the administration’s dotted line, but that doesn’t mean any, let alone all, of its different factions have changed their ultimate objective. Even the moderate Kosovo political leadership is unlikely to accept autonomy, whatever the formalities of any agreement. Dr. Alush Gashi, an adviser to Ibrahim Rugova, told me during a visit to Kosovo last June: “Independence is inevitable.”

Many residents of Albania, from which KLA recruits and supplies are flowing into Kosovo, and much of the international Albanian diaspora, from which financial support is flowing into Kosovo, also support this wider agenda. Indeed, the Albanian American Civic League includes on its website a map showing Albania, Kosovo, western Macedonia (along with its capital, Skopje), southeastern Montenegro (along with its cpaital, Podgorica), northern Greece, and southern Serbia (north of Kosovo). It is a breathtaking agenda.

Administration protestations against Kosovan independence have done nothing to dampen transnational ethnic sentiments. Indeed, during my visit I found several Kosovars who believed that America backed their cause unreservedly, despite the administration’s statements. One student opined that President Clinton was simply lying to the American people about the issue to sooth their concerns.

There is nothing in NATO actions to change that impression. At the time, one U.S. official complained to me that administration statements last year (which weren’t even directly backed by force) “obviously play into the perception that the U.S. is here to help the Albanians.” The threat of air strikes even more obviously aids the cause of independence. The choice of Robert Dole as the envoy to the Albanian negotiators also sends a clear signal of administration favor for the Albanian cause.

Nor is the proposed agreement truly balanced. It is relative easy to count Serb personnel, but virtually impossible to monitor KLA activities. Indeed, an administration concerned about casualties is not likely to press too hard to disarm the KLA, a process that proved infeasible in Somalia under similarly difficult circumstances. Most important, there is no Albanian target for NATO to pressure to enforce the accord. Its implementation would merely become a new starting point for the struggle for Albanian independence.

For this reason Greece, the nation closest to the conflict, is extremely uncomfortable over proposed NATO intervention. In private meetings during a recent trip to Athens I found that officials at every level went out of their way to emphasize their opposition to Western military intervention. One top Foreign Ministry official complained that “if force was used it would have spillover consequences for us.” Such concerns are also voiced outside of government, by members of the conservative New Democracy party, academics, businessmen, and journalists.

A former diplomat and conservative member of parliament, Petros Molyviatis, says the important thing is “not to allow the change of external frontiers. If we do, it could blow up the Balkans.” Unfortunately, the administration plan makes this more rather than less likely. The point is, the U.S. would be aiding the very group most likely to spread instability southward, into Macedonia and Greece. Milosevic is a brute, but he is no Hitler; his ambitions are limited to Kosovo. Those of the KLA are not.

It would involve America in an undeclared war against a nation which has not threatened the U.S. or any U.S. ally. Traditionally, war has been thought to be a last resort. Yet this administration is implementing the most militaristic program in at least two decades. The President used U.S. troops to try to rebuild Somalian society, bombed Serbian insurgents in Bosnia, warned of possible military action against North Korea, occupied Haiti, sent troops to Macedonia and Bosnia, has undertaken military exercises around the world, is launching regular attacks on Iraq, and now threatens war against Yugoslavia over Kosovo.

The President argues that Washington must not allow small conflicts to “fester and spread.” But U.S. policy has consistently failed. Somalia was a disaster, reconciliation is a fantasy in Bosnia, Haiti now enjoys a presidential instead of military dictatorship, only diplomacy kept the peace in Korea, Iraq remains recalcitrant, and U.S. threats have changed nothing in Kosovo.

More fundamental, however, is the principle. What is the standard for making war? That is, what justifies the extreme step of unleashing death and destruction on another people? Traditionally it has been a military threat against the U.S.

Yet Yugoslavia has done nothing against America or any of its allies. Grant that Serbian treatment of Kosovars has been atrocious. So has the Turkish handling of Kurds. And the conduct of Indonesia in East Timor. As well as the behavior of two score other governments in a variety of conflicts around the globe. Is war the right remedy in these cases?

Indeed, the administration is not threatening war to stop human rights abuses. Rather, it wants to force compliance with an international diktat to establish an unstable, jerry‐​rigged autonomous government to be backed by a permament foreign occupation of what is considered internationally to be indisputably Yugoslavian land.

Were any other nation to make such a demand, Washington would consider it high hubris. Were any other nation to make such a demand of the U.S. — to, say, occupy Southern California (“Azatland” to Mexican irredentists) to monitor relations between an anglo‐​dominated government and growing Hispanic population — Washington would consider it to be justification for war. Indeed, the national government unequivocally rejected British and French attempts to mediate the Civil War and threatened war should those nations recognize the Confederacy.

Warmongering in the name of peace is an oxymoron. There will almost certainly be times in the future when America will have to consider war against other nations. But Washington should restrict this most serious of threats to the most serious of dangers. By threatening to bomb Yugoslavia if it does not agree to accept the administration’s preferred settlement plan, the President is trivializing war, the most monstrous of human practices.

It would encourage permanent European dependence on America to defend European interests with little relevance to America. There should be little doubt that events in Kosovo are more relevant to Europe than America. Yet the U.S. is being expected to take the lead in Kosovo. More than that, Washington is pushing a form of military intervention with which some European states are quite uncomfortable. It is bad enough to wage war for Europe rather than America when supported by the Europeans. It makes little sense to do so when they don’t.

There is a longer term concern, however. NATO was created a half century ago to provide a defense shield behind which the Europeans could rebuild. The alliance was never intended to provide a permanent subsidy, especially one to populous and prosperous states after the opposing hegemonic threat had disappeared.

In fact, the giants of American foreign policy who created NATO would be appalled at continued U.S. domination of the alliance. After all, Dean Acheson assured Congress that Washington’s troop presence would be only temporary, intended to protect the war‐​torn nations until they could stand on their own. In 1951 Dwight D. Eisenhower, NATO’s first Supreme Commander, argued that the U.S. should “set clear limits” on the length of time it would maintain forces in Europe. A decade later, he warned: “Permanent troop establishments abroad” will “discourage the development of the necessary military strength Western European countries should provide for themselves.”

Experience has borne out Eisenhower’s fears. Although the Europeans were always far more at risk than was the U.S., they never matched America’s defense effort. Even today they devote a much smaller percentage of their GDPs to the military, on average about half that of the U.S. Washington spends 60 percent more on defense than do all NATO’s European partners combined, even though the latter possess a larger economy and population.

Their preference for social over military spending is matched by a reluctance to act without America. The Europeans whined about the fighting in Bosnia but preferred not to act alone. Without U.S. pressure NATO would not be preparing to make war on Serbia.

In the eyes of some, this demonstrates the necessity of American leadership. However, by acting when the Europeans choose not to guarantees continued European passivity. So long as they can induce Washington to subsidize their defense and moderate their conflicts, they have no incentive to organize independently. Indeed, it is obviously against their interest to solve problems without America, since that would discourage U.S. paternalism in the future.

Instead of constantly bailing Europe out of its troubles — troubles which, in contrast to those in times past, do not threaten its very existence — America should exercise tough love and set the Europeans free to make their own decisions and bear the resulting consequences. If the U.S. does not, it will be forever hostage to local conflicts which are irrelevant to American interests. Let the members of the European Union, with a combined GDP of $8 trillion, population of nearly 400 million, and armed forces of more than one million sort out the problems of the Balkans, if they believe doing so to be worth the cost.

At least the contention that the Europeans won’t act is a serious, if flawed, argument for intervention. Simply ridiculous is the claim that aerial bombing of Serbia and ground occupation of Kosovo are necessary to save NATO. For instance, Robert Hunter of the Rand Corporation complains that “If fighting in Kosovo goes on unabated at the time of NATO’s 50th anniversary summit in Washington this April, the focus will not be on its new strategic concept or grand visions. Kosovo will overshadow both celebration of the past and plans for the future.”

Those who share this view would have the U.S. go to war to preserve the European alliance. But this turns a means into an end. Alliances are created to deter and win wars; Hunter would use war to preserve and strengthen an alliance. If NATO can’t survive the existence of a civil war beyond its jurisdiction, it is ready to join the Warsaw Pact in the dustbin of history.

It would turn humanitarianism on its head, basing intervention on the ethnicity of the victims, allied status of the belligerents, relative strength of the contending political interests, and expansiveness of the media coverage. Like all civil wars, the fighting in Kosovo is ugly. But it is impossible to take administration, and NATO, moralizing seriously.

Washington and other leading European governments are normally willing to tolerate genocide and mass murder around the globe — witness Cambodia decades ago, Sudan continuously for years, and Burundi and Rwanda more recently. The West is also ever‐​ready to ignore brutal civil wars and anti‐​secessionist campaigns conducted by allies. NATO members are offended only when other nations play by the same rules.

In 1991 the West encouraged the break‐​up of Yugoslavia. Then the U.S. and Europeans decided that Serbs were not entitled to likewise secede from Croatia and Bosnia, the latter of which burgeoned into a particularly bloody conflict. NATO eventually lent its air force to Muslims in Bosnia and helped impose the bizarre Dayton accord, under which three antagonistic groups are supposed to live together in an artificial state ruled by international bureaucrats. The same hypocrisy is being played out in Kosovo — Washington unreservedly supports Britain, Spain, and Turkey, for instance, in dealing with violent separatists, has placed no pressure on Macedonia to offer autonomy to its ethnic Albanians, and ignores mass violence most everywhere else around the globe.

Although America need not act everywhere if it desires to implement a policy of humanitarian intervention, some objective standards to determine when are necessary. The administration has articulated none.

In practice, Washington seems prepared to use military force under three conditions:

  • those being killed are white Europeans;
  • the perceived aggressor is not a U.S. ally;
  • there is saturation media coverage of the conflict.

This makes a mockery of the humanitarian pretentions advanced by Western leaders. Nor is there anything compassionate about sending others off to fight. It’s one thing to ask young men (and now young women) to risk their lives for their own political community. It is quite another thing for armchair warriors to have them die righting international wrongs for other nations.

The administration’s unprincipled humanitarianism creates severe practical problems as well. Perversely, it encourages intensification of local conflict. For instance, Kosovar leaders understand the importance of positive media coverage. Rugova adviser Alush Gashi admitted to me last June that the prospect of NATO intervention “depends on how we look on CNN. People need to see victims in their living rooms.” The Albanian diaspora also recognizes the importance of political lobbying, something more traditionally associated with a desire for farm subsidies at home than bombing campaigns abroad. Thus, instances such as the killings in Racak, which appear to be the ugly but normal violence surrounding insurgencies (the U.S. government committed far worse in suppressing Filipino independence a century ago), are manipulated by foreign parties and domestic interests for policy ends, in this case, U.S. intervention.

Most important, it would put U.S. troops at risk without any serious, let alone vital, American interest at stake. To paraphrase German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single healthy American rifleman. Yugoslavia obviously poses no direct threat to the U.S. or any U.S. ally.

Some argue that there are indirect dangers: failing to act risks another continental, if not global, conflict. Contended former German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel: “Everything must be done to insure that another awful conflagration does not explode in Europe.”

It is a paranoid fantasy to imagine Serbia alone inaugurating such a conflict, however. Serbian legions will not be marching on Ankara, Athens, or Tirana, let alone Berlin, Moscow, or Paris. Only if other states joined in could the war become a serious one.

This was, of course, the same argument used for Western intervention in Bosnia. Yet the Yugoslavian civil war, running from Slovenia through Bosnia, lasted longer than World War I without expanding beyond Yugoslavia. The lesson is obvious: it is better for surrounding states to remain aloof rather than to intervene in ethnic strife, thereby building firebreaks to rather than transmission belts for war.

Even if the conflict in Kosovo spilled over into Albania and Macedonia, no major power would join the conflict, in stark contrast to World War I. The worst case would be a Greco‐​Turkish war, but both countries have made clear both privately and publicly that neither is interested in intervening in the Balkans. In fact, violence in Kosovo is the least likely spark for such a conflict. Should Ankara and Athens exchange blows, it is far more likely to occur over the Aegean islands, Cyprus, or territorial sea claims. Moreover, as noted earlier, NATO’s intervention on behalf of the KLA would only energize advocates of a greater Albania.

The most important point, however, is that any resulting instability is a European, not an American, problem. The U.S. has a vital interest in preventing a hostile hegemonic power from dominating Europe. Washington does not have even a minor interest in preventing Europe from having to deal with the detritus in the Balkans left over from the Cold War. Instability on the periphery of Europe has other consequences — economic and cultural, for instance — but they are minimal. To call this a vital interest, as does the administration, suggests that it is incapable of setting priorities.

Indeed, intervention in the Balkans risks losing the far more important game involving Russia. Moscow’s future development remains worrisome and uncertain. Yet NATO attacks on and occupation of Yugoslavia, which shares longstanding Slavic ties with Russia, would exacerbate tensions already inflamed by the expansion of NATO. Of even greater concern, America’s willingness to meddle in areas of serious, if not vital interest, to Russia (including the Transcaucasus) risk inflaming domestic nationalism, thereby encouraging development of a less cooperative regime in Moscow.

Where America’s interests are so slight, Washington has no business risking the lives of U.S. servicemen. At least in Bosnia the respective combatants had largely fought themselves out. They have not in Kosovo. There Serbs would have every incentive to harm foreign occupiers who had bombed or threatened to bomb their nation, while Albanians would have every incentive to cause incidents likely to be blamed on the Serbs. And the mountainous, wooded border between Albania and Kosovo is tailor made for infiltration and guerrilla attacks should NATO forces actually attempt to interdict Albanian reinforcements.


“We’re in the middle of trying to deal with a very complicated situation, has explained Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. But she and her colleagues are doing a bad job of it. It is hard to imagine a circumstance in which U.S. military intervention would be less appropriate.

Unfortunately, Wilsonian war‐​mongering has become a fixture of American foreign policy. The strife in Kosovo is precisely the sort of conflict that Washington should avoid. Ensnaring the U.S. in the tragedy would only make the situation more tragic. Congress should clearly and unequivocally reject the administration’s dangerous plans.

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