On a strictly human level it’s not difficult to see how many people,
especially given the media coverage, could come away with the impression
that somebody really ought to do something about the situation in
Kosovo. During the last year or so about 2,000 people have been killed
and hundreds of thousands displaced as the rag-tag Kosovo Liberation
Army, which seeks independence from what is left of Yugoslavia, has
clashed with predominantly Serbian Yugoslav army and police forces. The
civil war has featured a number of ruthless massacres by both sides,
with the Serbs probably coming off as more brutal, if only because of
their superior weaponry and training.
But as Congress considers whether or not to try to rein in an
administration bent on (let’s call it what it is) naked aggression by
the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, numerous
questions remain, few of which have been discussed and debated fully,
let alone viewed in light of their possible ramifications.
Why should the international community (whatever is meant by that
fuzzy appellation) concern itself so closely with this civil war? Does a
multilateral intervention in a civil war represent a long-term threat to
the concept of national sovereignty? How serious an instance of “mission
creep” would a Kosovan intervention represent for NATO? Does the United
States have any real primary national security interests in Kosovo? Why
should U.S. troops be placed on the ground to enforce a peace treaty,
especially if it’s a treaty brought about by international pressure,
threats and missiles rather than by war-weariness and a desire for
resolution on the part of the combatants? Is it desirable to have U.S.
troops under the command of foreign nationals, even if they are putative
And those are just for starters.
The standard argument for NATO intervention was presented rather
cogently by John Gimblett, First Secretary of the British Embassy in
Washington when he visited Orange County, California last month to speak with the
Register editorial board and the Orange County World Affairs Council.
Yugoslavia is one of the unfinished pieces of business left over from
the Cold War, he said, an area in which the hoped-for transition to
democracy and freer markets has gone rather badly, in a throwback to
Simply allowing the direct participants to sort things out in Kosovo
could not only lead to large-scale humanitarian problems and concerns,
it could lead to a war that could spill over into neighboring Macedonia
(which has an unstable government and a large Albanian minority), which
could eventually draw Greece, Turkey and other NATO-member countries
into a large-scale conflict. In the meantime an outflow of refugees from
a war in Kosovo could create problems — in fact it has already begun to
do so — of resettlement, absorption and social-welfare spending in
other European countries and eventually in the United States.
The United States has an overall interest as an active participant in
and major beneficiary of the world economy, and some direct stakes,
symbolized by the Serb-Yugoslav takeover (valued at around $179 million,
or perhaps $240 million, the amount the company has written off) of
Costa Mesa-based ICN Pharmaceutical plants in Serbia. A small U.S.
military presence would be important to the credibility of any
international contingent, if only as a symbol of the importance the sole
remaining superpower places on supporting its allies as they seek a
peaceful and productive Europe. The NATO-led intervention in nearby
Bosnia, though it has dragged on longer than U.S. president Bill Clinton
foolishly promised, has kept the formerly warring parties apart and
taught international peacekeepers lessons they can apply in Kosovo.
So even if it takes a few bombing raids to persuade the disputatious
locals, it’s up to the more enlightened members of the international
community to drag these stubborn, backward nationalists into a stable
new world order.
On humanitarian grounds the case can seem compelling, though the
geo-strategic case is more tenuous unless you accept certain premises.
But those premises deserve more explication and critical examination
than they have received to date.
For starters, there’s the question of why it is essential to
intervene in this civil war. During the period when Kosovo clashes
attracted headlines last summer, Turkey was killing thousands of Kurdish
rebels during an aggressive phase of an ongoing civil war/conflict that
has cost the lives of 34,000 Kurds over the last six years or so. Turkey
is a NATO member. NATO has not sought to intervene in that conflict, nor
has it sought a role in civil wars in Northern Ireland, Palestine,
Algeria, Afghanistan, Chechnya or Somalia in recent years. In Sudan some
million non-Muslims, mostly Christians, have been killed in civil war
over the last 10 years and thousands of Christian Sudanese have been
sold into slavery. China continues to oppress Tibet. Civil conflict is
visible in Pakistan and Indonesia.
If we view the matter from a strictly humanitarian perspective –
assuming that each human life is equally valuable and that a Western or
great power intervention really could stop the killing — other
conflicts would seem to command more urgent attention.
The most compelling case for Kosovan intervention seems to be that
Kosovo is in the heart of Europe, the cradle of Western civilization,
with whom the United States is allied through NATO and through countless
less formal ties of sympathy and history.
The Balkans, however, have been a center of conflict in Europe for
hundreds of years, so contentious and disputatious a place as to have
made the term “balkanization” a synonym for irresolvable disputes and
unremitting divisiveness. Kosovo itself has a tangled history.
Most Serbs consider Kosovo the cradle of Serbian history and the
birthplace of the Serbian Christian Orthodox faith. It is where the
medieval Serbian Nemanjic Dynasty fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1389 and
is home to the Pec Patriarchate, one of Serbia’s oldest religious sites.
Today, most media report that 90 percent of the 2 million or so people
who live in Kosovo are ethnically Albanian Muslims (businessman William
Dorich of Los Angeles, a leading member of the Serbian Unity Congress,
disputes the figure, contending it’s more like 50 percent. He
acknowledges that Serbs now constitute about 10 percent of the
population, attributing recent reductions to anti-Serb “ethnic
cleansing,” and notes there are also Gypsies, Greeks, Turks,
Montenegrins and others.)
When the renegade communist Tito ruled Yugoslavia — an inherently
unstable country cobbled together by the great powers after World War I
– he was shrewd enough to grant a measure of local autonomy to regions
like Kosovo, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Vojvodina. After Slobodan
Milosevic (unlike Tito an ethnic Serb) took over, Croatia, Slovenia and
Bosnia declared independence. In 1988 the Yugoslav constitution was
changed to reduce the independence of remaining provinces like Kosovo
A peaceful and passive resistance to Serbian rule has been in place
in Kosovo since then. The KLA was formed by people impatient with what
they perceived as minimal progress toward the goal of Kosovan
independence through peaceful means. Originally a largely improvised
resistance, it has increased in numbers and sophistication of weaponry
in the last year (financed in large part by Kosovan exiles in
Switzerland — a minority of whom are said to be active in the heroin
trade — and elsewhere in Europe), especially since last summer’s
cease-fire following a heavy crackdown directed from the Serb capital in
Meanwhile, Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslav-Serb government has
announced that it has no intention of granting autonomy to Kosovo, that
the dispute is a civil war within the borders of an internationally
recognized sovereign nation, and that it will not tolerate foreign
troops in Kosovo. NATO has sought to bring the Serbs and Kosovars to the
bargaining table through threats of airstrikes against Serbia. Even
though that would essentially mean that NATO was entering the conflict
on the side of Kosovar independence (though western diplomats say they
don’t support outright independence for Kosovo), the Kosovars were for a
long time reluctant to sign the agreement crafted by NATO diplomats and
presented to the two sides during negotiations in Rambouillet, France.
The intervention of former Republican Sen. Bob Dole, viewed in the
region as a long-time ally of Albanians and a foe of Serbian interests,
may have been helpful in convincing the Kosovars to sign an agreement as a
prelude to NATO bombing in Serbia. But it’s unlikely that even if the
two sides sign an agreement that it will be a genuine peace, agreed to
because the two sides perceive peace and comity to be in their own best
interests. The KLA has built itself into a more formidable force than it
was a year ago and its new volunteers are hardly war-weary. The Serbs
might be cruise-missiled into affixing a signature to a piece of paper,
but they won’t be reconciled to Kosovan independence.
It is highly likely, then, that any agreement signed in France will
be unstable, posing serious long-term dangers to foreign troops posted
in the region to keep a “peace” neither side really wants.
Besides the real danger of pouring U.S. troops and resources into
what could be a politico-military quagmire in a region of the world
noted for being full of them, the NATO-U.S. desire to intervene raises
other questions about the future of international relations and the
growing role of NATO.
To some extent the traditional European concept of the nation-state,
which came into full flower about 400 years ago, is a fiction as applied
to parts of the world whose histories involve less formal, more tribal,
more intensely ethnic forms of rulership. But the nation-state is the
reigning myth of the international system as currently conceived. The
theory is that nation-states recognized as such by other nation-states
are sovereign within their own borders, that the chief duty of
international bodies is to try to prevent the changing of borders or
rulers by force or violence.
The system is not without creative ambiguities. China claims Taiwan
and Tibet are properly subject to its sovereign power while others
dispute the claims. Great Britain considered intervention in the U.S.
civil war on the side of the South. Other low-level border disputes
exist. But by and large the international system is built on the myth of
the nation-state sovereignty within its own borders.
An intervention by NATO or the “international community” into a
battle in Kosovo — recognized by all the nation-states concerned as a
part of Yugoslavia — could be an important move away from the reigning
paradigm of national sovereignty in international relations, one that
could have far-reaching implications. It would be unlikely to provide a
rationale for the international community to demand that Great Britain
grant independence to Scotland or Wales, for example, but Northern
Ireland might be an interesting target if it is still a violent center
of conflict in another few years.
Or consider. If, as demographers insist, California has a majority of
Spanish-speaking people of “Hispanic” descent sometime late in the
next century, might the Kosovo precedent provide a rationale for UN
intervention to secure independence from the United States or union with
Mexico? It sounds far-fetched and it probably is. But Serbs consider the
rationale for international intervention on behalf of Kosovan
independence rather far-fetched now.
Then there’s the matter of how NATO’s mission is developing as we
move into another century. The alliance was formed as a defensive
military alliance — an attack on one to be viewed as an attack on all
– against the Soviet Union and its empire shortly after the end of
World War II.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War
eliminated that rationale, but not the desire to maintain a
self-important secretariat and a joint U.S.-European military force
available for various missions. The first impulse has been to expand
membership to some former Soviet colonies — Poland, Hungary, the Czech
Republic — making NATO membership something of a seal of approval
certifying true “Europeanness” (and creating the necessity to reassure
Russia that all these new members in what is still a military alliance
pose no danger at all to its interests and security).
Intervention in Kosovo would ratchet up NATO’s mission to another
level. Yugoslavia is not in NATO, so sending troops there would mean
taking on a police-military-political function outside of NATO proper,
as a sort of benevolent imperial ruler of the less enlightened regions
of the world. It would also mark the first time German troops would be
deployed outside German borders since the end of World War II. That may
or may not be all that significant in and of itself, but it involves
issues of deep sensitivity in Europe and the surrounding regions that
haven’t been discussed yet and may raise fears in the near future.
On balance, then, the proposed intervention in Kosovo is naked
aggression that represents a more dangerous prospect than has generally
been acknowledged, involves international intervention in a civil war
that could create precedents others will not like and means an almost
invisible, almost undiscussed but possibly irreversible conversion of
NATO into an international police force.
Enthusiasm for such world-fixing, nation-building intervention is
reminiscent of the mixture of arrogance and ignorance one used to
encounter in late-night bull sessions in college, when highly
intelligent but less than half-educated undergraduates drank copious
quantities of beer and confidently solved the problems of a stubbornly
stupid world. But the arrested-development undergraduates who constitute
the “international community” of professional diplomats are playing
with real weapons and real lives.