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For more than a decade the Hoover Institution has been producing Uncommon Knowledge with Peter Robinson, a series hosted by Hoover fellow Peter Robinson as an outlet for political leaders, scholars, journalists, and today’s big thinkers to share their views with the world. Guests have included a host of famous figures, including Paul Ryan, Henry Kissinger, Antonin Scalia, Rupert Murdoch, Newt Gingrich, and Christopher Hitchens, along with Hoover fellows such as Condoleezza Rice and George Shultz.

Uncommon Knowledge takes fascinating, accomplished guests, then sits them down with me to talk about the issues of the day,” says Robinson, an author and former speechwriter for President Reagan. “Unhurried, civil, thoughtful, and informed conversation– that’s what we produce. And there isn’t all that much of it around these days.”

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November 12, 1999 | Recorded on November 12, 1999

A CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOC: The Lessons of Kosovo

Why are the Balkans important to the United States and what was the justification for the war over Kosovo? What mistakes did we make in our handling of the conflict? What should we do differently the next time there is a crisis in the Balkans?


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I am Peter Robinson. Our show today, the lessons of Kosovo. But first a lesson in plate tectonics.

Here in California we live with plate tectonics all the time. The Pacific plate and the North American plate, two huge pieces of the earth's surface are colliding, grinding against each other with enormous force, creating a fault that runs through the state. The result, earthquakes every where. Loma Prieta, Northridge, Barstow.

Now to Yugoslavia or what used to be Yugoslavia. The plates causing the trouble here, grinding against each other aren't physical, they are cultural. The Slav Orthodox world presses in from the north. The Catholic Western European world presses in from the west. The Muslim world presses in from the south.

Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim. The result here, countless conflicts through the centuries. In the decade of the 1990s alone there have been four wars. Catholic Slovenes against Orthodox Serbs as Slovenia broke away from Yugoslavia. Catholic Croatians against Orthodox Serbs, as Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia. Catholic Croatians against Bosnian Muslims against Orthodox Serbs as Bosnia broke away from Yugoslavia. And the topic of today's show, Muslim Kosovars against Orthodox Serbs as Kosovo attempted to break away from Yugoslavia.

With us today, two guests, Norman Naimark is a Professor of Eastern European studies at Stanford University and Josef Joffe is Editor of De Zeit, Germany's most prominent weekly magazine. Just as experts are always considering the lessons of the latest earthquake here in California, our guests will talk about the lessons of the latest eruption of violence here in The Balkans.

Tito-ing on the Brink

We all think of the end of the Cold War as a great victory, a great moment in history. Were the people of Kosovo better off during the Cold War? Norman?

Norman Naimark: Well it is a complicated question but it, but I would say... I would say no, it wasn't better off during the Cold War. I mean it is a very difficult situation right now.

Peter Robinson: It's a close call though, is it for you, in your mind?

Norman Naimark: It is a very close call.

Peter Robinson: What about the people of Serbia, were they better off during the cold war when Tito...

Norman Naimark: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: They were?

Josef Joffe: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: They were? There is no question?

Josef Joffe: I mean the Serbs essentially inherited the country, they were running the army, the police, the main nodes of power. In fact, one of the reasons or perhaps the most important reason why the war of the Yugoslav secession was started was because the Serbs were realizing they were losing the richest part of their country. And they are losing control.

Peter Robinson: So under Tito... Tito was a Croatian, was he not?

Josef Joffe: Half and half.

Peter Robinson: Half and half?

Josef Joffe: Yes.

Peter Robinson: But under Tito, it was, the situation was unambiguous. The Serbians were running Yugoslavia.

Norman Naimark: Again, it is a complicated question and we have to, we have to keep in mind that the Serbs felt that they suffered under Tito at the end as well.

Peter Robinson: You refer to the end. What happened at the end that was different from...

Norman Naimark: Well I mean when Tito died in 1981, the Serbs were very unhappy with their situation in Yugoslavia. They felt that they and their interests had been injured by Tito. They...that is one of the reasons that Milosovic had such power later on is because what he was doing in some fashion was reversing, in his mind and the mind of many Serbs, discrimination against the Serbs that Tito had, had fostered.

Peter Robinson: Joe, you are a European. Explain to me why, in this relatively compact area of the planet earth of the old Yugoslavia, the Balkan peninsula, we have Serbs who hate Croatians who don't feel too well disposed toward Bosnians or Albanians. The Slovenians are on the uh... How did this come about? Where do these people...

Josef Joffe: There is a very simple answer. Too many nationalities and not enough border space.

Peter Robinson: Border space?

Josef Joffe: And not enough space. Too many nationals and not enough space but that is a flippant answer. The other answer is that this was the fault line of two civilizations, the Turks came this way, the Austrians came this way, so you have the Muslims here, Catholics here. You have Orthodox through there. It is a real cauldron of civilizational and territorial and ethnic conflict and that is why it keeps breaking out over and over again. This is not the first Balkan war.

We used to count them at the beginning of the century. I think there were one, two, three Balkans wars?

Norman Naimark: Yes.

Josef Joffe: But this was before World War I. We were already counting Balkan wars.

Peter Robinson: Alright. Let's come now to the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union collapses and then Yugoslavia starts to break up. First Slovenia breaks away. Then comes Croatia. Then comes Bosnia. In each case the Serbs go to war to attempt to prevent the break away. This is correct.

Norman Naimark: Yes.

Josef Joffe: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Now what goes on in Kosovo?

Norman Naimark: Kosovo is a, was considered to be a province within Serbia and already at the end of the '80s, Milosovic had moved to limit Kosovar autonomy. And so Kosovo at the beginning of the '90s was a, essentially a country under martial law. Serbian martial law, inhabited 90% by Kosovar Albanians who resented it.

Now after, you know, as the Yugoslav Wars proceeded and the final sort of peace treaty at Dayton in 1995, the Kosovar Albanians were in very difficult straits. And a peaceful solution to their problems... That is to say repression, oppression by the Serbs, just didn't seem to be in the cards. And therefore people took up arms and started fighting.

Norman Naimark: And it was... Dayton didn't include Kosovo.

Peter Robinson: It just left them out.

Peter Robinson: Let's move on to the events that led up to the U.S. involvement in Kosovo.

Battle of Kosovo Plain (and Simple)

Dayton takes place and then you have this large non-Serbian population in Kosovo, what happens next?

Norman Naimark: Well it was the Kosovar Albanians in '86 and '80...I am sorry, '96 and '97, essentially make a decision which is to start fighting. That the only attention you get in the Balkans is if you fight.

And so they formed the Kosovo Liberation Army. They get guns from Albania, 'cause Albania at the same time is falling apart. And they start shooting Serb policemen. The Serbs retaliate and you have a kind of spiral of violence that ends in warfare.

Peter Robinson: And what was Rambouiller?

Josef Joffe: Rambouiller was an attempt to make peace where peace was impossible to be made. I mean and Rambouiller... I want to stress the point that he has made which is, this did not start out as a black and white case of Serbs suppressing, oppressing Kosovars. They had oppressed them in a regular fashion for a long time, but this was triggered, as Norman said, by the decision of some of the more wild-eyed Kosovars to go for war.

But, but Rambouiller was an attempt to kind of cow the Serbians into submission and it really kind of imposed conditions on them, which even if you hate the Serbs, which I, I don't hate them, but even if you hate them, you'd say, well it is a bit unfair.

Peter Robinson: By whom?

Josef Joffe: Because it really... By us, by the West, because it really told them more or less in so many words, you've lost this province. Within three years we'll have a referendum. Of course, you know how the referendum is going to come out when you have nine to one.

Peter Robinson: Kosovo would vote for liberation or independence, rather, and that would be the end of this.

Josef Joffe: So, and of course we also wanted from them pretty much total control over Yugoslav strategic space. Want to come in all over the place, you know? And use Yugoslavia as a spring board. That was, in terms of the history of diplomacy, not one of the smartest moves.

Norman Naimark: It was an ultimatum, not an agreement. I couldn't figure out why people kept talking about the Rambouiller Agreement. It was an ultimatum to the Serbs. I absolutely agree with Joe.

Peter Robinson: Who was running the show at Rambouiller? Was that the United States? NATO?

Norman Naimark: Pretty much, pretty much the United States.

Peter Robinson: Milosovic refuses to sign up and the West essentially decides to make war on him.

Josef Joffe: Yes.

Norman Naimark: You recall that what happened is the Albanians also, Kosovar Albanians also left without signing, as you mentioned. And my hunch is we said to them, don't be stupid, you know, we are ready to act, we are ready to bomb. We were operating, I think, on a kind of Dayton model where, if you bomb a little bit, the Serbs will give in and so the Kosovar Albanians, you know, in their own interests, came back and signed and the Serbs did not. And that is when we proceeded to bomb.

Peter Robinson: There were ethnic conflicts all over the world. Why did we take military action in Kosovo?

Of all the wars in the world, you had to walk into mine

What was the justification for the United States effectively engaging in active war against a sovereign nation that represented no threat to us?

Norman Naimark: I think that is an excellent question and the justification was primarily to stop Milosovic from ethnically cleansing Kosovo. It was going on already, as you know. I mean there were hundred, hundreds of thousands of refugees already. I mean the bombing accelerated the fact that there were, you know, people left Kosovo. But a scenario could have been legitimately defended that the Serbs would have driven 90% of the Kosovar Albanians out of their home territory.

Now, and the question is could we have sat there and watched it and absorbed all those refugees. You are now talking in the neighborhood of, at the end, maybe a million refugees sitting in Macedonian Albania, it would have been a terribly destabilizing situation.

Peter Robinson: No...not to sound, not to sound crass about it, but we've watched worse in other parts in the word. In Africa, the massacre in Rwanda, continuing conflict in Indonesia and East Timor and so on and so forth. What interest of the United States was at stake that made us act in this case?

Norman Naimark: Javier Solano I think said it the right way. He said three things need to be involved in...

Peter Robinson: Solano is?

Norman Naimark: Is...is now, was former position of President or Secretary General of...

Josef Joffe: Secretary General of NATO.

Peter Robinson: NATO.

Norman Naimark: Solano said, three things have to be involved for there to be this kind of intervention. First, you know, genocide and ethnic cleansing. Second, the possibility of doing something about it and third, some kind of strategic interest. Some kind of strategic interest.

And I think generally the situation fits that. In other words, all three things were happening. You have ethnic cleansing, you have a strategic interest involved, the southeastern flank of NATO and then you have the possibility of doing something about it.

Josef Joffe: What was our strategic interest there? What flank was being threatened? Who was coming after us? There was no strategic interest except in a very indirect way that you want to show a) as the leading part of the West, b) as the West as such, that we can stand up to this. So we are useful, that we are running a shop here called NATO which even though the large Soviet strategic threat has disappeared that we were still in the business and being useful and serviceable generally.

Peter Robinson: You are suggesting that NATO was a structure, a bureaucracy in...

Josef Joffe: No, no, no. no.

Peter Robinson: ...in search of a mission?

Josef Joffe: Of course if you say NATO was a business it had lost its main demand after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So it had to find new markets and try to push new products. The new product was peacekeeping beyond its borders. The new markets were enlargement. And that, too, can be a strategic interest in the sense that you want to present a kind of deterrent posture to the rest of the world, you want to teach the rest of the world, don't start little things. Even when you start little things, we'll hit you so don't even think about starting big things. It is like the broken window syndrome in domestic policing.

So that was an interest and I think it is a legitimate interest, but we had no strategic interest there.

Peter Robinson: Why did the Europeans need our help to solve a problem in their own backyard?

A Weak Euro

Why couldn't the Europeans have handled this one on their own?

Josef Joffe: Because it starts off with the means.

Peter Robinson: It seems to me that our strategic interest is small at best, but yours, there is a much greater argument for.

Josef Joffe: Even, even, even for the Europeans there was not strategic interest. The most important interest was to be found in the biggest country farthest to the East, the Germans. Who are always extremely worried about being the recipient of large masses of refugees. Of foreigners. Bad news. Don't want them. So the German strategic interest is to keep at least the teaming masses away.

The others, and the Germans, and whoever, simply did not have the means to prosecute that kind of war. What kind of means are we talking about? We are talking about long range logistics, long range stand off weapons, which allow you to prosecute a war without ever running a risk to yourself. They didn't have the intelligence capability of the satellites that...you name it. So it turned out that there was only number one, that was the United States, who had all these wherewithals and without the United States they couldn't have done it.

Norman Naimark: The real problem and here I'll disagree a little bit, as well, is that the Europeans can't get along and they can't agree with one another.

Josef Joffe: Well...

Norman Naimark: And the issue is that...

Josef Joffe: There is no disagreement here.

Norman Naimark: Oh, well, the issue in other words is not so much capability, although that is there too. The issue is leadership and an ability to operate together, you know, on a what is essentially a kind of foreign policy issue.

Peter Robinson: Is that a permanent state of affairs or has a NATO enfeebled the Europeans of a capacity to work together, to take their own defense seriously?

Josef Joffe: It is the other way around. I mean it was NATO was the...

Peter Robinson: You enfeebled us? No, what do you mean?

Josef Joffe: No. It is the, it is NATO which finally turned 500 years of permanent bloody conflict among the Europeans to something like a security community where the first time the French and the Germans have been at each others' throats dozens of times, you know, finally could clasp hands in cooperation.

That is not the point. The point is that they are still nation states, each with their own sovereign wills and that they were prepared for a very different war. The war the Europeans were going to fight were these massive tank army wars against invading Soviets.

Norman Naimark: Against the Russians.

Josef Joffe: Not this kind of finely calibrated, you know, highly mobile...

Norman Naimark: No, I think we just hadn't gotten to that last stage. I mean we are at a very good stage, that Joe describes.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Norman Naimark: Of European defense strategy and diplomacy but we haven't gotten to the next stage where they can do things together themselves, with our help. We have to take the leadership.

Peter Robinson: We are up to the moment when the bombs begin to fall. We have a politically complicated situation arising from centuries of conflict between Muslims, Catholic Christians, Orthodox Christians. You do both agree that it was a dangerous situation and that NATO, under American leadership, was the way to cope with it. Right? We have established that much?

Norman Naimark: I do, with reservation.

Josef Joffe: Okay.

Peter Robinson: Okay, you agree with that?

Josef Joffe: Uh um.

Peter Robinson: The bombs begin to fall. We drop bombs for 78 days. What military objectives did we achieve? Joe?

Josef Joffe: The military objective is that we first of all, we destroyed his civilian infrastructure. And secondly, we finally... This was a test of wills rather than just a lobbing of bombs. And we finally convinced them that there was no way out for them, that we were not going to yield.

The first response by the dictators like Milosovic or Sadaam is, I'll take the punishment. These are these decadent Western powers, they will fall to squabbling among each other. The UN will save me. Mr. Anan will save me. The Russians, the Soviets will save me. And after seventy-eight, unfortunately it took seventy-eight days to convince Milosovic that the West was in business and meant it.

Peter Robinson: Why did we rule out ground troops at the beginning?

Norman Naimark: I think, I think it was a terrible mistake.

Peter Robinson: You think that, do you agree?

Norman Naimark: It was a terrible mistake.

Josef Joffe: In strictly military terms it was the most foolish thing one could do, not for closing ground troops. I mean just give me, I'll give you one example. Even if we had only threatened ground troops, okay? Even if we had only positioned ourselves at the borders here, we would have forced him to concentrate his troops which then we could have hit all the better from air. But without that threat, they were all over the place. We hardly destroyed anything in the field.

Peter Robinson: The calculation on the part of the Clinton administration, quite clearly they will say so today, is that we only have to drop bombs for a few days and then it would be over. Again, it was a model of Dayton, you know, a few days of bombing and then Milosovic will say uncle.

And they totally miscalculated both the meaning of Kosovo for Serbia versus the meaning of Bosnia for Serbia. And we miscalculated the Serbs willingness to resist. So both sides miscalculated.

Milosovic thought it would be over in three days.

Peter Robinson: The bombing lasted longer than we thought. Didn't it also have some unintended consequences?

KFOR What For?

Norman Naimark: We began the bombing in large measure to forestall the massacre of Kosovars by Serbs. New York Times reports that although it was "the suggestion by American and Allied officials during the war that up to a hundred thousand Kosovars were being killed, so far only about 2,000 bodies have been found. And the estimates are now that it is unlikely to reach higher than five thousand.

So we go into forestall a massacre and we end up killing more people than they did.

Peter Robinson: Doesn't this turn the moral justification on its head?

Norman Naimark: No it doesn't because the one official reason we did what we did was to prevent ethnic cleansing which is not the same thing as a massacre. It is true, you know, that where they exaggerated the numbers of people killed and numbers of people shot and so on and so forth. but what we went in to prevent was ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing is sort of the purposeful removal of people from their homes by force.

Josef Joffe: Not necessarily...

Norman Naimark: You don't necessarily have to shoot people.

Josef Joffe: Yes.

Norman Naimark: You know, how big was... There were 800,000 refugees in the end, 900,000 refugees in the end that was the justification for what they did.

Peter Robinson: Right. So let me ask this question.

Norman Naimark: That they were living people was the problem.

Peter Robinson: Right. Okay. But is it not the case that Milosovic really got serious about cleansing Kosovo once the bombs started to fall.

Josef Joffe: No.

Peter Robinson: That is to say that things, we made things worse than they would have been.

Josef Joffe: We shouldn't overdo that.

Josef Joffe: We shouldn't overdo the revisionism that is now, now abroad. The cleansing actually began in Rambouiller. It did not begin in response to the bombing. It was part of the logic of the whole thing. That once he couldn't cow the population anymore, he had to get rid of it. So I think that should not concern us.

That you sometimes do more evil than the good you seek to create, sound like Shakespeare, isn't it? Is...happens a lot of times in war. Can you then in retrospect say, because we may have killed more than the bad guys have killed, we should never have done it? That is not... I don't think that is an appropriate conclusion.

The problem is that we fought a war, we tried to fight a war on the cheap for us and that made it very expensive for those who are against we fought.

Peter Robinson: How should we have fought it?

Josef Joffe: We, if we had decided that this was a real strategic interest, not a little strategic interest, that it really mattered the way, you know, Hitler's invasion of England might have mattered, or Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, then we should have mobilized the means appropriate to the task. It would have meant, you know, a massive force of half a million people. We would have posted them on the border. Then we would have gone in and taken control, but this phrasing the issue the way I just did, shows the absurdity of this. Because this is not what matters to us, to kind of, to put in half million people and maybe lose five, fifty thousand people. That is the absurdity here.

Peter Robinson: So we should have done nothing?

Josef Joffe: Uh...

Peter Robinson: You were saying on the one hand a massive engagement...

Josef Joffe: I am saying...

Peter Robinson: ...was out of the question, but what we did do...

Josef Joffe: No, I said what we should have done is to put our money where our mouth is. What we did do was a war on the cheap which proceeded in those weird ways that it would be awkward here on the table. That is why I am not sure we should have done this in the first place.

Norman Naimark: We knew Kosovo was a huge problem. It was...this is not a secret, everyone knew it. We ignored it at Dayton. Then when we started to get involved, we said at the beginning we were not going to do anything about it on the ground, so we have already, you know, tied one hand behind our back and then we tie the other hand behind our back.

Peter Robinson: Was this entire engagement so fundamentally flawed...

Norman Naimark: No.

Peter Robinson: ...that you wish it had never taken place?

Norman Naimark: No, no.

Josef Joffe: No, no, no.

Peter Robinson: Or there were relatively minor mistakes that human beings are likely to make under stress, under pressure.

Norman Naimark: At the time we started bombing, there was really not much choice. That we got that place where there was not much choice, I think is something that we really need to think about and work on.

Peter Robinson: Have we learned anything from Kosovo that will help us when the next Balkan crisis strikes?

Trouble and the Balkans Go Together Like a Horse and Carriage

Only one other nation than Serbia remains part of the Yugoslav Federation and that country is Montenegro. Montenegro, a small country, high in the mountains. A population of about 650,000 as against the 10 million of Serbia and it looks as though the man who is running Montenegro wants out. Max Boot writes in The Wall Street Journal, I quote, "Montenegrans are convinced that a firm Western declaration of support for their cause would be enough to deter Mr. Milosovic, loser of four wars, from starting another. They suggest that perhaps NATO could make a show of force by trans-shipping supplies to Kosovo through Montenegro instead of through Albania." You want to do it?

Norman Naimark: Montenegro is a dangerous situation. There are other dangerous situations, too, in the Balkans but Montenegro is a dangerous situation. Not all Montenegrans, by the way, want out. That is one of the problems. There could, a substantial number of Montenegrans still think of themselves as Serbs. In some fashion they are Serbs and, you know, want to stay in a Yugoslav Federation.

Peter Robinson: How do we head off the crisis?

Norman Naimark: The way we head off the crisis and we are doing a lot of it now, is to engage heavily with the Montenegran leadership. Maybe even think about putting some troops there. I mean the troops in...

Peter Robinson: NATO troops?

Norman Naimark: NATO troops. The troops in...

Josef Joffe: In a sovereign country?

Norman Naimark: If Montenegro requests it.

Josef Joffe: I see.

Norman Naimark: If Montenegro requests it. They won't right now. But the point is, for example, we put it in Macedonia. We put, we put 500 NATO troops in Macedonia and that proved to be a tremendous trip wire.

Peter Robinson: Okay, how do we head off the Montenegran crisis?

Josef Joffe: I think essentially I would again bend the rules. I would do what we just suggested. I would put the supply lines in there.

Look, the problem remains Serbia. The country that has lost its status, its richest provinces, which has a history of self-inflicted wounds and humiliations and those inflicted by others. We are not going to solve the Serbian problems unless we say, unless we do it the same way as would the Soviets in the Cold War. Containment and quarantine. Until evolution takes the problems off our hand.

Peter Robinson: Let me close with a prediction. How many Balkan wars now, we have had four in this decade and there were three before the First World War and we could count the First World War as a Balkan War, so we are up to almost ten or so.

Norman Naimark: There were several in the Second World War.

Peter Robinson: Alright. So we have got a dozen in this century. Between now and 2005, Montenegrobrewing. Kosovo still part of Serbia, will we see another Balkan war? Norman?

Norman Naimark: I pray not.

Peter Robinson: You pray not, what do you think?

Norman Naimark: I think we have to be prepared and if we are prepared for one it won't happen, that is the point.

Peter Robinson: That's the point?

Norman Naimark: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Joe?

Josef Joffe: Good point.

Peter Robinson: You'll take that. Joe, Norman, thank you very much.

The great schism between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches took place in 1054 or about 950 years ago. And the great battle on the plain of Kosovo that established the Muslim presence in the Balkans, took place in 1389 or about 600 years ago. Aren't you glad we cleared things up in just half an hour? I am Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.