A Dangerous Precedent

Friday, July 30, 1999

June 9, 1999—The aftermath of the Kosovo conflict has yet to be determined, but the lessons of the war are already clear for those willing to see them.

The initial consensus on the war that is being drawn by NATO politicians and much of the media—in short that the war was a victory for human values—is a tragic misreading of events. Consider, for example, a Washington Post editorial on June 4, which concluded that “the West will have showed that this time, in this place, it would not stand for crimes against humanity.” An article in the Post two days later stated that the war’s outcome suggests that “a nation’s sovereignty over its people and territory can be legitimately violated on humanitarian grounds.”

Perhaps it is easy to find those lessons in the war since we live in a large and powerful nation and are not very concerned about most overseas conflicts until Americans are killed or injured. (NATO claims to have successfully avoided any battlefield casualties.) Most Americans have no concept of the vast physical, economic, and diplomatic casualties the bombing has rained on others all over the world. However bad Milosevic is, as a Turkish Cypriot recently told one of the authors in Nicosia, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” The hypocrisy of fighting a moral war that causes so many casualties among innocents now and in the future has not yet sunk in for Americans.

Those who criticize the war are often branded pacifists or isolationists or not supportive of U.S. troops by people who are either not aware of the scope of what has happened or have unstated motives of their own. In fact, most critics of the war simply said from the beginning that NATO could not stop Milosevic at an acceptable cost to ourselves and others. Even the unsentimental Henry Kissinger wrote in mid-May that this war “deserves to be questioned on both political and moral grounds.” Consider that

  • In most of the world, people do not believe that NATO’s objective was principled humanitarianism. They are convinced we had some ulterior interest, such as exerting our control throughout Europe. What is more, the alliance willingly inflicted casualties on all sorts of people, from Serbs and Kosovar Albanians to Chinese, in part because it conducted most of the war from 15,000 feet in the air. However lofty its objective, in practice the alliance committed or precipitated more crimes against humanity in Europe and beyond, now and for the future, than it stopped. It is no less a crime to kill innocent civilians by pushing a button than by thrusting a knife, it is just tidier.
  • The inconsistency of NATO’s allegedly moral stand on “crimes against humanity” has often been noted with respect to, for example, Rwanda. A less remembered example is Cyprus, which is nearing the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Turkish invasion, during which event almost two hundred thousand Greek Cypriots were “cleansed” out of their homes in northern Cyprus by the Turkish army. “Principled” Washington, however, for strategic reasons still in effect winks at Turkish cleansing and occupation of more than a third of the island.
  • NATO promised to protect the Kosovar Albanians but betrayed them twice. First, it greatly increased their suffering by giving Milosevic a cover to accelerate his repression exponentially and thus do in ten weeks what otherwise would have taken ten years. Second, in the early June settlement, the Kosovars lost the option of independence promised in the Rambouillet ultimatum. This ultimatum—in no way negotiated and knowingly unacceptable to Belgrade—promised a referendum on independence after three years, the clause that brought the Kosovo Liberation Army into line. As a result, the KLA will now never agree to being demilitarized or to becoming a police force in a province of Yugoslavia. The Serb and NATO destruction of Kosovo left most of the 1.5 million Kosovar Albanian refugees with nothing to return to but rubble and uncertainty. The Kosovars most eager to return home, despite a terrible winter coming on, are radicalized youngsters who want to join the KLA to butcher Serbs and seize the independence NATO now refuses them.
  • NATO’s dictated politically correct settlement—to bring what Clinton calls “multiethnic democracy” to the central Balkans—is even more utopian today than it was before the war began. The war has raised traditional hatreds to unprecedented high levels. NATO’s settlement simply guarantees the war will resume in the future—as soon as the “peacekeeping Ottomans” retire—or perhaps continue right through, with the KLA as the main group, along with some Serb irregulars, harassing the international peacekeeping forces.
  • If war were the only option, it should not have been orchestrated by politicians who understand nothing about warfare or the history and politics of the region. A long list of lessons on the fatally flawed military conduct of the war ranges from the dangers of gradual escalation to demonizing the enemy and issuing nothing but ultimatums, even when considerably less will ultimately be accepted.
    If this catastrophe is seen as a victory, moral crusades may make the twenty-first century even bloodier than the twentieth.
  • NATO’s will or even capability to rebuild Kosovo and restore Kosovar Albanians to their destroyed homes will flag as Americans and Europeans are overwhelmed by problems of enforcement and as the billions of dollars add up, at the expense in the United States of Social Security and other domestic projects.
  • Serbia has been devastated and will cost tens of billions of dollars to rebuild, and Milosevic is still there.
  • NATO’s bombing precipitated floods of refugees and other disasters that have destabilized the region in political, economic, and other ways far beyond what Milosevic could ever have done.
  • The war has buttressed reactionaries from Russia and China to the United States.
  • Since for most people NATO is America, this war has reignited anti-Americanism and suspicion of U.S. intentions from Argentina to China, as one author found traveling on three continents during the war. Outside NATO countries, most people do not believe that we would launch a war largely to defend human rights, particularly since we killed so many innocent people in and beyond the central Balkans.
  • NATO’s war will encourage arms (including nuclear) proliferation around the world among nations who fear that NATO and a revived “U.S. imperialism” are on a roll and may invade them next. The Kosovo war may even encourage the development of defensive alliances against possible future NATO attacks on those the Americans and British consider “moral deviants.”

Americans must acknowledge that, long before its end, this war was not simply a campaign to eliminate the “evil” Milosevic but one that had effects that were also evil. The war is destined to have long-term and as yet uncertain consequences, from Pristina to Beijing.

If Kosovo is seen as a “victory” it will become a model for what British prime minister Tony Blair calls “moral crusades [to] right wrongs and prosecute just causes” around the world. The non-Western world—and many in the West as well—regard this as a dangerous and unworkable arrogance that, like the Crusades centuries ago, may have been at least partly moral in inspiration but in practice became fanatical, intolerant, and massively destructive. If the moral crusades spread, the twenty-first century could be even bloodier than the twentieth.