Why Are We in (or Anyway, Over) Kosovo?

AP/Wide World

The two things at which man cannot look unblinkingly, said the 17th-century French writer La Rochefoucauld, are death and the sun. To which, I think, we have to add a third: radical evil. Even now, after a decade in which the Holocaust has become a major subject of pop culture, the kind of challenge posed to our most basic norms by the ethnic-cleansing policies of Slobodan Milosevic still stuns us all, leaving strategists unprepared, moralists divided and every political tendency groping for the proper response.

In fact, though various members of the national security establishment now tell the press, under cover of anonymity, that they predicted the vast acceleration of the Serbians’ war on the Kosovar Albanians, the record shows otherwise. The intelligence analyses that the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department and others were churning out in the months before the war — analyses printed in The New York Times and the Washington Post over the weekend — were a mass of conflicting predictions about the effects of U.S. intervention, only a few of which foretold the vast escalation of ethnic cleansing that followed the initiation of our bombing campaign. Samantha Power, director of the Human Rights Initiative at Harvard’s Kennedy School, demonstrates in the April 26 issue of The New Republic that neither the media nor the punditocracy, in their op-ed columns or in questions posed at White House or NATO press conferences, even raised the possibility of ethnic cleansing in the days and weeks before the bombing. Radical evil is hard to imagine.

And, by the evidence of the war NATO is waging, hard to counter. And, by the evidence of the arguments that some of the anti-war opposition is advancing, hard to acknowledge.

Measured against the goal that President Clinton articulated on the day the war began, the NATO intervention has to be judged a flat failure. "We act to protect thousands of innocent people in Kosovo from a mounting military offensive," he said. Now, bombing can certainly wreak havoc both for the Milosevic regime and Yugoslavia generally; it may even eventually persuade Milosevic to make concessions, though there’s no evidence that it has or will. But how bombing could ever have protected the Kosovar Albanians against Serbian soldiers and paramilitary units bent on chasing them from Kosovo through a campaign of house-by-house terror has yet to be explained.

To date, the administration’s response to the failure of its policy has been to leave the policy unaltered, but redefine its goals. Now, we’re told, the object of our offensive is to force the Serbs to pull back, enabling the Kosovar Albanians to return. There’s nothing either disgraceful or unprecedented about changing the objective of a war in the middle of a war: Lincoln did it when he proclaimed that a Northern victory would mean not just a restored Union but the abolition of slavery. And there’s nothing remotely wrong with the particular new goal the administration now articulates: Not to insist on the Albanians’ return would be to sanction ethnic cleansing. But how this goal, any more than its predecessor, is to be achieved by a bombing campaign remains murky indeed.

Redefining goals is one thing, however; redefining the language to make it seem you’re winning when you’re not is something else indeed. All wartime governments, save only those able to pull off one-week victories, play tortuous games with the truth, and the Clinton administration seems no exception. The war, we’re told repeatedly, is going well (for whom, exactly?). On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense William Cohen argued that it wasn’t a bad thing that the Serbians were still able to reinforce their units in Kosovo, because the very fact that they needed reinforcements meant that NATO was taking a toll. Oh, reason not the need: By this standard, our war in Vietnam was a smashing success, since the North continually sent reinforcements southward.

Kosovo is the first definitively post–Cold War conflict, our first war in many decades that is not unambiguously a war to protect the American empire (unlike, say, the 1991 Persian Gulf War). As such, it has scrambled almost every known political alignment.

It is, clearly, a progressives’ war, supported not just by the traditional Anglo-American alliance but by the "Red-Green" coalition in Germany, whose leaders — Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Defense Minister Rudolf Sharping — all come from pacifist backgrounds and opposed the NATO buildup of the ’80s. (So, for that matter, did British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, now a notable hawk.) It is supported by most of the French left — neither historically nor today a group much enamored of American imperial adventures. In Italy, it is backed by the government of Massimo D’Alema, the last remaining standard-bearer of the old reform Euro-Communist legacy. And across the continent, longtime activist and intellectual critics of the American capitalist order — from Germany’s Günter Grass to France’s Daniel Cohn-Bendit — offer critical support to NATO’s campaign.


In the U.S., too, the core support for the war comes from doves with long records of opposition to America’s Cold War interventions — although there’s a core of progressive opponents as well. From Paul Wellstone to Maxine Waters, virtually every congressional liberal has gone on record to say the threat posed by Milosevic requires a U.S. military response. Michigan Congressman David Bonior, who rose to the position of House Democratic whip chiefly through his impassioned opposition to U.S. Central America policy during the ’80s, now says, "If it takes more than air power, so be it. Including ground troops."

Conversely, by the indices of public-opinion polling and congressional votes, the core opposition to the war comes chiefly from Republicans. Some of this is pure Clinton hating, just as much of the Republicans’ aversion to the impending involvement in World War II during 1940 and ’41 was rooted in their hatred of Roosevelt. But some of this is classic nationalist isolationism, submerged for 50 years by the Cold War but now re-emerging spectacularly in figures like Pat Buchanan. Of all the positions on the current conflict, Buchanan’s call to "retrench and rearm" — to make the reconstruction of what he calls a "dangerously inadequate" military our top priority, and at the same time to shun the very kinds of engagements we’ve had in the Clinton years, from Kosovo to Haiti to Bosnia — ranks as the most ludicrous. Europe’s Buchanans — the nationalist and quasi-fascist party leaders of Western Europe — oppose the war, too: For France’s immigrant-bashing Jean Marie Le Pen, for Italy’s Umberto Bossi (who heads the separatist Northern League), the notion of shedding Christian blood for Albanian Muslims is beyond comprehension. They are joined in their opposition by what’s left of the unreconstructed communist rumps of France and Italy, who shun the right’s politics of race purity, but for whom the war is nonetheless an expression of American imperialism.

This last belief is still evident in much of the emerging anti-war portion of the American Left as well — for whom the problem posed by NATO is not just that the bombing is misconceived, but that any military intervention is wrong. "If we are for self-determination for Kosovo," state Senator Tom Hayden wrote in an April 9 letter to President Clinton, " . . . it should not require a new imperialism which so far seems to have solidified Serbian nationalism, united the Russians against NATO, and created a massive and traumatized Kosovar diaspora." To whose "new imperialism" is Hayden alluding? Like much of the American anti-war left, Hayden focuses on the U.S. role to the exclusion of the Europeans’, whose involvement is quite real — of the three carriers in the Adriatic, one is American, one British, one French — and for whom the issue of intervention, far from being a question of extending the American imperium, to which they are opposed, is rather a matter of stopping applied fascism in their own back yard.

The advocates of anti-interventionism tend to make three arguments — that Kosovo is Vietnam come again; that negotiation is invariably a more productive strategy than military force; and that our intervention smacks of a dangerous double standard, since more often than not we haven’t intervened in kindred crises around the globe. But the Vietnam parallel is, to put it mildly, inexact. "We sent ground troops by the thousands," Hayden wrote in his letter to Clinton, "yet even they could not obliterate Vietnamese nationalism." Kosovo, however, isn’t exactly teeming with Serbian nationalists, as Vietnam was with Vietnamese: Only 10 percent of its population is Serbian, and 90 percent is (or was) Albanian. Milosevic’s popularity with the overall Kosovar population is hardly equivalent to Ho’s in Vietnam. It’s more nearly that of our own Vietnamese puppet, Diem — if that. And one need not be a Ho apologist to note that Milosevic poses a far greater threat to human life and regional stability than Ho, on his worst day, ever did.

Many of the calls for stopping the bombing and renewing negotiations without preconditions read as if it were the absence of opportunities for dialogue that made Milosevic take up the sword. "NATO bombing should stop," Columbia University professor Edward Said wrote in the British paper The Observer, "and a multi-party conference of all the peoples of former Yugoslavia be called to settle differences between them on the basis of self-determination for all." Since Milosevic has spent the past decade thwarting Albanian self-determination in an uncleansed Kosovo, however, it’s hard to see why he’d now support it in a cleansed Kosovo. "Diplomacy and negotiations are never at an end," wrote Noam Chomsky in an article on the Web site of Z magazine. Indeed, they are not; what is ending is the Albanian population of Kosovo.


The third objection to U.S. intervention is its selectivity: We haven’t intervened, either sufficiently or at all, on behalf of victimized peoples in Rwanda, East Timor, Tibet, Kurdistan — why, suddenly, in Kosovo? But this is a double standard that cuts both ways. Those who argue that the administration should do or have done more for Rwanda, East Timor, Tibet and Kurdistan are hardly in a position to oppose the administration when it finally does intervene on behalf of a suppressed people. They can argue that the form of intervention is questionable or disastrous, but they can’t reasonably argue against the propriety of intervention, not in the same breath that they scold Clinton for turning his back on Tibetans and other subjugated nations.

At the fringe of the anti-war opposition, there are those so determined to see the intervention as an extension of the American empire and nothing else that every other factor fades from view. In his article on the Z Web site, Chomsky manages to produce a 1,500-word tour d’horizon of American perfidy that doesn’t actually make it to Yugoslavia: The article doesn’t mention Milosevic even once. A more stacked debating technique is hard to imagine. One could, I suppose, have composed an airtight case against intervention in World War II by omitting any mention of Hitler and Nazism.

The Kosovo intervention has not only divided the left in general, but the left-wing editors at the Weekly in particular (a phrase — left-wing editors at the Weekly — that many readers will doubtless consider redundant). I want to make it clear that in both the above analysis and the following prescriptions, I speak for myself only.

Europe, I believe, has not merely a right but a fundamental humanitarian and strategic obligation to stop an outbreak of ethnic cleansing in its midst; and any plan to stop Milosevic absent a use of force is pure chimera. For historic reasons that cannot be wished away, the sole vehicle available in 1999 for European military intervention is NATO: If Europe goes in, we must go in, too (and disproportionately, since in the international division of labor of the past 50 years, Europe rebuilt itself, and a strong civilian economy, while we built an arms machine). The only plausible policy goal, at this dismal point in the conflict, is to create some cordon sanitaire, some designated protected zone within Kosovo to which Kosovar Albanians can return and live in peace. The only way to create such a zone, I’m afraid, is with NATO ground troops (and surely not with the Kosovo Liberation Army, which is every bit as brutal and fascistic as the Serbs). Territory is not retaken from the air alone.

Kosovo is not Vietnam; neither is it the Holocaust. If you want an American analogy, it is more like the Trail of Tears, the forcible and bloody expulsion of Native American tribes from the Southeast to the distant, arid West. Murder is not the primary goal of Serbian policy, as it was for the Nazis; it is merely an important part of a campaign of mass terror designed to drive Muslims out of a land the Serbs now covet. That is evil enough to merit our intervention.


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