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Faulty Justifications and Ominous Prospects: NATO's "Victory" in Kosovo, Cato Policy Analysis No. 357

Faulty Justifications and Ominous Prospects: NATO's "Victory" in Kosovo, Cato Policy Analysis No. 357

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Published by Cato Institute
Executive Summary

With the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo, President Clinton triumphantly proclaimed, "We have achieved a victory." Yet the Clinton administration's ill-conceived Kosovo policy has habitually failed to meet its objectives.



The threat of air strikes failed to get Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic to sign the Rambouillet peace accord. Once the air strikes began, the unintended consequences were horrific. Not only did the bombing trigger a refugee crisis, but U.S.-Russian relations were driven to a post-Cold War low--a development that makes Europe and the world more dangerous.



Even the various rationales for NATO intervention offered by the administration were faulty. Those rationales included assertions that (1) genocide was occurring in Kosovo; (2) if the United States did not intervene, American credibility would be lost and dictators around the world would assume that they had a free hand; and (3) NATO's role as the guarantor of European security would be discredited, thereby increasing the risk that Europe would be drawn into its third Continent-wide war this century.



The humanitarian situation in Kosovo prior to NATO bombing, however, was not unusual in the annals of counterinsurgency wars. NATO member Turkey has been for years waging a similar war against Kurdish separatists. Moreover, the conflict in Kosovo was not a test of American credibility--the stakes were both murky and meager--until Washington needlessly transformed the situation into a test of American resolve. The Kosovo war was a challenge not to NATO's traditional role as a collective-defense alliance but only to its new and dubious role as a post-Cold War crisis-management institution. Furthermore, history shows that conflicts in peripheral regions such as Kosovo do not inevitably escalate to Europewide wars that imperil American interests. The two world wars involved exceptional breakdowns of the European balance of power.



NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia killed hundreds of civilians and exacerbated tensions throughout the region. Moreover, Belgrade's headache may soon become Washington's. U.S. and other NATO troops already have a tense relationship with the Kosovo Liberation Army, which still demands independence, not merely autonomy, for Kosovo. In short, NATO's "victory" means deploying U.S. troops on yet another multi-billion-dollar, open-ended peacekeeping and nation-building operation.
Executive Summary

With the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo, President Clinton triumphantly proclaimed, "We have achieved a victory." Yet the Clinton administration's ill-conceived Kosovo policy has habitually failed to meet its objectives.



The threat of air strikes failed to get Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic to sign the Rambouillet peace accord. Once the air strikes began, the unintended consequences were horrific. Not only did the bombing trigger a refugee crisis, but U.S.-Russian relations were driven to a post-Cold War low--a development that makes Europe and the world more dangerous.



Even the various rationales for NATO intervention offered by the administration were faulty. Those rationales included assertions that (1) genocide was occurring in Kosovo; (2) if the United States did not intervene, American credibility would be lost and dictators around the world would assume that they had a free hand; and (3) NATO's role as the guarantor of European security would be discredited, thereby increasing the risk that Europe would be drawn into its third Continent-wide war this century.



The humanitarian situation in Kosovo prior to NATO bombing, however, was not unusual in the annals of counterinsurgency wars. NATO member Turkey has been for years waging a similar war against Kurdish separatists. Moreover, the conflict in Kosovo was not a test of American credibility--the stakes were both murky and meager--until Washington needlessly transformed the situation into a test of American resolve. The Kosovo war was a challenge not to NATO's traditional role as a collective-defense alliance but only to its new and dubious role as a post-Cold War crisis-management institution. Furthermore, history shows that conflicts in peripheral regions such as Kosovo do not inevitably escalate to Europewide wars that imperil American interests. The two world wars involved exceptional breakdowns of the European balance of power.



NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia killed hundreds of civilians and exacerbated tensions throughout the region. Moreover, Belgrade's headache may soon become Washington's. U.S. and other NATO troops already have a tense relationship with the Kosovo Liberation Army, which still demands independence, not merely autonomy, for Kosovo. In short, NATO's "victory" means deploying U.S. troops on yet another multi-billion-dollar, open-ended peacekeeping and nation-building operation.

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Published by: Cato Institute on Mar 26, 2009
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With the withdrawal of Serbian forces fromKosovo, President Clinton triumphantly pro-claimed, “We have achieved a victory.” Yet theClinton administration’s ill-conceived Kosovopolicy has habitually failed to meet its objectives.The threat of air strikes failed to get Yugoslavstrongman Slobodan Milosevic to sign theRambouillet peace accord. Once the air strikesbegan, the unintended consequences were horrif-ic. Not only did the bombing trigger a refugee cri-sis, but U.S.-Russian relations were driven to apost–Cold War low—a development that makesEurope and the world more dangerous.Even the various rationales for NATO inter-vention offered by the administration werefaulty. Those rationales included assertions that(1) genocide was occurring in Kosovo; (2) if theUnited States did not intervene, American credi-bility would be lost and dictators around theworld would assume that they had a free hand;and (3) NATO’s role as the guarantor of European security would be discredited, therebyincreasing the risk that Europe would be drawninto its third Continent-wide war this century.The humanitarian situation in Kosovo priorto NATO bombing, however, was not unusual inthe annals of counterinsurgency wars. NATOmember Turkey has been for years waging a sim-ilar war against Kurdish separatists. Moreover,the conflict in Kosovo was not a test of Americancredibilitythe stakes were both murky andmeager—until Washington needlessly trans-formed the situation into a test of Americanresolve. The Kosovo war was a challenge not toNATO’s traditional role as a collective-defensealliance but only to its new and dubious role as apost–Cold War crisis-management institution.Furthermore, history shows that conflicts inperipheral regions such as Kosovo do notinevitably escalate to Europewide wars thatimperil American interests. The two world warsinvolved exceptional breakdowns of the Euro-pean balance of power.NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia killed hun-dreds of civilians and exacerbated tensionsthroughout the region. Moreover, Belgrade’sheadache may soon become Washington’s. U.S.and other NATO troops already have a tenserelationship with the Kosovo Liberation Army,which still demands independence, not merelyautonomy, for Kosovo. In short, NATO’s “victo-ry” means deploying U.S. troops on yet anothermulti-billion-dollar, open-ended peacekeepingand nation-building operation.
Faulty Justifications and Ominous Prospects
 NATO’s Victory” in Kosovo
by Christopher Layne
Executive Summary
No. 357October 25, 1999
___________________________________________________________________________________
Christopher Layne is a visiting scholar at the Center for International Studies at the University of SouthernCalifornia and a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in Global Security.
 
Introduction
In diplomacy and politics, as in baseball, itis always better to be lucky than good.President Bill Clinton was very lucky that hisill-conceived war against Yugoslavia did notculminate in an irreparable fiasco. The resultto date is bad enough. Although the admin-istration’s spinmeisters are depictingYugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic’sacceptance of NATO’s peace terms as a vindi-cation of Clinton’s Kosovo policy, “spin”should not be confused with truth. The real-ity is that the administration stumbled intowar and blundered its way to “victory.” If theoutcome in Kosovo can be called a victoryat all, then we should bear in mind thewords uttered in the third century
B
.
C
.byKing Pyrrhus of Epirus: “Another such victo-ry and we shall be undone.”The Kosovo war was eminently avoidable,but the United States, Western Europe, andthe peoples of the Balkans will be living withthe consequences of that conflict for years tocome. The Clinton administration was woe-fully ignorant of the historical and politicalcontext of events in Kosovo. After havingabsolved the Kosovo Liberation Army andconcluded that the Serbs alone were respon-sible for the situation, the administrationintervened in a civil war over power and landbetween the KLA and the Serbian govern-ment. At Rambouillet, instead of exploringthe possibilities of a compromise settlement,which is what real diplomacy is about, theadministration presented Belgrade with anultimatum: sign or be bombed. Although theadministration indignantly denies thecharge, NATO bombing triggered the veryhumanitarian crisis in Kosovo thatWashington said it was acting to prevent. Asa result of the Clinton administration’s poli-cy, hundreds of thousands of ethnicAlbanians were forced to flee Kosovo, andhundreds were killed by NATO bombs (to saynothing of the Serb civilians killed by NATObombing).Moreover, Clinton’s “victory” means thatthe United States, along with its NATO allies,has assumed a commitment of indefiniteduration to pacify and rebuild Kosovo; resettlethe ethnic Albanian refugees; and stabilizeMacedonia, Albania, and Montenegro (inaddition to the preexisting commitment inBosnia). By turning Kosovo into a de factoprotectorate, the United States and thealliance risk becoming involved in anotherwar—this time with the KLA, which is com-mitted to attaining independence for Kosovo.The war against Yugoslavia may be over, butAmerica’s Balkan difficulties are far from over.How is it that the United States hasbecome involved in this dubious enterprise?American policymakers invoked three basicrationales to justify the war against Yugo-slavia: (1) preventing humanitarian disaster,(2) preserving American credibility, and (3)validating NATO’s role in post–Cold WarEurope. All three are fundamentally flawed.
Faulty Rationale NumberOne: HumanitarianIntervention
In his March 24, 1999, speech to thenation and subsequently, President Clintonstressed the “moral imperative” to intervenein Kosovo because of the humanitariantragedy there.
1
(That rationale was seeminglylent new urgency by the May 28 decision of the International Criminal Tribunal for theFormer Yugoslavia to indict Milosevic for warcrimes in connection with atrocities commit-ted by Serbian military and paramilitaryforces in Kosovo.) However, as a rationale forthe war, humanitarian intervention is doublyflawed. First, before the commencement of the NATO bombing campaign, there was nohumanitarian crisis in Kosovo; the Serbiandrive to expel ethnic Albanians from Kosovobegan after the United States and NATOlaunched the air strikes. Second, quite apartfrom that salient fact, even on its own termsthe humanitarian rationale is an unconvinc-ing explanation for Washingtons decision tointervene in this
 particular 
conflict.
2
The Kosovo warwas eminentlyavoidable, but theUnited States,Western Europe,and the peoplesof the Balkanswill be living withthe consequencesof that conflictfor years to come.
 
It is certainly true that innocent civilianswere killed in Kosovo both before and afterthe NATO bombing.
2
The
 New York Times
estimated that, as of the end of May 1999,4,600 ethnic Albanians had been killed inKosovo by Serbian forces since the NATObombing commenced on March 24.
3
Andmany ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovoadmitted that NATO air strikes were whattriggered the Serbian backlash of ethniccleansing. As one refugee explained, “It’s likethis: The Serbs can’t fight NATO, so nowthey are after us.
4
In addition, an unknown number of eth-nic Albanians (and Serbian civilians) inKosovo were killed, not by Serbian forces, butas a result of NATO air strikes, includingwhat appears to have been the indiscriminateuse of anti-personnel cluster bombs.(Moreover, many Serbian civilians, victims of “collateral damage,” were killed duringNATO’s bombing of Yugoslavian cities.)The death of noncombatants in wartimeis lamentable. Unfortunately, civilian deathsare an inescapable part of warfare. War is aninherently brutal enterprise and has beenespecially so during the last 200 years.Modern warfare erased the distinction that,in the era before industrialization, national-ism, and conscript armies, had delineatedcivilians from combatants. During WorldWar I, for example, the Allied naval blockadesought to force Germany’s capitulation bystarving its civilian population. In World WarII, the United States and Britain had noqualms about deliberately inflicting wide-spread casualties among innocent civiliansby conducting indiscriminate terror bomb-ing against German and Japanese cities. Thatthe end—crushing Hitler and Japan’s mili-tarists—may have justified the means doesnot change the fact that civilians of cities likeDresden, Tokyo, and Hiroshima were dead.There is evidence suggesting that what theClinton administration and NATO adver-tised as an air war against Yugoslavia’s mili-tary capabilities was really a war of attritionagainst the Serbian people to get them toforce Milosevic to do what the West wanted.The U.S. Air Force commander in charge of the Kosovo campaign, Lt. Gen. MichaelShort, admitted that NATO was trying to domore than just hurt the Yugoslav military.The larger goal was to break the will of theSerbian people and make ordinary Serbs somiserable and fearful that they would forceMilosevic to pull out of Kosovo. NATO plan-ners, the general explained, hoped that Serbswould react to the economic devastation of their country in the following way: “If youwake up in the morning and you have nopower to your house and no gas to your stoveand the bridge you take to work is down andwill be lying in the Danube for the next 20years, I think you begin to ask, ‘Hey, Slobo,what’s this all about? How much more of thisdo we have to withstand?’ And at some point,you make the transition from applaudingSerb machismo against the world to thinkingwhat your country is going to look like if thiscontinues.”
5
The Kosovo Conflict: A TypicalSecessionist War
The war that had been taking place inKosovo prior to the NATO bombing was aparticularly brutal form of modern conflict: acounterinsurgency campaign by a sovereigngovernment, Yugoslavia, against a guerrillaforce, the KLA. In counterinsurgencies, civil-ians inescapably become targets because theguerrillas draw their manpower, material sus-tenance, and political support from the pop-ulation in whose name they fight. Insurgentforces often deliberately provoke the authori-ties into harsh reprisals against their owncivilian allies to strengthen domestic supportfor the insurgency and to gain outside sym-pathy and support for their cause. From early1998 until the commencement of the NATObombing, the KLA engaged in such tactics of provocation in an attempt to trigger NATOintervention on behalf of the guerrillas. TheClinton administration was explicitly warnedby the U.S. intelligence community of theKLAs ulterior motives.
6
As the
 New York Times
reported, the civilwar in Kosovo between the KLA and the
3
The Clintonadministrationwas explicitlywarned by the U.S.intelligence com-munity of theKLA’s ulteriormotives.

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