For the Record

For the Record

Mini Teaser: As we contemplate the results of victory in Kosovo, it is time to sort fact from fiction concerning American intervention.

by Author(s): Christopher LayneBenjamin Schwarz

Through inept diplomacy and strategic miscalculation, the Clinton administration bears much of the responsibility for Kosovo's humanitarian crisis and for the Kosovo Liberation Army's (KLA) subsequent emergence as the dominant political force in Kosovo. Naturally, the administration has denied that its policies have had these adverse consequences, and it has been especially sensitive to the charge that its actions were in any way connected with the mass exodus of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. Given the scale of the catastrophe in Kosovo, the Clinton administration's defensiveness is understandable. But despite its efforts at spin and "perception management", the facts are clear. As the great baseball manager Casey Stengel once said, "You could look it up."

The historical background of the Kosovo crisis is complex, but the immediate cause of the Kosovo war is readily identifiable: the irreconcilable aims of Serbia and the province's ethnic Albanians. Constituting the overwhelming majority of the province's population, Kosovo's ethnic Albanians invoked the principle of national self-determination and sought complete independence from Serbia. The Serbs, invoking the principle of national sovereignty, rejected an independent Kosovo because the province has deep historical and cultural significance to them.

In 1998, frustrated by the failure of non-violent political methods to advance the cause of Kosovo's independence, the KLA emerged on the scene. As a classic armed national liberation movement, the KLA was committed to gaining independence for Kosovo by waging guerilla war against Serbia. It attacked Serbian police, assassinated Serbian officials in Kosovo, and targeted various government buildings and installations. The Serb response--a brutal military crackdown on KLA strongholds in rural Kosovo--added more fuel to a spiral of rising violence. In October of that same year, fearing that the conflict could spill over and destabilize the Balkans, the United States and NATO used the threat of air strikes to compel Belgrade to withdraw troops from Kosovo and accept an internationally monitored ceasefire.

Three aspects of the process leading to that ceasefire are noteworthy. First, notwithstanding that Yugoslavia was engaged in an insurgency against secessionist rebels on its own territory, the United States blamed Belgrade alone for the violence in Kosovo, and Washington's military threats were directed only at Yugoslavia. This underscored a serious inconsistency in Washington's policy: while opposing ethnic Albanian demands for independence, the United States also opposed Yugoslavia's efforts to suppress the KLA insurgency. Second, the KLA proved openly hostile to the ceasefire, as a cessation of hostilities did not further its aim of independence. Third, as soon as Yugoslav forces began withdrawing in accordance with the ceasefire, KLA forces immediately moved to reoccupy the territory they had lost during the Serb offensive. The KLA also used the respite to reconstitute its fighting power. Thus, the familiar pattern of guerilla war once again set in: insurgent attacks provoked Serb reprisals, which prompted further insurgent attacks and an escalation of the fighting.

In January 1999 Yugoslav forces embarked upon a renewed assault against KLA strongholds. The war in Kosovo prior to the March 1999 NATO bombing was a particularly brutal form of modern conflict, a counterinsurgency effort against a guerilla force. In counterinsurgencies, civilians inescapably become targets because the guerillas draw their manpower, material sustenance and political support from the population in whose name they fight. Insurgent forces often deliberately provoke the authorities into harsh reprisals against civilians to weaken support for the counterinsurgency, and to gain outside sympathy and support for their cause. From early 1998 until the commencement of the NATO bombing in May 1999, the KLA deliberately attempted to provoke Serb repression--and, true to form, Belgrade's regime responded as the KLA hoped it would. In early 1999 the U.S. intelligence community apprised the Clinton administration of the game the KLA was playing. The administration nevertheless decided that the Serbs bore full responsibility for the fighting, while implicitly absolving the KLA.

The unraveling of the ceasefire heightened U.S. and West European concerns that the fighting could lead to a humanitarian tragedy, and that it could spread to Albania and Macedonia, thereby destabilizing the Balkans. These fears led to the Rambouillet negotiations.


At the Rambouillet meetings, the aim of the United States and its West European allies was to fashion a peace agreement between Belgrade and the KLA. Rambouillet called for: (1) withdrawal of Yugoslav military and paramilitary forces from Kosovo; (2) the restoration of Kosovo's political autonomy; (3) a three-year transitional period, at the end of which there would be a referendum on Kosovo's future; (4) disarmament of the KLA; and (5) deployment of an armed NATO peacekeeping force in Yugoslavia.

After two weeks, however, the Rambouillet talks were at an impasse, with both Belgrade and the KLA refusing to sign the accord. The KLA refused to sign because, in determining Kosovo's future status, Washington and the Western Europeans had agreed only to "consider" the results of the referendum. This complicated the administration's strategy of coercing Yugoslav acquiescence, and, as the New York Times reported, "flabbergasted" the Clinton team. Indeed, the administration spent the better part of the recess in the talks cajoling the KLA to sign. To gain its assent, U.S. officials reminded the KLA that unless it signed the Rambouillet pact the alliance would be unable to implement its threat to bomb Serbia. In the end, of course, the KLA was persuaded to accede to the accord, while Belgrade refused to do so.

Belgrade declined for two reasons. First, it believed that Rambouillet favored the KLA. Although the plan stipulated that Kosovo would remain nominally under the control of Belgrade for three years, in effect Yugoslavia's authority over the province would have been reduced to a nullity. While the United States and NATO did not explicitly specify Kosovo's status at the end of the transition period, the KLA made it quite clear what would happen: either Kosovo would become independent, or the KLA would resume combat operations. Indeed, even as they agreed to sign the Rambouillet accord, KLA officials voiced their intent to ignore its disarmament provisions and to keep their own military capabilities intact. Second, Belgrade believed that the provision that required it to accept the presence of NATO peacekeeping soldiers in Kosovo--and, even more important, the provision permitting NATO to deploy its forces not only in Kosovo but anywhere in Yugoslavia--infringed on Yugoslav sovereignty.

The United States did not play the role of an impartial mediator at Rambouillet. At no time during the process did the Clinton administration ever threaten to take military action against the KLA if it caused the talks to break down. On the contrary, the United States was remarkably vague in spelling out any actions it might take against the KLA. Thus, when the Rambouillet process collapsed and the air campaign began, administration officials--including President Clinton himself--quickly blamed the conflict on Belgrade's intransigence. The Yugoslavs, it was asserted, failed to accept the "just peace" on the table.

But at Rambouillet, the United States and the Western Europeans had not been negotiating with Belgrade at all: Belgrade was presented with an ultimatum, and given the choice of accepting it or being bombed. This was repeatedly underscored by administration officials, including President Clinton and Secretary Albright.

U.S. policy at Rambouillet was fatally flawed not only because of this bias; it also reflected ignorance of Serbian history, nationalism and resolve. And it showed a culpable neglect of the foreseeable consequences of carrying out the alliance's military threat.

NATO's Air Campaign and Its Consequences

With the KLA's signature in hand and Belgrade's refusal to sign on to the Rambouillet accord, the United States and NATO promptly followed through on their threat to bomb Yugoslavia, ostensibly to compel Belgrade to reconsider its position and to accept Rambouillet, but also to deter the Yugoslavs from expelling ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. Yet the bombing campaign was based on serious miscalculations about its effect on the Serbs, and its effect on events on the ground in Kosovo.

As Clinton himself later admitted during his June 25, 1999 press conference, he and his foreign policy advisers expected that the Rambouillet process would result in one of two outcomes. In all likelihood, U.S. officials believed, Belgrade would bow to American and NATO threats and sign the Rambouillet accord. But if it refused to do so, Belgrade would quickly change its mind after NATO conducted a brief "demonstration" bombing campaign. Reflecting the prevailing view within the administration, Secretary of State Albright declared on March 24--the first night of hostilities--"I don't see this as a long-term operation." Yet, just eleven days later, confronted with the failure of the NATO bombing to force Belgrade to back down, Albright, switching to the new administration line without missing a beat, now claimed that, "We never expected this to be over quickly." But the administration's claims that it anticipated the subsequent and massive refugee flows, and that it expected a prolonged air campaign, were belied by its inability to cope with the refugees and by the hasty improvisation that marked the bombing effort. Simply put, the Clinton administration was unprepared to manage the very consequences it retrospectively claims to have foreseen.

In believing that either the threat of air strikes or a token bombing campaign would force Belgrade to submit quickly, the Clinton administration clearly erred. But, equally important, it failed to foresee the air campaign's consequences. On March 20 President Clinton said that unless Belgrade agreed to the Rambouillet accord, NATO would use air power to prevent Serb atrocities against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo:

"Make no mistake, if we and our allies do not have the will to act, there will be more massacres. In dealing with aggressors in the Balkans, hesitation is a license to kill. But action and resolve save lives."

When Clinton spoke these words, there was in fact no large-scale campaign being mounted against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians by the Yugoslav Army. The forced mass expulsion of ethnic Albanians from the province, and the reports of widespread atrocities, did not occur until after NATO commenced its air campaign. And, indeed, both the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community had warned the Clinton foreign policy team that Belgrade would respond to NATO air strikes by expelling Kosovo's ethnic Albanians from the province, and that the bombing campaign would not be able to prevent the Yugoslav Army from doing so.

Belgrade apparently had devised a contingency plan prior to the bombing--Operation Horseshoe--to drive the ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo, and had made preparations to implement it. Planning, however, is one thing, implementation another. (NATO, for its part, began planning for possible military action against the Serbs as early as the summer of 1998.) Assuming that Belgrade had indeed wanted to turn plans into action prior to March 24, the mere presence of West European civilian monitors on the ground in Kosovo had been enough to restrain it from doing so. Clearly there was violence ongoing in Kosovo prior to the commencement of nato's air campaign. But the operations of the Yugoslav Army up to that point were directed mainly at rooting out the KLA, not at forcibly expelling ethnic Albanians from the province.

The Serbs' pre-bombing offensive in Kosovo was a response to KLA actions, "including the ambushing of Serbian police patrols and officials by Albanians and several instances of the kidnapping and killing of Serbian civilians." Certainly, Serbia's campaign against the KLA was harsh. Although Belgrade's objective at that point was not to expel ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, it did seek to remove them from KLA strongholds and thereby deprive the KLA of its base of support.

But once the bombing began, the Serb campaign in Kosovo intensified markedly and its objectives shifted. That campaign had an immediate military objective:

"By expelling ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, Serbian forces aimed to restrict the guerillas' base of support and cover. By controlling the borders and the devastated corridors along the major highways, the Serbs planned to isolate and then eradicate the Kosovo Liberation Army in the forests and mountains."

Their goal was "depopulation rather than extermination." Indeed, students of "low-intensity" conflict will recognize the similarities between the counterinsurgency tactics of the Serbs in Kosovo and those of the French in Algeria, the British in the Boer War and the Americans in the Philippines.

It is certainly true that civilians died in Kosovo both before and after the NATO bombing. It is widely agreed by Western sources that from the beginning of 1998 until the air campaign started on March 24--a period of fifteen months--approximately 1,800 civilians died in Kosovo as a result of the fighting and of deliberate massacres. The New York Times estimated that 4,600 ethnic Albanians were killed in Kosovo by Serb forces from the time NATO commenced bombing through late May. After the Serbs were driven from Kosovo, the number of ethnic Albanian civilian dead was revised sharply upward. Relying on both refugee accounts and undisclosed intelligence sources, the British government has put the figure of ethnic Albanian dead at ten thousand. The initial un figure is eleven thousand. However, the un administrator for Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, has qualified this by noting that the figure is only an estimate, and has not been verified. And while the brutality of the Serbs' actions deserves severe condemnation, it is nevertheless a fact that they were not unusual in the context of guerilla war, and that they did not amount to anything remotely approaching the "genocide" repeatedly alleged by U.S. and NATO officials. Yet even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Clinton continues to charge that the Serbs engaged in genocide and killed "tens of thousands" of ethnic Albanians.

In characterizing the nature of the conflict in Kosovo this way, the Clinton administration was--and remains--less than candid. But more than a simple lack of candor is involved in its vehement insistence that nato's actions have had nothing at all to do with the stampede of ethnic Albanian refugees who have fled Kosovo to neighboring Macedonia and Albania (most as a result of Serb behavior, but many to escape NATO bombs).

Again, the most authoritative accounts now available make it clear that ethnic cleansing--that is, the forced mass expulsion from Kosovo of ethnic Albanians--did not begin until after nato's bombing campaign commenced. This is not to say that there were no refugees inside Kosovo before the NATO air campaign began. Because of intense fighting between the KLA and the Yugoslav Army during the summer and early fall of 1998, it is estimated that there were between 300,000 and 443,000 displaced persons inside the province just prior to the bombing. On March 20, 1999 the New York Times reported that since March 14, an additional 20,000 Albanian refugees had fled their homes because of Yugoslav Army operations against KLA strongholds.

The event that opened the door for the Yugoslav forces to move from counterinsurgency to population expulsion was the withdrawal of the 1,380 OSCE monitors who were deployed in Kosovo as part of the October 1998 ceasefire. As one monitor explained on March 19, "There is a lot of tension in the area. But while [the monitors] stay where they are, things are more or less okay." But the monitors were withdrawn the next day, to ensure they would be out of harm's way when the bombing campaign began. This despite the fact that the Clinton administration was told--by among others William Walker, the top U.S. diplomat on the scene in Kosovo--that Belgrade would regard their withdrawal as a green light to proceed with its plan to expel ethnic Albanians.

In the interval between the monitors' withdrawal and commencement of the air campaign, the Yugoslav forces stepped up their offensive against the KLA. At that stage, however, they were still not engaged in a deliberate ethnic cleansing campaign. Indeed, just two days before it launched air strikes, NATO asked the KLA to desist from further terrorist attacks against Serbs in Kosovo so as not to give Belgrade a pretext to engage in such a campaign. On the day the bombing began and in the days that immediately followed, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo expressed fears that NATO action would trigger an upsurge in Serb depredations. These fears proved justified.

It was not until the air campaign had been under way for several days that the first reports of forced expulsions and large-scale atrocities began to surface. On March 28, in response to the refugee flows, NATO announced a switch in its bombing strategy, with the aim of halting the expulsions: a shift from attacks on Yugoslavia's air defenses to attacks on Yugoslav units on the ground in Kosovo.

The administration's denials notwithstanding, the record is clear: not until NATO began its bombing did Belgrade's objective in Kosovo change from counterinsurgency to a deliberate campaign to expel the province's ethnic Albanians. The State Department has, perhaps inadvertently, conceded this point. As its report, released in May 1999, on alleged atrocities in Kosovo admits:

"Since the withdrawal of the KVM [the OSCE's Kosovo Verification Mission monitors] on March 19, 1999, Serbian military, paramilitary, and police forces in Kosovo have committed a wide range of war crimes against humanity, and other violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

In late March 1999, Serbian forces dramatically increased the scope and pace of their efforts, moving away from selective targeting of towns and regions suspected of KLA sympathies towards a sustained and systematic effort to ethnically cleanse the entire province of Kosovo [emphasis added]."

On March 25, President Clinton had declared: "Our purpose is to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe or a wider war." But nato's air campaign undoubtedly contributed significantly to the very tragedy it was intended to prevent. Policymakers are responsible for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of their actions. Their policies must be judged by their consequences, not their intentions. As with so many of his claims, President Clinton's assertion that the United States did "the right thing, and in the right way" to prevent a humanitarian tragedy in Kosovo is specious and unsustainable.

Essay Types: Essay