NATO and Kosovo

NATO and Kosovo

Mini Teaser: The writer accuses Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz of blaming the victims and exonerating the perpetrators in Kosovo.  The authors respond.

by Author(s): Ivo DaalderChristopher LayneBenjamin Schwarz

Within one month of NATO forces entering Kosovo, 750,000 refugees returned. That is a remarkable testament to the success of U.S. and NATO policy. It stands in marked contrast to the fears all of us shared just a few months ago--fears of permanent exile for nearly a million people, and of starvation and death for many hundreds of thousands.

Of course, daily life in Kosovo is far from normal--adequate housing remains sparse, the economy is in ruins, and no administrative infrastructure exists. Moreover, while nearly all Albanians have returned, there has been a large exodus of Serbs. And in the chaos and confusion that accompanied the end of the war, a few hundred Serbs and Albanians have been killed. Though tragic, it is important to put these developments in perspective. The killings after the war have occurred at a rate that is still well below the murder rate in many U.S. cities. And while many Serbs left precipitously in fear of returning Kosovar Albanians, this cannot be compared to the systematic and forced expulsion of the province's Albanian population prior to and during the war.

The Kosovo war was a tragedy. It is clear that NATO did not adopt the best strategy either for dealing with the conflict or for conducting the war. It is therefore certainly legitimate to ask whether an alternative strategy would have had a greater chance of success at preventing Milosevic from inflicting terrible depredations against the Kosovar people. But it should be equally clear that NATO's intervention made a difference for the better. Compare Kosovo to Bosnia, where at least 100,000 died while NATO stood on the sidelines. Although NATO acted too late in Kosovo to prevent a major tragedy, it intervened early enough to avoid a repeat of Bosnia. And that, in the end, is no small achievement.

Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz reply:

Ivo Daalder, a former Clinton administration NSC staffer, understandably seeks to whitewash the administration's dismal record of failure in Kosovo. But measured by its own declared objective, the administration's strategy was disastrous. It triggered the very humanitarian crisis it ostensibly intervened to prevent; created a KLA-dominated Kosovo that threatens long-term Balkan stability; and makes a mockery of the notion that Kosovo will be transformed into a multi-ethnic democracy.

Dr. Daalder deals with unpleasant facts in characteristically Clintonesque fashion. All accounts of what happened in Kosovo agree on the fundamental point: whatever plans the Serbs may have had to expand the conflict, until March 24 the war in Kosovo was a counterinsurgency. The Serbs decided to pursue the objective of depopulating Kosovo of its ethnic Albanian population only after the bombing started.

No doubt, the Serbs' pre-bombing counterinsurgency was brutal--although the actual scale of that brutality remains an open question. (The bodies found thus far after diligent search suggest that the number of ethnic Albanians killed was far less than the 10,000 claimed by NATO.) In any event, counterinsurgencies are always brutal: civilians inescapably become targets of violence, because the insurgents draw their manpower and political support from the population in whose name they fight. In any guerrilla war, the line distinguishing fighters from noncombatants evaporates. Dr. Daalder excoriates the Serbs because their pre-bombing counterinsurgency created a refugee problem. He should learn more about military history.

The ferocity of the war between the Serbs and the KLA in Kosovo is explained by the conflict's historical roots. On this point, Dr. Daalder's argument is disingenuous. He says he recognizes the origins of Kosovo's ethnic conflict, but for him they extend back only as far as 1989, when Belgrade revoked Kosovo's autonomy. If Dr. Daalder went further back, he would have discovered that the Serbs had legitimate grievances, having been systematically discriminated against during Kosovo's period of autonomy. Going even further back, few Serbs have forgotten that many ethnic Albanians sided with Nazi Germany after Yugoslavia was invaded in 1941, and some fought in Nazi SS formations. Our point is not that the Serbs are the good guys. In Kosovo there are no good guys--just a history of mutual repression and retribution that negates the idea that right or justice lies clearly on one side or the other.

Events in postwar Kosovo confirm this. Dr. Daalder tosses off the repression perpetrated against the province's remaining Serbs by claiming that the postwar death rate in Kosovo is lower than in many U.S. cities. A more relevant yardstick is that since the war ended, ethnic Serbs in Kosovo have been killed at nearly the same rate at which ethnic Albanians were being killed from the beginning of 1998 until the bombing commenced in March 1999. In short, Kosovo's ethnic Albanians are no more prepared to live in peace with Serbs than the Serbs were with them.

Dr. Daalder thinks the Kosovo war ended in success, but his is a strange definition of victory. NATO's intervention all but guaranteed the KLA's accession to power. The KLA has made clear that it has no interest in a democratic or multi-ethnic Kosovo. The KLA is committed to independence and a "Greater Albania", a goal inconsistent with any reasonable notion of Balkan stability. Now, the Clinton administration has reportedly resigned itself to Kosovo's independence, notwithstanding its previous recognition that this would be a dangerous outcome. If "peace" prevails in Kosovo and Bosnia, it is only because the United States and NATO have undertaken the task of maintaining a major military presence of indefinite duration. Perhaps that is "success"--but, if so, it is success of a peculiar kind.

Essay Types: Essay