The Short, Unhappy Life of Humanitarian War

The Short, Unhappy Life of Humanitarian War

Mini Teaser: Kosovo was a new kind of war, one fought for humanitarian purposes. It will be the last of its kind.

by Author(s): Charles Krauthammer

When I ordered our armed forces into combat," said President Clinton in his televised victory speech announcing the end of the Kosovo campaign, "we had three clear goals: [first] to enable the Kosovar people . . . to return to their homes with safety and self-government." Return them? There were virtually no refugees at the time he ordered the attack. The mass expulsions occurred after NATO began bombing.

In fact, on the day he did order the armed forces to attack, Clinton gave this as the clear goal in another televised address to the American people: "We act to protect thousands of innocent people in Kosovo from a mounting military offensive."

Transmuting the fundamental aim of a war from "protect" to "return" was not merely a lie but, characteristically for Clinton, both brazen (he had announced the original policy just eleven weeks earlier before an audience of millions) and unnecessary. He could simply have stated how determined the allies were to see the Kosovar refugees returned. He did not have to say that it was his objective from the very beginning.

But perhaps it was not so unnecessary. It allowed him to conceal the fundamental failure that underlay the later victory. That failure was a failure of means.

The war was meant to prevent the humanitarian catastrophe that began hours after the NATO bombs started falling. That catastrophe might have been averted - the Serbs deterred from ethnically cleansing the Albanians - in one of two ways: either by pure deterrence (the mere threat of bombing) or by early surrender (a bombing campaign so devastating as to paralyze the Serb will to retain, let alone ethnically cleanse, Kosovo).

Pure deterrence was the original Albright plan and expectation at Rambouillet. It failed because Clinton - late of Iraq and Korea and of endless empty threats against Serbia itself - had no deterrent credibility.

Hence Plan B, a war that NATO backed into. As John Keegan has put it, "They just shut their eyes and hoped." But the war did not paralyze the Serbs and prevent the humanitarian catastrophe because the allies eschewed overwhelming force. The campaign launched was feckless and tentative. It was begun as an Iraq-style pinprick operation with much fireworks and bombast but to no real effect. The first weeks of the campaign, the time of the worst massacres and mass expulsions of Kosovar Albanians, were essentially an exercise in bombing empty buildings.

NATO might have stopped or prevented the ethnic cleansing if it had turned out the lights in Belgrade on Day One. Indeed, in the end it was the massive attack on civilian infrastructure in Serbia proper that forced Milosevic's surrender. But that level of escalation was not achieved until the forty-first day. It had all begun not with bridges and power grids but with the judicious taking out of headquarter buildings, at night, when empty. The war was not won until NATO went from symbolic to strategic bombing. And by then, the original war aim - protection of the Kosovar Albanians - had been irretrievably lost.

All this is true, yet it must be reconciled with another truth: Bill Clinton is a politician with far better political antennae and notions of what the public will bear than his critics. The central irony of the Kosovo campaign is that for all of its failures, Clinton and his cohorts chose the means most appropriate to humanitarian warfare.

It is Clinton's lasting legacy to have established the rules of humanitarian intervention. After all, his administration has engaged in it both uniquely and exclusively. Uniquely, because no other U.S. administration has undertaken humanitarian interventions (with one exception: the Bush administration in its dying days entering Somalia). And exclusively, because Clinton has done nothing but humanitarian interventions (if we, rightly, consider his spasmodic bomb-dropping in Iraq, Afghanistan and, quite bizarrely, Sudan as both militarily unserious and often politically motivated).

Kosovo was not the first purely humanitarian action by the United States. But it probably qualifies as the first purely humanitarian war. It was preceded, of course, by the escalation in Somalia, the pseudo-invasion of Haiti and the occupation of Bosnia, quintessential humanitarian endeavors in which an American national interest is hard to find. But none of these involved the kind of military campaign launched in Kosovo.

In all of these, Clinton set the standard for humanitarian intervention, and, in doing so, demonstrated that so problematic an enterprise - war in the absence of a serious national interest - must necessarily generate internally contradictory rules. And the central contradiction - the Iron Law of Humanitarian War - is this: Humanitarian war requires means that are inherently inadequate to its ends. This contradiction, on starkest display in Kosovo, establishes humanitarian war as an idea with a brief past and very little future.

Critics have derided the means used by NATO in Kosovo as "immaculate coercion." And indeed the war began that way. The idea was this: no one dies on our side, no one dies on the other side. This war on empty buildings began as a kind of demonstration.

Clinton miscalculated the effect of such a bloodless demonstration on the bloody-minded Milosevic. But Clinton did not miscalculate its effect on his blood-averse public at home. He understood that (1) humanitarian warfare is a different enterprise from self-interested or defensive war, (2) it can only be carried out with sustained political support at home, and (3) political support can only be sustained at home if the war is bloodless.

Clinton originally tried for bilateral bloodlessness, as practiced in Haiti and Bosnia: No dead bodies on CNN of any type. When it became clear that these means would not achieve the end - that indeed they had subverted the end of protecting the Kosovar Albanians who were now being terrorized and expelled - he finally acceded to General Clark's request for a far wider and bloodier campaign.

It was a risky strategy. Had it gone on for much longer it would have failed. Western publics were struck by the inherent contradiction between fighting a war for purely moral reasons and seeing pictures on television every night of innocent civilian death that we had caused. In fact, without the counter-stories (of suffering ethnic Albanians), Western revulsion at the sight of "collateral" civilian damage would have brought the NATO campaign to an early and ignominious close.

The more profound calculation, however, regarded the other rule of humanitarian warfare - no one dies on our side. One can be somewhat flexible about no one dying on the other side, but the first rule is sacrosanct. It is why Clinton would not countenance a ground attack, would not allow our pilots to fly below fifteen thousand feet, would not even allow air drops to the internally displaced Albanian refugees - whose welfare was the ostensible object of our campaign in the first place - lest a single allied, and in particular American, soldier die. The vast media coverage of the three American soldiers captured (and the fact that their troubles earned them six medals each) indicates how extreme is the sensitivity of Western publics to casualties.

This is not, as some have argued, a blanket aversion to casualties, stemming variously from a decadence produced by prosperity, or a higher valuation placed on children of the smaller families of a low-fertility West. It is an aversion to casualties incurred purely for the benefit of foreigners. Americans will not very long tolerate the losses and costs of humanitarian intervention. They will, however, tolerate the losses and costs of interventions that serve America's interests.

Before the Gulf War, the American people were told that there might be ten to twenty thousand casualties. There was much debate, yet the Congress approved the war, and the people supported it. They knew there were important strategic interests at stake: the possible loss of the oil resources of the Middle East, the rise of a hostile tyrant on the verge of acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

In Somalia, the American people knew there were no such interests. Yet they supported the intervention initially. No mystery here. Americans will support purely humanitarian interventions at the beginning. Americans, more than the people of any other Great Power, have long believed that foreign policy must be infused with moral purpose, and they are as moved as any people by the plight of others. They will support humanitarian intervention, but when they do they make a bargain with their political leaders: Do it and we will support you, but only if the cost is minimal.

There was thus no significant domestic opposition to the Haiti intervention, which cost no lives. The same was true for Bosnia. Tolerance for the war in Kosovo lasted a good seventy-seven days because, again, no American lives were lost.

Consider Somalia, however. As long as it was a feeding operation, there was popular support. But as soon as it turned to a nation-building operation with real fighting and real losses - eighteen Americans in one day - the game was up. The intervention had to be terminated.

Yet in the Gulf War 146 Americans died. The lesson, learned well by Clinton, was that lives can be spent to secure a major national interest. But the American people will not spend them to allay feelings of pity.

Hence the first reason that humanitarian warfare has no future. It involves a contradiction of means: bloodless war. This constraint does not just jeopardize victory, it actually contradicts the enunciated humanitarian ends. NATO commanders admitted from the very beginning that bombing from great heights was no way to protect the civilian population of Kosovo. Indeed, it exposed them not only to the unrestrained savagery of their armed enemies on the ground, but to the occasional mistaken high explosive from their benefactors in the air.

Bloodlessness also prolongs a war. In the end that constraint had to be abandoned; we had to begin truly pulverizing Serbia to achieve the kind of victory that we did. But even then it was problematic. It was always a race between eroding Western support for a bombing campaign that was producing civilian Serb casualties and Milosevic's will to hold out. In the end, Western morale lasted longer. But it was a close-run thing and entirely unpredictable. Indeed, the issue was in doubt among the allies to the very last minute. More important, it will be in doubt in the next campaign, if it ever comes. Which is why it is hard to see any rational Western leader wanting to repeat the Kosovo experience.

But that reluctance is not just a matter of means. It is a matter of ends too. Why are we engaged in this kind of war in the first place? Because, as the President put it in a succinct summation of the Clinton Doctrine, "I want us to live in a world where we get along with each other, with all of our differences, and where we don't have to worry about seeing scenes every night for the next forty years of ethnic cleansing in some part of the world." This is foreign policy in service of Rodney King and his famous question (posed during the Los Angeles riots): "Can't we all get along?"

The basic aim of humanitarian intervention - from Somalia to Haiti to Kosovo - is to heal the rifts in a society - ethnic, class, partisan, tribal. Can it be done by the armed intervention of outsiders? Well, if we bulldoze the place - flatten it, destroy it, occupy it, as we did Germany and Japan in World War II - we can certainly reshape it and remake it in our image. But that is hardly what humanitarian interventions are meant to do. They are meant to halt the bloodletting, freeze the situation in place, mediate between the parties, and attempt a reconciliation. The logical end of all humanitarian intervention is peacekeeping. And the lesson of the last half century is that peacekeeping works if the parties have had enough and merely want an outsider to provide reassurance - Sinai is the classic example - but that peacekeeping in the absence of these conditions is an exercise in futility.

Look only at Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia. Madeleine Albright wrote passionately (New York Times, August 10, 1993) that we should stay in Somalia and "nation-build" to turn it from a failed state into a functioning state. It was a fool's errand. Eight months after she penned that manifesto, we departed the place. Neither with us nor in the intervening six years without us has Somalia emerged from its state of nature.

Next on our reconstruction list was Haiti, to which we were going to bring democracy. We came, we saw, we sat. We will soon be leaving Haiti as it was when we arrived: a violent, unstable, squalid dictatorship. Parliament, such as it is, has been dissolved. The president rules by decree. Death squads are active. The futility of the enterprise was best expressed last February by the American commander in the region. In secret testimony before the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, General Charles Wilhelm recommended that we just get our remaining forces out. He admitted that the ultimate objective of the American troops is simply not getting shot. As General Wilhelm put it, "force protection is job one." But that is as insane a purpose as sending American Marines in 1982 to sit in Beirut airport. If we are not sending the military to pacify, control and remake countries, as we did after the Second World War, why in God's name are we there? If "force protection is job one", it is a job best done at Fort Dix, New Jersey.

And then Bosnia. Yes, we stopped the bloodletting and there is much to be said for that. But everyone knows that the unitary Bosnian state that we pretended to create in the Dayton Accord is a fiction. What we have is a ceasefire in place and a tripartite partition. The situation remains so unstable that although we were supposed to leave after a year, we have been there for five and will be there indefinitely, at the cost now of eleven billion dollars and counting. Why? Because we believe, accurately, that if we leave, the war will simply resume where it left off. Our presence will have been a parenthesis.

The American military cannot be an international gendarmerie, but that is exactly what it is in Haiti, Bosnia and now Kosovo. In Kosovo, we finally won. And our reward? We get to occupy that province - pacify the Albanians, protect the Serbs, and, as Clinton just promised in the recent Sarajevo conference, reconstruct and democratize the entire Balkans.

This project will make us nostalgic for Somalia. It is another fool's errand: the endless occupation of a murderous neighborhood in pursuit of utopian objectives of the most peripheral strategic interest to the United States.

This is what happens in humanitarian war when you vain. Which is why there will be no more of it. It is an idea whose time has come, and gone.

Charles Krauthammer is a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post.

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