Syria and the Kosovo Precedent

Syria and the Kosovo Precedent

Those who look to NATO's 1999 attack on Serbia as an example of how to handle Syria err.

Those who have long thirsted for a U.S.-led military intervention in Syria now have a new justification. The apparent use of chemical weapons in that country’s civil war has produced shrill calls for launching immediate air strikes on the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Even the inconvenient detail that the source of the chemical attack has not yet been conclusively determined has not deterred advocates of U.S. involvement in yet another Middle East War.

War hawks face a problem, though. Congress shows little enthusiasm for intervening in Syria, and public opinion surveys over the past year confirm that the public is opposed to such a move. The predictable propaganda offensive that will now take place about the horrors of a chemical attack on innocent civilians is not likely to produce a massive surge of prowar sentiment.

Consequently, advocates of military action against Assad’s government desperately seek a way to have the U.S. intervene despite the wishes of Congress and the American people. Some proponents have latched onto the 1999 NATO war in Kosovo as an ideal precedent.

Kosovo is a precedent all right—an object lesson for why going to war in Syria would be constitutionally defective, morally dubious and strategically unwise.

The first reason—and one that ought to be compelling—why President Obama should not implement reported plans to launch cruise missile attacks is that under the Constitution, it is not his decision to make. That document gives Congress, not the president, the authority to take the republic into war. The president’s lawful, unilateral war making authority is limited to responding to sudden attacks on American targets. No one seriously argues that Syria has taken such action, or even that the country poses a credible security threat to the United States. Granted, the congressional war power has atrophied over the past six and a half decades, thanks to a combination of presidential usurpation and congressional abdication. But the last thing we as a free people should tolerate is adding yet another gratuitous presidential war to that sorry record.

Kosovo is an alarming example of how far interventionists are willing to go to bypass the requirement for a congressional declaration of war. Not only did the Clinton administration bypass Congress in initiating that conflict, it did so in the teeth of a Congressional refusal to endorse an attack on Serbia. Clinton and his supporters insisted that adequate international support was sufficient authorization for U.S. action, even absent congressional approval. International support typically meant a UN Security Council resolution—an argument that George H.W. Bush made before belatedly deciding, under public pressure, to seek congressional authorization (although not a formal declaration of war) for the Persian Gulf War.

The Kosovo conflict, though, presented pro-war internationalist types with a problem. Both Russia and China vehemently opposed intervention against Serbia, and there was, therefore, no chance of passing a Security Council Resolution. Clinton administration officials overcame that impediment by simply bypassing the Council just as they had bypassed Congress. “Sufficient international support” now meant support from the U.S.-dominated NATO alliance.

That move infuriated Moscow and Beijing. The Bush administration’s later decision to bypass the Security Council and wage the Iraq War with a “coalition of the willing” further undermined bilateral relations with those two countries. It is especially troubling that the Obama administration seems to be flirting with going down a similar path.

Russia and China are not without options to respond to such policy snubs. The Russian government cited the Kosovo precedent for its own moves against the Republic of Georgia in 2008, helping to detach that country’s two restless regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, despite Washington’s strenuous objections and the lack of UN Security Council approval. Adding a Syria intervention to the Kosovo and Iraq episodes will convince Beijing and Moscow, if any doubt lingers, that the United States treats their Security Council role with contempt and will use the Council when, and only when, it is convenient for Washington’s policy objectives. Given the number of economic and security issues requiring cooperation with Russia and China, the Obama’s flirtation with that course is dangerously myopic.

Finally, the Kosovo intervention should be a cautionary tale about launching humanitarian crusades in the midst of ugly civil wars. Interventionists portrayed the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic as the epitome of evil and the Kosovo insurgents, led by the Kosovo Liberation Army, as plucky, noble democrats. One gets similar portrayals of the Syria conflict as a Manichean struggle between good and evil.

But the reality is quite different. The KLA was a murky coalition of genuine democrats, intolerant Albanian nationalists, Islamic radicals, and outright sociopaths. Credible evidence emerged that those forces were guilty of numerous atrocities, including murdering Serb civilians and prisoners of war and selling their organs on the international black market. The KLA did not warrant either the moral blessing or the material support the U.S. provided.

Similarly, while the Assad regime is assuredly odious, the insurgent coalition contains more than its share of unsavory elements that, among other things, have engaged in terrorist acts. Most worrisome, many of the most effective rebel fighters are members of factions affiliated with al Qaeda. U.S.-led attacks on Assad’s forces could well bring a radical, vehemently anti-Western regime to power.

To be blunt, despite allegations of chemical attacks and other atrocities, the United States does not have a dog in this fight. A Syria intervention would be unwise in terms of legitimate American interests in the Middle East, in terms of the potential damage to far more important relations with Russia and China, and in terms of further damage to our own Constitution. The Obama administration should ignore the calls of promiscuous interventionists—those people who seemingly have never met a war that they didn’t like.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor to The National Interest, is the author of nine books and more than 500 articles and policy studies on international affairs.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Darko Dozet. CC BY-SA 3.0.