NATO’s Balkan War: Finding an Honorable Exit

Let me state at the outset that my remarks here today do not represent any Senate office or member. Rather, I am giving my professional judgement as a policy analyst and my personal opinion, for both of which I am solely responsible.

The rationale for U.S. intervention in Kosovo and for assistance to the Kosovo Liberation Army is easily stated. It goes something like this:

The current crisis in Kosovo is simply the latest episode in the aggressive drive by extreme Serbian nationalism, orchestrated by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, to create an ethnically pure Greater Serbian state. This aggression — first in Slovenia, then in Croatia, and then in Bosnia, — has now come to Kosovo, largely because the West, notably NATO, refused to stand up to him.

Prior to 1989, Kosovo was at peace under an autonomy that allowed the Albanian people a large degree of self-rule. That status quo was disturbed by the Serbs by the revocation of Kosovo’s autonomy and the initiation of an apartheid system of ethnic discrimination. Now, after a decade of oppression by the Serbs, the Albanians of Kosovo are faced with a pre-planned program of genocide, similar to that committed by the Serbs in Bosnia. The rise of the KLA is a response this threat.

The United States and the international community first exhausted the possibilities for a diplomatic settlement to the crisis, repeatedly offering the Serbs the opportunity to accept the Rambouillet agreement, a peaceful solution that would be fair to all parties. But while the Albanians, including the KLA, chose the path of negotiation and peace, the Serbs rejected it. Accordingly, NATO had no choice but to move ahead with a military response, namely airstrikes, which in Bosnia forced the Serbs to the peace table. The campaign is directed against Milosevic and his security apparatus, not against the Serbian people.

Unfortunately, as the Serbs moved ahead with their pre-planned program of genocide the NATO air campaign could not stop the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Albanians. While air power may ultimately bring the Serbs to heel, a just and speedy solution requires a ground component. Some advocate a NATO ground offensive, but there are concerns about the potential costs. Others advocate a program of arming and training the KLA the victims of Serbian aggression and genocide to liberate their own country. In any case, to fail to achieve NATO’s objectives is completely unacceptable. International stability would be threatened, and American and NATO credibility would be destroyed if genocide were allowed to succeed in the heart of Europe at the dawn of the 21st century.

That, in a nutshell, is the case. I have tried to paraphrase as closely as possible the arguments of supporters of the Clinton policy. The trouble is: hardly any part of the summary justification I just gave is true. Some parts of it are skewed or exaggerated interpretations of the facts, some are outright lies.

However, as in Bosnia, the Clinton Administration’s Kosovo policy cannot be justified without recasting a frightfully complex conflict, with plenty of blame to go around, as a caricature: a morality play in black and white where one side is completely innocent and the other entirely villainous.

To start with, pre-1989 Kosovo was hardly the fantasyland of ethnic tolerance the pro-intervention caricature makes it out to be. Under the 1974 Tito constitution, which elevated Kosovo to effective equality with the federal republics, Kosovo’s Albanians exercised virtually complete control over the provincial administration. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Serbs left during this period in the face of pervasive discrimination and the authorities’ refusal to protect Serbs from ethnic violence. The result of the shift in the ethnic balance that accelerated during this period is the main claim ethnic Albanians lay to exclusive ownership of Kosovo. At the same time, Albanian demands mounted that the province be detached from Serbia and given republic status within the Yugoslav federation; republic status, if granted, would, in theory, have allowed Kosovo the legal right to declare its independence from Yugoslavia. One of the ironies of the present Kosovo crisis is that Milosevic began his rise to power in Serbia in large part because of the oppressive character of pre-1989 Albanian rule in Kosovo, symbolized by the famous 1987 rally where he promised the local Serbs: “Nobody will beat you again.” In short, rather than Milosevic being the cause of the Kosovo crisis, it would be as correct to say that intolerant Albanian nationalism in Kosovo is largely the cause of Milosevic’s attainment of power.

Second, in 1989 Kosovo’s autonomy was not revoked but was downgraded — at the federal level at Milosevic’s initiative –to what it had been before 1974. Many Albanians refused to accept Belgrade’s reassertion of authority and large numbers were fired from their state jobs. The resulting standoff — of boycott and the creation of alternative institutions on the Albanian side and of increasingly severe police repression on the Serbian side — continued for most of the 1990s. Again, the political problem in Kosovo — up until the bombing began — has always been: how much autonomy will the Kosovo Albanians settle for? When I hear now that autonomy is not enough and that only independence will suffice, I can’t help but think of Turkish Kurdistan where not only have the Kurds never been offered any kind of autonomy but even suggesting there ought to be autonomy will land you in jail. But of course we don’t bomb Turkey over the Kurds; on the contrary, as a NATO member Turkey is one of the countries helping to bomb the Serbs.

Third, while after 1989 there was a tense stand-off in Kosovo, what we did not have was open warfare. That was the result not of any pre-planned Serbian program of “ethnic cleansing” but of the KLA’s deliberate and I would say classic strategy to turn a political confrontation into a military confrontation. Attacks directed against not only Serbian police and officials but Serbian civilians and insufficiently militant Albanians were undoubtedly, and accurately, calculated to trigger a massive and largely indiscriminate response by Serbian forces. The growing cycle of violence, in turn, further radicalized Kosovo’s Albanians and led to the possibility of NATO military involvement, which, I submit, based on the Bosnia precedent, was the KLA’s real goal rather than any realistic expectation of victory on the battlefield. In every respect, it has been a stunningly successful strategy.

Fourth, the Clinton Administration’s claim that NATO resorted to force only after diplomacy failed is a flat lie. As I pointed out in a paper issued by the Policy Committee in August of last year, the military planning for intervention was largely in place at that time, and all that was lacking was a suitable pretext. The Holbrooke-Milosevic agreement of October 1998 — to which the KLA was not a party — mandated a partial Serb withdrawal, during which the KLA occupied roughly half of Kosovo and cleansed dozens of villages of their Serb inhabitants. Any reaction on the Serb side, however, risked NATO bombing.

Finally, the Rambouillet process cannot be considered a negotiation under any normal definition of the word: A bunch of lawyers at the State Department write up a 90-page document and then push it in front of the parties and say: ” Sign it. And if you (one of the parties) sign it and he (the other party) doesn’ then we’ll bomb him.” And of course, when they said that, Secretary Albright and the State Department knew that one of the parties would not, and could not, sign the agreement. Why? Because — as has received far too little attention from our supposedly inquisitive media — it provided for NATO occupation of not just Kosovo but of all of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) under Paragraph 8 of Appendix B: “8. NATO personnel shall enjoy, together with their ehicles, vessels, aircraft, and equipment, free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access through out the FRY [i.e., the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia], including associated air space and territorial waters. This shall include, but not be limited to, the right of bivouac, maneuver, billet, and utilization of any areas or facilities as required for support, training, and operations.”

I have it on good authority that one senior Administration official told media at Rambouillet (under embargo) “We intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply. They need some bombing, and that’s what they are going to get.” In short, Rambouillet was just Albright’s charade to get to where we are now: a bombing campaign. Their big mistake was, they thought their splendid little war would have been over long before now. It’s all happened just as they planned, except the last part: Milosevic has refused to run up the white flag.

Fifth, nobody can doubt there are serious atrocities being committed in Kosovo by Milosevic’s forces — though the extent and specifics of the reports that the media (as in Bosnia) treats as established fact are open to question and have been characterized by Agence France Presse (4/31) as on occasion being “confused, contradictory, and sometimes plain wrong.” For the Administration and NATO, however, it does not appear to detract from their propaganda value that “reports coming from NATO and US officials appear often as little more than regurgitation of unconfirmed information from the” KLA. I have in mind, for example, the report for a time being peddled by Jamie Rubin, among others, that some 100,000 Albanian men had been herded into the Pristina sports stadium until a reporter actually went to the stadium and found it empty. At the same time, we should not doubt that a lot more civilians, both Serb and Albanian are being killed by NATO than we ar willing to admit as the air strikes are increasingly directed against what are euphemistically called “infrastructure” — i.e., civilian — targets. Some Albanian refugees say they are fleeing the Serbs, others NATO’s bombs. The Clinton Administration has vainly tried to claim that all the bloodshed since March 24 has been Milosevic’s fault, insisting that the offensive would have taken place even if NATO had not bombed, but I find that argument unconvincing. After the failure of the Rambouillet talks and the breakdown of the October 1998 Milosevic-Holbrooke agreement, a Serb action against the KLA may have been unavoidable — and no doubt it would have been conducted with the same light touch used by the Turks against the PKK or by the Sri Lankans against the Tamil Tigers, who, like the KLA, do not play by Marquis of Queensberry rules. But a full-scale drive to push out all or most ethnic Albanians and unleash a demographic bomb against NATO staging areas in Albania and Macedonia may not have been.

Sixth, because of how the Administration’s decision to bomb has turned Kosovo from a crisis into a disaster, we no longer have a Kosovo policy we have a KLA policy. As documented in a paper released by the Policy Committee on March 31, the Clinton Administration has elevated to virtually unchallenged status as the legitimate representative of the Kosovo Albanian people aterrorist group about which there are very serious questions as to its criminalactivities particularly with regard to the drug trade and as to radical Islamic influences, including Osama bin Ladin and the Iranians. Advocates of U.S. assistance to the KLA, such as the Heritage Foundation, point out that based on the experience of aiding the mujahedin in Afghanistan, we can use our help as a leverage for “reforming” the KLA’s behavior. However, I would ask which radical group of any description, either in Afghanistan (where we could at least claim the vicissitudes of the Cold War justified the risks), or the Izetbegovic regime in Bosnia, or, on the same principle, the Castro regime in Cuba or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, or the PLO has ever genuinely a bandoned its radical birthright for a mess of American pottage.

Seventh, advocates of aid to the KLA suggest that it be contingent on guarantees that that organization not attack civilians and not pursue a greater Albania beyond Kosovo. Given the pre-1989 history of Kosovo and the KLA’s behavior to date, the first suggestion is laughable. As for the second, I submit for your consideration a map from the webpage of the Albanian American Civic League (, a pro-KLA group in the United States. It visually represents the areas claimed by the KLA, including not only Kosovo but other areas of southern Serbia, parts of Montenegro and Macedonia (including their capitals), and parts of Greece. When I first saw this map which the webmaster has made considerably harder to print since I first referenced it in my paper it struck a recollection of something I had seen before. It occurred to me that it is quite similar to one I have (printed by the State Department in 1947) of interim territorial arrangements during World War II. I can understand that there is an element of hyperbole in critics’ calling NATO’s air campaign “Nazi,” but fail to see what interest the United States has in helping to restore the Nazi-imposed borders of 1943 or how this helps preserve European stability.

Eighth, the Clinton claim that we are hitting Milosevic and not the Serbian people is just cruel mockery. Politically, this bombing has solidified his position as he never could have done on his own. The Clinton Administration repeatedly rebuffed initiatives by the Serbian opposition for support against Milosevic, most recently by a direct meeting with Madeleine Albright by the Serbian Orthodox bishop of Kosovo, His Grace ARTEMIJE, in which he appealed for an initiative that would have strengthened moderate forces on both sides, begun genuine negotiations (in place of the Rambouillet farce), and weakened Milosevic. (I have copies of this proposal here today.) Predictably, that appeal fell on deaf ears. But this Administration cannot say it was not warned.

Ninth, the Administration’s “humanitarian” justification for this war the contention that this is about returning Albanian refugees to their homes is rank hypocrisy. Many commentators have noted that the Administration had turned a blind eye to the cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Serbs from the Krajina in 1995. This is not quite accurate. They did not turn a blind eye, they actively abetted the Croatian Army’s “Operation Storm” with mercenary retired U.S. military consultants to provide training and operational planning under the guise of “democracy training.” Indeed, there is evidence that U.S. assistance to the eradication of the Krajina Serbs may have included air strikes and psy-ops, but to my knowledge no member of our intrepid Fourth Estate has yet seen fit to look into it.

Tenth, the notion that Milosevic is nationalist bent on creating a “Greater Serbia” is nonsense. Milosevic — unlike the equally thuggish Franjo Tudjman and Alija Izetbegovic — is an opportunist, who likely would have been more than willing to sell out Kosovo as he did the Serbs of Krajina and parts of Bosnia, if the Clinton/Albright policy had not been so completely incompetent as to paint him into corner where he had to stand and fight. As for Greater Serbia — as opposed to Greater Croatia or Greater Albania — it’s all in the definitions. The only consistent rule in the break-up of Titoist Yugoslavia is that the Serbs, the only constituent nationality that gave up their own national state to create Yugoslavia, have alone been regarded as having no legitimate interest in how it broke up. One the one hand, Serb minorities in other republics were expected to accept as authoritative Tito’s borders or be regarded as “aggressors” for wishing to remain in the state in which they had up until them been living. On the other hand, Kosovo, a region that was part of Serbia even before Yugoslavia was created, is up for grabs. The double standard is breathtaking.

So what are we left with? The Clinton Administration’s blunder has done nothing but harm American interests and those of everybody else concerned. It has harmed the Albanian refugees, making an already bad situation much worse; harmed an unknown number of innocent civilians, both Serbian and Albanian, killed or injured by our bombing; harmed any prospects of political reform in Serbia that would remove Milosevic from power; harmed the U.S. security posture, as our forces around the world have been stripped down to devote resources to Kosovo; harmed the already fragile stability of neighboring states and the region as a whole; and harmed our relationship with Russia, which should be among our first priorities — having vindicated every lie the Soviet Union ever told about NATO’s aggressive intentions. And the harm grows worse every day.

The question before us is finding an honorable exit. Some suggest turning the current disaster into complete catastrophe by sending in NATO ground troops under premises as faulty as those that led to the air war. Arming and training the KLA would be similarly ill-advised. That leaves pointlessly extending the air war — or looking for a way out, a diplomatic solution. I will let Rep. Weldon describe his proposal as outlined in House Concurrent Resolution 99 which seems to me the best idea on the table. I would add only one thing: we need to stop the bombing as soon as possible. If what you are doing is making things worse, stop what you’re doing. If you have mistakenly put gasoline on a fire instead of water don’t pour on more.

Some will suggest that quitting while we’re behind would harm American and NATO’s credibility and would be a victory for Milosevic. But to a large extent, that damage has already been done. As for NATO, what has been harmed so far is less NATO’s commitment to its collective defense mission under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty which has never been at stake in Kosovo than what President Clinton has called the “new NATO” and Prime Minister Blair a “new internationalism,” which is nowhere provided for in the Treaty. What would, and should, collapse is the misguided effort to transform NATO from a defensive alliance into a regional peacekeeping organization, a mini-U.N. with “out-of-area” responsibilities, a certain road to more Bosnias and more Kosovos down the line. That mission would lose its credibility, fatally so, and so it should. The Clinton Administration’s incompetent policy in Kosovo has had one small benefit: it has exposed fact that last year, when the Senate gave its advice and consent to expansion of NATO’s membership, it also approved expansion of NATO’s mission. If the Clinton Administration and NATO are successful in Kosovo, not only will the principle of state sovereignty in the face of an out-of-control international bureaucracy be fatally compromised, we can expect (and indeed some observers already have started to set out the case for) new and even more dangerous adventures of this sort elsewhere, notably in the Caucasus.

Finally, I have no confidence that the Clinton Administration is ready to take the rational way out offered by Rep. Weldon and his colleagues. Indeed, rational people would not have committed the blunders to date nor would they have continued to compound them. All signs indicate that President Clinton, Secretary Albright, and their “Third Wave” European cronies of the Tony Blair stripe are treating this not as a policy problem but as a political problem. Their attitude, as it was during the impeachment crisis, is “we’ll just have to win then, won’t we”–“winning” meaning not a successful policy or even winning the war, but winning the propaganda war: an exercise in media spin, polls, and focus groups. As Madeleine Albright suggested last year, the leader of some countries she mentioned, Serbia among them . . . try to grab the truth and leash it like a dog, ration it like bread, or mold it like clay. Their goal is to create their own myths, conceal their own blunders, direct resentments elsewhere and instill in their people a dread of change.

However true that description is of Slobodan Milosevic, Madame Secretary should look in the mirror. No, this war is not about American interests but about vindicating the intelligence of Madeleine Albright and the good word of Bill Clinton.

The door to an honorable exit is clearly marked.

The question is how to induce this Administration to take it.

Jim Jatras is a policy analyst for the US Senate’s Committee on Foreign Policy. This is a transcript of remarks he gave at Cato Institute session on the war in the Balkans on May 15, 1999.