The Kosovo/NATO Conflict
What are the roots of the Kosovo conflict?
Ethnic Serbs and Albanians
give extended historical arguments going back as far as 1389 or 1912 or World
War II. The basic issue is that the Kosovo province of Serbia (called Kosova
in Albanian) has a large majority—as much as 90 percent—of ethnic
Albanians with a roughly 10 percent Serbian minority. The Kosovo Albanians,
however, are only about 16 percent of Serbia’s total population. The Kosovo
Albanians claim to be an oppressed minority within Serbia and want
self-determination. The Kosovo Serbs claim to be an oppressed minority within
Kosovo, and want protection from the Albanians. For Serbs, Kosovo,
particularly in the north, is the site of many historical events and locales,
their Jerusalem and Alamo rolled into one.
Yugoslavia consisted of six
republics (Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and
Bosnia-Herzegovina) and in 1974 Tito gave autonomous status to two provinces
of Serbia, Kosovo and Vojvodina. Kosovo autonomy allowed its ethnic Albanians
to develop their own institutions, but angered Serbian nationalists. The
Yugoslav League of Communists (LCY) under Tito and after his death in 1980
suppressed nationalist ideology and political dissent.
In 1987, however, Slobodan
Milosevic used anger over Kosovo to take control of the Serbian branch of the
LCY. The previous leaders, Milosevic charged, had appeased the Albanians and
failed to defend Serb interests. In 1989, Milosevic revoked Kosovo’s
autonomy, encouraging forcible Serb repression of the Albanian majority ever
since. Most Albanian Kosovars now want complete independence.
What is the KLA?
The Albanian Kosovars
fought Serb control in 1989 by non-violent resistance: they elected their own
leaders, refused to cooperate with the Serb authorities, and established their
own counter-institutions. Their “president” was Ibrahim Rugova, a follower
of Gandhi, who urged his people to reject violence while working toward
independence. Serbian repression in Kosovo since 1989 didn’t attract much
concern from Washington. In 1995, when the United States sponsored talks in
Dayton, Ohio to end the fighting in Bosnia, Milosevic was feted as the key to
peace and Rugova was excluded from the conference. Thereafter repression
increased in Kosovo and Rugova had little to show for his non-violent
In 1996, an obscure
organization appeared on the scene, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA, or UCK in
Albanian), committed to armed struggle. They undertook some ineffectual
attacks on police stations and sometimes Serb civilians, including Serbian
refugees from the Yugoslav wars whom many Albanians viewed as colonizers
intended to shift the demographic balance. In early 1998, Serbian special
police assaulted three villages, killing more than 80 people, at least 17
after they had been detained or surrendered. This attack drove thousands of
Albanians into the KLA and, though still called terrorists by the Serbian
authorities, they became a serious guerrilla army with mass support. Over the
next months the KLA took control of roughly 40 percent of Kosovo’s
territory. By late summer, however, Serbian forces retook most of the
territory, their major tactic being to crush civilian support for the rebels
by systematically destroying towns and villages and forcing thousands of
people to flee.
It is difficult to tell the
KLA attitude toward Serb civilians. Human rights groups have accused them of
human rights violations, including compelling Serb villagers to leave their
homes, with some killings, though not approaching the scale of atrocities
committed by Serbian forces. The KLA claims not to target civilians, while
acknowledging that fighters in the field commit abuses.
Why does everyone talk about the conflict spreading?
Massive refugee flows have
the potential to destabilize many surrounding countries where there is a
delicate ethnic balance. In Macedonia, for example, commentators fear that
Albanian immigration would provoke the Albanian minority to secede or would
even make it a majority, which the Macedonian majority is determined to
prevent. Having hundreds of thousands of Albanians living in refugee camps
brings visions of the Palestinians; with all the instability their plight has
caused the Middle East.
In addition, Albania has
warned that it will not sit idly by if its compatriots across the border are
slaughtered, and Serbia has made incursions into Albania to prevent the flow
of weapons and recruits to the KLA. Finally, Turkey and Greece, long-time
enemies, and Bulgaria as well might get involved. (Of course, it is a little
odd for NATO to launch a war in order to prevent two NATO members—Turkey and
Greece—from going at each other.)
4. Is the U.S.
in the Balkans?
No. If the U.S. was
motivated to wage war and drop bombs in this instance by humanitarian
concerns, that would mean that concern for the plight of oppressed minorities
and populations ranked very high in U.S. policy-making calculations. We would
then expect that in any case where large populations are suffering horrible
repression Washington would try to intervene to stop the repression.
Now consider the reverse
claim that U.S. foreign policy is never motivated by concern for the well
being of local constituencies but will only opportunistically use related
rhetoric for rationalization purposes when possible. If this were true, in
contrast, we would expect that the U.S. would intervene in the affairs of
other countries only to serve domestic elites in the U.S. or to aid local
elites in other countries on behalf of U.S. elites, or to influence or enhance
policies undertaken by other countries thought to benefit U.S. government and
elite interests—but with the human costs to victims playing virtually no
role in the calculations.
Now look at the evidence.
World War II, for example, the United States could have admitted many Jews
fleeing from Hitler’s Europe; it did not.
World War II, the United States could have bombed the death camp at
Auschwitz, slowing down the Nazi killing machine; it did not.
hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered in Indonesia in 1965, the
U.S. government who even provided lists of Communists to exterminate
cheered the killers on.
the Pakistani army began slaughtering and raping hundreds of thousands of
Bengalis in 1971, sending millions into exile, U.S. policy was to (in
Kissinger’s words) “tilt in favor of Pakistan.”
Indonesia invaded East Timor, leading to the deaths of one-third of the
population, it received weapons and diplomatic support from Washington. In
early April, White House press secretary Joe Lockhart was asked whether
the United States supported independence for East Timor. “Not that I am
aware of,” he replied.
the Khmer Rouge was responsible for monstrous killings in Cambodia, the
United States encouraged China to aid the Khmer Rouge and provided covert
aid of its own.
the government of Guatemala killed 200,000 people in the 1980s, it was
with United States aid and encouragement.
upwards of half a million people, mostly members of the Tutsi ethnic
minority, were exterminated in Rwanda in 1994, the Clinton administration
demanded that a UN force already on the scene be reduced and obstructed
efforts to save lives, even failing to apply diplomatic pressure against
Investigation of all these
cases and many more—the Turkish treatment of Kurds in Turkey, for
example—reveals a consistent pattern which has nothing to do with concerns
for repressed populations and everything to do with calculations of U.S. elite
and geo-political interests. In every case policy would have been roughly
opposite to what took place, if there had been humanitarian concerns. There
weren’t, and there aren’t.
why is NATO bombing in the Balkans?
Just as killings by the
(U.S.-trained) junta in Haiti did not concern U.S. policymakers until large
numbers of refugees started fleeing to the United States, so too human rights
abuses in Kosovo did not concern U.S. policymakers as long as they didn’t
threaten regional stability. But as the fighting in Kosovo escalated, with
large numbers of displaced Albanian refugees, U.S. officials decided they
needed to curb the problem—not to aid locally affected people, but to
prevent losses to U.S. interests due to the conflict spreading into other
parts of Europe.
In February and March at
Rambouillet in France, the United States and its European allies invited the
Albanian Kosovars and the Milosevic government to sign an agreement that
provided for the withdrawal of Serbian security forces from Kosovo, the
disarming of the KLA, autonomy for Kosovo, a NATO peacekeeping force, and
follow-up final-status negotiations after three years. Milosevic said he was
unwilling to accept foreign troops on his territory. NATO said it would bomb
him if the Albanians signed and he didn’t. The Albanians reluctantly
accepted the Rambouillet agreement and Milosevic refused.
Now the primary NATO goal
became maintaining its credibility. The Clinton administration had invested
heavily in expanding NATO, to make it a primary instrument of U.S. policy not
only in Europe, but also beyond. There is an elementary point of big power
politics that no one denies: threats need to be carried out if the credibility
of future threats is to be maintained. Likewise, threats carried out but not
yielding total victory need to be escalated until the adversary is crushed.
So why make the initial
threat to bomb? There is a predisposition in Washington to favor military
solutions. A diplomatic approach would have strengthened the UN and
international law and made Russia a player, all of which would interfere with
U.S. freedom of action. Bombing, on the other hand, leads with the U.S. strong
suit. It provides a rationale for U.S. domestic military spending and an
international arms bazaar. It tells the world that the U.S. response to
problems with other nations is to bomb them. “What good is this marvelous
military force,” Albright asked Gen. Colin Powell a few years back, “if we
can never use it?”
What effects do the bombings have?
In preparation for the
bombing, relief workers (who might have continued to mitigate the suffering)
and international observers (who might have continued to discourage the most
blatant atrocities) were pulled out of Kosovo. The NATO bombing then provoked
a horrific outburst of ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces as hundreds of
thousands of Albanian Kosovars were driven from their homes. Because all
reporters and international observers had left Kosovo, we do not know the
human toll of Serb actions, but it surely exceeds the toll for the previous
year, during which some 2,000 ethnic Albanian civilians had been killed and
about 250,000 ethnic Albanians had become refugees, most of them within
Even without the bombing, a
Serbian offensive was likely imminent, but it is hard to believe it would have
been as ferocious as what has occurred. The bombing incensed many even in
Serbia’s democratic movement, so one can only imagine how it must have
affected Serb security forces in Kosovo. Unable to retaliate against NATO
missiles and warplanes, they could be expected to lash out at those most
vulnerable, ethnic Albanian civilians. Of course, none of this mitigates the
responsibility for the atrocities on the part of those who carried them out.
But if someone is holding a person hostage and you recklessly charge forward,
leading to the death of the hostage, you also bear some responsibility. Many
U.S. officials have acknowledged that they thought the bombing might well lead
to a paroxysm of violence from Milosevic and that air power, the NATO tool of
choice, could do nothing to stop that violence in the short run.
Bombing, of course, has had
other implications as well. Within Yugoslavia the population has rallied to
Milosevic. The democratic opposition now appears to be either dismantled,
jailed, or, most chillingly, supporting him. As Zorin Djindjic, the leader of
Serbia’s Democratic Party and an organizer of pro-democracy demonstrations
in 1996-1997 put it, the “bombs have marginalized any dissenters here.”
Washington, he said bitterly, has spent more on one day’s bombs than it ever
spent helping the democracy movement in Yugoslavia. Montenegro, the smaller of
the two Yugoslav republics, had previously passed a resolution questioning
Milosevic’s Kosovo policy, but the bombing has quieted its opposition as
well. These results were predictable. And the level of hostility and tension
in the whole region has climbed dramatically, making negotiations and a
lasting peace, eventually obviously required, that much more difficult.
And then there is the
horrible loss of life and means of sustaining life that mounts with each new
raid of Belgrade and Yugoslavia as a whole. Bombing has its own deadly logic.
What begins as “surgical” attacks inevitably expands. “We have to drop
the bridges and turn out the lights—there should be no more outdoor rock
concerts in downtown Belgrade,” Sen. John McCain told Newsweek.
“Twelve days of surgical bombing was never going to turn Serbia around,”
wrote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. “Let’s see what 12
weeks of less than surgical bombing does. Give war a chance.”
But even if badly motivated, won’t the bombings at least restrain Milosevic?
Restrain him from what?
Yes, even an ill-motivated action can sometimes have a desirable effect and
therefore deserve support, but in this case the bombing is not only ill
motivated, it has worsened the plight of the Albanian Kosovars, vastly
increasing the flow of refugees and, due to the scale, created a catastrophe
of the first order. It has diminished the internal opposition to Milosevic,
and, if reports are accurate, perhaps destroyed it. It has undermined the UN,
turned NATO into an offensive, interventionary institution, played havoc with
international law, and further projected the U.S. as a country eager and
willing to punish any deviations it discerns from its will with bombs, thus
acting as a threat against countries throughout the world. And finally, there
is the devastation of Yugoslavia itself, the immediate expansion of deaths and
casualties, and the future expansion due to the wrecking of a country’s
Can the U.S. really be that evil? Isn’t this just left cynicism and a
knee-jerk rejection to all U.S. actions?
Sometimes when a person or
group holds roughly the same position repeatedly in different contexts it
indicates that the person or group is gravitating to it reflexively or has
lost touch with reason and is bending reality to fit his or her prejudices.
And yes, there are likely critics of the bombing who have adopted a stance
based not on evidence and sound reasoning, but on a pre-determined mindset,
with facts bent to fit.
But, the facts of U.S.
international relations, and of the limited options available in this case are
really not in dispute. And the judgment drawn by critics of U.S. policy are
not leaps from those facts or distortions of those facts or subjective
impositions on those facts, but rather very simple deductions from the facts,
which, were the culprit any other nation, would be obvious to all.
Why are there conflicting viewpoints among leftists and progressives, some
favoring bombing, some opposing it?
There has been an avalanche
of media commentary emphasizing the immense and grotesque crimes in the
Balkans for nearly a decade. It is natural that some people, including many on
the left, have become very impassioned about wishing to see those crimes
curbed. This desire, perfectly reasonable on the face of it, has left some
folks blind to the reality that just saying that a policy helps people
doesn’t mean that, in fact, the policy does help those people. The desire
not to ignore the plight of the Kosovars is worthy. But to advocate policies
that end up hurting the Kosovars, Yugoslavia as a whole, international law,
the UN, and by the threat-effect all who might oppose U.S. pursuits, on
grounds that at least it is doing something, is unworthy.
Why do many leftists inside Serbia deny that the Serbs have committed
There are many factors at
work, no doubt. Ethnic conflicts frequently find leftists on opposite sides,
swept up in the myths and distortions of their own ethnic group. (Think of the
Palestine-Israeli or the Turkish-Greek conflicts.) Having bombs drop in your
neighborhood and nation, which destroy the daily functioning of your society,
has, we know from history, a tremendously galvanizing and homogenizing effect
on people’s views. More, there is likely also honest confusion. Facts
available outside Yugoslavia may not be available inside, or at least may not
be comprehensible there.
In matters such as this,
testimony from people on the scene, from whatever persuasion, must be
understood in context. Single events can be elaborated into whole theses, a
common trick of the mass media, but in chaotic situations there are single
events demonstrative of pretty much any kind of behavior one might wish to
find. What matters most is not single examples or events, but widespread
patterns of behavior and broad policies and their broad implications.
Why are many right wingers against the bombing?
Some right wingers
reflexively oppose anything Clinton does (”a draft-dodger can’t lead us
into war,” etc.) But there are two other sources of right-wing opposition.
One is that elites can differ in their views as to what best serves U.S. elite
interests. If it doesn’t work as planned, which is certainly likely, this
operation may leave NATO and the U.S. in a worse place than at its outset.
Therefore, for those who doubt the bombing’s capacity to lead to stable
results that legitimate NATO, reduce risk of spreading conflict, etc., there
is reason to oppose the policy.
Moreover, to some right
wingers, multilateralism—even if it’s NATO rather than the UN— s suspect
because it reduces to some extent U.S. freedom of action. If the situation in
Kosovo causes a crisis in southeastern Europe, let the Europeans deal with it.
The right wing opposes peacekeeping operations (“the United States needs to
husband its resources for great exertions, not dissipate them in a thousand
stagnant fens” [Charles Krauthammer]). And where left/progressive critics of
the bombing argue that it will not achieve—and will in fact exacerbate—any
humanitarian objectives, the right wing is as concerned about the suffering in
Kosovo as it is about the suffering in America’s cities.
What is the role of law in this crisis? Where is the UN in all this?
The Charter of the United
Nations—which is a treaty signed by the United States and thus part of the
“Supreme law of the land”—prohibits the use or threat of force against
other nations except in self-defense to an armed attack or if authorized by
the UN Security Council. When the United States can bring along the Security
Council it is delighted to do so (for example, during the 1991 war against
Iraq), even if it takes blatant bribery to pressure other states to assent.
But where such consensus is impossible, Washington has been happy to ignore
the Security Council, claiming that it has authorization from previous Council
resolutions, even though most other countries see no such authorization (the
U.S.-British bombing of Iraq in December 1998, for example) or else advancing
ludicrous claims that it is acting in self-defense (as in its recent missile
strikes on a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant).
Regional organizations like
NATO do not have the right to act on their own. Article 53 of the UN Charter
states that “no enforcement action shall be taken under regional
arrangements or by regional agencies without the authorization of the Security
Council.” So in the case of Kosovo, the U.S. and NATO, confronting a
problem, turned not to the UN but to the Pentagon. The UN is not entirely
under U.S. auspices and could, conceivably, act independently and in a
humanitarian manner that would conflict with U.S. interests and require
changes in U.S. policies.
Why does it matter that Yugoslavia is a sovereign nation and that this is an
internal conflict rather than between nations?
Borders exist. And the
reason to be concerned about their violation even with good motivations much
less by a unilateral and illegal force, is because respect for borders is one
of the few impediments to the mighty doing whatever they please with the weak.
To establish the precedent that national sovereignty is inconsequential is to
remove perhaps the major impediment to one nation sending troops, bombers, or
missiles into another. Once that is done, there remains only debate over what
is warranted, and in the world as we know it such debate is dominated by the
most powerful states and their massive media machines, most particularly the
U.S. (Military intervention, Richard Falk has reminded us, is like the
Mississippi River: it only flows from North to South.) Thus, to deny the
validity of national sovereignty is to effectively give the U.S. carte blanche
to intervene when and where it decides—which is, of course, from the U.S.
perspective, a delightful by-product of the current events.
What is the right way to deal with crises like this and what rights are
national minorities entitled to?
Should Japan bomb
Washington out of solidarity with blacks subjected to horrible conditions and
violence in our inner cities? Would that improve or worsen the plight of
blacks, have ancillary affects that were positive or negative from the point
of view of justice and self-determina- tion? The major means of impacting
relations ought to be diplomacy, international opinion, and domestic
movements. In some instances (as in the case of apartheid in South Africa)
these may be rightly augmented with economic sanctions that are supported by
the internal opposition. In other instances, however, sanctions can amount to
a deadly and immoral weapon, having as their chief consequence huge and
criminal casualties among civilians, as in Iraq in recent years. Yes, one can
certainly imagine situations where a powerful state or community can and will
devastate a minority ethnic group if there is not some form of more powerful
intervention—but this does not mean bombing by interested parties not
seeking true peace and which will only aggravate crimes and divisions.
Most world problems,
including most humanitarian crises, don’t call for military solutions, but
non-pacifists believe that there are some situations where force is the only
option. If that force is wielded by the United States, however, it will be
used to further U.S. elite interests rather than any humanitarian objective.
Other countries, too, look out for their own elite interests, so the way to
minimize the influence of the elite-serving agendas of individual governments
is to put a humanitarian military force under democratic international
control. International control must mean the UN General Assembly, not the
Security Council which is set up in the most undemocratic way imaginable, with
five countries (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China) having
Even the General Assembly
does not represent real democracy. There’s no relation of votes to
population, many members states are themselves undemocratic, and even those
that are formally democratic are dominated by wealthy elites. True democratic
control of a humanitarian force must await global social change, but in the
meantime the General Assembly provides the best approximation.
Thus, in extreme cases,
what is needed to prevent human travail is a true peace-keeping force, under
the auspices of the General Assembly of the UN, prepared to stand between
combatants and, if necessary, to defend itself and those being abused, to
create conditions for negotiations.
What rights are national
minorities entitled to? As a basic position, we must support
self-determination as a fundamental democratic right. But what if a minority
wants to secede, but within their territory live other minorities? Such
situations have no simple solution, especially if the minority does not live
in contiguous territory. What if a minority wishes to leave a country and take
with it the bulk of the country’s resources or assets, leaving a majority
behind bereft of the means to sustain them?
A proper policy regarding
national minorities requires a flexible mechanism of international law and
adjudication, respected by the peoples and nations of the world, with binding
powers that all abide, and with priority attention to ensuring that the
powerful do not subjugate or otherwise delimit the options of the weak within
or between countries. We are far from having any such mechanism, but U.S.
flouting of international law moves us in precisely the wrong direction.
What should we demand for the
end to the bombing.
diplomacy, not rejecting out of hand every diplomatic overture (such as
the Russian call for talks or Milosevic’s offer of a cease-fire).
international peace- keeping force overseen by the UN General Assembly to
stand between the combatants.
international system, under the auspices of the General Assembly, to
adjudicate and make decisions about the use of peace-keeping forces.
insistence that other atrocities, often perpetrated or abetted or ignored
by Washington because they serve U.S. interests, receive the same media
visibility and humanitarian attention as the atrocities in Kosovo.