NATO's Empty Victory: A Postmortem on the Balkan Warby Ted Galen Carpenter (Editor), Ted Galen Carpenter
The Clinton administration and the other NATO governments boast that the alliance won a great victory in its war against Yugoslavia.
The Clinton administration and the other NATO governments boast that the alliance won a great victory in its war against Yugoslavia.
- Cato Institute
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Miscalculations and Blunders Lead to War
The Clinton administration made one miscalculation after another in dealing with the Kosovo crisis. U.S. officials and their NATO colleagues never understood the historical and emotional importance of Kosovo to the Serbian people. Those leaders seemed to believe that Belgrade's harsh repression of the ethnic Albanian secessionist movement in Kosovo merely reflected the will of President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia. The administration's foreign policy team, especially Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, mistakenly concluded that, under a threat of air strikes, the Yugoslav government would sign a dictated peace accord (the Rambouillet agreement) to be implemented by a NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo. Administration leaders believed that, even if Milosevic initially refused to sign the Rambouillet agreement, Belgrade would relent after a brief "demonstration" bombing campaign. Those calculations proved to be disastrously wrong.
Reflecting the prevailing view within the administration on March 24the first night of hostilitiesSecretary Albright declared, "I don't see this as a long-term operation." Confronted with the failure of its bombing strategy, the administration quickly changed its tune. Just 11 days after proclaiming that the campaign against Serbia would be over quicklyand confronted with the failure of the NATO bombing to achieve its expected goal of forcing Belgrade to sign the RambouilletaccordsAlbright, echoing the new administration line, declared, "We never expected this to be over quickly." The administration's claims that it expected the massive refugee flows that followed the start of the bombing, and that it expected the aerial campaign to be prolonged, were belied by its unpreparedness to deal with the refugees and by the hasty improvisations that marked the escalating bombardment of Yugoslavia. Simply put, the Clinton administration was unready to deal with the very consequences it now claims to have foreseen.
Kosovo's Insurgency and the Onset of Western Meddling
History and demographics are the principal underlying causes of the Kosovo conflict. The immediate cause of the struggle is the clash of rival Serbian and ethnic Albanian nationalisms, which led to a situation in which the political demands of the two sides were irreconcilable. Constituting the overwhelming majority of the province's population, Kosovo's ethnic Albanians invoked the principle of national self-determination and sought complete independence from Serbia. However, because of Kosovo's historical and cultural importance to them, Serbs view Kosovo as an integral part of their nation, and hence they reject ethnic Albanian demands for independence and are unwilling to give up the province.
Since the beginning of the NATO air campaign, the notion has taken hold in the West that Serbia was guilty of "unprovoked aggression" against Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population. Lost in the "perception management" waged by the administration and NATO officials in Brussels was the fact that the ethnic Albanian separatiststhrough the instrument of the Kosovo Liberation Armyhad been waging an armed guerrilla insurgency to gain independence from Belgrade.
In the early 1990s the ethnic Albanian movement was led by Ibrahim Rugova and his League for a Democratic Kosovo. The LDK was nonviolent (Rugova himself is a pacifist). As The Economist recounts, under the LDK's leadership, "Kosovo's 2m Albanians established a parallel state, with a parliament, president, taxation, and an education system." Without Serbian approval, the LDK organized a 1991 referendum in which Kosovo's ethnic Albanians overwhelmingly endorsed independence. Although, as The Economist noted, "Albanian leaders in Kosovo are unanimous in support of independence," over time many ethnic Albanians became disillusioned with the failure of the LDK's moderate, peaceful policy for achieving that goal. By 1996 the KLA had appeared on the scene, and by 1998 it had become a significant political and military factor. The KLA was committed to gaining independence for Kosovo by waging war against the Serbian government. During the first three months of 1998, the KLA stepped up its insurgency against Serbian authorities in Kosovo. KLA units attacked Serbian police, waged an assassination campaign against Serbian officials in Kosovo, and attacked various government buildings and installations as well as civilian Serbs.
Belgrade responded to the KLA insurgency with a brutal military crackdown on KLA strongholds in rural Kosovo. Serbian reprisals triggered a spiral of rising violence that prompted the United States, which reimposed sanctions against Belgrade, and NATO to become directly involved. In early March 1998 Secretary Albright urged immediate action to punish Belgrade for its actions in Kosovo "and to encourage [the Serbian government] to finally resolve the problems in Kosovo through dialogue and reconciliation." Two months later former assistant secretary of state Richard Holbrooke was sent to the Balkans in an attempt to defuse the Kosovo crisis.
American efforts foundered for two reasons. First, the gap between Belgrade and Kosovo's ethnic Albanians (whose leaders were committed to separatist policies) was unbridgeable: the Albanians insisted on independence from Serbia, while Belgrade refused to relinquish its sovereignty over the province. Second, Washington's policy was undermined by a serious inconsistency: while rejecting ethnic Albanian demands for independence, the United States also opposed Yugoslavia's efforts to suppress a guerrilla insurgency on its own territory.
In June 1998 NATO conducted aerial maneuvers over Albania and Macedonia in an attempt to coerce Belgrade to desist from its counterinsurgency campaign in Kosovo. At the same time, NATO defense ministers authorized the preparation of contingency plans for both a bombing campaign against Yugoslavia and the deployment of ground troops to Kosovo. By midsummer 1998 the crisis seemed to have abated, and with it the prospect of NATO intervention. During that period, Pentagon officials indicated that the United States had made it clear to the KLA that NATO would not come to its rescue. The same officials also expressed their frustration at the KLA's intransigence in diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis.
By early autumn, however, the fighting between Yugoslav and KLA forces in Kosovo had again intensified, as had calls from senior Clinton administration officials for NATO to threaten the use of force to pressure Belgrade to end its operations against the KLA. In October, under threat of NATO air strikes, Belgrade agreed to withdraw troops from Kosovo and accept an internationally monitored cease-fire in the province. Three aspects of the process leading to the October cease-fire are noteworthy. First, notwithstanding that Yugoslavia was engaged in suppressing an insurgency by secessionist rebels on its own territory, the United States blamed Belgrade alone for the violence in Kosovo, and NATO's military threats targeted only Yugoslavia. Second, the ethnic Albanians were openly hostile to the cease-fire because it failed to bring them closer to their goal of independence. Third, as Yugoslav forces began withdrawing in accordance with the cease-fire, KLA forces immediately moved to reoccupy the territory they had lost during the Serbian offensive. The KLA also used the respite afforded by the cease-fire to reconstitute its fighting power.
The familiar pattern of guerrilla war soon set in: insurgent attacks provoked Serbian reprisals, which begot more insurgent attacks and a reintensification of the fighting. The KLA's strategy was to create enough concern in NATO capitals about the Serbian counterinsurgency to bring about Western intervention in the war. In fact, the U.S. intelligence community warned the administration that, in an attempt to draw the United States and NATO into the conflict, the KLA acted deliberately to provoke harsh Serbian reprisals. By January the Yugoslav forces had embarked upon a renewed assault on KLA strongholds. That offensive triggered allegations that Serbian troops had massacred ethnic Albanian civilians and were engaging in ethnic cleansing. The cease-fire's unraveling heightened U.S. and West European concerns that the fighting could lead to a humanitarian tragedy, which could spill over into Albania and Macedonia and thereby destabilize the entire Balkan region. Those fears led to the Rambouillet negotiations.
The Rambouillet Negotiations: How Not to Conduct Diplomacy
At the Rambouillet meetings, the goal of the United States and its West European allies was to gain the assent of Belgrade and the KLA to a peace agreement for Kosovo. The proposed Rambouillet accord would have superseded the October 1998 cease-fire agreement. The Rambouillet agreement provided for (1) the withdrawal of most Yugoslav military and paramilitary forces from Kosovo; (2) the restoration of Kosovo's political autonomy; (3) a three-year transition period, at the end of which there would be a referendum on Kosovo's future; (4) disarmament of the KLA; and (5) deployment of an armed NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo.
After 18 days, the Rambouillet talks were at an impasse, with both Belgrade and the KLA refusing to sign the accord. The talks were thereupon adjourned for 19 days, until March 15, while the KLA emissaries returned to Kosovo for consultations with their leadership. The KLA representatives refused to sign because they did not receive an explicit guarantee that Kosovo would become independent at the end of the three-year transition period. Washington and the West Europeans had agreed only to consider the results of the referendum in determining Kosovo's future status. When the Rambouillet meeting reconvened, the KLA, after considerable arm-twisting by the United States, signed the proffered accord. The Yugoslavians, however, held fast in their refusal to sign, and thereupon NATO made good on its threat to bomb Yugoslavia.
Rambouillet is a textbook example of how not to practice diplomacy. The U.S. policy, charted by Secretary Albright, was fatally flawed in a number of respects: (1) it was biased; (2) it reflected an appalling ignorance of Serbia's history, nationalism, and resolve; and (3) it showed a culpable disregard for the foreseeable consequences of carrying out the alliance's military threat.
At Rambouillet the United States did not play the role of an impartial mediator attempting to bring rival parties to an agreement. Rather, the United States effectively took one sidethe KLA'sin a civil war. That the United States aligned itself with the KLA against Serbia is hardly surprising. After all, in March 1998 Secretary Albright had pinned full responsibility for the unrest in Kosovo on the Belgrade government, notwithstanding that it usually requires two parties to cause an armed conflict. Albright and the rest of the Clinton team seem to have overlooked the fact that in Kosovo there was an ongoing insurgency mounted by the KLA. On the eve of the Rambouillet talks, Albright declared, "If the Serbs are the cause of the breakdown, we're determined to go forward with the NATO decision to carry out air strikes." At no time during the Rambouillet process did the administration threaten to take military action against the KLA if it caused the talks to break down. Indeed, the United States was remarkably vague about the actions it would take against the KLA under those circumstances.
Once the Rambouillet talks collapsed, and the air campaign began, administration officialsincluding President Clinton himselfblamed Belgrade for that outcome and claimed that the Yugoslavians failed to accept the "just peace" that was on the table. That assertion hardly does justice to the facts. At Rambouillet the Yugoslavians were "negotiating" with a gun to their head. Indeed, the United States and the West Europeans were not negotiating with Belgrade at all; Belgrade was presented with an ultimatum and given the choice of signing or being bombed. That was repeatedly underscored by administration officials, including Clinton and Albright.
The administration's strategy of coercing Yugoslav acquiescence to Rambouillet was knocked off the tracks by the KLA's initial refusal to sign, which, as the New York Times reported, "flabbergasted" the Clinton team. After the Rambouillet impasse, the administration spent the better part of the recess in the talks cajoling the KLA to sign. To gain the KLA's assent, Washington used NATO's threat to bomb Serbia as a carrot. U.S. officials reminded the KLA that, unless it signed the Rambouillet pact, the alliance would be unable to carry out its threat to bomb Serbia. In the end, of course, the KLA was persuaded to sign the accord, and Belgrade refused to do so.
The Yugoslavians refused to sign at Rambouillet for two reasons. First, Belgrade correctly believed that the Rambouillet settlement disproportionately favored the KLA. Although the Rambouillet plan provided that Kosovo would nominally remain part of Yugoslavia for three years, Belgrade's actual control over the province would have been reduced to a nullity. Notwithstanding that the United States and NATO did not explicitly specify Kosovo's status at the end of the plan's three-year transition period, the KLA made it quite clear what would happen: either Kosovo would become independent or the KLA would resume the war. Indeed, even as they agreed to sign the Rambouillet accord, KLA leaders expressed their intent to ignore its disarmament provisions and to keep the KLA's military capabilities intact. The Yugoslavians also refused to sign because they believed that the provision requiring them to accept the presence of NATO soldiers in Kosovo (as peacekeepers) infringed on their sovereignty. Indeed, an appendix to the Rambouillet agreement would have permitted NATO to deploy its forces not only in Kosovo but anywhere on Yugoslav territory. Belgrade hardly can be condemned for balking at the prospect of such a pervasive regime of military occupation. Few, if any, governments would willingly accept such onerous terms. Specifically, Chapter 8, Annex B, Section 8 stated:
NATO personnel shall enjoy, together with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft, and equipment, free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] including associated airspace 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.
NATO Resorts to Force
With the KLA's signature in hand, and Belgrade's refusal to agree to the Rambouillet accord, the United States and NATO proceeded to make good on their threat to bomb Yugoslavia, ostensibly to (1) compel Belgrade to reconsider its position and to accept the Rambouillet plan and (2) deter the Serbs from expelling ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. The bombing campaign was based on serious miscalculations about its effect on the Serbs and on events on the ground in Kosovo.
The available evidence indicates that the Clinton foreign policy team, especially Secretary Albright, expected that the Rambouillet process would have one of two outcomes. In all likelihood, U.S. officials believed, Belgrade ultimately would bow to American and NATO threats and sign the Rambouillet accords. But if Belgrade refused to do so, it would quickly change its mind after NATO conducted a brief "demonstration" bombing of Yugoslavia. Indeed, many U.S. and NATO policymakers apparently believed that NATO's threat to use force, or its actual use in a brief but intense bombing campaign, would be welcomed by Milosevic. The reasoning was that by submitting to superior force Milosevic could resolve the Kosovo problem on NATO's terms without damaging his domestic political position. In reaching that conclusion, U.S. officials, especially Secretary Albright, believed that precedent pointed to such an outcome. After all, according to the Clinton administration's misinterpretation of recent history in the Balkans, NATO air strikes on the Bosnian Serbs in 1995 had caused Belgrade to agree to the Dayton accords. And, in October 1998, the alliance's threat to bomb Yugoslavia apparently had persuaded Belgrade to agree to a ceasefire in Kosovo.
The administration's reading of past events was flawed. In particular, Belgrade was brought to the negotiating table at Dayton, not by NATO air strikes, but by the Croatian army's devastatingly successful ground offensive in the summer of 1995. The comparison with Bosnia was flawed in three additional respects. First, Dayton was possible because the Bosnian Serbs had wearied of the war. There was no corresponding Yugoslav war weariness with respect to Kosovo. Second, Belgrade and the Bosnian Serbs could accept the Dayton accords because they largely had achieved their key war aim of establishing a Serbian enclave in Bosnia. In Kosovo, prior to the bombing campaign, Belgrade had not achieved its key objectives. Finally, Washington did not understand that Kosovo was far more important to the Belgrade government, and the Serbian nation, than Bosnia and the Krajina. Hence Belgrade would fight for Kosovo.
It is evident that, in framing its Kosovo policy, the Clinton team had only the most superficial understanding of the origins of the Kosovo crisis, the complexity of the dispute, and the nature of Serbian nationalism. Blinkered by her obsession with viewing all international crises through the lens of the "1930s analogy," Secretary Albright most egregiously failed to understand the distinctive roots of the conflict in Kosovo. For her, Milosevic was a modern-day Hitler, Yugoslavia's counterinsurgency campaign against the KLA was analogous to Nazi aggression against Czechoslovakia and Poland, and any attempt to resolve the crisis on terms Belgrade might accept was "appeasement." And it was hardly reassuring to hear Clinton say, on the very eve of the bombing campaign, that he "had just been reading up on the Balkans."
The result of such an accumulation of miscalculations, arrogance, and ineptitude was a tragic war that could have been averted. Good intentions alone cannot excuse the administration's bungled policy in the months leading up to the bombing campaign.
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I could never made up what was really happening in the Balkans when I saw the news on TV, I didn't know who was good and bad and how it started. Now I understand what was happening, what our government thought was happening, how biased we were and how the mistake affects the US and also the countries at war and their neighbors. A very interesting, clarifying and easy to follow book. Read it! Even if you don't have much time, you have time for this one.
A real gem of an essay collection: articulate, bold, and profound. Eminently qualified scholars, diplomats and foreign policy experts show why NATO's military aggression against Yugoslavia, under the guise of humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, was bad for Ameican national interest. 'NATO inflicted enormous suffering on innocent Serbian and Albanian Kosovar civilians; created serious economic and political problems for neighboring Balkan countries, stimulated fear the West had embarked on a new round of imperialism under a phony banner of humanitarian intervention, and badly damaged relations with Russia and China.' Where was the so-called 'independent press' while all this was going on? Where were the dissenters? The Cold War is not over yet for some Washington planners. Read this book!!