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After eleven weeks of bombing in the spring of 1999, the United States and NATO ultimately won the war in Kosovo. Serbian troops were forced to withdraw, enabling an international military and political presence to take charge in the region. But was this war inevitable or was it the product of failed western diplomacy prior to the conflict? And once it became necessary to use force, did NATO adopt a sound strategy to achieve its aims of stabilizing Kosovo? In this first in-depth study of the Kosovo crisis, Ivo Daalder and Michael O'Hanlon answer these and other questions about the causes, conduct, and consequences of the war. Based on interviews with many of the key participants, they conclude that notwithstanding important diplomatic mistakes before the conflict, it would have been difficult to avoid the Kosovo war. That being the case, U.S. and NATO conduct of the war left much to be desired. For more than four weeks, the Serbs succeeded where NATO failed, forcefully changing Kosovo's ethnic balance by forcing 1.5 million Albanians from their home and more than 800,000 from the country. Had they chosen to massacre more of their victims, NATO would have been powerless to stop them. In the end, NATO won the war by increasing the scope and intensity of bombing, making serious plans for a ground invasion, and moving diplomacy into full gear in order to convince Belgrade that this was a war Serbia would never win. The Kosovo crisis is a cautionary tale for those who believe force can be used easily and in limited increments to stop genocide, mass killing, and the forceful expulsion of entire populations. Daalder and O'Hanlon conclude that the crisis holds important diplomatic and military lessons that must be learned so that others in the future might avoid the mistakes that were made in this case.
On March 24, 1999, NATO went to war for the first time in its fifty-year history. Its target was not a country, but a man. As the Serb leader of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic had been most responsible for a decade of violence that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia. Well over a hundred thousand people had been killed and millions displaced in Croatian and Bosnian wars during the first part of the 1990s. Now a similar humanitarian catastrophe threatened in Kosovo, part of Serbia, the heart of the former Yugoslavia. Milosevic's security forces were arrayed against the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a small insurgent force, and the ethnic Albanians who dominated the area's population. In the previous year of fighting, nearly two thousand people had been killed and many hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes. A full-scale war in Kosovo between Serbs and Albanians would likely have been particularly brutal, leaving untold death and destruction in its wake. Compounding the likely humanitarian disaster was the potential for large numbers of refugees engulfing the fragile border countries of Macedonia and Albania, with consequences for stability and security across the entire region.
So NATO went to war. For a decade, the alliance had wavered in its resolve to confront Milosevic. At times, the Serb leader had proven a willing partner in negotiating a halt to the region's violence. More often, he had been the source of that violence. For more than a year, the United States and its principal European allies had tried toheadoff a military confrontation by seeking to engage the man most responsible for the carnage that had befallen Kosovo, an approach similar to that followed in Croatia and Bosnia earlier in the decade. The Kosovo effort failed, not least because Milosevic displayed little interest in defusing a confrontation with a NATO alliance he assumed would soon founder in disagreement over how and to what extent to prosecute a war.
Late on the night of March 24, NATO warplanes began what was expected to be a brief bombing campaign. The purpose of the campaign was to force Milosevic back to the negotiating table so that NATO could find a way short of independence to protect Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population from Serb violence and political domination. This bombing campaign, it was emphatically stated, was not a war, and none of the NATO leaders had any intention of waging one.
Politics at home and abroad were believed to constrain the United States and its partners in the use of force. When hostilities began, President Bill Clinton had just survived his impeachment ordeal. He faced a Congress that was not just politically hostile but also increasingly wary of U.S. military action designed to serve humanitarian goals, including in the Balkans. Although Clinton had authorized the use of military force several times in his presidency, he had not ordered American soldiers into situations in which some were likely to be killed since the Somalia operation had gone tragically wrong in late 1993. Against this backdrop, the president failed to prepare the country for the possibility that NATO's initial bombing raids might be the opening salvo of a drawn-out war. Nor were he and his top advisers really prepared for this possibility themselves.
As alliance aircraft revved up their engines to start a short air campaign focused primarily on Serb antiaircraft defenses, the expected operation had the flavor of a number of other recent, short, and antiseptic uses of Western airpower. Three months earlier the United States and Great Britain had conducted a four-day bombing campaign against Iraq, and in August 1998 the Clinton administration had launched cruise missile strikes against suspected terrorist facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan in retaliation for the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa by the Osama bin Laden network. Neither of those recent military operations had achieved core U.S. strategic objectives. Saddam Hussein had not allowed weapons inspections to resume in Iraq, and the bin Laden network remained intact and, by all accounts, poised to strike again. These generally unsuccessful attacks did little to enhance the credibility of the United States. They were designed more to punish, and to "send a message," than to compel an adversary to change his behavior or directly achieve concrete strategic objectives.
NATO's security interests seemed even less engaged in the Balkans than they had been with Saddam Hussein or bin Laden. This was apparent in the alliance's goals for Kosovo, which were quite nuanced. NATO did not seek to defeat the Serb-dominated Yugoslav armed forces, cause a regime change in Belgrade, or gain Kosovo its independence. Rather it sought to convince Milosevic to resume negotiations that would allow an armed international force into Kosovo to quell the violence that had erupted there in March 1998. Beyond that the alliance objective was nothing more than autonomy for the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo. As a major inducement to Milosevic, it even promised to disarm the KLA. Under such circumstances, a protracted NATO bombing campaign seemed disproportionate—and thus unlikely—to most onlookers, be they in Belgrade, Brussels, Washington, or elsewhere.
However, what had started very much as a foreign ministers' battle soon became NATO's first real war. Seventy-eight days later, it finally ended as Serb forces left Kosovo and a NATO-led international force of 50,000 began to move in. But over the intervening weeks a great deal of destruction was wrought, by Serbs against ethnic Albanians and by NATO against Serbia.
Despite the fact that most of the world's best air forces were conducting combat missions over Yugoslavia from March 24 onward, the early phases of the conflict were dominated militarily by Serb units in Kosovo. NATO lost the war in the initial going, and the Kosovar Albanian people paid the price. Up to 10,000 or so died at Serb hands, mostly innocent civilians; thousands more were raped or otherwise brutalized. Some 800,000 people were forcefully expelled from Kosovo, and hundreds of thousand more were displaced within the territory. Ultimately perhaps 1,000 to 2,000 Serbs perished as well, both civilians killed inadvertently and regular and irregular Serb forces killed on the battlefield.
In the end, NATO prevailed. Although there was no clear turning point, the NATO summit in Washington on April 23-25, 1999—organized originally to celebrate the alliance's fiftieth anniversary—may represent the best dividing line between losing and winning the war. Before that time, the vast majority of Kosovar Albanians were forced from their homes. Despite an intensification of its air campaign, NATO remained powerless to prevent atrocities on the ground or to establish a public perception that it was truly committed to winning the war.
But the summit revealed an alliance unified in its conviction that the war against Serbia must be won. War planning became more systematic, and further increases in NATO's air armada were authorized. The alliance steeled itself sufficiently that even the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy on May 7 by a U.S. B-2 bomber did not seriously threaten continuation of the war effort. Perhaps most significantly, on April 25 Russian President Boris Yeltsin called Bill Clinton, resuming U.S.-Russian ties that had been effectively frozen when the war began. Yeltsin, though still upset, committed to do what he could to end the war, setting in motion a negotiating process that would ultimately put a 360-degree diplomatic squeeze on Milosevic.
When it was all over, the alliance was able to reverse most of the damage Serbia had caused in the early period of the war. Notably, of the nearly 1.3 million ethnic Albanians driven from their homes, virtually all were able to return within a few short weeks of the end of the war. Serb forces left Kosovo, with NATO-led units assuming physical control of the territory. An international administration was set up to run Kosovo, effectively wresting political control over the area from Belgrade.
Although overall political momentum began to shift in NATO's favor around the time of the Washington summit, the military tide of battle turned most dramatically in late May. By then, NATO air assets had nearly tripled and the weather had improved, making precision bombs far more effective. In addition, the alliance's political leadership had authorized attacks against a much wider range of targets in Belgrade and elsewhere. The KLA, though still a modest militia force, had begun to conduct limited offensives against Serb positions within Kosovo, in some cases forcing Serb troops to expose themselves, at which point they became more vulnerable to NATO attack aircraft.
By early June Serbia was reeling. In Kosovo Serb forces had lost substantial amounts of the equipment with which they had begun, and Serb soldiers were finding themselves at considerable personal risk. In Serbia electricity grids were being severely damaged, water distribution was adversely affected in all major cities, and the businesses and other assets of Milosevic's cronies were being attacked with growing frequency.
During the eleven-week air campaign, NATO flew nearly 40,000 combat sorties, about one-third the number flown in six weeks during the 1991 Desert Storm campaign. Fourteen of the alliance's nineteen members participated in the attacks. The air campaign was conducted very professionally and precisely by the armed forces of the United States and other NATO member countries. Although some 500 Serb and ethnic Albanian civilians were killed accidentally by NATO bombs, that toll is modest by the standards of war. Moreover, only two alliance jets were shot down in combat, and only two NATO troops died—U.S. Army pilots who perished in an Apache helicopter training accident in neighboring Albania.
NATO's air war had two main thrusts: a strategic campaign against the Serb heartland and a tactical campaign against the Serb forces doing the killing and the forced expulsions in Kosovo. NATO supreme commander General Wesley Clark rightly argued that, for understanding how NATO won the war, "the indispensable condition for all the other factors was the success of the air campaign itself." The Pentagon's report on the war reached a similar conclusion. But neither ultimate victory nor historically low losses demonstrate that the air war was well designed or properly conceived by top decisionmakers in Washington and other NATO capitals.
Final victory required more than bombing. Two critical factors occurred on the political front: NATO's demonstrated cohesion as an alliance and Russia's growing willingness to cooperate in the pursuit of a diplomatic solution. On the military front, NATO's talk of a possible ground war (which alliance leaders had unwisely ruled out when the bombing began) and the well-publicized decisions to augment allied troop strength in Macedonia and Albania proved to be crucial as well. Whereas the air war inflicted mounting damage, these other factors probably convinced Milosevic that no plausible escape remained. Once that became clear to him, capitulation became his best course, both to minimize further damage to Serbia and its military and to secure his position in power.
Although U.S. domestic politics complicated the conduct of the conflict at times, and did much to shape the limited way in which it was initially fought, they did not fundamentally threaten the operation once it was under way. Most polls showed clear, though hardly overwhelming or impassioned, majorities of the U.S. public supporting NATO's air campaign. Indeed, once the war started, the Clinton administration faced more criticism from those who felt its war plan to be excessively cautious than from those who believed the use of force to be wrongheaded in the first place. As columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. wrote, liberals in particular supported this war for its humanitarian dimensions, getting over their "Vietnam syndrome" in the process. And while some conservatives objected to the war as not serving U.S. interests, much of the Republican foreign policy elite felt strongly that the conflict had to end in a NATO victory.
In this book, we trace the causes, conduct, and consequences of the Kosovo conflict, analyzing the prelude to war in 1998 and 1999, the period when the KLA first came into direct conflict with Serb forces in Kosovo and the latter began a deliberate escalation of the conflict. We also critically assess the key decisions in NATO policymaking over the eighteen-month period from early 1998 through mid-1999: the October 1998 Holbrooke-Milosevic agreement to place unarmed international monitors in Kosovo, the Rambouillet negotiations of early 1999, the alliance's decision to begin bombing, and its gradual realization that it would have to win a war, whatever that ultimately required. We conclude by drawing lessons from the conflict that may be relevant to managing similar crises and conducting other such interventions in the future.
Our basic thesis is summarized in the book's title, Winning Ugly. NATO did meet reasonable standards of success in its 1999 war against Serbia. The outcome achieved in Kosovo, while hardly without its problems, represented a major improvement over what had prevailed in the region up to that point and certainly over what would have happened had NATO chosen not to intervene. It is in that relative sense that the policy was successful, not because it was properly designed at most major stages and not because it achieved the best plausible outcome to which NATO might have aspired.
Operation Allied Force was far from a perfect diplomatic and military accomplishment. The United States and its allies succeeded only after much suffering by the ethnic Albanian people on the ground. They prevailed only after committing a number of major mistakes, which future interventions must seek to avoid. In fact, NATO's mistakes were so serious that its victory was anything but preordained. Had Milosevic not escalated the conflict dramatically by creating the largest forced exodus on the European continent since World War II, and had alliance leaders not then realized they had to radically overhaul their military strategy, NATO could have lost the war. That would have held very serious implications for the future of the alliance and even worse implications for the peoples of the region.
The Roots of War
The immediate cause of the conflict in Kosovo was Slobodan Milosevic, and his oppression of Kosovar ethnic Albanians in the preceding decade. Oppression ultimately gave rise to violent opposition to Serb rule, first in the formation of the KLA and then in the spiral of violence of 1998 and 1999. But the antecedents of the war go back many centuries. The most famous historic event of the millennium in the territory was probably the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, in the Field of the Blackbirds, near Kosovo's present-day capital of Pristina. There, Serb forces attempted to fend off the invading Turks, with ethnic Albanians probably fighting on both sides in the battle. A subsequent battle in Kosovo in 1448 between the Ottoman Turks and the Hungarians, together with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, sealed the fate of the region. The Ottoman Empire would soon dominate the region and it in fact controlled Kosovo into the twentieth century. Looking back on these momentous events, nineteenth- and twentieth-century Serb nationalists mythologized the 1389 battle and, more generally, the role of Kosovo in their nation's history. In the process, they portrayed the primarily Muslim Albanians essentially as sympathizers of the victorious Turkish invaders. The complex interaction of Serbs, Albanians, and Turks over the ensuing centuries provided the ground for all parties' competing historical perceptions, myths, fears, and vendettas.
Kosovo's population became increasingly ethnic Albanian during the period of Ottoman rule. A decisive turning point, politically and demographically, was the large Serb exodus from the region (ultimately into Hungary) in the late seventeenth century. It was caused by Ottoman armies pressing north, ending in their defeat at Vienna against the Habsburg dynasty during the Ottoman-Habsburg War of 1683-99. That war spelled the beginning of the end for Ottoman rule in the Balkans, though as noted it survived in Kosovo for another two hundred years.
In the early twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire was driven out of the Balkans by Serb, Macedonian, and Bulgarian forces, shortly before its complete collapse. Serbia, having itself regained de facto independence in the early 1800s and formal state status in the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, asserted control over Kosovo in 1912. That was the same year in which an independent Albanian state was created for the first time, with many of the key moves on the road to independence occurring in Kosovo, conferring on the territory a historic importance for the Albanian people comparable to that for the Serbs. Serbia lost control of Kosovo during World War I. After the war both Serbia and Kosovo were integrated into the new country of Yugoslavia, with Kosovo a province of Serbia.
At various times over the last century, Serbs drove large numbers of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo in what would be antecedents to Slobodan Milosevic's 1999 campaign to effectively empty the territory of nearly all of them. Nonetheless, ethnic Albanians remained the majority population throughout the century, representing an increasingly high percentage of all Kosovars in recent decades. Serbs and Montenegrins constituted slightly less than 30 percent of the population in the early years of Tito's rule, which lasted from 1945 until his death in 1980. They gradually declined to less than half that percentage in recent times due to Serb departures and high Albanian birth rates.
Whatever the recent population proportions, Kosovo is a land to which both Serbs and Albanians have important and long-standing claims. For that reason, claims by extremists on both sides that they have exclusive rights to the land are false, as are claims that the peoples are so different from each other as to be innately incapable of coexistence. The fact that Kosovo's Albanians are now effectively in charge in the province—and that they should remain in control of at least most of it, whether through autonomy within Serbia, republic status within Yugoslavia, or eventual independence—has nothing to do with original claims to the land. It has instead to do with the treatment of the Kosovar Albanians by Slobodan Milosevic and his fellow Serb nationalists in recent times.
Problems became serious even before the rise of Milosevic in 1987. As early as 1981, a year after the death of Tito, a student uprising in Pristina gave rise to provincewide demonstrations against Yugoslav authorities and perhaps dozens or even hundreds of deaths of ethnic Albanians. For Serbs the uprising was surprising in that Kosovo had been granted greater autonomy and rights, including Albanian-language schools, under the 1974 revision of the Yugoslav constitution. For Albanians these new rights only made them hunger for more, and the deteriorating economic conditions in the province together with their second-class status exacerbated the political tension. Additional incidents through the 1980s further divided Serbs from Albanians.
In early 1989, as part of his effort to consolidate power as president of Serbia (the position he held from 1987 until becoming president of Yugoslavia in 1997), Milosevic stripped Kosovo of its autonomy. That denied the territory the special status within the Yugoslav Federation that it had enjoyed since the adoption of the 1974 constitution. In response to growing Serb oppression, Albanians established parallel state structures that were championed by Ibrahim Rugova and his Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), officially founded in December 1989 and committed from the outset to opposing Serb sovereignty over the Kosovar Albanian people. In the following years, Rugova would be elected and reelected as Kosovo's "president" in unofficial elections among the region's ethnic Albanian population.
Rugova and the LDK hoped that in demonstrating their ability to run the territory in all but name, the West would come to recognize Kosovo's right to be independent, as it had for four Yugoslav republics in the early 1990s. Support for separation from Yugoslavia was essentially universal. According to a 1995 survey, 43 percent of all Kosovar Albanians wanted to join Albania, and the remaining 57 percent desired outright independence, with none favoring any other solution (including the status of an independent republic within Yugoslavia, which by then included only Serbia and the much smaller Montenegro). That hope and expectation proved to be misplaced. Kosovo was not at the center of U.S. and European Balkan policy and, as long as violence did not escalate, it would not be at the center of that policy.
Yet the United States and its European allies recognized that Kosovo was a powder keg in the middle of a highly volatile region. With Albanians living in at least four countries (Albania, Greece, Macedonia, and Yugoslavia), anything that stoked Albanian nationalism could be highly destabilizing for Kosovo's neighbors. Probably of most concern was Macedonia, whose population is a potentially volatile mix of Slavs with a large minority of Albanians. The fragility of Albania itself was also a reason for concern. Widespread violence in Kosovo was therefore to be avoided, even if that required direct U.S. military action. This together with congressional pressure explains why the Bush administration, which otherwise had a hands-off policy toward Yugoslavia's breakup, decided in late 1992, in response to indications that Serbia might be contemplating a violent crackdown against the Albanian population in Kosovo, to issue a stern warning that such action would lead to U.S. military action. In a letter to Milosevic, President Bush warned that "in the event of conflict in Kosovo caused by Serbian action, the United States will be prepared to employ military force against the Serbs in Kosovo and in Serbia proper." This so-called Christmas warning was reiterated by the Clinton administration within a month of taking office in 1993, when the new secretary of state, Warren Christopher, stated, "We remain prepared to respond against the Serbians in the event of conflict in Kosovo caused by Serb action."
On the whole, however, Kosovo occupied a distinctly secondary place in U.S. and Western policy toward the region. Indeed, unlike Bosnia, Croatia, and the other former Yugoslav republics, Kosovo was regarded as an integral part of Serbia rather than as a constituent part of the federation that broke up in the early 1990s. Whereas the republics were regarded as new states that emerged from Yugoslavia's dissolution and thus enjoyed sovereign rights, this status did not apply to Serbia's autonomous provinces (Kosovo and Vojvodina), even though these had enjoyed many of the same prerogatives the republics had, including their own constitutions, governments, judiciaries, central banks, and seats alongside the republics in Yugoslavia's eight-member federal presidency. As a result, the issue for Western policy in Kosovo was not self-determination or national rights but how to protect minority and human rights.
Almost from the beginning, therefore, U.S. and European policy toward Kosovo was limited to increasing pressure on Belgrade to improve the human rights situation in the territory and establish conditions for greater autonomy and self-government. These demands were raised as a matter of course in all diplomatic dealings with the Belgrade government. The chief U.S. negotiator for ending the Bosnian war, Richard Holbrooke, also raised the issue of Kosovo with Milosevic during their Bosnia negotiations in Dayton in 1995. However, not only were the issues to be resolved in Dayton highly complex and the negotiations intense, the fact that Milosevic's cooperation was critical to success weakened the negotiators' leverage in exacting the concessions that would have been necessary for progress on Kosovo.
Still, even after sanctions on Serbia were lifted as the reward for Milosevic's important role in concluding the Bosnian peace agreement, an "outer wall" of sanctions remained in place, partly to encourage the Serb government to improve its policies in Kosovo. In 1996, moreover, the United States established an official government presence in Pristina, when it opened a cultural center run by the U.S. Information Agency that, in Holbrooke's words, amounted to "a virtual U.S. embassy." This step demonstrated U.S. concern over the deteriorating conditions in Kosovo. Finally, during the few meetings he had with Milosevic after successfully concluding the Dayton negotiations, Holbrooke consistently repeated the Christmas warning, even though he says that he was not 100 percent clear on what it was or exactly what it would mean in practice.
Despite these limited efforts, there was no concerted attempt to resolve the Kosovo issue before it exploded in full violence (for example, by threatening to impose new sanctions unless Milosevic restored autonomy to the Kosovar Albanians). Although the failure to address Kosovo in Dayton was understandable, the lack of international attention to the issue dealt a major setback to Rugova's strategy of nonviolence. It became increasingly clear in the second half of the 1990s that the Serbs would not stop their repression of Kosovo's majority population and that the international community would do little to effect a change in Serb policy, let alone endorse the Kosovars' demand for independence. For many ethnic Albanians, one conclusion was inescapable: only violence gets international attention. A previously unknown group—the Kosovo Liberation Army—took advantage of this realization and started to engage in sporadic violence, harassing and even killing Serb policemen and other authority figures. Its levels of violence were fairly modest; the KLA claimed to have killed ten Serbs in the two-year period up to early 1998. Nonetheless, the situation was deteriorating.
Meanwhile, Rugova's efforts at nonviolent resistance were leading nowhere after Dayton. In 1996, he negotiated an agreement with Milosevic (with the assistance of Communitá di Sant'Egidio, an Italian Catholic charity) that would have given the educational systems run by ethnic Albanians access to official government buildings. Milosevic failed to implement the accord. Rugova was also hurt when the Sali Berisha government in Albania, from which he had received support, fell in 1997 as a result of the spectacular collapse of a nationwide pyramid scheme. The ensuing chaos in Albania led to looting of weapons stocks in many parts of Albania, some of them undoubtedly winding up in the hands of the KLA.
In March 1998 Serb security forces stoked the fires by massacring eighty-five people in a brutally indiscriminate attempt to stem the KLA's growing importance in Kosovo. At that point, the violence in Kosovo reached a critical threshold and demanded sustained international attention. Unless stopped by a third party, the ethnic Albanian population and Slobodan Milosevic's Serb nationalists were headed for war. The only remaining questions were two. First, did the United States and its allies care enough about Kosovo to be true to Washington's 1992 Christmas warning? Second, would they find an integrated strategy involving both diplomacy and the threat of force that would succeed in getting the local parties off their collision course? The respective answers to these questions were yes and no.
This book explains how these and other questions were raised, and answered, during the critical eighteen-month period from early 1998 through mid-1999, when Kosovo was a top concern of Western policymakers. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on the prewar period, up to and including the Rambouillet negotiations of early 1999. Chapters 4 and 5 trace the seventy-eight-day violent conflict, including the ups and downs of NATO's, Serbia's, and the Kosovar Albanians' fortunes, and identify its key elements and milestones. The conclusion addresses three key policy questions: Was the war inevitable? Did NATO win? And why did Milosevic ultimately capitulate? It also draws several lessons for future policy regarding coercive diplomacy, the use of force, and humanitarian intervention.
Before addressing these questions, however, it is necessary to spell out the main argument of the book: that NATO's cause was worthy, and its efforts ultimately were reasonably successful, but that the strategy it chose to pursue its cause was seriously flawed.
NATO's Worthy Cause
NATO had moral and strategic rectitude on its side in using military power in the Balkans. First, upholding human rights and alleviating humanitarian tragedy are worthy goals for American national security policy. Doing so reinforces the notion that the United States is not interested in power for its own sake but rather to enhance stability and security and to promote certain universal principles and values. Second, the United States and its allies have a special interest in upholding these values in Europe, a continent that has become generally free and undivided since the cold war ended but that remains conflict ridden in the Balkans. Third, in addition to these humanitarian and normative rationales, traditional national interest argues for quelling violence in the Balkans because instability there can affect key allies more directly than instability in most other parts of the world.
A number of critics of NATO's approach to the Kosovo crisis either disagree with these arguments or argue that the alliance should have found a way to solve the problem without going to war. More specifically, critics of the alliance argue the following: that the level of violence in Kosovo did not justify NATO military action, especially given the predictable fallout such an action would have on relations with Russia and China; that a more tactically creative and balanced negotiating strategy in the years before the conflict, and particularly at Rambouillet in the winter of 1999, might have averted war; and that even after Milosevic capitulated to most of NATO's main demands in June, conditions in Kosovo did not improve enough to deem the outcome successful. On all of these points, however, critics have overstated their case.
Certainly the levels of violence in Kosovo before March 24, 1999, were modest by the standards of civil conflict and compared to what ensued during NATO's bombing campaign. The violence had caused the deaths of an estimated 2,000 people in the previous year. This was not an attempted genocide of the ethnic Albanian people. However, there was good reason to believe that, without intervention, things would have gotten much worse. Milosevic and his fellow Serb extremists had already displayed their true colors earlier in the decade in Bosnia, where at least 100,000 people, mostly Muslims and Croats, had been killed. More recently, and more to the point, in 1998, before the October agreement between Milosevic and U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke, Milosevic and his henchmen had driven some 300,000 Kosovar Albanians from their homes, with 50,000 winding up, vulnerable and exposed, hiding in the hills of the province. It was one of the world's five largest crises involving refugees and internally displaced persons in 1998 and the only one in a country subject to cold winters. What the alliance has since learned about Milosevic's planned Operation Horseshoe only confirms these judgments. Recognizing that the KLA was probably becoming too strong and too popular within ethnic Albanian society for him to defeat using classic counterinsurgency techniques, he chose to expel much of the civilian population instead. If this policy was conceived to serve a military purpose, it had a real political appeal for Milosevic too, being the surest way to restore Kosovo to complete Serb control and to free land for Serbs displaced from other parts of the former Yugoslavia in recent conflicts.
At the very best, had Milosevic been left to his own devices, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians would have been driven permanently out of the province, possibly causing serious economic and political consequences in Albania and Macedonia. Fewer Kosovar Albanians might have died in a slower campaign of forced expulsion than the number who died in the actual war, but even that is not certain. It is equally plausible that, once Milosevic saw NATO's lack of resolve in protecting the Kosovars, he would have reverted to the style of warfare perpetrated in Bosnia, killing far more than the 10,000 or so who ultimately perished.
As for the effects on Russia and China, both of these countries had supported previous UN Security Council resolutions demanding an improvement in the human rights situation in Kosovo. Yet neither offered any constructive or serious alternatives to NATO's adopted strategy. The damage to relations with Moscow and Beijing was deeply regrettable; the NATO May 7 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was both tragic and incompetent; and the need to act without a UN Security Council resolution was unfortunate. But NATO could not allow itself to be prevented from stopping a mass murderer in its own backyard by unreasonable demands from foreign capitals. In fact, there may even have been a silver lining, in that NATO demonstrated to Russia and China that it would not be intimidated by their protests over a matter that did not concern them directly—and that they seemed uninterested in trying to solve in any case.