Fearful people fleeing the rampage of terrorists-the odd juxtaposition on April 20 of adolescent mayhem in Littleton, Colorado, and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo may be an accident of the ubiquitous TV camera. But the murders at Columbine High School did pose again the question that haunts us whenever people turn to violence: Could it have been prevented? The young men in Littleton who murdered thirteen people, injured twenty-three, and finally killed themselves had shown animosity to other people and to the community’s values in ways that begged for intervention. Yet nothing was done.

By contrast, we have intervened in Kosovo. But has it done any good? Some of our readers think not (see, Correspondence, page 4). NATO’s decision to intervene was not made easily or hastily. Belligerence, abuse, rape, and murder in Bosnia through the first part of this decade brought Europe and the United States reluctantly and even shamefacedly to the realization that violence in the Balkans would not be contained by salvos of diplomatic protestation and threats of military action never acted upon. Nor could it be hidden: CNN is watching. In this part of the world, it appears, real deterrence requires real action.

And so after the failure of the latest diplomatic efforts at Rambouillet, there began a slow and deliberate bombing of Yugoslavia. Over a month later it continues and now includes Serbian targets in Kosovo and Montenegro. It has not deterred ethnic cleansing, although it did not inspire it either. The Yugoslav military had plans underway for "Operation Horseshoe" last autumn, if not earlier. The Kosovar Albanian guerrillas (the KLA) would be defeated by terrorizing and driving out the Kosovar Albanian population.

But did the bombing accelerate the pace and brutality with which the Serbs expelled the Albanians from Kosovo? Will the bombing end Milosevic’s reign of terror in Kosovo, and elsewhere in the Balkans? Will those who have been expelled be allowed to return home any time soon-or any time at all? In other words, if intervention has not worked yet, is it likely to work ever?

At this point, there are few certain answers, and few are likely to emerge in the near future. That very uncertainty feeds the urge to take another, supposedly more decisive step. The cry to send ground troops accelerates, certainly on editorial pages. More surprisingly, a majority of public opinion in the United States and Europe favors ground troops immediately (a position argued in these pages by our columnist William Pfaff, page 8). British Prime Minister Tony Blair, though muted in Washington during NATO’s fiftieth-anniversary meeting, has been a strong proponent of ground troops. For the moment, NATO is said to be "updating" its plans for a ground force. Proponents and opponents alike appear agreed on at least this: that sending ground troops would raise the stakes enormously, either compelling a Yugoslav agreement or taking a fatal step into a quagmire.

That is not a move to make without first examining some of the assumptions NATO seemed to be operating on when it decided to begin the air campaign.

Anyone who has followed the decade-long struggle in the former Yugoslavia knows that the war drums have not been beating in the United States or Western Europe. James Baker, when George Bush’s secretary of state, remarked that we have no dog in this fight. He was right. American national interests, defined in classically narrow terms of secure borders and material survival, were not at stake in 1991; and arguably they are not at stake now. Most of Europe held the same view. So Yugoslavia ripped itself apart while the West stood by. The shelling of Sarajevo by the Serbs was the most infamous of the crimes televised around the world, but it was not the only city destroyed. Nor were the Muslims and Croats the only victims, as John Garvey points out in his column (page 7). Serbs too were driven from their homes. The carnage became intolerable, all sides were exhausted, and finally the UN intervened. There followed the Dayton Accords, masterminded by Richard Holbrooke with the acquiescence of Slobodan Milosevic. A modicum of peace is maintained in Bosnia by an international force of armed troops.

The lesson of ethnic cleansing, at least the one the West took to heart, was that should intervention come, it had to be sooner rather than later, when lives might actually be saved and atrocities prevented. The photos of mutilated bodies, concentration camps, and endless columns of refugees were simply more than the human eye could bear to watch over and over and over again.

NATO is, nonetheless, a reluctant warrior and the United States perhaps among the more reluctant of its members. Even now, Vietnam remains a painful example of military arrogance and overreaching; a ground war in Kosovo evokes those dreadful memories.

Being a reluctant warrior has, at least this merit: It makes everyone very cautious. The expectation that Milosevic would accept a negotiated settlement after a token show of force was not unreasonable. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright shared it with many others, including Richard Holbrooke. That the bombing campaign began slowly-hampered in part by bad weather-may have been a mistake, but one based on a legitimate moral calculation: Milosevic no more than anyone else wanted a repeat of Bosnia. That expectation proved wrong and the bombing campaign has been extended to new targets.

Reluctant warriors are also prudent. Given that NATO was born of a war where carpet bombing of cities was practiced by both Allies and Axis nations, it is progress to have a war where targets are carefully chosen, missiles are remarkably accurate, and civilians are not the primary targets of direct bombing. Civilians are hit, nonetheless, and ultimately the destruction of infrastructure, even military-related infrastructure, will affect many more civilians. And here, just-war analysis requires that the means be in concert with the ends for which this war is being conducted. (Bruce Russett, professor of international relations at Yale, will offer a full analysis in our next issue, May 21.)

What then of the call for ground troops? There will have to be armed troops on the ground at some point, certainly to usher the refugees back home and to safeguard what will likely be a fragile peace, or as the phrase goes, a semi-permissive environment. But before that? Would a ground war any more than the air war assure the return of the Kosovars?

As we struggle to balance means and ends in this conflict, we need to consider the loss not only of civilian lives in Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, and perhaps neighboring Albania and Macedonia, but the lives of NATO troops as well.

We also need to reflect on the practices of the Yugoslav army as well as police and paramilitary groups who show no compunction in using civilians as human shields and hostages. Why provide them with any more opportunities than they now have? NATO tank and infantry assaults would have to hold their fire in the face of such tactics. The Serbs pride themselves on their capacity for resistance and their ability to disperse men and materials and to fight a guerrilla war. Why give them the chance to slaughter more Kosovar Albanians along with NATO troops? Let them sit there and wait. It is their war. They started it. Let them decide when they have had enough bombing.

In saying that we have no national interest in the war over Kosovo, we are not saying there is no interest whatsoever. This is a war of a very different kind than the West has fought before, born of the movement for human rights and their increasing observance in international law. It is no defense against this war to argue that these slaughters have gone on before, and ended only when both sides had exhausted themselves. Today there is a big difference. Now we see the atrocities, for it is also a war born of round-the-clock TV coverage. We cannot turn away from the evidence. Not as we did in Bosnia.

The viability of NATO may be on the line, as many argue. But so is the viability of a worldwide movement to acknowledge the dignity of every human person, and their right to life and to security-even from attacks by their own government or former government. Human rights are what the war in Kosovo is all about. While it goes on, we must do everything we can to observe those human rights: we must do all we can to feed and protect the refugees and we must strive scrupulously to avoid civilian casualties, among the Serbs no less than others. Finally, just because soldiers are paid to fight and are willing to fight does not mean that their lives are any less precious. Let the bombing campaign against legitimate targets continue. Let NATO talk about and plan for the use of ground troops. Let the Serbs consider the tragedy they have let loose on the Kosovars.

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Published in the 1999-05-07 issue: View Contents
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