Stick to your guns

The inexorable press to begin bombing in Yugoslavia had an air of fateful necessity. That is tragedy in the classic sense. It began in 1989 with the willful arrogance of Slobodan Milosevic, who is now pitting his own political survival against the lives of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo along with his own people, the Serbs, who are caught up in the fighting.

Will Milosevic yield to the bombing after a decent interval of resistance? Many observers have speculated that though he could not negotiate Kosovo away in a peace treaty, there would be no dishonor-or political fallout-in having lost it to superior military power. Having never "agreed" to Kosovo’s loss, Serbia could then retrieve or reconquer it at some point in the future, or at least dream about doing so. And Milosevic could appear the national hero.

It is a tidy scenario, but as the days of bombing have ground on and as the pace of ethnic cleansing has increased in Kosovo, that script has come to seem improbable. What if Milosevic is in for the long haul?

Then on the other side, there is NATO. It is joined, for the moment, in a precarious unanimity over its chosen course of action: Bombing the Serbs into compliance with the conditions set down at Rambouillet. The heart of that agreement, a three-year period of autonomy for Kosovo within the confines of Yugoslavia to be followed by a referendum, is coming to seem as improbable as Milosevic’s surrender. Prolonged fighting along with the ethnic cleansing now being carried out by the Serbs in Kosovo is hardly conducive to a settlement that would leave each side tethered in a political arrangement imposed from the outside.

Is NATO then, in effect, fighting for the independence of Kosovo? Has it, indeed, become, as many warned, the air force of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)? If the trajectory of military action continues as it has, with NATO bombing and Serbian ground action against both the KLA and Kosovar civilians, the call for NATO ground troops will inevitably increase. The 28,000 troops being assembled for peacekeeping duties and enforcement of the conditions set forth at Rambouillet (including disarming the KLA) will seem a ready and tempting tool for bringing an end to Serb efforts to drive ethnic Albanians into neighboring countries.

All of this leaves the United States and NATO in a difficult situation, if not militarily, certainly politically. There will be enormous pressure to end the flood of refugees and the human-rights violations going on in Kosovo by introducing ground troops; indeed, the argument is mounting that the NATO bombing is itself responsible for the actions the Serbs have taken in Kosovo.

In these circumstances, it is important to keep hold of several seemingly contradictory realities. The first is that the Serbs, not NATO, are responsible for the human-rights violations in Kosovo, as they were in Bosnia. The hesitation the outside world has shown with respect to acting on the situation in Kosovo has been reasonable and prudent; the measured military actions now being taken, and confined to military targets, cannot be made either the moral equivalent of Serbian atrocities or the cause of those atrocities. The second contradictory reality is that though the KLA may look like a small and heroic band of brothers, it is, in fact, a pale imitation of its Serb neighbors. It too has committed atrocities, but against ethnic Serbs in Kosovo. It too has rabid nationalists in its midst. It too has apprentice Slobodan Milosevics in its ranks.

For these reasons and many others, NATO and the United States ought to stick to their chosen course of action. First, through bombing, systematically degrade Yugoslav military forces in Serbia and then in Kosovo. Second, do not send NATO ground troops to Kosovo until Milosevic (or his successor) has agreed to peace. NATO ground troops should serve as peacekeepers only. Third, the KLA should be disarmed. It should not be left as a military force whether in an autonomous Kosovo or an independent Kosovo.

Finally, having suffered such bloodshed and abuse to achieve a modicum of self-determination, the Kosovars should ratify it by constitutional means and confirm it by international agreement that, indeed, they will remain within their current borders, whether as an autonomous region or independent nation.

The Greater Albania that is the goal of the KLA and at least some Kosovar political leaders is in the interests of neither NATO and Western Europe nor other Balkan nations. It should be clear from NATO’s actions now that this is an unacceptable and untenable goal.

Published in the 1999-04-09 issue: 
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