Kosovo Is Not Bosnia

To students of history and international politics, the phrase “preparing to fight the last war” has a familiar ring. It refers to a particularly dangerous form of mental lag, to applying lessons learned from an old failure to conditions sufficiently different as to insure new failure. A few years ago Paul Berman cleverly described the nascent, wrongheaded opposition to the Gulf War on the Vietnam model as “protesting the last war.” Today, alas, we have yet another variation of the same generic error: managing the last Balkan crisis.

Lots of diplomats and politicians in key NATO countries think Kosovo is a replay of Bosnia, and are determined not to make the same mistakes all over again. Whether these diplomats and politicians really understand how they screwed up in Bosnia is itself arguable. But there is no question that the casual equating of Kosovo with Bosnia is a mistake from which no good can come. Hence, the very forward position that NATO has taken–mainly at British and German prodding, but without any serious objections (or thinking, it would seem) in Washington–is cause for worry. It has already put the alliance into a position from which it is hard to go forward and embarrassing to go back.

Not that there aren’t some similarities. Slobodan Milosevic is the thug-in-chief responsible for both calamities, and the calamities are in the same general geographical and cultural zones. The violence directed against ethnic Albanian civilians in Kosovo by Serb para-military groups is indistinguishable from that directed again Bosniaks and Croats in Bosnia. As before, just below the surface our European allies are divided over what to do and Russia is being unhelpful, hence the need for American leadership. And the Clinton administration is still in office, hence the need goes wanting.

But that’s where the similarities end and more daunting differences begin. Five are crucial.

First, Bosnia was a historical sideshow for Serbs, Kosovo is center stage. Milosevic could manipulate the Bosnian Serbs and then cast them aside when the heat rose without risking his nationalist soul or his tenure. Kosovo is the mystical heartland of Serb nationalism, the issue on which Milosevic rose to power, and a zone in which failure would be personally fatal. Tough as “Slobo” was in Bosnia, he’ll be tougher in Kosovo.

Second, while Bosnia was never likely to be a catalytic war, Kosovo is. All-out fighting in the province threatens to involve Albania, fracture Macedonia, and possibly even pull Greece and Turkey into a war–not that they don’t already have their hands full over a new crisis brewing in Cyprus. We need to be more careful about erring over Kosovo than we ever needed to be over Bosnia. Instead the alliance has thrown itself forward with near abandon.

Third, while Bosnia was technically independent when it became subject to Serbian interference, all states recognize Kosovo as part of Yugoslavia. This is why most of our European allies are reluctant to intervene militarily without U.N. Security Council authorization, for the precedent it would set is deeply unsettling.

This is not just a technical legal problem; it bears practically on Russia, for example, from both directions. Russian intervention in the Baltics or Trancaucasus is not all that hard to imagine under a post-Yeltsin government a few years hence; if NATO intervenes in Kosovo without legal permit, what could it say to Moscow in such an event? And from Moscow Kosovo looks uncomfortably like Chechnya. That’s why Russia will veto any enabling Security Council resolution, as would China because Kosovo looks to Beijing a bit too much like Tibet. That’s why, in turn, it is hard to see NATO policy moving forward. (And that’s why Tony Blair, who was first to insist on a hardnosed response to Milosevic in Kosovo AND on an enabling U.N. Security Council resolution, now looks like a fool stomping down on the gas and the brake pedal simultaneously.)

Fourth, the military situations are not remotely comparable. A few NATO bombing runs helped bring Milosevic to the table over Bosnia in 1995, but that cannot be repeated now in Kosovo. The Bosnia Serbs composed a motley and underpowered thuggery. The Yugoslav army, on the other hand, has serious air defense capabilities, MiG fighters, and chemical weapons capabilities. To achieve dominance over the sky in Kosovo, the U.S. Air Force would have to mount a preparation akin to a mini-Desert Storm. People would get killed, even maybe some Americans.

Moreover, the Drina River and mountainous territory worked in Bosnia to focus territorially the paths of Serbian heavy weapons, making it easier to destroy them from the air. But between Serbia proper and Kosovo there are no serious barriers. Armor could travel various routes, avoid concentration, and find ample places to hide. It would be no turkey shoot trying to hit them from the air. NATO’s going in on the ground, then, either as a combat or a peacekeeping force, might suggest itself; but that would be dangerous, expensive, and very wearing on the U.S. military’s reduced post-Cold War capabilities. NATO involvement in a war in Kosovo might also spark attacks on its forces in Bosnia. The U.S. military knows all this, wants no part of Kosovo, and has told the President so. This redoubles the difficulty with going forward militarily, and make it very difficult, if not impossible, to scare “Slobo” into concessions.

Fifth and finally, in Bosnia, NATO policy was in harmony with the professed aim of the Bosnian state: security and independence for a multiethnic democracy. NATO policy is not in harmony with either moderate or militant Kosovar Albanians, who demand not a re-established autonomy but independence. Even if a military intervention stopped the fighting, what would NATO do next in a situation in which neither protagonist accepted the NATO view of a political settlement? The so far tacit assumption that a Dayton II negotiation would be easy to pull off is totally unwarranted.

Even so, tough talk and military demonstrations by NATO have already emboldened the Albanians, even though, in the end, NATO isn’t likely to intervene seriously to help them. Not only is this morally irresponsible, it is also what makes NATO policy hard to reverse without acute embarrassment.

So it is that in trying not to repeat the sloth and indolence of NATO policy in Bosnia, the alliance, fast out of the gate this time, has led with a glass chin in Kosovo. And damned if Slobodan Milosevic isn’t there to smash it all over again.