Dangerous Incoherence in Kosovo

Americans and many Europeans are rightly confused over the Clinton Administration’s actions in Kosovo, for those actions neither amount to any sort of “policy” nor suggest a sillingness on our part to learn from past blunders (Somalia and Haiti come to mind) and thus avoid repeating them.

Between 1992 and 1995 when Serbia and her then president, Slobodan Milosevic, tried to create a Greater Serbia by adding ethnically Serb territories from Croatia and Bosnia, Washington condemned the action and ultimately bombed the Bosnian Serbs into (temporarily) desisting from such attempts. American policy dictates that borders of recognized European states (Croatia’s and Bosnia’s) cannot and should not be changed by force, regardless of the ethnic composition of certain areas — a wise principle, considering the alternative: a chain reaction of mass borders revisions (from Russia’s Caucasus to Azerbaijan’s Nagorno Karabakh to Romania’s Transylvania). Whether Bosnia Herzegovina’s enforced and artificial unity is a realistic proposition in the long run is another question. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went so far as to openly (and unsuccessfully) interfere in elections there — by what might properly be described as bribery— when she implied this past summer that aid to the Serbs would be conditioned upon the victory of the U.S.-supported candidate during the Serbia entity’s presidential election.

The notion of inviolability of borders, unsatisfactory as it may be, not only remains one of the few substantive and generally accepted principles of what goes by the name of international law, but also limits the number of non-viable pseudo-states condemned to become international welfare recipients (Bosnia, Macedonia) or lawless black holes (Chechnya). Furthermore, that very same principle helped justify the Gulf War, U.S. support for the Nigerian government during the Biafra episode, and opposition to the Soviet annexation of the Baltic States.

Today, as if walking in its sleep, the Clinton Administration disregards common sense and American tradition by its misguided actions in Kosovo. Indeed, largely because of media images of Albanian refugees and an admittedly well-founded dislike and distrust of Milosevic, American forces are on the brink of bombing Serbia because it resists a change of its borders by force. Furthermore, to claim, as the Administration does, that military action against Serbia is not intended as support for Albanian secessionism begs the point: it will help the secessionists even if it not intended to do so.

To give Serbia an ultimatum requiring the withdrawal of police and military forces from Kosovo is tantamount to giving the aggressively secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) a free hand. Such a withdrawal means the de facto loss of the province. Other key U.S. demands— negotiations with the Albanians and heavily intrusive on-the-ground international monitoring — only further strengthen the secessionists’ position. No international forces could control the Albanian border with Kosovo, and thus prevent the KLA from rearming itself. What passes for the government of Albania has neither the interest nor the means to do so either.

It is no secret that the KLA aims to create a “Greater Albania” from territories now within the internationally and U.S. recognized borders of Yugoslavia (Serbia’s as well as Montenegro’s), Macedonia, and probably Greece. As for the Albanian moderates, Ibrahim Rugova’s Kosovo Democratic League will “negotiate” with Belgrade but only concerning the timing and conditions of independence. In addition, a campaign of selective assassinations by the KLA against the few pro-Yugoslav Albanians, Rugova’s people, and the 10% of the population that is neither Albanian nor Serb (mostly Gypsies)— helped to make the separatist threat about the only issue of concern for the Serbian people.

None of the above facts is unknown to the Administration— or to the Serbs. Nevertheless, if NATO bombs are intended to bring about negotiations that lead directly to autonomy for Kosovo, as President Clinton desires, what is there to negotiate if the Albanians don’t seek autonomy in the first place? Perhaps what the White House really means by “negotiations” is the postponement of any solution until President Clinton leaves office.

The position of the United States in the Kosovo insurgency represents an ironic reversal of roles vis-a-vis Vietnam. There, we could not win in large part due to the safe haven insurgents had in North Vietnam, itself protected by a superpower. In Kosovo the Serbs cannot permanently defeat the KLA because it has a safe haven— Albania— protected by… us! Such a position would make perfect sense if Washington’s goal were a KLA victory, but it makes absolutely no sense if we are serious about describing the KLA as “terrorist” (as the State department did) or about opposing its goal— secession from Serbia. Thus we are prepared to use military force in order to defeat our own stated political and diplomatic goals.

Equally serious and puzzling is the misconception in Washington— shared by the White House and the Republican Congress alike— that the “problem” in Kosovo is Milosevic. If only we could get rid of him, goes the inside-the-Beltway wisdom, all would be fine. Really? The most popular politician in Serbia is Voijslav Seselj — now a deputy Prime Minister. Unlike Milosevic, whose only creed is his own political survival, Seselj is a true (if unsavory) Serbian nationalist. No opposition politician in Belgrade supports a NATO attack or an independent Kosovo, and for one very simple reason — virtually no Serbian citizen does so. Who, then, are we going to turn to once Milosevic is out of power? Unlike the Gulf War, in which only a minority of Iraqis supported Saddam Hussein, an attack on Serbia would mean war with the Serbian people, with or without Milosevic. Is this something we want? Considering the implications (the risk to American lives, the creation of a Greater Albania), which the administration has not, is this something we are prepared for?