General William Tecumseh Sherman had a clear legal right to repress the armed rebellion his armies encountered in Georgia and the Carolinas. This right was based on the authority of the United States, to preserve the Union. That Sherman did so violently, that he seized civilian property and burned houses, did not diminish this. Nor did it give England or France or anyone else any legal or moral standing to intervene in our Civil War.
By what standard does the United States now claim legal or moral standing to prevent the Yugoslav National Army from repressing armed rebellion in Kosovo?
In Bosnia, an independent country, we had a legal right to bomb. We were invited, by the government, to do so. And we also had a moral imperative in the face of ethnic cleansing; in fact, our intervention there came too late. Kosovo, on the other hand, never has been independent. That its population happens to be 90 percent ethnic Albanian is irrelevant. An ethnic enclave has human but not national rights, and cannot invite us to intervene on its side in a civil war.
But had the war turned to something much graver, namely genocide? In Bosnia, Serb forces caused 200,000 civilian casualties in the first year of that war. That was genocide, directed mainly against Muslims by militias that wanted them off the land. In Kosovo after one year, until our campaign started, there were about two thousand casualties, about one percent as many. The Serb strategy in Kosovo is harsh. But it was not genocidal up to the point where the bombs started to fall.
NATO’s case thus depended on the assertion that genocide would occur in the absence of our bombing. This would justify our actions – if it were true. But what was the evidence? Did we intercept plans, orders? If we had, Clinton and Albright would have said so. They have not. Instead, they refer back to what did happen in Bosnia, to crimes committed years ago, principally by Bosnian Serbs. And yet, that Bosnian Serb political entity, the Republika Srpksa, continues to exist because we protected it, in the Dayton Accords, from military defeat! As an explanation for our conduct in Kosovo today, this story does not parse.
If we had evidence of plans for genocide, then we could have sought international legal authority for our actions. The correct forum for this is the United Nations Security Council. The U.N. did give us the authority we needed to conduct, for instance, the Gulf War. But NATO did not seek such authority for Kosovo. Why not? Perhaps the evidence was not good enough.
And perhaps our true motive is closer to what is quite openly stated: our frustration that Yugoslavia would not agree to diktat on the matter of a Kosovo peace settlement – something we wanted, partly for our convenience. But why should it? Agreements, by definition and by international law, cannot be forced. We have not sought, and certainly have not achieved, a settlement acceptable to Serbia.
So now we see the failure of diplomatic bluster. We see the failure of Richard Holbrooke’s view that he personally could deal with Slobodan Milosevic by entreaty and threat. We see the failure of Madeleine Albright’s effort to gain glory at Rambouillet. Having tried that route and failed, now “our” credibility is at stake. God save us from such diplomats.
Next question. Will the war work? The first-in-history successful achievement of a political objective by air power alone has not yet occurred. In this instance, all signs are bad. Bombing was supposed to prevent genocide, but once the international monitors withdrew, nothing protected the civilians and the Serb policy became dramatically more brutal. Today, the burning shops in Pristina and burning villages in the Kosovo countryside belong to Albanians. The floods of refugees are Albanian. And the bodies are mainly Albanian. Our air attacks accelerated, and did not retard, the Yugoslav military campaign.
In response, our bombing will not remain confined to bloodless targets like airfields and television towers. We are sending in the close-support jets, looking for jeeps and armored cars. At that point, two things will happen. First, more of our aircraft will get hit, by rifles and cannon and shoulder-fired missiles. And, second, even more civilians will get hurt. And then?
Slobodan Milosevic thus has a clear strategy (while we do not). He can disperse his forces, hold his anti-aircraft fire, press his gruesome ground campaign, push out more refugees, and wait for us to start killing civilians. Soon, international public opinion and NATO itself will begin to crack. This is not, as it were, rocket science.
Clinton, Albright, and Holbrooke are wrecking Yugoslavia, but also NATO, and also the worldwide reputation of the United States. Our policy in Kosovo is not only wrong. It is not only illegal. It is also not very bright. Like playing chess one move at a time, as they say in the Texas Lege.
James K. Galbraith teaches at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at U.T.—Austin.