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The War on Yugoslavia, 10 Years Later

It has
been 10 years since the U.S.-led war on Yugoslavia. For many leading
Democrats, including some in top positions in the Obama administration,
it was a "good" war, in contrast to the Bush administration's "bad" war
on Iraq. And though the suffering and instability unleashed by the 1999
NATO military campaign wasn't as horrific as the U.S. invasion of Iraq
four years later, the war was nevertheless unnecessary and illegal, and
its political consequences are far from settled.

Unless there's a
willingness to critically re-examine the war, the threat of another war
in the name of liberal internationalism looms large. 

Crisis Could Have Been Prevented

Throughout most
of the 1990s, the oppressed ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo waged
their struggle almost exclusively nonviolently, using strikes,
boycotts, peaceful demonstrations, and alternative institutions. The
Kosovar Albanians even set up a democratically elected parallel
government to provide schooling and social services, and to press their
cause to the outside world. Indeed, it was one of the most widespread,
comprehensive, and sustained nonviolent campaigns since Gandhi's
struggle for Indian independence. This was the time for Western powers
to have engaged in preventative diplomacy. However, the world chose to
ignore the Kosovars' nonviolent movement and resisted consistent pleas
by the moderate Kosovar Albanian leadership to take action. It was only
after a shadowy armed group known as the Kosovo Liberation Army emerged
in 1998 that the international media, the Clinton administration and
other Western governments finally took notice.

By waiting for
the emergence of guerrilla warfare before seeking a solution, the West
gave Serbia's autocratic president Slobodan Milosevic the opportunity
to crack down with an even greater level of savagery than before. The
delay allowed the Kosovar movement to be taken over by armed
ultra‑nationalists, who have since proven to be far less willing to
compromise or guarantee the rights of the Serbian minority. Indeed, the
KLA murdered Serb officials and ethnic Albanian moderates, destroyed
Serbian villages, and attacked other minority communities, while some
among its leadership called for ethnic cleansing in the other direction
to create a pure Albanian state. Despite such practices, as well as
ties to the international heroin trade, it was KLA's leadership which
came to dominate the subsequent autonomous and now independent Republic
of Kosovo.

It's a tragedy
that the West squandered a full eight years when preventative diplomacy
could have worked. The United States rejected calls for expanding
missions set up by the United Nations and the Organization for Security
and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Kosovo, or to bring Kosovo
constituencies together for negotiations. Waiting for a full-scale
armed insurrection to break out before acting has also given oppressed
people around the world a very bad message: Nonviolent methods will
fail and, in order to get the West to pay attention to your plight, you
need to take up arms.

When Western
powers finally began to take decisive action on the long-simmering
crisis in the fall of 1998, a ceasefire was arranged where the OSCE
sent in unarmed monitors. While the ceasefire didn't hold, violence did
decrease dramatically in areas where they were stationed. Indeed, the
OSCE monitors could have done a lot more, but they were given little
support. They were largely untrained, they were too few in number and
NATO refused to supply them with helicopters, night-vision binoculars
or other basic equipment that could have made them more effective.

Ceasefire
violations by the Yugoslav army, Serbian militias, and KLA guerrillas
increased in the early months of 1999, including a number of atrocities
against ethnic Albanians by Serbian units, with apparent acquiescence
of government forces. Western diplomatic efforts accelerated, producing
the proposal put forward at the Chateau Rambouillet in France, which
called for the withdrawal of Serbian forces and the restoration of
Kosovo's autonomous status within a greater Serbia. Such a political
settlement was quite reasonable, and the Serbs appeared willing to such
seriously consider such an agreement. But it was sabotaged by NATO's
insistence that they be allowed to send in a large armed occupation
force into Kosovo, along with rights to move freely without permission
throughout the entire Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and other measures
that infringed on the country's sovereignty. Another problem was that
it was presented essentially as a final document, without much room for
negotiations. One of the fundamental principles of international
conflict resolution is that all interested parties are part of the
peace process. Some outside pressure may be necessary - particularly
against the stronger party - to secure an agreement, but it can't be
presented as a fait accompli. This "sign this or we'll bomb you"
attitude also doomed the diplomatic initiative to failure. Few national
leaders, particularly a nationalist demagogue like Milosevic, would
sign an agreement under such terms, which amount to a treaty of
surrender: Allowing foreign forces free reign of your territory and
issuing such a proposal as an ultimatum.

Smarter and earlier diplomacy could have prevented the war.

The Bombing Campaign

Many liberals
who had opposed U.S. military intervention elsewhere recognized the
severity of the ongoing oppression of the Kosovar Albanians and the
need to challenge Serbian ethno-fascism, and therefore initially
supported the war. Had such military intervention led to an immediate
withdrawal of Yugoslav forces and Serbian militias, one could perhaps
make a case that, despite the war's illegality, there was a moral
imperative for military action in order to prevent far greater
violence. But, as many experts of the region predicted, this wasn't the
case. 

The bombing
campaign, which began March 24, 1999, clearly made things worse for the
Kosovar Albanians. Not only were scores of ethnic Albanians
accidentally killed by NATO bombing raids, but the Serbs - unable to
respond to NATO air attacks - turned their wrath against the most
vulnerable segments of the population: the very Kosovar Albanians NATO
claimed it would be defending. While the Serbs may have indeed been
planning some sort of large-scale forced removal of the population in
areas of KLA infiltration, both the scale and savagery of the Serbian
repression that resulted was undoubtedly a direct consequence of NATO
actions. Subsequent U.S. claims that the bombing was in response to
ethnic cleansing turns the reality on its head.

By forcing the
evacuation of the OSCE monitors, which - despite their limitations -
were playing something of a deterrent role against the worst Serbian
atrocities, NATO gave the Serbs the opportunity to increase their
repression. By bombing Yugoslavia, they gave the Serbs nothing to lose.
Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians were forced from their homes
into makeshift refugee camps in neighboring Macedonia.

As the bombing
continued, the numbers of Serbian troops in Kosovo increased and the
repression of Kosovar Albanians dramatically escalated. Those doing the
killing in Kosovo were primarily small paramilitary groups, death
squads, and police units that couldn't have effectively been challenged
by high-altitude bombing, and weren't affected by the destruction of
bridges or factories hundreds of miles to the north. If protecting the
lives of Kosovar Albanians was really the motivation for the U.S.-led
war, President Bill Clinton would have sent in Marine and Special
Forces units to battle the Serbian militias directly instead of relying
exclusively on air power.

The war against
Yugoslavia was illegal. Any such use of force is a violation of the UN
Charter unless in self-defense against an armed attack or authorized by
the United Nations as an act of collective security. Kosovo was
internationally recognized as part of Serbia; it was, legally speaking,
an internal conflict. In addition, the democratically elected president
of the self-proclaimed, if unrecognized, Kosovar Albanian Republic,
Ibrahim Rugova, didn't request such intervention. Indeed, he opposed it.

The war was also
illegal under U.S. law. The Constitution places war-making authority
under the responsibility of Congress. While it's widely recognized that
the president, as commander-in-chief, has latitude in short-term
emergencies, the 1973 War Powers Act prevents the executive branch from
waging war without the express consent of Congress beyond a 60-day
period. Only rarely has Congress formally declared war, but it has
passed resolutions supporting the use of force, as with the August 1964
Gulf of Tonkin resolution concerning Vietnam, the January 1991 approval
of the use of force to remove Iraqi occupation troops from Kuwait, and
the October 2002 authorization for the invasion of Iraq. Clinton,
however, received no such congressional approval. That he got away with
such a blatant abuse of executive authority marked a dangerous
precedent in war-making authority in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The 11-week
bombing campaign resulted in the widespread destruction of Yugoslavia's
civilian infrastructure, the killing of many hundreds of civilians, and
- as a result of bombing chemical factories, the use of depleted
uranium ammunition and more - caused serious environmental damage. Far
more Yugoslav civilians died from NATO bombing than did Kosovar
Albanian civilians from Serb forces prior to the onset of the bombing.
A number of human rights groups that condemned Serbian actions in
Kosovo also criticized NATO attacks that, in addition to the more
immediate civilian casualties, endangered the health and safety of
millions of people by disrupting water supplies, sewage treatment, and
medical services. 

U.S. Motivations

There are
serious questions regarding what actually prompted the United States
and NATO to make war on Yugoslavia. While the Serbian nationalism
espoused by Milosevic had fascistic elements, and his government and
allied militias certainly engaged in serious war crimes throughout the
Balkans that decade, comparisons to Hitler were hyperbolic, certainly
in terms of the ability to threaten any nation beyond the borders of
the old Yugoslavia.

As today, there
was civil strife in a number of African countries during this period,
resulting in far more deaths and refugees than Serbia's repression in
Kosovo. As a result, some have questioned U.S. double standards towards
intervention such as why the United States didn't intervene in far more
serious humanitarian crises, particularly in Rwanda in 1994, where
there clearly was an actual genocide in progress.

But a more
salient question is why the United States has never been held
accountable for when it has intervened - in support of the oppressors.
In recent decades, the U.S. government provided military, economic, and
diplomatic support of Indonesia's slaughter of hundreds of thousands of
East Timorese, and of Guatemala's slaughter of many tens of thousands
of its indigenous people. 

While Clinton
tried to justify the war by declaring that repression and ethnic
cleansing must not be allowed to happen "on NATO's doorstep," he was
not only quite willing to allow for comparable repression to take place
within NATO itself, but actively supported it: During the 1990s,
Turkey's denial of the Kurds' linguistic and cultural rights, rejection
of their demands of autonomy, destruction of thousands of villages,
killing of thousands of civilians and forced removal of hundreds of
thousands bore striking resemblance to Serbia's repression in
Kosovo. Yet the Clinton administration, with bipartisan congressional
support, continued to arm the Turkish military and defended its
repression.

Such questions
necessarily raise uncharitable speculation about what might have
actually motivated the United States to lead such a military action.
For some advocates of U.S. military intervention, there was no doubt
some genuine humanitarian concern, which - unlike many other cases
around the world - support for those being oppressed didn't conflict
with overriding U.S. strategic or economic prerogatives. There may have
been other forces at work, however, which saw the use of force as
advantageous for other reasons than a sincere, if misplaced, hope of
assuaging a humanitarian crisis. 

For example, the
war created a raison d'être for the continued existence of NATO in a
post-Cold War world, as it desperately tried to justify its continued
existence and desire for expansion (This resulted in a kind of circular
logic however: NATO was still needed to fight in wars like Yugoslavia,
yet the war needed to be continued in order to preserve NATO's
credibility.).

The war also
benefitted influential weapons manufacturers, leading to an increase in
U.S. military spending by more than $13 billion, largely for weapons
systems that most strategic analysts and even the Pentagon said weren't
needed. This came on top of an increase in military spending passed
before the onset of the war (By contrast, aid from the United States to
help with the refugee crisis was very limited, and efforts by the
United Nations High Commission on Refugees were severely hampered by
lack of funds, in large part a result of the refusal by the United
States to pay more than $1 billion in dues it then owed to the UN,
equivalent to approximately one week of bombing.). 

Whatever its
actual motivations, why would the United States lead NATO into a long,
drawn-out war with no guarantee of fulfilling its objectives, given the
real political risks involved? Much of the problem may have been that
of arrogance. There's a fair amount of evidence to suggest that the
Clinton administration falsely assumed the threat of bombing would lead
to a last-minute capitulation by Milosevic, but, having made the
threat, felt obligated to follow through. 

Even after the
bombing began and Finnish and Russian mediators began working on a
ceasefire agreement, greater U.S. flexibility regarding Serbian
concerns could have brought the war to an end much sooner. What a
number of NATO members suggested, but the Clinton administration
refused to consider, was to agree that the postwar peacekeeping force
in Kosovo be placed under the control of the UN or the OSCE. Instead,
the United States insisted that peacekeeping should be a NATO operation.

This effectively
would have forced the nationalistic Serbs into accepting demands that a
part of their country effectively be placed under occupation by the
same military alliance that attacked them. As a result, despite
suffering ongoing death and destruction, the Serbs continued fighting.
The Clinton administration, meanwhile, seemed more intent on dominating
the postwar order politically and militarily than agreeing to a
ceasefire which could have prevented further bloodshed and allowed
refugees to return sooner.

Eventually, a
compromise was reached whereby the peacekeeping troops sent into Kosovo
following a Serb withdrawal would primarily consist of NATO forces, but
under UN command.

Perhaps the
greatest myth of the war was that the Serbs surrendered and NATO won.
In reality, not only was there a compromise on the makeup of postwar
peacekeeping forces, but the final peace agreement also omitted the
most objectionable sections of the Rambouillet proposal and more
closely resembled the counter-proposal put forward by the Serbian
parliament prior to the bombing. In other words, rather than being a
NATO victory as it has been repeatedly portrayed by Washington and much
of the American media, it was at best a draw.

Ramifications of the War

The war had
serious consequences besides death and destruction in Serbia and
Kosovo. One of the original justifications was to prevent a broader
war, yet it was the bombing campaign that destabilized the region to a
greater degree than Milosevic's campaign of repression. It emboldened
ethnic Albanian chauvinists, not just in Kosovo where they have come to
dominate, but in the neighboring country of Macedonia and its restive
ethnic Albanian minority, which has twice taken up arms in the past 10
years against the Slavic majority.

At the NATO
summit in April 1999, the member states approved a structure for
"non-Article 5 crisis response," essentially a euphemism for war
(Article 5 of the NATO charter provides for collective self-defense;
non-Article 5 refers to an offensive military action like Yugoslavia.).
According to the document, such an action could take place anywhere on
the broad periphery of NATO's realm, such as North Africa, Eastern
Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia, essentially paving the way
for NATO's ongoing war in Afghanistan. This expanded role for NATO
wasn't approved by any of the respective countries' legislatures,
raising serious questions about democratic civilian control over
military alliances. 

Furthermore, the
U.S.-led NATO war on Yugoslavia helped undermine the United Nations
Charter and thereby paved the way for the U.S. invasion of Iraq,
perhaps the most flagrant violation of the international legal order by
a major power since World War II.

The occupation
by NATO troops of Serbia's autonomous Kosovo region, and the subsequent
recognition of Kosovar independence by the United States and a number
of Western European powers, helped provide Russia with an excuse to
maintain its large military presence in Georgia's autonomous South
Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, and to recognize their unilateral
declarations of independence. This, in turn, led to last summer's war
between Russia and Georgia.

Indeed, much of
the tense relations between the United States and Russia over the past
decade can be traced to the 1999 war on Yugoslavia. Russia was quite
critical of Serbian actions in Kosovo and supported the non-military
aspects of the Rambouillet proposals, yet was deeply disturbed by this
first military action waged by NATO. Indeed, the war resulted in
unprecedented Russian anger towards the United States, less out of some
vague sense of pan-Slavic solidarity, but more because it was seen as
an act of aggression against a sovereign nation. The Russians had
assumed NATO would dissolve at the end of the Cold War. Instead, not
only has NATO expanded, it went to war over an internal dispute in a
Slavic Eastern European country. This stoked the paranoid fear of many
Russian nationalists that NATO may find an excuse to intervene in
Russia itself. While in reality this is extremely unlikely, the history
of invasions from the West no doubt strengthened the hold of Vladimir
Putin and other semi-autocratic nationalists, setting back reform
efforts, political liberalization, and disarmament. 

The war also had
political repercussions here in the United States. On Capitol Hill, it
created what became known as an "aviary conundrum," where traditional
hawks became doves and doves became hawks. It provided a precedent of
Democratic lawmakers supporting an illegal war and allowing for
extraordinary executive power to wage war, with which the Bush
administration was able to fully take advantage in leading the country
into its debacle in Iraq.

The presence of
large-scale human rights abuses, as was occurring in Kosovo under Serb
rule, shouldn't force concerned citizens in the United States and other
countries into the false choice of supporting war and doing nothing.
This tragic conflict should further prove that, moral and legal
arguments aside, military force is a very blunt and not very effective
instrument to promote human rights, and that bloated military budgets
and archaic military alliances aren't the way to bring peace and
security. As long as such "conflict resolution" efforts are placed
exclusively in the hands of governments, there will be a propensity
towards war. Only when global civil society seizes the initiative and
recognizes the power of strategic nonviolent action, and the necessity
of preventative diplomacy, can there be hope that such conflicts can be
resolved peacefully.


© 2021 Foreign Policy In Focus
Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Recognized as one the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action, Professor Zunes serves as a senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, an associate editor of Peace Review, a contributing editor of Tikkun, and co-chair of the academic advisory committee for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

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