The Kosovo Question

How you look at things.
March 25 1999 3:30 AM

The Kosovo Question

Critics ask how we dare bomb the Serbs. Clinton asks how we dare not.

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For the past week, President Clinton has been preparing to bomb Yugoslavia. His stated reasons are that the Serb-dominated Yugoslav government, led by President Slobodan Milosevic, is waging war on the ethnic Albanian population of the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, and that Milosevic refuses to sign a peace plan to which Kosovo's ethnic Albanian rebels have grudgingly agreed. Persuading the American public to support U.S. military action abroad is always difficult because such action poses risks to our troops, requires moral justification for American aggression, and threatens to entangle us in commitments we will regret. To win over the public, Clinton is trying to turn those three issues upside down.

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1. Risk. This is the big buzzword among opponents of the bombing. Speaking to reporters after his meeting with Clinton Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott used this word five times in three minutes. Another favorite phrase in the anti-bombing camp is "rise to the level." Last month, Democrats defeated the GOP's impeachment effort by persuading the public that the charges against Clinton didn't "rise to the level" worthy of removing a president. Now Republicans are turning the tables, arguing that the stakes in Kosovo don't "rise to the level" worthy of U.S. military action.

Some supporters of the bombing argue that the risk can be minimized. But this is a losing game, since risk is always more than zero. The better answer is to reframe the status quo as a parallel option with risks of its own. "We must weigh those risks [of bombing] against the risks of inaction," Clinton said at his press conference Friday. "If we don't act, the war will spread. If it spreads, we will not be able to contain it without far greater risk and cost. ... You have to ask yourself, what will be the cost and the duration of involvement and the consequences if we do not move? ... I'm convinced we'll be dragged into this thing under worse circumstances at greater cost if we don't act."

To put plausibility and punch in this theoretical argument, Clinton cited Milosevic's past aggression and invoked images of slaughtered innocents. Absent intervention, said Clinton, Milosevic will produce "the same thing that happened in Bosnia"--"refugees" and "further atrocities." "I would hate to think that we'd have to see a lot of other little children die. ... I do not believe that we ought to have to have thousands more people slaughtered and buried in open soccer fields before we do something." To drive home his point that inaction, like action, requires justification and bears consequences, Clinton distilled his frame job to a brilliant sound bite: "In dealing with aggressors in the Balkans, hesitation is a license to kill."

2.Aggression. Opponents of the bombing depict the United States as the aggressor and protest that we shouldn't intervene unless provoked. "For us to initiate an action such as bombing Serbia is really an act of war," Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla., told reporters outside the White House Friday. "I don't think that we should begin bombing unless and until the Serbs really begin a very significant massacre." Monday in the Senate, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, urged her colleagues not to let Clinton "take an affirmative military action against a sovereign nation that has not committed a security threat to the United States."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Clinton has responded by casting the Serbs as the aggressors. At his press conference, he replied, "I don't think it's accurate to say we're acting first. I think they have acted first. They have massed their troops, they have continued to take aggressive action, they have already leveled one village in the recent past and killed a lot of innocent people." He added that the Serbs had "stripped away" Kosovo's right to "self-government" a decade ago. Above all, he argued that the Serbs have repeatedly violated a 1998 agreement with NATO in which they pledged to limit their military presence and action in Kosovo. This, he maintained, is sufficient to "trigger" bombing: "The threshold for their conduct has already been crossed." In the Senate Monday, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., agreed: "Everybody forgets we are operating in the context of an agreement that [Milosevic] signed. ... The Yugoslav government has flagrantly violated the limits stipulated in the October agreement."

Together, these points reverse the aggression argument in two ways. First, they turn the immorality of aggression into an argument for punishing the aggressors, i.e., the Serbs. Second, they shift the burden of justification from the pro-bombing to the anti-bombing camp. The code word for this burden-shifting maneuver is "impunity." As Clinton put it Friday, "We cannot allow President Milosevic to continue the aggression with impunity."

Much of the aggression debate revolves around the integrity of NATO. Senators who oppose the bombing warn that it would pervert NATO into an "aggressive" organization. "NATO is a defensive alliance," Nickles observed Monday on the Senate floor. "Never has NATO [threatened] to go in to another country that's not threatening neighboring countries, not threatening part of the alliance ... to quell a civil war."

Advocates of the bombing interpret NATO's mission more broadly. Defense, they argue, rests on deterrence, which rests on credibility in threatening the use of force, which rests on the use of force when challenged. This argument is weakened by its abstraction but is bolstered by the fact that the Serbian challenge is in Europe, NATO's turf. After meeting with Clinton Friday, Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., told reporters that "the question" in Kosovo was, "Is NATO relevant? Can NATO stop massacres right in their own backyard? ... The United States, if it's going to keep NATO relevant, has to show leadership."

3.Commitment. Clinton's critics invoke the specter of Vietnam by warning against an unwise "commitment" to war in Kosovo. Clinton can't dispute the principle of commitment, so he turns it on its head. We've already pledged to use force, he argues, and now we must keep our word. Ostensibly, this commitment was made last year when the United States voted with its NATO allies to use air power if one side of the Serb-Kosovar war signed the peace plan and the other refused. After meeting with Clinton Friday, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., told reporters, "The president is resolved. He's going to keep the agreements made with our NATO allies."