The Lessons of Kosovo

How you look at things.
June 22 1999 3:00 AM

The Lessons of Kosovo

Hours after Serb generals agreed to end the war in Kosovo, Democrats rose on the U.S. Senate floor to gloat. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., called it "a victory for President Clinton and his administration," and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., chided conservatives who had called it "Clinton and Gore's war." More than a week later, Republicans remain unrepentant. NATO's bombing was unnecessary and caused the Serbs' ethnic cleansing, former Vice President Dan Quayle charged yesterday on Meet the Press. "This is not a victory. I think that this is going to continue to be a mess."

Advertisement

Throughout the 2000 election season and for decades to come, Democrats and Republicans will go on debating who was right and who was wrong in Kosovo. They still don't get it. The point isn't who was wrong. The point is to understand what was wrong and to learn the corresponding lessons.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

1. Aggressors don't control the rules. Cynics reasoned that the war was futile because aggression is the way of the world, and indomitable ferocity is the way of aggressors. They said Balkan enmities were too deeply ingrained, Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic was too ruthless, and the Serbs were too fiercely attached to Kosovo to back down. While assuming that President Clinton was infallibly stupid and weak, they assumed that Milosevic was infallibly clever and resolute. But just as Clinton proved capable of fighting on, Milosevic proved capable of giving up.

2. We can make the rules. Within days of the war's outbreak, politicians and talking heads pronounced it a failure. Throughout the bombing, they said NATO, the United States, and Clinton lacked the ability or resolve to prevail. Pundits assessed the war's prospects with detached skepticism, as though forecasting the weather. But war is more than an objective event. Subjective factors--resolve, confidence, and patience--can prove decisive. NATO's leaders simply refused to lose. Rather than accept the law of the jungle, they overrode it. Clinton wagered, as he put it a week ago, "that we could raise the price to a point where it would no longer make any sense for [Milosevic] to go on, and where he could no longer maintain his position if he did." By ending the war, Milosevic accepted the new rules.

3. To impose limits on the enemy, you must know your own. Critics of the war observed, rightly, that NATO was protecting itself rather than the Kosovars by refusing to risk its pilots in low-flying missions or its infantry in a ground invasion. According to George Will, NATO thereby exposed a "huge limit on its will," i.e., "it believes the defense of [its] values is important enough to kill for, but not important enough to be killed for." But by depriving Serbia of the ability to kill allied soldiers, NATO leaders demoralized Serb commanders who had counted on body bags to demoralize citizens in the West. In essence, NATO held Serb forces at a safe distance with one arm while pummeling them with the other. In such a hopeless situation, the Serbs gave up. By taking into account the limits of its own will--the will to endure pain--NATO broke Serbia's.

4. It's not about who wins. Hawks deride Clinton for having let squeamish NATO partners such as Italy and Germany curtail the early stages of the war. They're indignant that we allowed Russia, our old nemesis and new deadbeat debtor, to water down our terms for ending the war and sneak its troops into Kosovo ahead of us. They argue that the Kosovo Liberation Army, not Clinton, won the war by drawing the Serbs out into the open, where NATO planes could pound them. While complaining that the United States shoulders too much responsibility in Europe and will end up paying billions for Balkan reconstruction, they fret about the loss of American control of the peacekeeping force. They don't understand that the point of the war was international justice and peace, not American power.

5. It's not about who loses. Many conservatives who argued throughout the war that we shouldn't have got into it now say we didn't really win it because we didn't invade Serbia, seize Belgrade, depose or kill Milosevic, and force the Serbs to agree explicitly to Kosovar independence. "NATO leaders have left the Yugoslavian president in power," writes Bob Novak. The peace agreement includes "no mention of a referendum on Kosovo's sovereignty," frets Arianna Huffington. But the point of the war wasn't to conquer or humiliate the Serbs. The point was to stop the Balkan cycle of conquest and humiliation.

6. Just because we're doing something bad doesn't mean the alternatives are better. By NATO's own estimates, we killed thousands of Serb troops and civilians. We destroyed bridges, crippled power plants, accidentally bombed hospitals, and wiped out Serbia's economy. While Serb forces prevented foreign journalists from ascertaining the fate of ethnic Albanians inside Kosovo, American leftists held up images of Serb civilian casualties as proof that the bombing was wrong and must be stopped. Now that NATO has persisted and has broken the Serbs' lock on Kosovo, journalists have gone in and are beginning to confirm the scale of the atrocities halted by the bombing. As bad as the bombing was, permitting the atrocities to go on would have been worse.

7. Just because we didn't do the right thing before doesn't mean we shouldn't do it now. Predictably, critics on the left denounced the war, arguing that the U.S. government's motives were suspect because we have often invaded small countries for selfish reasons and have failed to intervene in conflicts when altruism required it. Unpredictably, critics on the right adopted the same argument, pointing out that we had failed to act in Rwanda, Chechnya, Eritrea, and the Sudan. While claiming to have judged the government by its deeds, both camps judged the current war--wrongly--by who was waging it.

8. It's better to build a law enforcement system than to punish one outlaw. During the war, hawks who prized human rights and vigilance accused Clinton of going easy on the Serbs. They faulted him for letting European leaders veto bombing targets and rule out ground troops. Now that it's over, they're criticizing him for letting Russia broker the peace agreement and participate in the peacekeeping force, and they're still complaining that NATO's generals "were impeded by civilian leadership from effectively fighting the war." They don't understand that the allies compromised with each other and with Russia because they sought long-term peace--not short-term gratification--and that such peace requires a level of deterrence that can be achieved only by an international consortium of civilian leaders.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 17 2014 12:27 PM Listen to Our Ultimate Holiday Playlist Holiday tracks for the season, exclusively for Slate Plus members.