Picking a Good Fight
Benjamin Schwarz
Round One - April 6, 2000

Although this roundtable addresses wider issues, I'd like to devote my first turn to questioning some of Cullen Murphy's introductory remarks on the background of the Kosovo conflict. It is true that the situation in Kosovo before NATO's bombing was "routinely described" as one in which Yugoslav security forces were responsible for a "humanitarian catastrophe ... without parallel in Europe since the end of the Second World War." But this description is a serious distortion. I know that some proponents of intervention like to pooh-pooh "ancient ethnic enmities," but the immediate cause of the violence that prompted the U.S. and NATO to step in was the irreconcilable goals of the province's two hostile ethnic groups.

Before NATO's bombing Kosovo was embroiled in a brutal civil war in which the Belgrade government sought to suppress a guerilla insurgency that had assasinated Yugoslav civilian and military officials and the guerrillas sought to provoke Belgrade's thuggish reprisals to attract the West to intervene on their behalf. The Milosovic government might eventually have accepted partition, which might have restored a semblance of peace. But instead of pursuing that diplomatic solution, the Clinton Administration cynically offered Belgrade terms that would have both nullified Yugoslav control of Kosovo and granted NATO the right to station troops anywhere in Yugoslavia -- conditions Yugoslavia was bound to refuse. The U.S. and its allies then took this refusal as their pretext for intervention.

President Clinton defended the bombing as a way to stop the Serbs from committing genocide in Kosovo. But, in fact, in fifteen months of bitter warfare between the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and Yugoslav forces before the start of NATO's bombing, approximately 1800 civilians -- mostly ethnic Albanians but also Serbs -- had been killed in the fighting. This does not constitute genocide. (There were also about 20,000 refugees, but these were not victims of "ethnic cleansing." Rather, they were fleeing the fighting between the KLA and the Yugoslav Army.) The Yugoslav security forces' brutal operations had been directed at rooting out the KLA, not at expelling Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population. Ironically, the U.S.-led NATO bombing precipitated the very "humanitarian catastrophe" the Administration claimed it was intervening to halt. Not until several days after the bombing campaign began did Belgrade turn from conducting a counterinsurgency against the KLA to uprooting the province's ethnic Albanian population.

Once the bombing was underway, Yugoslav forces caused a serious refugee problem by expelling hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. But the Administration deliberately exaggerated the scale of the humanitarian crisis by playing the genocide card. President Clinton's assertion during the war that the Yugoslavs slaughtered "tens of thousands" have proved false. To date, forensic specialists working under UN auspices have exhumed 2,108 bodies. It is far from certain that all of these victims perished as a result of Yugoslav atrocities.

Although NATO stopped its air campaign when Belgrade agreed to withdraw its troops from Kosovo last June, the war in the province itself hasn't ended. Despite the presence of U.S. and NATO peacekeepers, once Yugoslav forces left Kosovo the KLA began a systematic campaign of terror -- in fact, ethnic cleansing -- against the province's Serbian and Gypsy populations that continues unabated. Moreover, across the border from Kosovo, in Serbia proper, the KLA -- as part of its effort to carve out a "Greater Albania" -- is waging guerilla war in the Persevo valley region, which is populated largely by ethnic Albanians. In a disturbing replay of the events leading to the NATO intervention, the KLA is attempting to provoke a violent Serb response in the hope that NATO again will be drawn into war, and that this time NATO will do the KLA the favor of finishing off the Milosevic regime. The Clinton Administration has already been played for a sucker by the KLA -- we didn't pick a good fight in Kosovo, we picked the KLA's fight. It remains to be seen whether Washington will be manipulated again.

Although Cullen correctly reports that proponents of intervention justified NATO's response by asserting that the Yugoslav actions in Kosovo were "without parallel" in postwar Europe, the crucial point is that there are, in fact, plenty of parallels. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tells us that the solution to ethnic conflict is multi-ethnic tolerance, but policymakers should learn that, lamentably, the most stable and lasting solution to ethnic conflicts has been ethnic cleansing and partition. Take the case of our NATO allies, Poland and the Czech Republic. Those countries are today far more stable and more likely to remain democratic than they would otherwise be, because after the Second World War they committed ethnic cleansing: they forcibly expelled their German minorities -- a population numbering some 14 million. (To put the deaths in Kosovo in perspective, one and a half million died in the expulsions from Poland and Czechoslavakia.) And although Albright claims Bosnia is becoming a multi-ethnic state, the truth is that the war there ended with Bosnia's de facto partition into separate Serb, Muslim, and Croat entities, and an uneasy peace prevails there only because the three groups continue to live apart. Similarly, the conflict between Serbia and Croatia ended in 1995 only when the Croatian army (with the tacit blessing of the United States) expelled more than 200,000 of Croatia's Serbs.

Enforcing acceptable behavior in foreign lands is a burden best not taken up. The moral argument for intervention is cast in terms of universally applicable principles. But plainly Washington picks and chooses its humanitarian interventions, inserting itself in some conflicts and ignoring others in which the humanitarian reasons to act are at least as compelling (after all, if an exceedingly repressive military campaign against an armed national liberation insurgency and its civilian supporters is enough to prompt Washington to intervene, why haven't U.S. planes bombed our ally Turkey?). This leaves the U.S. open to the charge that it uses humanitarian concerns as a pretext for military interventions undertaken for other reasons. And finally, by defining "instability" and internecine bloodshed as threats in and of themselves, the United States will perforce adopt a posture approximating paranoia in a chaotic world.

New! Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- April 14, 2000
Robert D. Kaplan | Edward Luttwak | David Rieff | Benjamin Schwarz

Round Two -- April 11, 2000
Robert D. Kaplan | Edward Luttwak | David Rieff | Benjamin Schwarz

Round One -- April 6, 2000
Robert D. Kaplan | Edward Luttwak | David Rieff | Benjamin Schwarz

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Benjamin Schwarz is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a book critic for the Los Angeles Times. He's the former executive editor of World Policy Journal and a former staff member of the RAND Corporation and the Brookings Institution.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.