Bill Clinton's War (in Yugoslavia)
The Progressive magazine, May
The great historian Gabriel Kolko, in
his book Century of War, writes: "War, in essence, has always
been an adventure intrinsically beset with surprises and false
expectations, its total outcome unpredictable to all those who
have engaged in it."
Bill Clinton is finding this out the hard
way. His ill-conceived decision to prod NATO into bombing Yugoslavia
in March has wreaked havoc. The hundreds of thousands of refugees,
the civilians killed by NATO bombs, the U.S. soldiers captured,
the solidification of domestic support for Serbian strongman Slobodan
Milosevic, the dangerous chill in U.S.-Russian relations-all these
have come to pass since Clinton made his fateful decision.
Granted, the decision was not an easy
one. Milosevic is a brutal leader. His troops in Bosnia committed
acts of genocide, and, as he has demonstrated since the bombing,
his ferocity in Kosovo knows few bounds. The international community
must find a way to prevent or resolve human rights crises like
this one. The Rwandan example, where more than 5()0,00() people
died in a matter of weeks in 1994, demonstrates the need for some
kind of action.
But launching a NATO air war against Milosevic
was the triumph of threat over thought. Secretary of State Madeleine
Albright had blustered so much about bombing that when Milosevic
refused to budge, she and the United States and NATO were left
with the option of losing face or carrying out the threat-even
though the consequences of carrying out that threat had not yet
That was just one in a series of blunders
and blusters that led to this fiasco. First, at the Dayton Accords
in 1995, the United States kept Kosovo off the table and whisked
the problem under the rug. But the problem did not go away.
After the settlement, NATO troops should
have arrested the butchers of Bosnia, Ratko Mladic and Radovan
Karadzic, and tried them for crimes against humanity. They've
been under indictment by the world court at the Hague, but for
years have been living in Bosnia, which is under the protection
of NATO troops. What signal did this send to Milosevic or other
thugs under his command?
For almost ten years, Kosovo had one of
the most active nonviolent resistance movements since Gandhi's
time. But the United States and NATO did not do enough to support
this effort. Only when some Kosovars took up arms did Washington
pay serious attention. Albright could barely exert influence over
the Kosovo Liberation Army, and she used every bit of leverage
to get the KLA to sign the agreement at Rambouillet. She did so
not to assure a peace agreement (Milosevic was already on record
rejecting Rambouillet), but to justify war. She needed the KLA's
signature as the start-your-engines sign for NATO bombers. Within
days, NATO ordered its unarmed observers to leave Kosovo. And
as soon as they left, the Serbs marched in.
It would have been far better, instead,
to have flooded Kosovo with international peacekeepers- from the
United Nations, from countries like India, Ireland, Sweden, and
Finland, which had no stake in the battle-to buy time and act
as a buffer between Milosevic's forces and the Kosovars. It may
even have been better to let Russian troops join in the peacekeeping;
that way Milosevic would have had to overrun his friends to get
to the Kosovars, and the international community would have united
But instead of trying a myriad of peaceful
options, Clinton, Albright, and NATO reached for the old, unreliable
one: Send in the bombers. They didn't bother themselves with international
law. They flouted it. International law clearly states that one
country can attack another one only when it is itself under attack,
about to be attacked, or when the U.N. Security Council grants
permission. Belgrade was not attacking the United States or any
of the NATO countries involved in the bombings. And the United
States intentionally avoided the Security Council because Russia
and China were likely to veto any military action.
Nor, for that matter, was the bombing
in accordance with U.S. Iaw: Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S.
Constitution grants Congress the sole power to declare war, and
there was no formal declaration of war in this case. Congress
shirked its responsibilities by approving a measure that fell
short of a war declaration but supported the President's decision
to send in the bombers.
And liberals vanished. Only four Democrats
in all of Congress bothered to protest. In the House, there was
only one, Barbara Lee of California. In the Senate, just three:
Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Fritz Hollings of South Carolina,
and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico.
Bill Clinton's justifications for the
bombing were filled with distortions and omissions. In his March
24 speech to the nation on the subject, he said that World War
I started in the Balkans, which is true, but it became a global
war only after the biggest powers foolishly entered it. Somehow,
he neglected to mention that fine point.
Clinton talked about the "moral imperative"
the United States has to prevent gross human rights abuses. He
neglected to mention that current U.S. allies are carrying out
some of those same abuses. Turkey, a leading recipient of U.S.
aid and a NATO member, has been waging a war against the Kurds
over the last fifteen years. That war has cost 35,000 lives and
left three million as refugees. Clinton said Serbia won't let
the Kosovars "speak their language, run their schools, shape
their daily lives." Neither will Turkey allow the Kurds such
So why isn't NATO bombing Ankara?
Clinton didn't mention that the leading
recipient of U.S. aid in Latin America, Colombia, has been waging
a brutal civil war against left-wing guerrillas there. The Colombian
army and its affiliated paramilitary squads have killed thousands
of peasants, unionists, politicians, and human rights activists.
So why isn't Washington bombing Bogota?
Clinton also said that the conflict in
Kosovo was "important to America's national interests."
But that is hardly the case. The most vital national security
interest the United States has is to stay on friendly terms with
Russia. Moscow has 7,000 nuclear warheads that can hit the United
States. Belgrade has none. But U.S. policy in the Clinton Administration
has consistently offended Russia, first with the expansion of
NATO, then with the decision to fund Star Wars, and now with the
bombing of Yugoslavia. As a result, the Russians are unlikely
to sign Start II, which would have cut their nuclear arsenal in
half. They are backing off negotiations to "de-alert"
nuclear weapons. And now they are sending warships to the Mediterranean.
This NATO war is another boost for the
nationalists in Russia, where all the ingredients of a revanchist
regime are in place: a lost empire, a ruined economy, a humiliated
leadership. Clinton's chief accomplishment in office may turn
out to be that he laid the groundwork for a new Cold War.
The bombing was intended to justify the
continued existence of NATO. More than seven years after the disintegration
of the Soviet Union (NATO's ostensible reason for being), Clinton
and his European allies-along with Boeing and Lockheed-are trying
to improvise an afterlife. Milosevic came in handy. Twice in Clinton's
speech to the nation, he brought up the alliance. "Our mission
is clear: to demonstrate the seriousness of NATO's purpose,"
he said. Failing to act, he added, "would discredit NATO,
the cornerstone on which our security has rested for fifty years
This is what historian Kolko calls a "credibility
fixation." Because Clinton and Albright threatened NATO attacks
and Milosevic did not back down, they felt they had to go to war,
no matter the costs. "Perhaps the single most recurrent justification
that leaders of major powers have evoked for risking wars evolved
from their belief that their credibility, which allegedly created
fear among potential enemies and thereby constrained their actions,
depended on their readiness to use force even when the short-term
rationality for violence was very much in doubt," Kolko writes.
The short-term rationality was dubious
from the outset. Bombing has almost never brought a foe to his
knees. Hitler tried to bring the British down with a blitz and
failed. The allies firebombed Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo without
achieving their ends. The United States repeatedly bombed Hanoi
during the Vietnam War and managed only to kill a lot of innocent
people. And Clinton's bombing of Baghdad has not made Saddam Hussein
capitulate. Only the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
hastened a surrender. Surely, that's not a route worth traveling
again. Washington and NATO should have anticipated that the bombing
would serve not to dislodge Milosevic but to strengthen his base
of support. Even former opponents of Milosevic were won over to
his side once the bombs began to fall.
Faced with hundreds of thousands of refugees,
an entrenched Milosevic, and Serbian troops on the rampage, U.S.
generals quickly began a two-step, denying that the NATO offensive
was ever designed to prevent the Serbs from engaging in "ethnic
"Bombing cannot stop the killing
of civilians," General Wesley Clark, Supreme NATO Commander,
said on Good Morning America. "It was never the mission,
never the expectation that action from the air alone can halt
ethnic cleansing. It cannot be done." This is a bait-and-switch.
A week earlier, Clinton had told the nation: "Right now our
firmness is the only hope the people of Kosovo have to be able
to live in their own country without having to fear for their
War has a dynamic of its own. A few miscalculations
here and there, and a little war can easily become a big one,
with casualties mounting higher than ever anticipated. That is
why it is crucial to do everything to prevent wars from starting-and
to stamp them out once they start.
The United States and NATO dismissed out
of hand Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's first diplomatic
initiative. This was unwise. The allies could have used it as
an opening for negotiations before spilling more blood. Instead,
NATO, under heavy pressure from Washington, decided to up the
ante and start bombing Belgrade. The logic of this was astounding:
Bombing isn't working, so we're going to bomb even more.
Bombing is not the answer. And ground
troops are not the answer. The answer is to stop the war, negotiate
a settlement, and dedicate our energy and our Pentagon treasury
to finding peaceful ways to settle conflicts instead of resorting
But, at some point, a brutal leader may
not stop at the peace signs. What then?
We believe there are times when humanitarian
military interventions are justified. But they must he used only
as a last resort, after every effort at peacemaking has been exhausted.
That did not happen here.
And they must be carried out in accordance
with international law. That did not happen here.
And they must be applied in some consistent
manner around the globe. That did not happen here.
The United Nations is the only proper
forum for addressing and resolving the difficult issue of humanitarian
interventions. These are global problems; they are not the province
of the lone superpower or of the alliance it dominates.
Only when the United Nations exercises
its responsibility and expands its power will it be able to intervene
with enough force to prevent humanitarian catastrophes. But to
endow it with that power, the United States must recognize its
own limitations. It needs to shed its delusions about being a
global cop, clean up its own act, and work seriously with the
rest of the world for peace.
International War Crimes