Bill Clinton's War

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 500,000 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 been calculated.

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 Kosovats 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 against him.

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.

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