Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Quagmire Is Not So Deadly as an Inferno, and Other Lessons from Kosovo

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Quagmire Is Not So Deadly as an Inferno, and Other Lessons from Kosovo

Article excerpt

A Quagmire Is Not So Deadly as an Inferno, And Other Lessons From Kosovo

With the arrival in Kosovo of NATO forces (not to mention some unexpected Russians) on June 12, the worst of what will probably go down in history as the Kosovo war is over. There were joyous scenes of crowds cheering the liberating forces reminiscent of the allied liberation of Paris in 1944. There will be heartbreaking scenes as the 800,000 displaced Kosovars return to destroyed neighborhoods, burned-out houses and, at this writing, on one knows how many fresh graves.

There may be ugly scenes, too, reminiscent of the aftermath of World War II when, after the retreat of defeated German forces from countries of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, embittered mobs and newly installed communist governments expelled German-speaking minorities who had lived among them for generations. Throughout Germany today are people whose grandparents and parents arrived with nothing more than a few battered suitcases and the clothes on their backs, and set out to rebuild their lives from the ground up.

It will be the responsibility of NATO troops to prevent acts of vengeance from either the Albanian Kosovar or Serb side. Hopefully lessons have been learned in this regard from Bosnia, where many Muslims, Serbs and Croats still fear to return to their homes. It would be too much to hope that a final settlement will be reached more easily in Kosovo.

Senator John McCain, quoted at the beginning of this article, bluntly predicts partition, presumably meaning the areas of religious and nationalist significance to the Serbs would stay with them, and the rest would go to Kosovar Albanians living either in an independent Kosovar state or one affiliated with Albania. Others consider the borders of Kosovo inviolate, and propose autonomy for Kosovo along the lines it enjoyed within the former Yugoslavia before Slobodan Milosevic personally abolished it in 1989. Perhaps sometime in the next century, when all of the peoples of former Yugoslavia and Albania join a united Europe, it no longer will matter.

It's too early to know what lessons the Serbs themselves have learned from this fourth losing war into which Milosevic has led them in only eight years. His popularity seems to soar whenever his people are under siege, and then wane between his losing campaigns. Historians will trace it to a nationalism of martyrdom built upon the defeat of the Serbs by the Turks at Kosovo in the 14th century.

But now that the Serbs have suffered at home some of the kinds of personal losses their brethren have suffered in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and now Kosovo, perhaps defeat will lose its allure. Or perhaps their hero will find yet another place, like Montenegro or the autonomous province of Vojvodina, to lose a war.

There are lessons to be learned from wars. The British, French and other European military officers did a miserable and in some cases deceitful job of "protecting" the Bosnian Muslims from the Serbs for three years under U.N. auspices, and then only somewhat better when it became a NATO operation. It seems the lessons of that bitter experience were absorbed, however, both at the military and political levels in the 19-member NATO alliance.

As he completed his ethnic cleansing of half the Kosovars, Serb President Milosevic, backed by Russia, because of cultural and ethnic ties, and China, perhaps partly out of concern for the parallel between Serb treatment of the Kosovars and Chinese treatment of the Tibetans and other minorities, unsuccessfully tried every trick in the book, including refusing to negotiate unless there was a bombing pause, to buy time to prevent those who had been driven over Kosovo's borders from ever returning.

That this was his purpose became clear from the beginning when the very first refugees to reach Macedonia and Albania reported that Serb authorities were methodically confiscating their passports, identity cards, property deeds, and anything else they could use to prove residence in the province where their families had lived for generations. …

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