“I’ll tell you the truth,” says the Kosovar newspaper editor. “They really don’t know.” We are sitting in Tetovo, Macedonia, in the Café Arbi, where the exiled intellectuals of Pristina meet the world. “They” in this comment are not the intellectuals but the KLA commanders still in Kosovo, to whom the editor, Baton Haxhiu, talks daily by satellite phone. Besieged on their hilltops, they can see a burning village here, a Serb patrol there, a tank at a crossroads—but they have no overall picture. Yet a large proportion of NATO’s bombing targets in Kosovo come from this same source: from the KLA commanders, via satellite phone. So “they” is also NATO.
Many of us fondly imagine that NATO, with its almost godlike technology, its satellite cameras that can see an ant at ten thousand miles, its secret special forces reportedly deployed inside Kosovo, must really know what it’s doing. Then it bombs the Chinese embassy. Of course, we can piece together, from thousands of separate stories, a picture of the terror which has probably driven more than a million Kosovars from their homes since the bombing started. But we don’t know what is happening on the ground right now. We don’t know the combat readiness, fuel and ammunition supplies, communications, and morale of the Serb forces.
Similarly, we have numerous excellent reports from Belgrade. I talk by phone and e-mail to friends and acquaintances there. We know what they are saying. But we don’t know what is really happening inside the Milosevic regime: between the military, the police, the business kleptocracy, Milosevic and his wife. And even they don’t know what is going to happen next.
War, like love, changes everything. The beginning of wisdom is to realize that, behind those confident pronouncements of our generals, prime ministers, and presidents, nobody knows. Still, there are a few things that can be said after two months of this war: about its causes, its course, and even its consequences.
The long-term origins lie in a struggle that dates back at least one hundred and twenty years, to the time of the Congress of Berlin and the League of Prizren, a struggle between Serbs and Albanians for control of this European Palestine. This is probably its last, decisive battle. Now, as then, outside powers will decide who wins.
The medium-term origins lie in a decade of appeasement, by the West, of an evil post-communist politician who has exploited Serbian nationalism to bring power and riches to himself and his family. The 1990s, as they end, remind us of Auden’s “low, dishonest decade,” the 1930s. Milosevic is not Hitler, but the basic pattern of appeasement is comparable: the longer you wait, the higher the price. Hitler should have been stopped when he remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936; Milosevic, at the siege of Vukovar in 1991.
There are many candidates for the part of Neville Chamberlain in this story. One is certainly William Jefferson Clinton …