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Land War in Kosovo?

Evacuation to Guam, Guantánamo, Germany, or Turkey provides no solution to the Kosovo refugee problem. The only acceptable solution for the refugees is to go back to their homes (those homes that survive), provided with security in which to rebuild their lives. As the Italian and French governments said, in refusing to take the refugees, their resettlement abroad means collaboration in Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. His fait accompli is ratified. Nor is NATO’s crisis solved by turning troops to relief efforts. The vocation of an army is to kill, not do social work.

The only solution to the crisis is a NATO victory that makes the refugees’ return possible. It is useless to talk now about a cease-fire or about resumed negotiations. New negotiations with President Milosevic at this point would concede NATO’s defeat. Kosovo’s partition would be a defeat. Enclaves inside Kosovo for the refugees also mean NATO’s defeat.

If there is not a NATO victory over Serbia there will no longer be a NATO. But no victory now is imaginable without a land campaign. The debate over intervention is no longer a dispute over means to an end. It is a debate over abandoning NATO and the American claim to international leadership.

If the United States vetoes a land intervention, which is supported by a majority of French and British opinion, the United States can forget about NATO. Events since March 24 have already greatly weakened confidence in NATO-assured collective security in Europe, or anywhere else.

Polls conducted April 1-2 in Britain found 66 percent support for British participation in a NATO ground attack on Serbian forces—up 19 percent in a single week. Only 27 percent of the respondents were opposed to this (7 percent were undecided). A poll taken April 3 in France found 58 percent support for ground intervention. In a separate French poll, 55 percent of the respondents favored French ground intervention even without NATO.

The French government, however, remains silent on land intervention. Tony Blair has said that Europe must see this affair through to its end, even if the United States does not; yet on Sunday, April 4, his foreign secretary, Robin Cook, ruled out ground action and Blair said “a NATO invasion force is not an alternative, because it would take weeks to assemble, during which time the emptying of Kosovo would continue.” Shortly before that, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana was made to withdraw remarks favoring a refugee “protection force.”

Pressure against intervention presumably is coming from Washington. Congressional opposition is very strong, although Newsweek says 54 percent of the American public would now send troops “to help bring peace.” Washington policymakers still see Kosovo through the distorting glass of the American presidential campaign.

This moral isolation is by now characteristic of Washington, and is potentially lethal for American national interests. The refugees’ fate and the question of a land campaign are handled by the White House and Congress (and much of the press) with regard to what any decision might do to, or for, the ravaged reputation of the Clinton administration and the election of Mr. Gore. Ignored is what decisions can do to the geopolitical relationship of the United States to Europe, and beyond. One may argue (as I have done) that Western Europe’s politically morbid dependence upon Washington needs to be broken for the good of both sides—but surely not by defeat at the hands of Slobodan Milosevic.

NATO planners cannot have neglected the intervention contingency. The forces exist. The 82nd Airborne Division and other air-mobile forces are available from the US, as are British and French airborne regiments, rapid reaction formations, and special forces. General William Odom, the former director of the National Security Agency and now of the Hudson Institute, has proposed an armored thrust from Hungary—a new NATO member—toward Belgrade, to dislodge Mr. Milosevic’s government. This is politically tricky, since it could compromise the Hungarian minority in Serbia.

However, the size of Serbia and Kosovo together is less than that of Kentucky (39,700 square miles). Kosovo is the size of greater Los Angeles. A tank column can cross it in an hour. NATO could certainly confront Serbian police and troops not only with armored invasion from the north and breakout by the NATO troops now in Macedonia but also with an airborne operation that would establish a base in the center of the country, severing Serbian lines of communication; it could be sustained from Albania (fewer than ninety miles from central Kosovo).

It is time for speed and improvisation. One thinks of Britain and the Falklands, when the Royal Navy turned container ships into aircraft carriers, and of the Korean intervention, when exactly eleven and a half weeks elapsed from the day North Korea invaded South Korea, driving South Korean forces and three US divisions into a besieged perimeter, to MacArthur’s landing at Inchon (with forces brought across the Pacific), which routed the North Korean army.

Much is said about the potential of Serbian guerrillas, which is real. There is, however, no apparent reason why rearmed and retrained forces of the KLA could not clear them from Kosovo’s mountains, even slowly. It’s their country. The NATO military task is to drive organized Serbian forces out of the depopulated areas of Kosovo, destroy them and the present Serbian government in Kosovo, and restore order and authority there.

Predictions of catastrophe, citing the Vietnam example, consistently ignore the fact that NATO forces would operate in Kosovo against a hated Serb invader, with support from the population and the KLA. In Vietnam the United States supported a government actively or passively opposed by most of the South Vietnamese, against the armed opposition of the most dynamic politico-military force in the country. That is a great difference.

The Kosovars should be given the means to defend themselves in the future. They are the ones who wanted freedom, and the tactics of their KLA precipitated this crisis. Until now the Western governments have wanted Kosovo to remain part of Serbia. That no longer is possible. NATO should not occupy Serbia. It should support Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, preferably ratified eventually in a larger Balkan settlement, negotiated with a successor government to the present one in Belgrade, with Russian participation.

An independent Kosovar republic arguably already exists. The Kosovars proclaimed it a decade ago, ratified it in an unofficial popular referendum, and respected its program of nonviolent resistance to the Serbs until last year. Kosovo was an autonomous province of the pre-1991 Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Its autonomy was acknowledged in the federal constitution proclaimed in 1974. The right of the members of the Yugoslav federation to leave it was conceded between 1991 and 1993, when four of them—Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia—did so, were granted international recognition, and were admitted to the UN.

The Socialist Federal Republic thereby ceased to exist. Its surviving republics, Serbia and Macedonia, united in 1992, calling themselves the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (dropping “Socialist” from the name). They claimed legal succession to the former Yugoslav republic. The international community refused to accept that claim. The new Federal Republic has been excluded from the UN.

This new Yugoslav union was ratified by popular vote in Serbia, Montenegro, and the formerly autonomous province of Vojvodina. It was, however, not ratified in Kosovo, where the referendum was all but totally boycotted. It was boycotted because Serbia had in the meantime illegally and forcibly annulled the autonomy conferred on Kosovo by the 1974 constitution of the old Yugoslavia.

It may therefore be argued that the oppressive sovereignty Serbia has imposed on Kosovo had, and has, no juridical basis either in legitimate succession to the old Yugoslavia or in popular ratification within the new Federal Republic. The Kosovar Albanians’ overwhelming ratification of their own proclamation of an independent republic in 1991 is therefore, arguably, the sole legal and democratic source for political authority and sovereignty in Kosovo.

As the historian of Yugoslavia Paul Garde has argued, there is no reason why the international community should not recognize the Kosovo Republic, which fulfills the same criteria that Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia fulfilled in order to be recognized—save one. The one criterion it lacks is undisputed control over its own territory. The Kosovo Albanians tried for a decade to achieve that through nonviolent measures. Some of them then turned to armed resistance, with terrible but potentially decisive results.

By attacking Serbia, NATO has already lent its support to the Kosovars’ struggle. It should accept the consequences. Its members should recognize the 1991 Kosovo Republic, and give it armed support, as the United Nations Charter entitles them to do.

NATO and the United States, at this writing, continue to substitute palliative but morally hypocritical gestures—refugee airlifts and “temporary” resettlements—for military choices that would cost NATO lives. Death, however, is part of the military contract. France’s ex-commander in Bosnia, Philippe Morillon, once said of America’s illusions on this subject, “Who are these soldiers who are ready to kill and not ready to die?”

April 7, 1999

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