It is depressingly familiar: as in the case of America’s China policy after 1945, as in Vietnam, ambitious but fuzzy aims are being sought by inadequate means. If the purpose of NATO’s bombing of Serbia has been to deter the Serbs from inflicting more harm on the Kosovar Albanians, the policy has failed and we now have to confront the fact that it is, to use the language of strategists, far more difficult to compel the Serbs to get out of Kosovo so that the refugees can return than to deter them—and most unlikely that we will be able to compel them by air warfare alone.
As so many analysts keep telling us, we have stepped into an extraordinarily complicated and messy tragedy. The peaceful citizens of democratic countries, even when they are stirred by compassion and shocked by atrocities, are reluctant to wage war “for others”—self-defense is another matter. And the Balkans seem like the archetype of a quagmire. The essence of the issue is simple: at the end of the twentieth century, crimes against humanity are being committed on a scale and with a brutality that one hasn’t seen in Europe since Nazi Germany (although, as Mark Danner has reminded us, Bosnia was a prelude and a warning that the NATO countries, and indeed the UN, ignored for four years1 ).
Such crimes are doubly intolerable. They are intolerable on moral grounds, of course: no tyrant should be allowed to treat human beings in such a way, on such a scale. But also on grounds more familiar or acceptable to “realists,” for whom, as for Dean Acheson, there are two kinds of issues: moral ones, and real ones. To tolerate this ferocious combination of ethnic cleansing and quasi genocide is to give other potential ethnic cleansers a green light in a world of fragile states and ethnic conflicts, and to invite world disorder on a grand scale. For there can be no order, no “stable structure of peace,” to use Kissingerian language, without a modicum of moderation, especially in areas that are powder kegs.
This is what matters. The fact that NATO has “violated Yugoslav sovereignty” doesn’t: it was Milosevic who violated, by abolishing it, Kosovo’s autonomy, and who later explicitly accepted that Kosovo was a legitimate subject of “international” concern. What the Serbs are doing is not a police operation against political dissenters or ordinary criminals. It is the destruction of a movement of national liberation from extremely repressive rule, the crushing of a drive for self-determination. The fact that the US and its allies have failed to respond to cases of genocide or ethnic cleansing all over the world—in the Sudan, or in Cambodia, or in Rwanda, or in the Krajina when the Croats took it back from the Serbs in 1995—is not a reason for passivity in Kosovo; it is a reason for remorse or at least self-criticism. It was a mistake for the NATO countries not to seek authorization from the Security Council…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.