“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. As Mark Danner has argued in these pages, fierce rhetoric has been accompanied by feeble deeds.1 In the Balkans, Clinton has inverted Theodore Roosevelt:he speaks loudly and carries a small stick.

As a European, I prefer to dwell on the beam in our own eye rather than the mote in our transatlantic brother’s. After all, this is a conflict in Europe. The Kosovo war supports an argument I have made throughout the decade: that the leaders of Western Europe set the wrong priorities at the end of the cold war. Instead of seizing the chances and recognizing the dangers that arose from the end of communism in half of Europe, they concentrated on perfecting the integration of the western half. We put Maastricht before Sarajevo. Now we are paying the price.

The immediate origins of the war lie in a major miscalculation by the leaders of the West. They took too literally Clausewitz’s famous saying that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Misled by the Bosnian precedent, they thought they could bomb Milosevic into accepting a version of the Rambouillet deal for Kosovo. Some of them expected that, in response to bombing, he would take tough military and police action against the KLA and the civilians supporting it. None expected the scale, speed, and brutality of what Milosevic did.

Of course, it’s easy to be wise after the event. The only people I know who actually forecast what happened are politicians from former Yugoslavia. Last September I remarked to President Milan Kucan of Slovenia, “But surely Milosevic can’t ‘ethnically cleanse’ 1.8 million people?” He looked at me quizzically and replied: “You don’t know Milosevic.” Early last year, President Kiro Gligorov of Macedonia called for a “corridor” to take large numbers of Kosovar Albanian refugees through his country to Albania. Now, in Skopje, I asked him why he had seen this coming. The shrewd old man looked at me and shrugged, as if to say, “Wasn’t it obvious?”


Well, it was not obvious to us who live in a more normal world. But what we can fairly hold against NATO is that it did not plan for this contingency. After all, that’s what a political-military alliance is meant to do: plan for contingencies, even remote ones. Since then, the action has patently gone wrong.

I more than accept the end. I believe it had become imperative to threaten force so as to get a new dispensation for Kosovo. When the threat failed, the use of force in and over Kosovo was fully justified. But the means chosen have compromised the end. To conduct the campaign entirely from the air, and that mainly at 15,000 feet; to conduct it increasingly by bombing civilian infrastructure in Serbia proper—bridges, roads, railways, factories, the TV station—rather than destroying Serb forces on the ground in Kosovo: this has been wrong.

Why have we chosen the means of an aerial war against Serbia proper? First, because we were not prepared for any other sort of war, and hardly even for this one. Second, because it turns out that with all our godlike technology we can’t find Serb tanks hiding in garages, let alone paramilitaries who stop over in a different Albanian house every night: so Milosevic has been winning in Kosovo itself. Third, because the United States has not been prepared to risk a single casualty in this conflict. Clinton’s emotional comment on the three captured US soldiers—“We look after our own people”—unintentionally says it all. So the bombers fly at 15,000 feet and, inevitably, the bombs sometimes hit the very civilians they are meant to be saving.


The list of disastrous consequences is long. First and foremost, most of the Albanians who live in Kosovo have been kicked out of their homes; many have lost everything; women have been raped, men killed. It is wrong to call this a “holocaust.” But it is, together with Bosnia, the most terrible single event to have happened in Europe for fifty years. It is wholly comparable with Hitler’s and Stalin’s forced deportations of entire ethnic groups—Poles, Estonians, Crimean Tartars—and with the postwar expulsions of Germans from Eastern Europe.

Blerim Shala, a member of the Kosovar delegation at Rambouillet, tells me about his own perilous trek from Kosovo to Macedonia: emphasizing how the ordinary Serb soldiers shared their hunks of bread with the Albanians, and even promised to protect them from marauding paramilitaries. Then he starts explaining the topography of deportation, as whole cities were being transported to different frontiers. “Pristina went to Macedonia,” he says. “Prizren went to Albania.” Incredible sentences. As if one were to say, “Washington went to Mexico” or “Paris went to Spain.”

Milosevic had already driven something like 300,000 Kosovars from their homes last year. Clearly the current operation, apparently called Operation Horseshoe, had been planned in advance. The additional Serb forces were put in place even as Serbian representatives ostensibly negotiated in Rambouillet and Paris. But elementary logic indicates that we cannot know what would have happened if we had not started bombing. What we do know is that the Serb action escalated dramatically as soon as the air campaign began.

Standing in front of his tent (sixteen people sleeping in a space the size of an average living room) at the Stenkovec2 refugee camp in Macedonia, Jusuf Mustafa, a once-prosperous building contractor, told me how they had gone out onto the balcony of their house to applaud the first NATO bombs. Within fifteen minutes, the Serbs had started throwing grenades into their neighborhood. A few days later, his family was driven out at gunpoint. His story stands for many. This is not to say that we were wrong to bomb. It is to say that we were wrong to rely exclusively on bombing and that we now have a direct responsibility for getting these people back to their homes.

With the mass expulsion, Milosevic almost certainly intended—I say “almost certainly,” for who knows what really goes through that poisoned mind?—to spread havoc by destabilizing the neighboring countries. NATO fights with bombs; he uses civilians. He has very nearly succeeded. Albania, already in a state of near anarchy, has been swamped by close to half a million dispossessed compatriots. Montenegro, a tiny country of some 625,000 people, is now host to more than 60,000 Kosovar expellees and struggles bravely to keep its half-independence from Serbia. And I saw at first hand what the war has done to Macedonia.

This small, poor country of just two million people has been shaken to its foundations. Its economy is in shock, since 20 percent of its exports went to Serbia, and more depended on trade routes through Serbia. Meanwhile, it has—slowly, reluctantly, often with low-level police brutality—taken in more than 230,000 expellees. It’s as if the United States had taken in thirty million Mexicans in two months.


Albanians already made up roughly a quarter of Macedonia’s population. Suddenly they are more than a third. Throughout the 1990s, the country has been plagued by ethnic tensions between the Albanians and the Slav Macedonian majority. In the mainly Albanian city of Tetovo, where many of the expellees are living with local families, I found an explosive situation. An acquaintance told me that Slav Macedonians have even received anonymous threatening phone calls: “Get out of here, it’s our city now, and NATO is behind us.” Then, back in Skopje, a Kosovar refugee explained that she was leaving because she had received threatening phone calls from Macedonians.

The political leaders of the Macedonian Albanians have so far displayed great restraint. “Milosevic’s aim is to destabilize Macedonia,” Arben Xhaferi of the Albanian Democratic Party told me, “so my priority is to not allow him to succeed.” And President Gligorov explained how his country is struggling to remain what is effectively the only functioning multiethnic state in former Yugoslavia. He emphasized that there is no significant history of ethnic conflict between Macedonians and Albanians, unlike that between Serbs and Albanians. “If our forefathers were able to live together,” he said, “why shouldn’t we be able to?” But already there have been several nasty confrontations between Macedonian police and Albanian expellees. One big incident—perhaps an attempted breakout from a camp, met by police shooting—and the tensions between Albanians and Macedonians could explode. So the reality behind that anodyne phrase “regional stability” is another Balkan country on the verge of collapse.

Meanwhile, in Serbia itself the NATOcampaign has shot the legs out from under the small democratic opposition. These are the people Imostly talk or e-mail to, and they are in despair. It may not be true that the whole country has been united behind Milosevic. Nor are they proud of what Serbia has done in Kosovo. But for now, even the most pro-Western among them are angry at the bombing, and the nations behind it—that is, us. It makes for difficult conversations. These attitudes can change again after the war is over, especially if Milosevic is defeated, and seen to be defeated, in Kosovo, and only in Kosovo. But for now, this has been another calamitous effect.

Oh yes, and then we managed to infuriate one fifth of the world’s population, who had nothing at all to do with the conflict, by bombing their embassy.

This is the balance sheet two months into the war. This is how NATO has celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.


How do we get out of this bloody mess? To answer that question you have first to ask another one: What is the minimum political objective upon which we must insist? The minimum is an international protectorate for the whole of Kosovo, to which the majority of those who have been expelled will both wish and feel safe to return. With each week that passes, the difficulty of achieving this increases.

The auspices for this protectorate should be those of the United Nations. To achieve that, you need the assent of two seriously offended permanent members of the Security Council, Russia and China. The conditions to which they would agree might not be those under which the majority of Kosovars would actually return. On the ground, a large international force would be needed to protect those returning against any remaining Serb soldiers, police, paramilitaries, and simply armed civilians. In Macedonia, I saw British troops practicing for encounters with Serb minefields, roadblocks, and snipers. The Rambouillet agreement envisaged an implementation force of 28,000 troops. NATO has now approved President Clinton’s proposal of a ground force presence in neighboring countries of 50,000. Partly, of course, this is a (long overdue) threat of invasion, to put pressure on Milosevic. But it is probably also a realistic estimate of the numbers that would now be needed to implement any new agreement.

Again and again I asked the expellees in the camps what it would take for them to return. Their answers could be summed up in a single phrase: “No Serbs with guns.” Any negotiated solution that could command Russian assent would probably not meet that basic demand. It might end up leaving a number of Serbian forces at what is, after all, still formally the frontier of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and perhaps also guarding the Serbian monasteries. In practice, this would be dynamite—especially if local Serbs are still running around with guns. But if the Serbs are to be as far as possible disarmed, what about the KLA, to whose colors young Kosovars in exile are now flocking? As the Serbs retreated the KLA would surely flood back, firing their Kalashnikovs in the air, as they did after the cease-fire agreement last October. And they would terrorize any remaining Serbs. If Kosovo is to be halfway peaceful, the international force would have to try to disarm them. But decommissioning a guerrilla army is a very difficult task—as we have seen in Northern Ireland.

Then, who would maintain law and order? An entire new police force would have to be created from scratch. Someone would have to train it. NATO soldiers say that is not a job they are either equipped or ready to do. Meanwhile, many people have no homes to go back to, and no crops or cattle to see them through the winter. So a huge effort would be needed, first by the UNHCR, to put roofs over their heads and to feed them, then by governments and charities, probably coordinated by the EU, to reconstruct the infrastructure destroyed by Serb forces and by NATObombs. “Kosovo is lost for me,” one articulate exile exclaimed, “the place is just destroyed; it will take twenty years to rebuild it.” Even if Milosevic is defeated, we still face the enemy called despair.

To vanquish despair, the Kosovars will need their own political leadership. We talk all the time about international participation in rebuilding Kosovo. In the acronymic jungle of planning for peace, the OSCE is assigned the responsibility now curiously called “nation-building”: supervising elections, building up democratic institutions, and so on. But what about the people whose homeland this is supposed to be? One voice that has been singularly missing over the last two months is that of Kosovo itself. We have heard the refugees and, as Hillary Clinton mawkishly put it, feel their pain. But the Kosovars have featured only as victims, as objects rather than subjects of history.

The trouble is that their political leadership is hopelessly divided. There is the pacifist president, Ibrahim Rugova, widely discredited by having appeared on Serb television with Milosevic while his people were being rounded up and killed. There’s the “prime minister in exile,” Bujor Bukoshi, who controls the money collected from Kosovo Albanians living in the West. There are the KLA commanders besieged in mountain pockets across Kosovo, and KLA leaders squabbling in Albania. Finally there are the liberal intellectuals of Pristina, now to be found at the Café Arbi in Tetovo, desperately looking for their Havel or Mandela.

In one respect, and one only, Kosovo should be easier than Bosnia. In Bosnia, the international community is trying to maintain the semblance of a multiethnic state, but the reality on the ground remains one of ethnic partition. In Kosovo, we must certainly strive to see that there is a place for innocent Serb civilians in a territory that holds so much Serb history. But I fear that, in practice, virtually all the Serbs will flee. As innocent Germans, in what are now Poland and Czechoslovakia, paid the price for Hitler’s crimes after 1945, so innocent Serbs in Kosovo will pay the price for Milosevic’s crimes. Even if some of them stay, and are given all possible minority rights, the combination of demography and democracy would mean that Kosovo would still be essentially an Albanian political entity.

As a result, a workable home-grown polity could eventually develop under international tutelage—in a way that is, alas, most unlikely ever to happen in Bosnia. Eventually, it probably would become an independent state. The legal basis for independence would be the very plausible claim that Kosovo was a constituent part of former Yugoslavia: the same basis on which Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and the other republics of former Yugoslavia were recognized. So it would not set a dangerous precedent, let alone enunciate some universal right of ethnic self-determination: Catalonia for the Catalans, Ruthenia for the Ruthenians, Cornwall for the Cornish. But at the moment, the question of Kosovo’s formal status in international law is far less important than the reality on the ground. Milosevic knows this too. After all, he rejected the Rambouillet agreement, although it gave him full, formal sovereignty. Wise Kosovars acknowledge that a new Kosova (the Albanian spelling) will need international foster parents for a long time before it can walk on its own feet.

The Russians will have to be part of this international effort. They are an essential part of the solution. But they are also part of the problem. The Kosovars don’t trust them. “They are worse than the Serbs,” one Albanian patriarch told me. “They are all Slavs,” his son explained. If Russian soldiers stand at the frontier, refugees will be reluctant to go back, especially if there are any Serbian frontier officials present too. But there is a worse variant, which Milosevic will probably try for. This is a Russian zone of occupation in the north and east of Kosovo, where the mineral wealth and some of the main Serb monasteries are. What this would mean in reality is partition. Serbs would go to the Russian part, Albanians to the rest.

One has to be very clear that such a “face-saving compromise” would be a defeat for NATO. As I have reported in these pages,2 even Serb nationalists have for several years been talking about partition as the only solution for Kosovo. It would also encourage Albanians to say, “All right, if you, the West, are ready to accept the partition of Bosnia and Kosovo on ethnic lines, we will divide Macedonia on ethnic lines.” Partition would be a disaster—and Milosevic could plausibly claim victory, strengthening his hold on power.


The trouble with this war is that it is being fought in the wrong place. A war in Kosovo for Kosovo seems to me wholly defensible. A war fought from the air over Serbia proper, against increasingly civilian targets, is much more difficult to justify. What we should aim for is exactly the opposite situation: one in which, in Serbia proper, Milosevic loses rather than gains popular support, while we at last do something effectual in Kosovo itself. The distinction between fighting for Kosovo and fighting against Serbia may seem a fine one—too fine for wartime—but it remains vitally important. Rather than bombing Serbian towns, we should be liberating Kosovan ones.

The key to doing this has all along been the presence of ground troops. With hindsight, we can see that we should have had substantial ground troops ready nearby, before we started bombing. I referred earlier to NATO leaders being “misled by the Bosnian precedent.” Many people still believe we bombed Milosevic to the Dayton peace agreement. But that was only possible because we already had French and British troops on the ground who could direct the bombs accurately to their targets, in a way that besieged KLA commanders with satphones obviously cannot, and because the Croatian army, trained by Americans, had changed the military balance against the Serb forces on the ground.

Some have suggested we should have used the KLA in a similar way. If you’re not prepared to change the balance of forces on the ground yourself, use the local barbarians to do it for you. But the Croatian army was at least the more or less regular army of a recognized, sovereign state. Even then, the horrible side effect was that we became party to the largest single act of ethnic cleansing until Kosovo: the expulsion of nearly 200,000 Serbs from the Krajina in 1995. The KLA has of course never been the regular army of a sovereign state. Last year, it was still a ragtag, irregular, guerrilla army, with some very wild local commanders. They made few distinctions between guilty and innocent Serbs. In the capitals of the West, people loosely say, “They are a bunch of drug dealers.” Although some of the funding may have come from Koso-var drug dealing, a knowledgeable senior Western official comments wryly that “drug dealers is about the only thing they aren’t.” I think it would have been neither right nor militarily effective to arm and train them last year. And now? Well, we don’t have the time. And then, thinking ahead to the protectorate, it would seem a very curious strategy to arm people today in order to disarm them tomorrow.

No, there is no alternative to doing it ourselves. We should have had the ground troops there at the beginning. We have wasted two months not building up a credible force. The deadline has drawn near for bringing in the necessary troops and equipment so we could go in opposed, if the worst came to the worst, before the winter snows descend. Now at last President Clinton has been persuaded by the Pentagon and Tony Blair to go up to 50,000 troops.

But Milosevic has to believe that we are actually prepared to use them. No one ever won a fight by saying at the outset, “OK, I’ll fight, as long as Inever get hurt.” Having seen British troops training to take casualties, I do not write these words lightly. To look after your own people is the first duty of a statesman. Yet it is a perverted moral code that will allow a million innocent civilians of another country to be made destitute because you are not prepared to risk the life of a sin-gle professional soldier of your own. What are soldiers trained for? What kind of superpower is this? What kind of morality?

The irony is that if we had had the ground troops there in sufficiently impressive array at the beginning, we might never have needed to use them. Milosevic has this, too, in common with Hitler and Stalin: that his programmatic evil and strategic madness is mixed with supreme tactical realism. As the Romans knew, if you want peace, you must prepare for war.


In two months we have learned or been reminded of some deeply sobering lessons. About the human capacity for evil. About the Clinton administration. About the United States, a superpower that believes in no-loss war. About NATO, playing poker by committee. Yet this is also the story of a European failure to deal with a European problem. Talking to theEuropean soldiers in Macedonia, I asked them whether European forces could, if it came to the worst, liberate Kosovo on their own? Well, they said, there was a problem with the transport of heavy armored divisions, and with air support. But otherwise: yes, militarily, we could do it. We have the men. We have the equipment. We have the money.

Isn’t this just the kind of operation that has been discussed ever since the end of the cold war: European troops, with NATO support? I doubt it will happen this time. German opinion has moved a very long way, but Chancellor Gerhard Schröder says that German ground troops will not participate in an invasion of a country which was last occupied by Hitler’s Wehrmacht. His Red-Green coalition would fall apart if they did. The Italians are also unwilling. Britain and France alone would not be enough. But the failure in Kosovo should surely be a catalyst for the closer European defense cooperation that has been talked about for so long.

The countries of the European Union are bound to take a leading part in the economic and political effort to reconstruct not just Kosovo but the entire region after the war. Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, and Bulgaria all need urgent help, especially if a fudged diplomatic solution means that a significant number of refugees decide not to return to Kosovo. Already, there is talk of speeding up EU enlargement (I’ll believe that when I see it) and a conference has been summoned in Germany to discuss a “stability pact” for the Balkans—politely called “South Eastern Europe.”At last, European policymakers are beginning to use some imagination about what the world’s economic superpower—the EU—can do to prevent still more of its neighbors from descending into war, and to rebuild those who have already gone through war.

Writing in a British tabloid, The Mirror, Mikhail Gorbachev jeers that the war has shown Europeans their true place: “Yes, you are strong economically, but politically you are pygmies.” Will it help us to grow up? Heraclitus famously said that war is the father of all things. The experience of the Second World War was the father of the European Union as we know it today. Perhaps this war will lead us to start doing at the end of the decade what we should have done at the beginning:to build a liberal order for the whole of Europe. But, knowing Europe, I wouldn’t count on it.

May 27, 1999

This Issue

June 24, 1999