Kosovo: The Meaning of Victory

Carried forward amid an ocean of cheering refugees in the Stankovic refugee camp, Madeleine Albright could hardly contain her excitement. “We have been victorious,” the secretary of state shouted triumphantly to the roaring crowds, “and Milosevic has lost!” As she spoke, Slobodan Milosevic issued orders in Belgrade; Russian troops, with his happy connivance, marched into Pristina, embarrassing their supposed NATO allies. And more than eight hundred fifty thousand Kosovar Albanians languished in their tent cities in Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro.

“We have fought this war so the refugees can go home,” Albright told them, showing a more persuasive grasp of theater than of logic: two and a half months before, few of the men, women, and children surrounding her had been refugees. Addressing his countrymen on the eve of the war, President Clinton had announced quite a different goal. “We act,” he told Amer-icans on March 24, “to protect thousands of innocent people in Kosovo from a mounting military offensive…. We act to prevent a wider war, to defuse a powder keg at the heart of Europe, that has exploded twice before in this century with catastrophic results.”

President Clinton’s geography, and his history, were as uncertain as his secretary of state’s logic, but his argument came through with admirable clar-ity: “By acting now, we are upholding our values,” he said. “Ending this tragedy,” he said, “is a moral imperative.”

Fine words on which to launch a war, and it is against them that the Kosovo “victory” must now be judged. How does one prepare a moral balance sheet? Begin with brute facts: before, a small province torn by a low-level guerrilla uprising and a savage counterinsurgency staged to suppress it; tens of thousands of people homeless, perhaps two thousand dead.

And after? A land destroyed; countless houses and schools burned; nearly a million people stripped of their homes, their belongings, their identities, deported and displaced. And finally—critical spaces still blank on the balance sheet—scores, perhaps hundreds, raped; thousands, perhaps many thousands, dead.

Brute facts are not all, of course. That “moral imperative” can be extended, telescoped, as President Clinton recognized on March 24:

All the ingredients for a major war are there. Ancient grievances, struggling democracies and in the center of it all, a dictator in Serbia who has done nothing since the Cold War ended but start new wars and pour gasoline on the flames of ethnic and religious division.

Mr. Milosevic, of course, rules still in Belgrade. As for his policy of sowing “ethnic and religious” division—which, unopposed, had produced a Croatia “cleansed” of Serbs and an ethnically partitioned Bosnia—the West was now forced to confront it:

All around Kosovo, there are other small countries, struggling with their own economic and political challenges, countries that could be overthrown by a large new wave of refugees from Kosovo.

And yet, during the weeks after the President spoke, that “large new wave” of refugees that the war was intended to forestall did indeed break on…

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