The Kosovo war was the last European war of the twentieth century, and NATO’s first. What we do we know about it a year later? Let’s start with a quick journey down the food chain of recent history.

In the beginning were the events themselves: the meetings at which Western leaders made the decision to bomb Serbia; American pilots sliding nervously into their planes at an Italian airfield to fly the first bombing missions; Kosovar refugees trudging to the border through snow and mud. Unless we were there, we will never know what it was like to be there. And the official records are still secret.

Yet there are amazing things that people who were not there can already know: for example, what it looked like to the bombs. Eerily silent images from video cameras mounted on the noses of NATO’s high-tech guided missiles show the very window or doorframe the missile is about to hit. This is quite new for historians. There were no cameras on the cannonballs at Austerlitz. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before we will see on our television screens, from a yet more advanced camera, on a still more accurate missile, the staring eyes of the victim in the moment before she dies.

Then there are the first reports. With the openness of modern democracies, there seems to be little of significance that does not get into the press, one way or another, and usually sooner rather than later. However, much of the information is deliberately “spun” by policymakers and their spin-doctors, or unintentionally garbled by the journalist, or both spun and garbled.1 Subsequent histories rely heavily on these first reports. For anyone who knows the chaotic conditions and often slapdash and alcohol-related ways in which journalists actually write them, as well as the hair- raising inaccuracies routinely introduced in the editorial process between that original writing and the printed page or broadcast program, this reliance is quite alarming.2 Running parallel to the reporting is the opinion barrage of politicians, commentators, experts, writers, and other public intellectuals. Several forests are felled during every war for this purpose alone.3 These opinion pieces are generally of minimal use for working out what happened and why. The world-historical reflections of a Nobel Prize winner prove more ephemeral than the hurried news story of a nineteen-year-old reporter.

Among the few exceptions are intellectual commentaries that themselves contain a strong element of personal reportage. Three quarters of Michael Ignatieff’s Virtual War is of this kind, consisting as it does of lightly revised articles written for The New Yorker and other journals before and during the Kosovo war. Ignatieff’s higher journalism is made especially vivid and accessible by concentrating on one person in each piece: Richard Holbrooke (“the ego has landed”) for his diplomacy, Aleksa Djilas as The Serb, General Wesley Clark as “Virtual Commander,” and Louise Arbour of the Hague tribunal for the attempt to do justice. The last-mentioned two pieces, in particular, combine fine reportage and sophisticated reflection. The final quarter of his book is an essay on the moral dilemmas of what he calls “virtual war,” as prefigured in the Kosovo conflict.

This war saw many applications of new technology—not just NATO’s high-tech precision bombing and computer and tele-conferencing, but the cell phones on which Kosovars told their friends across the border how they were being driven out of their homes at gunpoint, and the satellite phones used by journalists and KLA commanders alike. The same applies to its historical record. This was the first European war recorded, and in some measure even fought, on the Internet. William J. Buckley’s very useful anthology of “contending voices” lists more than 180 relevant websites. And Milosevic’s e-mail address is given on the Yugoslav government site: Slobodan.Milosevic@gov.yu.

After the war, the post-mortem begins. There are the official reports, such as the US defense secretary’s weighty After-Action Report to Congress, or the French Defense Ministry’s Lessons of Kosovo.4 These are interesting for differing national emphases and, most of all, for what they don’t say. In a different league is the recent Kosovo report by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British House of Commons, a careful, probing, and admirably balanced sifting of the evidence.

A Cambridge University scholar, Marc Weller, has published a valuable collection of documents covering the period before the war broke out, and is preparing a second for the war period. Of course, many official documents remain secret, and will not become available for decades—if ever. We usually have to wait years, if not decades, for the memoirs of the politicians and diplomats involved in any war.5 However, most of them are only too eager to give their revised and polished recollections of events to journalists and academics. Whereas professional historians tend to fight shy of such recent history, scholars of international relations have also contributed mature reflections on the Kosovo war.6


Even in the post-mortem phase, journalistic investigations still often make the running. Thus, for example, important factual discoveries have come from a New York Times inquiry into the bombing of the Chinese embassy and a Newsweek exposé of a suppressed US Air Force report on the failure to destroy much of the Serb armor in Kosovo.7 Television documentaries such as “War in Europe,” made for PBS and Britain’s Channel 4, and the BBC’s “Moral Combat” combine original footage with remarkable interviews with major participants. Television is very good at conveying visual images of what it was like to be there, and at prompting historical actors to say things they might not otherwise say. It is not good at making a nuanced analytical argument.

Several journalists have rapidly produced their personal memoirs or “instant histories” of the war.8 Of those published so far, Tim Judah’s Kosovo: War and Revenge is in a class of its own. Judah followed developments in former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s, and reported on the Kosovo conflict for The New York Review. His book opens with memorable first-hand sketches from several fronts, and usefully draws on his own notebooks. It is, nonetheless, an entirely new work, in which he tries to tell the whole history of the Kosovo conflict as a coherent narrative. His pre-1990 history leans heavily on Noel Malcolm’s authoritative Kosovo: A Short History, and his account of earlier Serbian plans to “ethnically cleanse” Kosovo relies on one fairly dubious source. Elsewhere, there are a few other telltale signs of haste. But the strengths far outweigh these occasional weaknesses. As a hard-nosed and tenacious investigative journalist, Judah worries his way, terrierlike, to a ground-breaking account of the origins and development of the KLA. His narrative of the war is full of telling quotations and vivid detail. He is remarkably fair to both the Serb and Albanian sides. This book is a great achievement.

Judah writes rather caustically about “people in faraway think-tanks” trying to draw “Lessons of Kosovo.” The Brookings Institution study by Ivo Daalder and Michael O’Hanlon, Winning Ugly, is exactly that—and an excellent book, in its very different way. Its weaknesses are precisely Judah’s strengths, and vice versa. Daalder and O’Hanlon are not good on what it felt like to be there; nor would they claim to be. Their account of Serbian and Kosovar Albanian politics is superficial and tendentious—they even cite a “NATO briefing” as evidence for Milosevic’s intentions. They also rely heavily on press reporting, without pausing for a critical examination of their sources. Yet most of their book is a thorough, lucid, hard-hitting examination of Western, and especially American, policy, scrupulously examining the real alternatives available at the time. On the internal disputes of Washington policymaking they are astute and fascinating. In short, and unsurprisingly, our various authors are best on what they know best.

New material is appearing all the time.9 On July 13, 2000, Amazon.com listed 202 items in English under the search-word “Kosovo”—although some titles are duplicated. Amazon.de had forty-six in German. What is most important, however, is what we cannot yet know. Crucially, this includes the motives and decision-making process on the Serb side. Judah has an interview with the Yugoslav foreign minister, some well-informed speculation by Belgrade observers, and a tantalizing glimpse of Milosevic’s hugely influential wife, Mira Markovic, breaking down in tears while talking to a group of students near the end of the war. The PBS/Channel 4 documentary shows us General Nebojsa Pavkovic, commander of Serb forces in Kosovo, gloating about how he fooled NATO. A biography of Milosevic by Le Monde correspondent Florence Hartmann adds interesting local insights.10 But the greater part is speculation.

The truth is that we simply do not know why Milosevic and his tiny clique of cronies and advisers behaved as they did. What role was played by his coalition partners, the nationalist Radicals of Vojislav Seselj on one side and his wife’s United Yugoslav Left (JUL) on the other? What was the role of his business associates, grown rich through the misappropriation of state property and the opportunities offered by Western sanctions? What was the influence of different factions within the military and the security apparatus, with their close ties to the dreaded paramilitary groups such as Arkan’s “Tigers” and the “Frankies,” who did much of the dirtiest work in Kosovo? What role, above all, was played by his wife? (Hartmann nicely comments that in the power structures of Milosevic’s Serbia there is no “number two,” but there are two “number ones.”) For this essay, I asked Serbian friends to look for any revealing material published in Serbia on the decisions made by the Milosevic regime before and during the war. They found virtually nothing.11 Even there—perhaps especially there—the subject is neither documented nor debated. At the moment we have no sources remotely comparable in quality to those for every other side in the conflict.


Yet everything hinges on this. Daalder and O’Hanlon begin by observing that when NATO went to war, for the first time in its fifty-year history, “its target was not a country, but a man.” (The implication is that this was something unusual, but the same could surely be said of the Gulf War—against Saddam Hussein—and at least the European part of the Second World War—against Adolf Hitler.) The object, as Ignatieff writes, was to change that one man’s mind. It follows that any judgment on the wisdom or folly of Western policy depends on the answer to two questions: Why did Milosevic not back down at the beginning, when faced with the threat of bombing by the most powerful military alliance in the history of the world? Why did he cave in at the end? On July 12 this year I sent Milosevic an e-mail asking him these two questions, but I am not expecting an early reply.

So we do not know the most important thing. With that huge caveat, we can nonetheless draw some interim conclusions on a few of the main controversies about this strange, undeclared war. I shall divide the subject, rather conventionally, into causes, course, and consequences.


Tim Judah says the Kosovar Albanians managed to persuade many Westerners that Kosovo was an issue of “human rights,” when at bottom it was a struggle between two peoples for control of the same piece of land. Of course it was both; most violations of human rights have political causes. But the reminder is salutary. The deepest cause of the Kosovo war was that, since the emergence of modern Serbian and Albanian nationalisms from amid the crumbling Ottoman Empire, political and intellectual leaders of both nations had repeatedly told their peoples that they could only be fully themselves if they had this territory as part of their own national state. After conquering Kosovo in 1912, the Serbs oppressed the Albanians. The Albanians took revenge when they briefly had the upper hand in World War II.

Tito—“the last Habsburg”—was the great exception to this nationalist rule, but the conflict reemerged with the end of his Yugoslavia. In fact, Milosevic’s imposition of Serbian direct rule over Kosovo in 1989 was a major catalyst of that end. At the beginning of the 1990s, Western specialists cautioned that the situation in Kosovo was potentially explosive, and that an explosion there might spill over into Macedonia, with its large Albanian population, and hence possibly involve Bulgaria and NATO members Greece and Turkey in a “third Balkan war.” So on Christmas 1992 the US, in the last days of the Bush presidency, warned Milosevic that “in the event of conflict in Kosovo caused by Serbian action, the US will be prepared to employ military force against Serbians in Kosovo and in Serbia proper.” But then the Clinton administration arrived, attention turned to Bosnia, and the West did almost nothing more about Kosovo.

It was able to ignore it because the resistance movement of the Kosovar Albanians, led by Ibrahim Rugova, was consistently nonviolent. The 1995 Dayton agreement on Bosnia shocked the Kosovars, because it brought them no relief from Serbian oppression. Instead, the West seemed now to be relying on Milosevic to make the peace work in Bosnia. Since Dayton largely accepted territorial divisions achieved by force, a small but growing number of Kosovars concluded that only violence would bring them freedom.

In 1997, armed with guns from the plundered arsenals of Albania, a tiny group styling itself the Kosovo Liberation Army launched a pin-prick guerrilla campaign against Serb security forces. Judah shows that several of its key members had started out in the 1970s as “Enverists”—that is, Marxist-Leninist supporters of Enver Hoxha, the Albanian communist leader. They also drew on local traditions of patriotic banditry, which were particularly strong in the Drenica region of central Kosovo. These men and women were national freedom-fighters; they could also be described as terrorists. In February 1998, US special envoy Robert Gelbard characterized the KLA as “without any questions, a terrorist group.”

From the outset, the more far-sighted among them realized they could only win by drawing in the West, especially the United States, and they set out to do exactly that—even if the price was Serb reprisals against Kosovar civilians. Their strategy would spectacularly succeed. Of the many remarkable stories from the Kosovo crisis, perhaps the most remarkable of all is how a bunch of farmyard Albanian ex-Marxist-Leninist terrorists managed to enlist the United States to win their battle for them. With some reason, Judah calls the KLA “the most successful guerrilla movement in modern history.”

Of course this was only possible because of the way Milosevic’s Serbia had behaved over the preceding decade and then, in early 1998, responded to the KLA challenge with disproportionate violence. Entire extended families were killed. Village after village was torched and plundered. Some 300,000 Kosovar Albanians were driven out of their homes by the late summer of 1998. This was one of the five largest refugee crises in the world—the others being in Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, Sierra Leone, and Colombia.

The West huffed and it puffed. “I hope Milosevic is listening,” said British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook on June 8, 1998. “This is the last warning.” But Milosevic had survived so many last warnings. NATO’s planes flew threateningly along Kosovo’s borders. Looking back after the war, General Klaus Naumann, NATO’s senior Eur-opean officer, said frankly: “[Milosevic] rightly concluded that the NATO threat was a bluff…and finished his summer offensive.” A Serbian diplomat was said to have joked at the time that a “village a day keeps NATO away.”

The blame for this fiasco must be shared among the leading European powers and the Clinton administration. It continued the great tradition of its Balkan policy: talk loudly and carry a small stick. Moreover, the President’s attention was now consumed with the Monica Lewinsky affair, and the unfolding drama of impeachment. It would, no doubt, be an exaggeration to say that if a buxom intern had not flashed her underwear at the President of the United States one evening in the White House, then a million people in a faraway corner of Europe might never have been driven from their homes. That is an interpretation from the “Cleopatra’s nose” school of history. But the trouble with Monica certainly meant that Clinton was even less inclined to try Congress’s patience on another Balkan intervention.

When Richard Holbrooke went to make a deal with Milosevic in October 1998 he was at last backed by the threat of NATO bombing, but he was explicitly told by his superiors not even to suggest putting US troops on the ground in Kosovo. The cease-fire agreement he negotiated was to be “verified” by an unarmed Kosovo Verifying Mission while the US envoy, Christopher Hill, tried to negotiate a political settlement. The Holbrooke-Milosevic agreement had one glaring flaw: even if the Serbs kept their word (a mighty “if”), the KLA was never party to it. So their units repeatedly violated the cease-fire, while using the breathing space to regroup and rearm. “The cease-fire was very useful for us,” says one of their key commanders, Agim Ceku, on the BBC’s “Moral Combat.”

Effectively, the Holbrooke-Milosevic deal lasted just three months. It was overtaken by one event and one woman. The event was the massacre at Racak on January 15, 1999. The woman was Madeleine Albright. Everyone knows that the bodies of forty-five murdered Kosovar Albanians in civilian dress—forty-two men, two women, and one twelve-year old boy—were found on a hillside above Racak, after Serb security forces had visited the village. Less well known is the fact that a KLA unit had been conducting hit-and-run raids on Serb forces around Racak. A local KLA fighter is to be seen on “Moral Combat” saying: “…It was guaranteed that…they [i.e., Serb forces] would take revenge on civilians.” Well, the revenge certainly did the trick. In the Western press, this would be Kosovo’s Srebrenica; a “galvanizing event” declares Madeleine Albright on the same program.

The person most galvanized was Madeleine Albright. She had long felt the West was allowing a second Bosnia to happen. She had insisted that “Mi-losevic is the problem.” (A fairly obvious proposition, you might think—except that after Dayton he had been seen as part of the solution.) She was frustrated that the European powers were reluctant to sustain the threat of bombing. Now she went on the warpath. James Rubin recalls her booming, at one of the key diplomatic meetings in Britain, “This is London, remember, not Munich.” So the Czech-born secretary of state was determined not to be a new Neville Chamberlain, appeasing this little Serb Hitler. And it was in London, at a meeting on January 29, that the terms were set for the negotiations at the Château of Rambouillet, near Paris.

An entire book could be written just about Rambouillet, or “Château Dayton” as it was, inevitably, dubbed. I will single out just two salient points. First, while all Western participants entered the talks in the hope of reaching an agreement, the US, and specifically the State Department, had a much clearer fallback position than its European allies. This position was, as Albright herself subsequently put it, to achieve “clarity.” If the Kosovar Albanians signed, and the Serbs did not, then even the most hesitant European ally (and the Congress, and the White House) must surely be convinced of the need to bomb Milosevic into accepting autonomy for Kosovo. In Winning Ugly Daalder and O’Hanlon quote a “close aide to Secretary Albright” saying afterward that the only purpose of Rambouillet was “to get the war started with the Europeans locked in.”

Conspiracy theorists will seize on such remarks to show that the American Satan was, in Rambouillet, making Milosevic an offer that he had to refuse. Their prime evidence—Exhibit A, so to speak—is Appendix B to the “Implementation” chapter of the Rambouillet accord. Its Pentagon-drafted specifications of rights of access for NATO troops, which go further than those in the Dayton agreement from which they are often said to have been copied, include the following:

NATO personnel shall enjoy, together with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft, and equipment, free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY [i.e., the whole of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia], including associated airspace and territorial waters. This shall include, but not be limited to, the right of bivouac, maneuver, billet, and utilization of any areas or facilities, as required for support, training, and operations.

This is an extraordinary demand to make of any sovereign state, and both the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and Daalder and O’Hanlon rightly criticize it for a lack of political sensitivity. But as a matter of historical record, all the senior Western negotiators I have spoken to, including Holbrooke, Hill, and Robin Cook, agree that the Serb side at Rambouillet, and Milosevic in the final showdown with Holbrooke and Hill, did not even raise Appendix B as an obstacle to an otherwise achievable agreement. In short: Appendix B may have been arrogant and foolish, but it was not a cause of the war.

Why, then, did Milosevic remain defiant? I repeat: We don’t know. A plausible reconstruction goes something like this. The political terms of the Rambouillet agreement, however adjusted, meant the effective loss of Serbian control over Kosovo. While there is evidence that he and his wife had little genuine, emotional attachment to that “Serb Jerusalem,12 this was a price that Milosevic, who had risen to power on a promise to save Kosovo for the Serbs, could not risk paying—unless he was forced to. But he did not feel forced to.

NATO’s threat did not seem to him credible. He had called the West’s bluff so many times before. He reckoned the Americans might bomb for a few days and then give up, as they had with Iraq in December 1998. There was a good chance that the coalition of NATO member states, recently expanded to nineteen, would not stay the course. “I can stand death—lots of it—but you can’t,” he told the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, shortly before the bombing began. Surely the Greeks—Orthodox sympathizers with the Serbs—would call a halt? Or the Hungarians. Or the French.

Then there was Russia. Had not President Yeltsin been quoted in the Serbian press as warning President Clinton on February 18: “We will not let you touch Kosovo”? Meanwhile, by ordering mass expulsions of Kosovar Albanians Milosevic could simultaneously wreak havoc in neighboring countries and, as one of his henchmen reportedly put it, “reduce the Albanian population to a manageable level” in the province.13

If he successfully faced down NATO over Kosovo, he would be a national hero and secure in power for another year or two. If, however, he failed—and this last piece of plausible speculation was put to me by opposition friends in Belgrade last December—he could say to his people: “Well, I tried, but even heroic little Serbia could not defeat the giant NATO bully.” Then, withdrawing his military and security forces from Kosovo, and concentrating them in areas of likely opposition inside Serbia proper, he could batten down the hatches on a right, tight little dictatorship—and be secure in power for another year or two. Which, thus far, is exactly what he’s done.


Was the NATO action a “humanitarian intervention,” as its advocates maintained? The answer partly depends on whether there was a humanitarian disaster in Kosovo on March 23, 1999, the day before the bombing began.

“Yes,” say supporters of the action. There was still a humanitarian disaster left over from the previous year. Milosevic had begun a new wave of ethnic cleansing before NATO started bombing. German intelligence claimed to have evidence of a Serbian “Operation Horseshoe” initiated already in late February and designed to clear a horseshoe-shaped swathe of Kosovo.

“No,” say its critics. It was the bombing that caused the mass expulsions. To adapt Karl Kraus’s famous remark about psychiatry, NATO’s action was the disease for which it claimed to be the cure.

The truth is more complicated than either position. Anyone who was in Kosovo, as I was, in the winter of 1998-1999 could see that there was a humanitarian disaster. Most of the 300,000 homeless had found some rudimentary shelter, but their houses were often destroyed, their wells poisoned, and they had no means of livelihood. Moreover, in February and March of 1999 the Serbs were pouring forces back into Kosovo. Whether or not there was an actual plan called “Operation Horseshoe,” there clearly was some operational planning for large-scale expulsions, otherwise they could not have been implemented so quickly.14 Judah has discovered that already in mid-March Vojislav Seselj and his nationalist Radicals were recruiting paramilitaries to do the dirty work. Serb forces started systematic cleansing as the Kosovo Verification Mission pulled out, just before the bombing started.

However, this last month of preparations and actions could be interpreted as anticipation of the bombing that would follow from Milosevic’s rejection of an unacceptable agreement. One of Judah’s sources summarizes the attitude of Serbian security forces crudely but effectively: “We’ll fuck ’em if they start!” There is no question that as soon as the bombing did start the ethnic cleansing was accelerated—a word used by General Naumann. Yet, I repeat, a humanitarian disaster was already there. In early 1999 the balance of probability was that, absent further decisive action by the West, the Albanian-Serb conflict on the ground would again have escalated to produce a still worse humanitarian crisis in the spring and summer of 1999. It is, however, a basic rule of historical logic that one can never state with certainty “what would have happened if…”

There is no reason to doubt that Western leaders were concerned about this real human suffering. However, as politicians they were undoubtedly more concerned about the human suffering of the Kosovar Albanians than they were about that of the Congolese, Angolans, Sierra Leoneans, Rwandans, or Colombians, because television and the press covered Kosovo more intensely and graphically, with energetic commentaries from what one British minister sarcastically called the “something-must-be-done brigade.” So this was also a war for which the mass media were implicitly and explicitly making a case.

Furthermore, Western European leaders stressed the motive of averting “humanitarian disaster” so strongly because this was the only way in which taking military action without the sanction of a UN Security Council resolution—something they had recoiled from doing for the best part of a year—might possibly be justified in international law. This legal expedient had been suggested by a British Foreign Office memorandum circulated to Britain’s NATO allies as early as October 1998.15 Yet the Foreign Affairs Committee concludes that the operation was at best of “dubious” legality. For legal and political reasons, it was never called a war. Ignatieff quotes Anthony Cordesman’s wry conclusion: “One of the lessons of modern war is that war can no longer be called war.”

In sum, it is more accurate to say that the NATO action started as a piece of coercive diplomacy. (Judah calls it “gunboat diplomacy.”) It was designed to compel Milosevic to agree to a political settlement involving far-reaching autonomy for Kosovo. One major motive for desiring such a political settlement was humanitarian concern, but equally important was a longstanding fear for the “stability” of the region. Since the time of the 1992 “Christmas Warning,” NATO’s nightmare had been that a conflict involving Albanians would tear apart Macedonia, with its large Albanian minority, bringing in Bulgaria and NATO members Greece and Turkey. Western European countries were also worried about a new influx of refugees. Finally, after so many empty threats and called bluffs, NATO leaders felt the alliance had to act to preserve its own credibility as its fiftieth anniversary approached.


The first six weeks of the war hardly enhanced NATO’s credibility. Quite the reverse. Daalder and O’Hanlon divide their account of the war into two chapters. The second is entitled “Winning the War”; the first, “Losing the War.” It is a remarkable fact that for at least a month the most powerful military alliance in history, with member states representing some two thirds of the world’s economic and military strength, with four million men and women under arms, and combined defense spending of around $450 billion, seemed to be losing to a small, impoverished Balkan country with a defense budget of scarcely $1.5 billion and about 110,000 active-duty soldiers.

Why did Goliath do so badly? First, because he misjudged his opponent. Second, because he fought with one arm tied behind his back, most of his weapons stuck in the sand, and several large men tugging at his belt in different directions. The misjudgment was twofold: thinking Milosevic would cave in much sooner than he did and not anticipating the speed, scale, and brutality of the mass expulsions.

Policymakers interviewed today tell you that of course they knew, privately, that it could be a long haul. Cross-questioned on American television the night the bombing started, Madeleine Albright had said, “I don’t see this as a long-term operation. I think that this is something…that is achievable within a relatively short period of time.” But note the word “relatively,” her former spokesman James Rubin told me, when I recently talked to him about this. Politicians, so the argument made by Rubin and others runs, could not say publicly all that they thought privately, for fear of alienating the two big Cs: the US Congress and the Coalition. Congressional doubters, Greek, Italian, and German allies, simply could not be “brought on board” if told the truth—that this might be a long war. Let alone that it might be a ground war.

These retrospective claims are impossible to test, because we don’t have the records of top-level secret meetings at which such private farsightedness might have been articulated. It is clearly true that the two big-C constituencies had to be coaxed along gently. Yet a strong dose of skepticism is in order. Not only do most observers who were there at the time testify that Western leaders seemed convinced that it would be over quickly. More important, senior NATO commanders say they were instructed accordingly.

Thus, for example, the plain-speaking American commander of allied air forces, General Michael Short:

I can’t tell you how many times the instruction I got was, “Mike, you’re only going to be allowed to bomb two, maybe three nights. That’s all Washington can stand. That’s all some members of the alliance can stand. That’s why you’ve only got 90 targets. This’ll be over in three nights.”

According to the New York Times investigation, when the bombing began on March 24 NATO had a total of 219 targets prepared—enough for less than a week. NATO’s commander of southern forces, Admiral James Ellis, later observed, “We called this one absolutely wrong.” It’s one thing for politicians not to have told their publics that they privately judged this might be a long, difficult war. Politics means being economical with the truth. But what are we to conclude if they didn’t even tell their own military?

Moreover, no Western leader claims that he or she anticipated Milosevic’s immediate mass expulsions. According to Ignatieff, General Wesley Clark’s “intelligence people” had anticipated up to 200,000 new Kosovar refugees. Within a month, there were some 850,000. To those who had dealt closely with Milosevic, this response was not “impossible to predict.” Both President Kucan of Slovenia and President Gligorov of Macedonia warned of the danger.16 But had we not ourselves dealt closely with Milosevic?

So there was a failure of Western political intelligence, with both a large and a small I. For the large I: astonishingly, the Defense Intelligence Agency did not even include Kosovo in its February 1999 survey of world trouble spots. The CIA’s signal contribution was to suggest the Chinese embassy as a bombing target, believing it to be the headquarters of Yugoslavia’s Federal Directorate of Supply and Procurement. (This was the only target proposed by the CIA.) For the small i: Western leaders, trying to prevent “another Bosnia,” learned a wrong lesson from Bosnia. They thought Milosevic had been bombed into accepting the Dayton agreement in 1995. They forgot that it had first required a large ground offensive—by Croatian troops.

Another mistake was to suggest that the high-altitude bombing campaign, prescribed by the American obsession with achieving “zero casualties,” could stop ethnic cleansing on the ground. One of the goals President Clinton proclaimed in his television address at the beginning of the war was “to deter an even bloodier offensive against innocent civilians in Kosovo.” The bombing campaign did something very close to the opposite. In fact, there were two parallel but largely separate campaigns: the tactical one, aimed at preventing Serbian forces in Kosovo from doing further harm to the Albanians, and the strategic one, aimed at Serbia proper. NATO won the second, but lost the first.

A combination of weather, peasant cunning, and low-tech diversions confounded NATO’s multibillion dollar high-tech weapons, as they tried to find and destroy Serbian armor in Kosovo. It turns out that laser-guided bombs are very difficult to use through clouds. Kosovo in spring is cloudy. Sophisticated cruise missiles home in on the radar of air defense systems. So the Serbs turned on the radar for a few seconds, then turned it off—and those poor, disoriented missiles wandered off into Bulgaria. One landed in a bathroom in Sofia. The Serbs built decoy bridges out of plastic; NATO knocked them down. The Serbs set up woodburning stoves, with their chimneys angled to look like gun barrels; NATO took them out with exquisite accuracy. The Serbs put painted logs on the backs of trucks; NATO obliged again.17 One trembles to think how many lives in sub-Saharan Africa could have been saved by the millions of dollars wasted in these farcical ways.

At the end of the war, NATO claimed that it had destroyed some 120 Serbian tanks, 220 armored personnel carriers, and 450 artillery and mortar pieces. But the Serbian armored columns that withdrew from Kosovo looked in remarkably good shape. According to the suppressed US Air Force report obtained by Newsweek, NATO verifiably destroyed just fourteen tanks, eighteen armored personnel carriers, and twenty artillery pieces. Even if the real figures are higher than that, it is an indisputable fact that ethnic cleansing increased under the bombing. As Judah observes, the main weapon of ethnic cleansing is the cigarette lighter (to set fire to houses). How many cigarette lighters can you hit from 15,000 feet?

Of course, nothing ever goes according to plan in the fog of war. It was always hubris to believe that high-tech wars would be different. But the war NATO lost in Kosovo was not just about the humbling of high-tech hubris. It was also about the mismatch between political ends and military means. Yet the military means were themselves prescribed (and proscribed) by the politics of democratic coalition warfare.


Why did Milosevic finally cave in? Once again: we really don’t know what made the difference to that poisoned but calculating mind. Perhaps it was the fact that his wife, Mira, whom everyone agrees has enormous influence over him, got weepy at the bombing of their Belgrade house? Or was it his business cronies, worried that the West was now targeting their foreign bank accounts?

We can point to a number of things that happened shortly before he conceded, but the direct causal connection is nowhere established. For example, on May 27 he was indicted for atrocities in Kosovo by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in The Hague. At the time, many of us thought this could make ending the war more difficult, since he might feel that he had nothing to lose. But just a week later he accepted the peace terms dictated by the European emissary, Martti Ahtisaari of Finland, and the Russian emissary Viktor Chernomyrdin. Now some say: “Ah, he settled because he knew that anything else would bring him one step closer to The Hague.” But who knows?

A plausible speculation, pending the arrival of hard evidence, would point to four main factors. First, Milosevic had thought the NATO coalition would crumble. Instead, it held, and grew stronger after the fiftieth-anniversary summit in Washington in late April. A special acknowledgment is owed Greek leaders, who satisfied their pro-Serb public opinion with fiery speeches—at home, in Greek—but never moved to stop the action, as they had every formal right to do.

One of the main reasons for this growing solidity of the coalition was popular outrage at the television and newspaper pictures of the Kosovar Albanian expellees, and especially at those scenes—described with wearisome predictability as “biblical”—of the huddled masses in a field at Blace, on the border with Macedonia. These images outweighed the negative impact of NATO’s killing of civilians, either through pilot error (the train on a bridge, the refugee convoy), or mistaken targeting (the Chinese embassy), or the deliberate acceptance of civilian casualties (the Serbian television station).

There are multiple ironies here. Perhaps NATO’s greatest miscalculation was not to anticipate Milosevic’s swift and brutal expulsion of the Kosovars. But, as it turned out, that was Milosevic’s greatest mistake. Would the coalition have held through seventy-eight days of bombing if Milosevic had just hunkered down and said, “Here we are, poor innocent victims, a sovereign country being attacked without any good cause or UN Security Council resolution”? One may reasonably doubt it. So Milosevic saved the NATO coalition.

Meanwhile, those “biblical” scenes were the result of yet another mistake: by the Macedonian authorities, who were responsible for keeping the expellees in the muddy field at Blace. They understandably feared that the influx of Albanians would destabilize the already precarious ethnic balance of their tiny state, but thereby missed a historic opportunity—such as comes to small countries only once in a hundred years—to fix a positive image of Macedonia in the eyes of the world. No wonder Judah calls this “a war of human error,” and exclaims, in italics, “They all just got it wrong.”

Secondly, NATO did what General Short had been urging it do since the very beginning of the war: it went “for the head of the snake.” Crucially, the bombers started destroying Belgrade’s electrical power grids. Not just disabling them for a few hours with graphite bombs, as they had earlier done, but demolishing them. This damaged Milosevic’s central command and control system, and the morale of his population. It also meant that patients on life-support systems and babies in hospital incubators had their power cut off.

Thirdly, the alliance was at last moving toward a credible threat of ground invasion, as Britain had been suggesting from early in the war. Clinton’s initial television address on March 24 contained the following sentence, written by his national security adviser, Samuel Berger: “But I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war.” Berger has subsequently maintained that “we would not have won the war without this sentence.” The US Congress and coalition partners such as Germany would have revolted. Yet to rule out ground war so explicitly was surely not necessary, and a mistake. By May, the same Clinton and Berger were deliberately saying that no option was ruled out. On May 20, General Clark briefed Clinton on possible timetables for a ground invasion, and on May 21 Clinton publicly suggested increasing the deployment of NATO troops around Kosovo—ostensibly still for a peacekeeping force—to 50,000. NATO forces began building up a road to take heavy armor through Albania to the Kosovo border.18

Finally, Russian emissaries told Milosevic that the deal he was offered was the best he could get. Russia would back him no further. This was said publicly by Chernomyrdin—whom the US had deliberately briefed about its ground invasion plans. The message was also reinforced privately, in a communication from the Russian military and security establishment, brought to Milosevic by a Swedish businessman named Peter Castenfelt.

Zbigniew Brzezinski has suggested that the Russians (or, perhaps more accurately, some Russians) may privately have promised to get a Russian occupation zone in the northeast of Kosovo, thus preparing the way for a possible partition.19 Hence the dash made by Russian troops from Bosnia to occupy the Pristina airport before NATO got there, and the Russian military’s attempt to fly in more troops to reinforce them. The attempt was frustrated, in yet another remarkable twist, by Bulgaria’s and Romania’s refusal to allow Russian troop planes to fly over their territory.

Whether or not any such secret undertakings were given, the change in the Russian position must have been a major blow to Milosevic. It was, as the Yugoslav foreign minister tells Judah with most un-Serbian understatement, “I must admit, very relevant.” To give credit where due: bringing Russia into the coalition to put more pressure on Milosevic was a characteristic achievement of the Clinton administration.

Thus, in the end, and at vast cost, NATO won the larger war for Kosovo.


And the consequences? It really is too soon to say. Kosovo today is liberated—and an almighty mess. Western leaders failed to prepare for peace, as they had failed to prepare for war. Crucially, the UN administration in Kosovo was not provided with the police, judges, and jailers to establish the first prerequisite of any functioning state or protectorate: an effective monopoly of legitimate violence. Anyone who thought that because the Kosovar Albanians had long been victims they were therefore “the good guys” has received a sobering lesson, as Kosovars have conducted reverse ethnic cleansing of the Serbs—under the noses of NATO troops. But how it turns out in the end is still a matter of human choice.

As for Serbia proper, the question at war’s end was: Will Milosevic prove to be Europe’s Galtieri (the Argentinian president deposed after losing the Falklands war) or Europe’s Saddam Hussein? At the moment, he looks more like Europe’s Saddam. But we shall see.

Will Kosovo encourage more such “humanitarian interventions”? Is it, like the arrest of Pinochet, and the UN force sent to East Timor, part of a fumbling but positive movement toward a liberal, post-cold war order, which sets some limits to barbarism?20 Kosovo will be a precedent. The “something-must-be-done brigade” will point to it and say: “You acted in Kosovo, so why not in country X or province Y?” This has already happened in the cases of East Timor and Sierra Leone. Yet Kosovo will also be a deterrent, especially to the military leaders who have to execute such actions, since it has proved so difficult and costly, and has had such an un-satisfactory outcome. A new Bush administration, in particular, would probably be more reluctant to intervene as a result.

Daalder and O’Hanlon say NATO did the right thing in the wrong way. That begs two important questions. First, the politician’s question: Could it have been done any other way? “Somewhat differently” is the answer. There were major avoidable mistakes. But warfare conducted by a coalition of democracies is always likely to be a drawn-out, contorted affair, requiring many compromises and painfully slow escalation. That prompts the second question, the moralist’s: If this is the only way it can be done, should it be done at all? Don’t the means chosen pervert the ends? This is a concern articulated by Michael Ignatieff. He worries about high-altitude, high-tech war, in which one side is neither prepared nor required to take a single casualty. “War ceases to be just,” he suggests, “when it becomes a turkey shoot.” And he quotes Aleksa Djilas’s indignant cry from Belgrade: “They [NATO leaders] were ready to risk the life of my wife and my children, but not their soldiers’ lives.”

Elsewhere, Ignatieff wonders whether sending planes downtown to take out the power grid on the first night might not have been “more effective, and in the end, more merciful.” But that would have meant precisely threatening the lives of Aleksa, Olgica, and the children. Ignatieff argues that these are new dilemmas of high-tech “virtual war.” They are also quite familiar ones. Throughout the cold war we had the moral and political conundrum of nuclear deterrence. Deterring Soviet aggression depended on our seriously threatening to do something which, if we ever had to do it, would have been mad and immoral.

Now we have the conundrum of nonnuclear “compellence.” To compel dictators like Milosevic to treat their own citizens with minimal decency, we have to generate a credible military threat. This involves seriously preparing to do horrible things—both endangering innocent civilians in the guilty state and risking our own soldiers’ lives in ground action. The more awful the threat, the less likely it is that we will have to do what we say we will do. Faced with an overwhelming menace, Milosevic would probably have climbed down before the war began.21 By credibly threatening war, you may avoid it. But the rainbow coalition of bourgeois democracies that we call the West, let alone the wider so-called “international community,” seems structurally incapable of generating such a threat. The Western liberal societies that care most about stopping gross violations of human rights in other countries also have the most difficulty in willing the means best suited to achieve that end. This is our post-Kosovo dilemma.

This Issue

September 21, 2000