Few operations in modern military history have produced so many unintended and, in some instances at least, disastrous consequences so quickly as Operation Allied Force, NATO’s long-overdue attempt to confront and subdue Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, this should not have come as a surprise. If ever there was a case of the road to hell being paved with good intentions, it is Operation Allied Force. In the name of preventing a great crime — the mass murder and forcible expulsion of the Kosovar Albanians — the West has given an extraordinary demonstration of its own impotence. And there is no end, at least no good end, in sight.
In fairness, the NATO air campaign was never, even in the minds of its planners, anything more than the best of a series of terrible options. A month before Operation Allied Force was launched, the NATO secretary-general, Javier Solana, had warned President Clinton and the other Western political leaders that the Yugoslav army and police were preparing a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo on a level that had not been seen since Serbian forces expelled the majority of the Muslim population from northern and eastern Bosnia in 1992 and 1993. NATO military planners could only restate the obvious — that the only way to insure that the Kosovar Albanians were not murdered or driven from their homes was a full-scale ground assault on the Serbs by NATO forces.
But since such a campaign was generally agreed to be politically impossible, not just in the United States but in Western Europe as well, the choice seemed to boil down to either prosecuting an air war, despite its minimal chance of affecting what Milosevic did on the ground in Kosovo, or doing nothing. For President Clinton and the other Western leaders, inaction was not only humiliating but dangerous to what they called the “credibility” of NATO. It was the triumph of appearance over reality. NATO had to be seen to be doing something, even if the something in question at the very least was incapable of affecting events in Kosovo and might even have made them worse.
By now, the administration has moved away from an initial claim that it was acting to prevent a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe. Its subsequent assertion — that it knew the Kosovars would be expelled once the bombing began — is demonstrably false. Had the claim been true, the humanitarian supplies painstakingly brought into the region over the past year would have been placed in neighboring Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania rather than in Kosovo itself, where they have now fallen into the hands of Serbian forces. And now that it is trying to cope with a far larger humanitarian operation in the region, as well as with the political and logistical nightmare of having to transport 100,000 Kosovar refugees out of the region for temporary asylum in NATO countries, the administration has moved away from its “we knew this would happen” self-defense as well.
At present, the talk in Washington and in the other NATO capitals is of “undoing” what Milosevic has wrought in Kosovo, rather as Operation Desert Storm undid Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait. The fact that this was only accomplished with ground troops is passed over in silence.
The inescapable fact, however, no matter how much U.S. and NATO officials try to pretend otherwise, is that while the effectiveness of the air campaign in destroying large chunks of the military and economic infrastructure of Serbia has been undeniable, Operation Allied Force has so far accomplished none of its political or humanitarian objectives. That the administration acted out of decent motives is important historically. After all, less than 30 years ago a far greater massacre in Cambodia was judged a purely “internal” matter that, however hideous, was for the Khmer themselves to sort out. But on a practical level, this new ethos that insists that gross human rights violations inside a country cannot be ignored or allowed to continue unopposed — the ethos that, along with concerns about NATO’s coherence, compelled the United States and its allies to attack — has not saved a single Kosovar Albanian life.
This may have been inevitable, given the gulf between the moral claims we in Western Europe and North America routinely advance for our societies and for the standards of what we call, rather vaingloriously, the international community, and the degree of sacrifice we are willing to make. To say, as secretary-general Solana did at the beginning of the air campaign, that mass murder and ethnic cleansing were “unacceptable” in Europe at the end of the 20th century, but at the same time to insist that a ground war — the only thing that would surely prevent such atrocities — is unthinkable is, alas, an utterly incoherent position.
There may well, as administration defenders have been claiming over the past two weeks, have been no alternative to the approach the Western powers have taken. It can even be argued that it was indeed preferable to unleash a punishing air war against the Serbs on the chance, still not to be wholly excluded, that it would succeed, rather than simply to sit by and allow the worst instance of mass deportation in Europe since the aftermath of World War II to go on unopposed. But it is the height of self-delusion to confuse this with success.
Indeed, the future of the south Balkans is bleak and growing bleaker. The political and humanitarian crises are becoming impossible to separate. Humanitarian catastrophes have, along with wars in which ethnic cleansing was the principal aim of military action, punctuated the post-Cold War era in some parts of the world as surely as the advent of liberal capitalism has marked it in others. In the case of Kosovo, the dispersion of what will surely, before the crisis is over, constitute the bulk of the 1.8 million Kosovar Albanians to neighboring countries or to pitiful exile in refugee camps in places like Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, represents a profoundly destabilizing political event in an already unstable region as well as a human disaster of Biblical proportions.
The parallel with the Palestinians in their camps in the Gaza Strip after 1949 comes to mind, as do the Vietnamese boat people. Macedonia was on the brink of collapse even before the Kosovars were driven across the border; Albania, Europe’s poorest country, has only just emerged from a civil war. Now, both countries have been flooded with refugees. That fresh disasters will soon result from this is not a matter of speculation; it is almost a dead certainty.
At this point, barring some complete collapse of the Milosevic regime, the alternatives are, if anything, worse than those that confronted NATO planners before the start of Operation Allied Force. The most rational solution, a NATO occupation of the South Balkans more or less from Bosnia (remember Bosnia?) to the Greek border, may be no more feasible than a ground campaign in Kosovo. But if this is true, then the Kosovo crisis will almost certainly be succeeded by a crisis in Macedonia, in Montenegro, in Albania and, finally, in Serbia itself. These may make what is taking place in Kosovo look easy to resolve by comparison. And no amount of incantatory talk about the obligation to prevent humanitarian disaster will provide any reliable guide to coping with them.