NATO in denial

The conflict in Yugoslavia is a war that NATO cannot win, and should not be fighting.

Published May 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When a profound mistake has been made, there are only two choices: deny the
mistake and compound it, or admit the mistake and adapt. President
Clinton and his die-hard supporters are following the denial strategy into a Balkans

The mistake that Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine
Albright can't admit is their original belief that the war in Kosovo would be a
short war, one that could be wrapped up in time to celebrate NATO's
50th birthday party. It would be "a military euro," boasted a German
strategist -- an invigorating, unifying parallel to the achievement of a
single European currency.

Now, instead of admitting the initial mistake, the president is escalating
the war with intensified bombing raids and preparing for a ground war
under the guise of sending "peacekeepers." We have returned to the
familiar terrain of the credibility gap, postmarked Kosovo instead of

Putting the egos of politicians aside, there are ample reasons
for reevaluating the Balkans war. It already is a strategic defeat,
and it will take all the James Carvilles of the Western world to spin
it as a victory.

The United States and NATO have failed to win a short war, but instead are being
frustrated by a relatively small nation of Serbs. After the United States and NATO
dropped 14,000 bombs and missiles by May 24, an eyewitness account in
the Los Angeles Times described Belgraders as "stoic" and "learning to
cope." The strategy of policing the new world order with high-tech,
big-stick missiles has failed. Instead of intimidating would-be
revolutionaries with our invincible image, the lesson is that the West
couldn't defeat Slobodan Milosevic in 60 days and is highly unlikely to
try extended military action elsewhere for a very long time.

Though the prewar population was 90 percent ethnic Albanian, Kosovo is the
sacred place and spiritual home of Serbian identity going back to 1389.
But the Albanian population of Kosovo is overwhelmingly anti-Orthodox,
and the Kosovars have participated in recent "ethnic cleansing" as well. According to Foreign Affairs magazine, between 1986 and 1989, 130,000 Serbs were forced out of Kosovo because of "harassment and
discrimination by the Kosovar majority." New York Times correspondent
David Binder reported throughout the 1980s on Kosovar atrocities that included trying to set fire to young boys, raping Serbian girls, attacking Serbian Orthodox churches and poisoning Serbian wells, "thereby helping to fulfill a nationalist demand for an ethnically
'pure' Albanian Kosovo."

At that point Milosevic exploited the nationalism card, suspended
Kosovo's autonomous status and set in motion the oppression that has
spiraled to the present. As early as 1991, an Albanian-language poll
showed that more than half of Kosovars favored annexation by Albania, 31
percent believed in armed struggle against the Serbs and only 7
percent "saw any point in attempting to enter into dialogue with the
Serbs." Far from the Holocaust analogy, this data indicates an
underlying civil war between ethnic Albanians and Serbs, rooted in
irreconcilable nationalist hatreds.

The Balkan war was supposed to be about helping the Kosovars, but their
suffering has been aggravated and deepened since the bombings began.
When Clinton began the bombing on March 24, there were 124,000 Kosovars
expelled from Kosovo. Now there are 900,000, a sevenfold increase in the number who have been uprooted. The United States is spending $13 billion on the military side of
this adventure, 75 times more than the $200 million so far for
humanitarian assistance. According to United Nations and CIA data, our
country is next to last among 27 nations -- just above Romania -- in
sheltering Kosovo refugees as a percentage of population. Tony Blair's
United Kingdom is 22nd, far behind Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Canada and

The Kosovo failure undermines the U.S. strategy of shaping the post-Cold
War order around NATO rather than the United Nations. As a consequence of a system intended to marginalize the Soviet Union as an international power, the United States now finds itself dependent on the Russians as mediators with Milosevic.

Far worse for humanity, the Balkans war has seriously damaged nuclear
arms control talks between the United States and Russia. Analysts say START II -- the
treaty slashing nuclear arsenals -- is "all but dead." In addition, the
Balkans conflict has stimulated a virulent anti-U.S. sentiment in China,
undermining a fragile coexistence. It is also a diversion
from the domestic agenda that Democrats in particular care about. For
instance, spending by the White House on Kosovo already equals three times
what California receives in assistance for public schools ($3.9 billion), and more than 10 times the amount Clinton is proposing for new schoolteachers nationwide ($1 billion). The redirection of domestic dollars to defense will escalate as the war drones on.

And now the contradictory U.S. policy is to bomb Serbia into allowing 1
million traumatized Kosovars to return to their destroyed villages to
live under NATO occupation as refugees inside a Yugoslavia from which
they seek liberation. Are we planning to disarm the Kosovo Liberation
Army and thwart their aspirations, or is the quagmire pulling us
into a continuing civil war?

Ironically, NATO now finds itself on the same side as the KLA, a group that
the U.S. envoy to the Balkans only last year dismissed as "terrorists."
Whether by coincidence or design, the U.S.-NATO cooperation with the KLA
grows by the day. "NATO's air strikes have helped the rebel effort to
keep those vital [supply] lines working," the New York Times reported.
In addition, the KLA guerrillas provide NATO with information on
Serbian military positions.

The KLA could be the next Taliban. It receives funding, training and
personnel from Islamic fundamentalists in the Persian Gulf, and
ultimately seeks to include Kosovo as part of a greater
fundamentalist Albania allied with the oppressive regime in Turkey.

Faced with this morass of failures and a convoluted objective, our
leaders reassure themselves that they are fighting a noble war for a
great moral purpose. But the moral purpose must be measured now by the
immoral results after two months of bombing. In trying to degrade
Serbia's military capacity, we have degraded our moral capacity.

The U.S. moral position has been that dead Serbian cleaning ladies and
hospital patients are regrettable collateral damage. Worse than that,
as the United States becomes more frustrated at the Serbian refusal to surrender,
the American moral position is quickly deteriorating to the idea that
Serbs as a race should be punished. This new moral belligerence is
expressed by Thomas Friedman, columnist for the New York Times, who
regularly threatens that "we are at war with the Serbian nation and
anyone hanging around Belgrade needs to understand that." Further, he
bellows like a gang-banger, "You want 1389 [the historic Serbian
defeat at Kosovo at the hands of the Turks]? We can do 1389."

Meanwhile, Clinton, Blair and
the NATO leadership act like the capricious gods of Greek mythology,
basking in the heavens while delivering deadly lightning bolts to the
suffering humanity below. NATO has now turned to "area" bombing, which
increases the risk of civilian casualties, and is carpeting Kosovo
with anti-personnel bombs, whose shards of shrapnel are difficult to
remove surgically without amputation. As Friedman -- who might apply for
press secretary if Clinton creates an office of policeman of the world --
writes, these Serbs need to be taught a lesson, and punitive bombing is
the "cure" for their "nationalist fantasies."

Who is Friedman ranting against? Does he think increasing the
amputation rates at Pristina hospital will make the Serbs feel cured of
their nationalism? How about the doctors and mothers delivering babies
in Belgrade's hospital with the power down? Or those children described
in the Los Angeles Times as "suffering epileptic seizures," who "could
not be hooked up to electronic monitors that help determine what kind
of medication they need."

The most sinister aspect of the U.S. moral position today is described in
New York Times headlines as a strategy to "keep the U.S. voters
content." The cynicism of this strategy is that Americans somehow won't
care if our government drops anti-personnel bombs in our name, if our
government blows up hospitals in our name, if tens of thousands of
people are killed, maimed, traumatized and displaced in our name, as
long as Americans are kept "content" by spin doctors who minimize the
news of civilian deaths, sanitize the ground troops as peacekeepers,
and hypnotize people into complacency before they can arise from their
armchairs and criticize their government.

The strategy for critics of the Balkan war, therefore, must begin by
stirring up the very discontent the Clinton administration fears. This
requires teach-ins and educational forums that shatter the public
silence. It means a complex anti-war alliance between liberal
humanitarians who think the civilian suffering is unjustified with
conservative isolationists who see no strategic interest in the Balkans.
If the war is prolonged, the natural course of protest will be to support political candidates who stand up against the incumbent politicians who allowed this crisis to spin out of control.

The immediate demand of war critics must be for de-escalation as an
alternative to ground war by our "peacekeepers." That means a
unilateral halt to the counterproductive bombing, which has caused
enough damage and suffering, followed by peace talks through the United Nations and
third parties to secure a cease-fire and the introduction of an
international and genuine peacekeeping force in Kosovo. A partition of
Kosovo will be unpopular, but is a lesser evil than cleansing, bombing
and refugees. If Northern Ireland can exist with provisions for dual
loyalties, so can Kosovo. The Serbs should hold their monasteries and
sacred places, and the Kosovars should have a transitional homeland
with guarantees of self-determination. Both the United Nations and NATO will be
involved in security arrangements. Why will Milosevic accept this? Because it provides honor, dollars and an interim peace with the KLA. The Serbs should be induced with
guarantees of rebuilding and investment, and the Russians with the
funds that have been suspended by the International Monetary Fund.

Whether the president chooses the path of de-escalation will depend in
large part on whether his constituents and allies in Congress remain
"content." He is under massive pressure from the hawkish establishment
to escalate the war in order to avoid an embarrassing failure. This is
exactly the march to folly. The only force that can stop the president
from sinking deeper into the quagmire, and thus risking even greater
defeat, is an aroused public opinion in America and Europe.

The public cannot count on a Congress that went on vacation as the war
began, that abdicates its own war powers responsibilities, a Congress
composed of Democrats unwilling to criticize their party leader and
Republicans who shun the war but gladly fund it. When our institutions
fail, it is reserved for the people at large to activate the democratic
process and make it work.

By Tom Hayden

California state Sen. Tom Hayden, D-Los Angeles, was a leader of the opposition to the Vietnam War.

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