The Failure of Intervention

A worker walks in front of the remains of the former Chinese embassy during its demolition in Belgrade, November 10, 2010. Marko Djurica / Reuters

On the night of May 7, 1999 -- the 45th day of NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia -- bombs struck the Chinese embassy in downtown Belgrade, crushing the building and killing three Chinese who were said to be journalists. An investigation revealed that American intelligence had misidentified the structure as the headquarters of the Yugoslav Bureau of Federal Supply and Procurement. On that basis, NATO planners had put it on the list of approved targets and, guided by satellite, an American b-2 bomber destroyed it.

The attack on the embassy was therefore a mistake. It was not, however, an aberration. It symbolized NATO's Yugoslav war, a conflict marked by military success and political failure. The alliance's air forces carried out their missions with dispatch; the assault forced the Serb military's withdrawal from the southern Yugoslav province of Kosovo. The wider political consequences of the war, however, were the opposite of what NATO's political leaders intended.

Every war has unanticipated consequences, but in this case virtually all the major political effects were unplanned, unanticipated, and unwelcome. The war itself was the unintended consequence of a gross error in political judgment. Having begun it, Western political leaders declared that they were fighting for the sake of the people of the Balkans, who nevertheless emerged from the war considerably worse off than they had been before. The alliance also fought to establish a new principle governing the use of force in the post-Cold War world. But the war set precedents that it would be neither feasible nor desirable to follow. Finally, like all wars, this one affected the national interests of the countries that waged it. The effects were negative: relations with two large, important, and troublesome formerly communist countries, Russia and China, were set back by the military operations in the Balkans.


At the outset of the bombing campaign, the Clinton administration said that it was acting to save lives. Before NATO intervened on March 24, approximately 2,500 people had died in Kosovo's

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