Time for NATO to Close Its Door
The Alliance Is Too Big—and Too Provocative—for Its Own Good
During the war over Kosovo, most criticism of NATO's efforts fell into two categories. Principled critics understood that important U.S. interests were at stake and that the cause was just but questioned the way NATO conducted the war. Rejectionist critics simply saw no reason to be concerned about the expulsion or murder of a whole people on NATO's doorstep. Since the war ended, the principled critics have largely shifted the focus of their skepticism to postwar challenges, urging the allies, appropriately, to make good on their pledge to seek a more tolerant Kosovo, a democratic Serbia, and a stable, integrated southeastern Europe. Most accept that President Clinton's strategy ultimately succeeded: ethnic cleansing was not only reversed but reversed in a way that kept NATO together, prevented the destabilization of neighboring countries, and kept Russia engaged without sacrificing NATO's stated goals.
But to the rejectionist critics, NATO's success remains an inconvenient fact that cannot be allowed to get in the way of preconceived notions. Michael Mandelbaum's article places him squarely in this category ("A Perfect Failure," September/October 1999). His broadside refuses to see the slightest redeeming feature in ending Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's brutal and destabilizing campaign of atrocities. It is built on sweeping assertions that crumble on examination, unsupported assumptions about U.S. Kosovo policy, and predictable digressions on everything from NATO enlargement to Haiti to Iraq -- all leading to a bitter and overly personalized trashing of Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. The only unifying principle I can discern in this attack is, "If the Clinton administration is for it, it must be wrong."
BETTER OFF AS WE ARE
Start with Mandelbaum's most fundamental assertion: that NATO failed because the people of Kosovo and the Balkans "emerged from the war considerably worse off than they had been before." This is a breakdown of logic so elemental that it boggles the mind. Imagine if Mandelbaum had been around to apply the same standard to the end of World War II: "Sure, the Nazis have been defeated," he might have written, "but millions are dead, half of Europe is under Soviet control, and most Europeans are a lot worse off than in 1939. What a perfect failure."
NATO's victory is not an occasion for joyful celebration; too many people have lost their lives and homes in Kosovo over the last year for that. And there is much hard work ahead to build a peaceful society that respects the rights of all its people. But the real question in judging success is not whether people are better off than they were before, but whether people are better off than they would have been had the West not acted. The answer to that question is clearly yes. Had NATO not acted, the Serbs would have continued their offensive; more than a million and a half Kosovars would today be sitting in camps or starving in the hills with no hope of return; Milosevic would be strengthened; and in a region with many unresolved ethnic tensions, potential dictators would have learned the lesson that massive violence will draw no response from the international community.
Mandelbaum writes that we will never know if Milosevic actually intended to expel the Kosovars until we have "access to such records as the Milosevic regime may have kept." But there is already a historical record of Milosevic's aims and methods: the record of his brutal campaigns against Croatia and Bosnia, both launched long before a single NATO bomb fell on his forces. The same paramilitary warlords who did the dirty work in those campaigns led the charge again in Kosovo, including the notorious Arkan and his "Tigers" and the "White Lions" of Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav
Seselj. What does Mandelbaum think these people were sent to Kosovo to do -- negotiate with Kosovar intellectuals over coffee and baklava? Does he really think they somehow needed to be incited by NATO to commit again the crimes they had committed so often before? Mandelbaum also conveniently forgets about the killings Serb troops committed in Kosovo well before NATO acted, including the January massacre in Racak, which took place despite the presence of monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). He forgets about the 40,000 troops and 300 tanks Milosevic massed around Kosovo as he pretended to negotiate for peace and about the tens of thousands of people they pushed from their homes in the five-day period between the end of the Rambouillet peace talks and the start of the bombing. Milosevic's goal may have been "simply" to crush the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) rebellion. But his method of crushing rebellions has long been well established: it is ethnic cleansing.
If Mandelbaum doubts all this, he can ask the very people for whom he affects such sympathy in his article: the returning Kosovar refugees, who would tell him that NATO rescued them from permanent exile. He can also ask the leaders of Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia, and Hungary. He would find that none of them blames NATO for Milosevic's decision to throw their region into turmoil, that all of them are grateful that NATO took a stand, and that all of them backed the alliance from beginning to end. He would find that real people get in the way of his hypothetical analysis.
Mandelbaum suggests that NATO might have avoided the horrors that befell the region's people had it made a "concerted effort to reinforce the cease-fire [in Kosovo] and strengthen the international observers." But that is precisely what America and our allies tried to do starting in October 1998, when Milosevic agreed to cease his repression of the Kosovars and the OSCE launched an unprecedented effort, including the deployment of more than 1,000 monitors, to hold him to his word by peaceful means. Throughout this period, Serbian forces repeatedly violated the ceasefire, exceeded the troop levels to which their leader had agreed in October, and steadily increased their harassment of the international observers until it was impossible for them to do their jobs.
The February talks in Rambouillet marked the end of this diplomatic process, not the beginning, as Mandelbaum implies. The administration's central position at the talks -- that a greater tragedy could be avoided only if Serbian forces withdrew from Kosovo while an international force was deployed -- was absolutely right. It was the conclusion drawn from a year of hard diplomacy, going back to March 1998, when, with America's European partners and Russia, the United States first asked Miloevic to pull his police out of Kosovo. If anything, Secretary Albright's assertion that "NATO went the extra mile to find a peaceful resolution," which Mandelbaum disparages, was an understatement.
Mandelbaum also mischaracterizes what happened at the Rambouillet talks. The plan the allies presented there did not call for a "referendum after three years to decide Kosovo's ultimate status." Instead, it offered an international meeting that would determine a mechanism for defining Kosovo's future, which would take into account the will of the people concerned, the opinions of relevant authorities, the degree of compliance by the parties, and the Helsinki Final Act. Moreover, the KLA delegates did not "refuse" to agree to the allies' plan for Kosovar autonomy. They accepted it in principle, went home, and then returned to accept it formally. Milosevic's delegates never seriously engaged at the talks -- because he was simultaneously preparing the offensive that he believed would destroy the KLA once and for all. That was clearly his fundamental aim from the beginning, and the "concessions" Mandelbaum suggests offering would have been highly unlikely to divert him from trying to achieve it.
Once Rambouillet broke down, NATO had little alternative but to act. Milosevic would not accept any solution that required him to pull his troops from Kosovo. Those troops were starting their offensive, violating every previous commitment Milosevic had made to the international community, and the situation was deteriorating rapidly. America and our allies hoped that military action would prevent further suffering. But we knew that it was equally possible that it would not and that a sustained campaign might be necessary to stop the killing and reverse the expulsions. And we were prepared to do what it took to win.
A DOG IN THIS FIGHT
Mandelbaum's heart does not really seem to be in the policy alternatives he suggests. Perhaps that is because he sees little reason to care about what happens in faraway Kosovo, a place he dismisses as a "tiny former Ottoman possession of no strategic importance or economic value, with which the United States had no ties of history, geography, or sentiment." Overlook the sweeping insensitivity and historical myopia of that statement -- hardly surprising from someone who also opposed NATO's effort to end the bloodshed in Bosnia in 1995 -- and simply focus on Mandelbaum's claim that "no national interest was at stake" in this conflict.
In fact, 19 NATO allies, with all the diversity of their political cultures and historical relationships with the Balkans, felt they had a compelling interest in ending the violence in Kosovo. A prolonged conflict there would have had no natural boundaries. The allies had an interest in not seeing Kosovars driven from their land, across national borders into fragile new democracies that would be overwhelmed and destabilized by their presence. If NATO had not acted, Kosovo's neighbors might have felt compelled to respond to this threat themselves, and a wider war might have begun. The allies clearly had an interest in preserving the stability of southeastern Europe -- and protecting the strides it has made away from a violent past toward a more democratic future. And the allies had an interest in maintaining the unity and credibility of NATO, which would have been impossible had the alliance done nothing in the face of unspeakable atrocities committed at its doorstep -- a lesson learned in Bosnia. One can dispute whether these interests justified NATO's decision to use force. But one cannot dispute that these interests exist.
Mandelbaum also argues that the conflict undermined far more important American interests -- namely, U.S. relations with Russia and China. True, Russia strongly opposed NATO's action in Kosovo. But Mandelbaum neglects to consider what would have happened to that relationship had America let the slaughter of innocents continue in Kosovo simply because Russia objected to the use of force. It would have been far harder to sustain a domestic consensus for U.S.-Russian relations under those circumstances. It is far better to try to resolve the source of the tension itself: a decade of war and instability in the Balkans.
As it is, the Kosovo conflict is over. Russia played a key role in ending it. Just as in Bosnia, Russia and NATO now are serving side by side to keep the peace. And Washington and Moscow have already begun to refocus on their common interests: beginning discussions on a start iii treaty, working together to get start ii ratified and to preserve the ABM treaty, safeguarding Russia's nuclear technology and expertise, strengthening Russia's political and economic institutions, and more.
As for the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, that was an error -- tragic, but of the sort possible in any conflict. Surely Mandelbaum does not believe that Washington should avoid the use of force under all circumstances simply because a wrong target may be hit. And President Clinton's recent meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Auckland was a reminder that the bombing has not derailed the common commitment to strengthening this strategically important bilateral relationship.
Another basic mistake Mandelbaum makes is ascribing motives to NATO that were never shared by its leaders. For example, he writes that the political question at the heart of the campaign was "the proper principle for determining sovereignty." Since NATO fought on behalf of the Kosovar Albanians while embracing the Serb-backed view that Kosovo should remain part of Serbia, he claims that NATO's effort was an incoherent failure.
But NATO did not go to war in Kosovo over any principle of sovereignty. NATO fought to end Serb repression in Kosovo and to protect southeastern Europe from its consequences. The allies have long argued that the status of Kosovo should be settled peacefully -- and thanks to NATO's actions, that can now start to happen. Kosovo's status could be settled far more easily if Serbia was a democracy and the Balkans were more closely integrated with Europe, goals to which the allies have made a long-term commitment.
Mandelbaum also asserts that NATO fought to establish "a new doctrine governing military operations in the post-Cold War era" -- a doctrine of humanitarian intervention. But in initiating the conflict, President Clinton made it plain that NATO had a clear and limited rationale. The administration's goal was to stop a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing in a place where important American interests were at stake and where America and its allies had the ability to act effectively.
Since the conflict ended, the president has said that when governments single out an entire people for destruction or displacement because of their heritage or faith and America can do something about it, America should act -- in a way that takes into account both its interests and its values. Americans would rather not live in a world where whole peoples can be hauled off to the slaughter or driven into exile just because of who they are. And such tragedies can launch cycles of violence that throw whole regions into chronic turmoil, overwhelm the world's ability to help the innocent, and inevitably lead to future wars.
At the same time, President Clinton has never suggested that America can or should respond to every humanitarian tragedy the way it responded to Kosovo, or that military force is the only way to respond. In fact, East Timor shows that in some situations, U.S. goals can be better achieved through concerted economic and political pressure. How the United States responds to each case will depend on its capacity to act, on the willingness of others to act with it, and on the national interests at stake. The most important thing America can do is work with other nations and institutions, from regional organizations to the United Nations, to strengthen the collective capacity to prevent -- and, if necessary, defeat -- outbreaks of mass killing. That is the way to avoid both the heartlessness of doing nothing in the face of human suffering and the callousness of making promises we cannot keep.
A PROUD LEGACY
Mandelbaum closes with an attack on the Clinton administration's overall policy in the Balkans and central Europe, which he calls the Albright "legacy." In fact, the American people can be proud of what Madeleine Albright, Warren Christopher, William Perry, William Cohen, Anthony Lake, Sandy Berger, and countless others have tried to help President Clinton achieve in Europe over the last six and a half years.
Americans can be proud that NATO has put to rest predictions of its demise -- that it is united, adapting to meet 21st-century challenges, and strengthened by the addition of new members. (Today Mandelbaum denounces the policies that brought NATO to this point; ironically, when the alliance was still debating whether to pursue them, he was one of their strongest proponents. He wrote in 1993 that the admission to NATO of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic would be "good for them, good for the West, and good for Russia." He argued that it would help begin the "necessary process of transforming NATO from a defensive alliance against a threat that no longer exists into a broader security community capable of contributing to the establishment of democracy and the maintenance of peace from the English Channel to the Pacific Coast of Russia," and that this process might well involve "undertaking out of area missions, such as policing a negotiated settlement in the former Yugoslavia.")
Americans can be proud as well that four years ago, the new NATO stopped the slaughter in Bosnia and helped put that country on the road to normality. Americans can be proud that in 79 days over Kosovo, America and its allies stopped the most terrible crimes against humanity Europe has seen since World War II. Americans can be proud that at the Balkan summit in Sarajevo this July, the leaders of every democratic nation in that long-troubled region joined with their fellow European and North American democracies to embrace a common plan for shared security and prosperity -- not least because the promise of NATO and European Union enlargement have made them feel part of a new Europe. Americans can be proud that our country has been able to work through its disagreements with Russia, supporting its efforts to build an open and prosperous society within the European mainstream while defending American interests and staying true to American principles.
One shudders to think of what might have happened had America and its allies followed a different path. The Balkans would have been wracked by continuous conflict, crowned by the ultimate triumph of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Southeastern Europe would be overrun by refugees and would become a fertile ground for turmoil and instability. Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO would still be maintaining the Iron Curtain as its eastern frontier -- that is, if NATO still existed as a functioning, relevant alliance. The new democracies of central and southeastern Europe would feel abandoned by the West, left to fend for themselves in their search for security. America's relationship with Europe would be frayed at best, and its relationship with Russia would suffer under the weight of these mounting tensions.
It is better by far to have worked to build a Europe undivided, democratic, and at peace. When the history of this decade is written, it will be said that the Clinton administration brought that goal within reach -- and that in Kosovo, President Clinton and his fellow leaders did the right thing in the right way.
James B. Steinberg is Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs.