Archive for Thursday, September 28, 2000

Is action in Kosovo worth it?

September 28, 2000


— During America's Civil War, Confederates used "Quaker guns" logs painted like cannons to confuse Union forces. During the war in actually, 15,000 feet over Kosovo, forces of Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic used woodburning stoves, their chimneys pointed skyward, to simulate artillery barrels, which NATO's marvelous munitions dispatched, along with decoy bridges made of plastic.

Milosevic probably hoped Sunday's presidential election could also be a useful fake. But the opposition, united behind Vojislav Kostunica, knew the voting could have four different outcomes, all helpful.

Kostunica might win and Milosevic would resign the most remote possibility. Or Kostunica might win and Milosevic the first person to seek election as head of a European state while under indictment from the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague would ignore the result and be further delegitimized. Or Milosevic might employ so much fraud and intimidation that his "win" would be delegitimizing. Or Milosevic might submit to a runoff, thereby risking another defeat, or additional delegitimization because of further corrupt evasions of defeat. As this is written Tuesday afternoon, Yugoslavia's State Election Commision says Kostunica received 48.22 percent, Milosevic 40.23, and there will be an Oct. 8. runoff. According to some reports, however, Kostunica claims to have won outright and will refuse to join the runoff. Stay tuned.

The voting took place in Serbia, and among the small non-Albanian minority in Kosovo (ethnic Albanians boycotted the voting), which is still technically a province of Serbia, and in Montenegro. There the government, which urged a boycott, is in gradual secession from the Yugoslav federation, which would reduce Yugoslavia to ... Serbia, someday minus Kosovo.

There was admirable openness about the U.S. financing of the opposition to Milosevic. The United States intervened in European elections in France in 1947 and Italy in 1948, to assist opponents of communist parties which, in power, would have impeded the creation of NATO. In Yugoslavia, U.S. leverage will have been used to similar good effects if it helps hasten Milosevic's departure. That probably is a prerequisite for extricating the United States from a commitment that has been, since March 24, 1999, confused and costly.

Milosevic, vowing to keep Kosovo in Serbia, adopted a policy of making Kosovo more Serbian by expelling many ethnic Albanian Kosovars. His policy was incremental brutality "a village a day keeps NATO away." Slow-motion ethnic cleansing worked, until it didn't. Concerning Milosevic's failure to keep the violence below the threshold that would trigger a NATO response, two writers knowledgeable about Kosovo came to the same conclusion: By violently resisting, and occasionally provoking, Milosevic's violence, the Kosovo Liberation Army drew in the United States.

For that reason, Tim Judah, in his book "Kosovo: War and Revenge," judges the KLA "the most successful guerrilla movement in modern history." And Timothy Garton Ash, in "Kosovo: Was It Worth It?" in the New York Review of Books, marvels at "how a bunch of farmyard Albanian ex-Marxist-Leninist terrorists managed to enlist the United States to win their battle for them."

When the United States and its coalition partners went to war they expected there would be 200,000 additional Kosovar refugees. A month later there were 850,000. On March 24, the coalition had selected 219 targets about one week's worth, which was about four days longer than Washington thought the bombing would take to break Milosevic's will. The bombing ended after 78 days, not because Serbia's military in Kosovo was destroyed it was not but because the coalition began bombing Belgrade, turning off the electricity and threatening a ground war.

And 15 months after the bombing halt? The Washington Post's Roberto Suro, in Kosovo, reports a reversal of the mission of the 5,500 U.S. troops there: Instead of protecting ethnic Albanians from Serbian paramilitary ethnic cleansers, they protect the small Serbian minority from vengeful Albanians. Want a glimpse of one cause of the U.S. military's problem retaining recruits? Suro describes U.S. soldiers standing several hours "in full battle gear in 100-degree heat to keep watch over a Serb wedding."

Does joining the Army to "Be all that you can be" mean being a bodyguard in furtherance of "nation building"? An Army report on abusive behavior by some members of elite army units in Kosovo says that soldiers who were trained for combat but who were employed in Kosovo coping with conflicts between civilians had "difficulties tempering their combat mentality." Surely we want to expeditiously liquidate deployments that require such tempering.

Whether Kosovo turns out to have been "worth it" depends largely on whether, in Ash's formulation, Milosevic turns out to be "Europe's Galtieri (the Argentinean president deposed after losing the Falklands war) or Europe's Saddam Hussein." So far, he has been Saddam, but a brave opposition, and judicious U.S. help, might now be making him into a Galtieri.

George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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