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Jack Kelly: The Balkan morass

Clinton's folly proved by subsequent events

Sunday, March 11, 2001

Seven people were killed and 43 injured Feb. 15 when terrorists blew up a bus carrying families making a pilgrimage to visit the graves of their ancestors. It was the worst violence in Kosovo in more than a year.

  Jack Kelly is national affairs writer for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio ( 

The massacre at Podujevo illustrates the morass into which President Clinton plunged the United States by making war on Serbia over Kosovo.

The victims were the purported bad guys, the Serbs.

NATO, at the instigation of Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, bombed Serbia in 1999, allegedly to prevent a "humanitarian catastrophe" being imposed by the minions of Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic upon Kosovar Albanians. But from the moment they set foot in Kosovo, peacekeepers have spent more effort protecting Serbs from Albanians.

The picture got muddier last October, when Milosevic was overthrown in a bloodless coup. Serbia's new president, Vojislav Kostunica, is as close to a democrat as the Balkans are likely to produce, so the Serbs aren't bad guys anymore.

Clinton and Blair say the Kosovo war hastened Milosevic's departure. But Kostunica says the bombing prolonged Milosevic's stay.

The terrorists are ethnic Albanians associated with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Clinton and Blair said the KLA were the good guys, but they've turned out not to be so swell. More a crime family than a political organization, the KLA has become the leading supplier of illegal narcotics in Europe, and is muscling into other rackets.

To the extent the KLA has politics, they are Islamic fundamentalist. The goal of the KLA and of more moderate Albanians is an independent Kosovo. But that is not an ambition NATO is willing to recognize, for fear it would be the first step in an attempt to create a "Greater Albania," which would include big chunks of the neighboring nations of Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia . . . and another slice of Serbia. U.S. troops were rushed to the Macedonian border earlier this week in an effort to keep an ethnic Albanian insurgency from spreading.

"Propelled by a confused mixture of good intention and a frantic desire to adapt itself to a post-Cold War world, [NATO] has made itself the errand boy of ethnic secessionism in the Balkans," wrote Carl Hodge, a Canadian professor who concentrates on European security and military affairs.

By intervening in a civil war, NATO violated the United Nations charter, and its own. It's clear now the "humanitarian catastrophe" the bombing was supposed to prevent was grossly exaggerated, and that such suffering as the Kosovar Albanians did endure increased by orders of magnitude after the bombs began to fall.

The bombing of Serbia over Kosovo angered and frightened the Russians, and our relations with the Chinese were not improved when we blew up their embassy in Belgrade.

An adviser to China's foreign ministry quoted by William Ratliff in an article in the Harvard International Review said the Kosovo war "sets a dangerous precedent by violating national sovereignty on the pretext of humanitarian intervention."

NATO declared victory because Serbia capitulated, and no NATO pilots were lost. But Brig. Gen. Ronald Mangum, writing in the journal of the Army War College, thinks the victory was pyrrhic. He noted the high- altitude bombing did very little damage to the Serb military. It was only after NATO began deliberately attacking civilian targets that the Serbs sued for peace. In order to prevent a mostly mythical humanitarian disaster in Kosovo, we created a real one in Serbia . . . and stuck our feet firmly in the tar pit.

No end is in sight to peacekeeping missions in either Bosnia or Kosovo, on which the United States will spend at least $3.1 billion this year. Substantial numbers of Army reservists are being used in both countries, because there aren't enough active-duty troops to perform the peacekeeping missions and maintain our other commitments worldwide.

In 1995, just after President Clinton had promised U.S. troops would be home by Christmas, the general who commanded U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia at the height of the fighting there was asked by a congressional committee how long he thought American troops would be in Bosnia. "If I were you, I'd start training your grandchildren as Bosnia peacekeepers," replied Canadian Maj. Gen. Lewis MacKenzie.

The Bush administration should ease America out of the "muddled" peacekeeping missions in which the Clinton administration has involved the military, he thinks.

"The United States should not risk further erosion of its warfighting capabilities," Mackenzie said. "It should not allow its military forces to be drawn into small wars and peacekeeping missions that . . . can last for years or even decades."

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