Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


APRIL 1999

After a month of bombing in Yugoslavia, US officials have learned some hard lessons about compelling a tough nationalist leader, Slobodan Milosevic, to accept a NATO occupation force in Kosovo:

Where does this leave NATO in its effort to protect Kosovar residents?

First of all, the likelihood of a ground war is diminishing, not increasing, despite some glib talk in Washington. President Clinton and Vice President Gore oppose the introduction of U.S. ground troops. Congressional critics, both Republican and Democrat, have failed to present a convincing case that "winning" requires NATO to put a ground force of perhaps 200,000 troops into Kosovo where they would fight Yugoslav troops defending Yugoslav territory.

A key factor stimulating talk of expanded war is shocking photos of desperate Kosovo refugees shown on American and European television. Our humanitarian instinct of wishing to "do something" to stop this outrage overshadowed sober calculations of the costs--human, economic, and political--that would result from deploying American and European soldiers to fight a potentially vicious ground war in the mountains of Kosovo.

In light of these factors, NATO leaders opted for a greatly expanded air war. They hope that sustained bombing of industrial and military targets will persuade Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo and permit an international peacekeeping force to occupy Kosovo indefinitely.

The risk here is again underestimating the tenacity of this brutal nationalistic leader and the determination of Serbs to resist allied bombing, just as they resisted Nazi occupation forces during World War II. If Milosevic reacts to expanded bombing the way that Saddam Hussein has done in Iraq, what will NATO do?

The end game for this Balkan crisis will, in my view, result from one of three scenarios. These are, in ascending order of risk:

One, Milosevic is obliged after watching his military and economic infrastructure being shattered to accept a face-saving deal permitting Serbia to retain control of historical sites and economic resources in northern Kosovo. He agrees to give up control over the rest of the province to NATO. This is partition of Kosovo.

Two, Russia negotiates a deal with Milosevic and western leaders whereby he withdraws from Kosovo and turns over administration to an international force that includes Russian as well as NATO troops. Serbia would retain nominal sovereignty over Kosovo and independence is ruled out. This suggests an international protectorate over the province.

Three, a large NATO ground force attacks Yugoslavia and forces it to relinquish sovereignty in Kosovo. Further, Milosevic is ousted from power and a new government is set up to work with NATO. This is essentially an unconditional surrender.

From a moral, humanitarian, even emotional standpoint, option three is the most appealing because it would rid Europe of the most dangerous regime it has confronted since the end of the Cold War. Yet, the cost of accomplishing this goal would be higher than American and European governments, and their publics, are likely to pay in order to pacify Kosovo.

Similarly, the first option is not feasible because Milosevic will not cave in to NATO pressure unless he is offered a deal permitting continued Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo.

That leaves negotiations as the logical alternative. This gets an international peacekeeping force into Kosovo to protect refugees who wish to return; it keeps Moscow involved in the process as part of the solution, not of the problem; and it permits NATO to draw back from the brink of a war which its members do not wish to fight.

The downside of this alternative is that Slobodan Milosevic would remain in power until the Serb people, or his army, decide that he must go.

Diplomacy frequently entails dealing with choices that have less than ideal outcomes. In Yugoslavia, we will probably have to resign ourselves to live with the military and political containment of a ruthless government in Belgrade instead of demanding its capitulation. It may not be the ideal outcome of this crisis, but it is the most acceptable.

File last modified on Sunday, 22-AUG-2004 05:30 PM EST

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