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



America's military intervention in Kosovo a year ago is turning into a foreign policy debacle that should be debated in the coming presidential election campaign.

Let's review what happened in Yugoslavia last spring and how subsequent events in that Balkan tinderbox brought us to the current potential crisis.

On March 24, 1999 President Clinton and NATO leaders authorized the limited bombing of Serbia's military targets in Kosovo, a province of Serbia whose Albanian ethnic population was gradually being forced by Serb paramilitary units to flee their homes. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fought the Serbs and openly demanded independence for Kosovo.

The erroneous assumption in Washington and at NATO headquarters was that a few days of bombing would bring Serbia's leader, Slobodan Milosevic, to his senses and force him to accept NATO's demand that he evacuate Kosovo and permit NATO troops and UN officials to administer the province for an indefinite period.

An astonished Clinton administration then watched as Milosevic not only refused to let NATO take over this piece of his country but instead ordered the expulsion of the entire ethnic Albanian population, forcing nearly a million refugees to flee into Albania and Macedonia.

NATO was faced with a stark choice: concede that it had blundered by assuming that Milosevic would quickly accept its ultimatum, or increase the military pressure, including the possible use of ground troops, to force him to capitulate. Clinton decided to intensify the bombing campaign and to include targets in Belgrade and elsewhere in Serbia. Yet he publicly ruled out the use of U.S. ground troops, fearing that casualties would precipitate congressional demands for their withdrawal, as had occurred in Somalia in 1993.

Throughout April and May 1999 the bombing of Serbia, most of it carried out by U.S. Air Force and Navy planes, intensified while the humanitarian disaster of Kosavar refugees living in makeshift conditions in Macedonia and Albania escalated. With Milosevic giving no sign of backing off on ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and the bombing campaign resulting in civilian casualties, including the mistaken bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Clinton reluctantly gave his approval to plan for a ground invasion of Yugoslavia.

Early in June Washington urgently sought Moscow's help to negotiate an end to the war. Boris Yeltsin's government was strongly opposed to the bombing of Serbia, but it agreed to try to persuade Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo in return for Clinton's assurance that Kosovo would remain a part of Serbia's sovereign territory. With the help of Finland's president, Moscow prevailed on Milosevic to withdraw and, after 78 days of bombing and great damage to Serbia's economy, the war ended.

President Clinton told the American public that his policy had succeeded, that Milosevic had given way to the introduction of NATO peace-enforcing troops and UN administrators, and that Kosovo would once again be restored as a multiethnic society where Serbs and Albanians would live side by side. It was a victory for American leadership, he asserted.

Nine months later it is obvious that his optimistic vision for Kosovo has failed. Now the United States and the NATO allies face a serious dilemma: either to keep some 38,000 NATO troops in Kosovo indefinitely to prevent ethnic warfare from once again erupting, or make a deal with Milosevic whereby Kosovo is partitioned between Serbs and Albanians. Either way, the outcome of this adventure in humanitarian foreign policy, which was sponsored by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, is a notable setback for American leadership.

What happened recently in the northern city of Mitrovica is illustrative of the dilemma.

When Kosovo's Serb population fled northward to escape the revenge-seeking Kosovo Liberation Army which returned after Milosevic withdrew his troops, many Serb refugees settled in areas in the north around the city of Mitrovica where the majority population was Serb. The Ibar River running through the center of the city has become the de facto dividing line between ethnic Albanians in the south and Serbs to the north. Each ethnic group has expelled the other's minority from its own side of the river.

Mitrovica lies in the French sector of Kosovo. When rioting broke out last month and French soldiers were attacked by Albanian Kosovars demanding to return to their homes north of the Ibar River, the French commander pleaded for help from NATO troops based in other parts of Kosovo. U.S. General Wesley Clark, top NATO commander for Europe, authorized a company from the 82nd Airborne Division to move into northern Mitrovica to help French troops restore order.

However, the Americans came into confrontation with a hostile Serb mob and sustained minor injuries. Washington responded by instructing General Clark that U.S. troops were to remain in their own sector, implying that it was France's responsibility to reinforce its troops if that was required by local tensions. The French sent in 700 reinforcements.

The sobering reality that was underscored by the Mitrovica clashes is that no matter whether Washington, London, and Paris like it, Kosovo is fast becoming a partitioned land. Despite all the idealistic talk in Washington about restoring a multi-ethnic society in which Serbs and Albanians live in peace, the truth is that these people hate each other and have vowed to revenge the ravages both sides suffered during the past year.

Jim Hoagland, writing in the Washington Post on March 12, headlined his column: "A Phony Peace." Indeed, that is what exists in Kosovo a year after NATO's intervention.

What are the alternatives for U.S. policy in dealing with this debacle?

I believe Washington has three courses it could follow, none of them palatable.

None of these courses is currently acceptable to Washington. However, recent indications suggest that the Europeans might be willing to make a deal with Milosevic that enables them to further reduce their troop strength and financial outlays in Kosovo.

Nothing is likely to change during this election year. But tensions in Kosovo, including in the American sector, are steadily mounting. If American troops should come under serious attack from either the Serbs or Albanians, the White House will be under great public pressure to remove them from harm's way.

File last modified on Tuesday, 17-AUG-2004 09:30 PM EST

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