Aug 1 1999

Lessons of War

Leading papers call for more attacks on civilian targets next time

In the debate over whether the war in Yugoslavia was a success, the papers of record criticized NATO tactics, but NATO’s basic claim-that the Kosovo War was just, and improved the region’s chances for peace, stability and democracy-went almost unchallenged.

The criticism in the New York Times and Washington Post took place against the backdrop consensus that NATO’s intervention “will establish that an air war for limited humanitarian goals can be effective, albeit costly” (New York Times, 6/4/99). A Washington Post editorial (6/4/99) praised “NATO’s resolute pounding of Serbian forces,” which allowed the West to show that “it would not stand for crimes against humanity.”

The most common complaint made in these papers was that the war should have been conducted more aggressively. One Times editorial (6/5/99) cautioned that though the war had been won, it is important not to take the right lesson from it: that NATO should be less worried about civilian casualties. “Instead of taking the war to downtown Belgrade during the opening hours of the war, NATO waited weeks before attacking targets in the Yugoslav capital, forfeiting the element of surprise and blunting the allies’ ability to shock the enemy,” the Times complained.

William Safire summed up the prevailing spin in his New York Times column (6/7/99): “In Kosovo, the Western world is doing the right thing in the wrong way. The right thing was to place humanity’s resistance to barbarism above national sovereignty.” Among NATO’s mistakes, Safire said, were ruling out ground troops early on; not attacking forcefully enough (“We should have turned out the lights in Belgrade and destroyed telecommunications the first day”); and allowing Russia and the “weak sisters” of Germany, Italy and Greece too much say in NATO decisions.

Safire identified Slobodan Milosevic as the primary threat to stability in the Balkans, arguing that “until sensible Serbs decide to hand the Milosevic gang over to the Hague tribunal,” no reconstruction aid should be given to Serbia.

This sentiment echoed a Post editorial (6/4/99) that declared that “only when he [Milosevic] is in the dock in the Hague, after all, can the Balkans truly hope for peace and stability.” Another stated (6/6/99):

If Milosevic prevails, his brand of brutal nationalism will spread. If the Kosovo war marks the beginning of his demise, then other countries in transition will more likely see their future in democracy, fair treatment of minorities and peaceful neighborly relations.

One op-ed that stepped outside this narrow range of debate was by Balkan expert D.G. Kousoulas (Washington Post, 6/8/99). He pointed out the illogic of trying to “promote stability by encouraging separatist movements among minorities,” and warned that “encouraging or tolerating a separatist movement such as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) might set the stage for another Balkan war.”

In fact, recent events–largely unreported by mainstream U.S. media–suggest that NATO’s intervention in Kosovo is being seen as a legitimization of Albanian secessionist struggle, and has already encouraged separatist groups in Eastern Europe.

Long-simmering tensions over the status of ethnic Hungarian minorities in Romania and the Serbian province of Vojvodina have been exacerbated by NATO’s action in Kosovo. The situation in Vojvodina has gotten some press, but the furor that erupted in Romania over a statement signed by prominent ethnic Hungarian intellectuals has gone virtually unnoticed by the U.S. media.

Calling for dramatically increased autonomy for Romania’s Transylvania region, the document puts forth an argument for devolution that “while framed in economic terms, has clear ethnic overtones as Transylvania is home to a large population of ethnic Hungarians,” reports Global Intelligence Update (6/9/99), an online news service published by the business consulting firm Stratfor. “Hungarian nationalists are keying off of NATO’s actions on behalf of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and are calling for a broad revision of borders in the region.”

As Stratfor points out,

with NATO seen as effectively sanctioning the devolution, if not independence, of an ethnically Albanian Kosovo from Serbia, keeping these other problems in check will be an increasingly difficult task…. There are a great number of maps of Europe waiting to be redrawn, and a host of groups eager to start drawing.

This perspective–that NATO’s intervention has weakened, not strengthened, stability in the region, and that taking out Milosevic isn’t a panacea for Europe’s ethnic conflicts–was barely part of the debate in the leading U.S. dailies.