Unforced Errors

Humanitarianism and Military Intervention

In an article in The American Prospect Matthew Yglesias muses on Kosovo, humanitarian military intervention, Iraq, and present U. S. foreign policy:

During arguments about the Iraq War, in particular, liberal hawks had a habit of wielding the poor Kosovar Albanians as a cudgel: If you supported Bill Clinton’s 1999 bombing campaign, the argument went, then surely you could support a war against Saddam Hussein.

Then and now, many pro-Kosovo, anti-Iraq liberals could persuasively (Kenneth Roth’s 2004 “War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention” is my personal favorite) argue that various factors distinguish the two cases. Still, the argument was never about a strict Kosovo-implies-Iraq logic. Rather, first Bosnia and then Kosovo provided the impetus for an intellectually influential, humanitarian hawk movement aimed at advocating the use of military force to advance liberal values whose leaders, inspired by the success of Kosovo, saw Iraq as potentially continuing the momentum built up in the Balkans.

Today, there are few left-of-center defenders of the Iraq War as it actually exists, but there continues to be considerable concern about an “Iraq Syndrome” overreaction to the chaos that has followed the invasion. Kosovo, in this scheme, is supposed to be the “good war” that serves as a reminder of the positive potential of military force. Thus, even as center-left figures agree that the unilateralism of the Bush era must come to an end, there’s a desperate search to find some new mechanism — perhaps a Global NATO or perhaps a Concert of Democracies — that could authorize a war that, like Kosovo, is fought neither in self-defense nor in defense of an ally nor with the approval of the U.N. Security Council.

In that light, it’s worth taking full measure of how modest our accomplishments in Kosovo have been. The declaration of independence marks not the fulfillment of NATO’s objectives in Kosovo, but something more like NATO accepting the fact that those objectives will not be achieved.

The military wages war. War consists in killing people and breaking their stuff. Consequently, no war, however justified or well-intentioned, is completely benign. Believing that wars can be completely benign is to confuse the U. S. Army with the Red Cross.

When you intervene in somebody else’s war, as we did in Kosovo, you either take sides, supporting one side over the other, or you fight both sides. When you bomb the stronger side and interpose your own forces to protect the weaker force, you are taking the side of the weaker force (as we did in Kosovo). And regardless of how well-intentioned such intervention might be there will inevitably be accusations of malice and acting out of self-interest.

Intervening in Kosovo was an error on our part. There were never any “good guys” whose side to take in the conflict between the Serbs and ethnic Albanian Kosovars. I have no doubt that Serbs mistreated the Albanian Kosovars just as I have no doubt that Albanian Kosovars mistreat ethnic Serbs when they get the opportunity. The inter-ethnic and inter-sectarian conflicts in the region go back a millennium or farther, at least to the time when the Turks invaded.

The outcome in Kosovo doesn’t so much demonstrate that benign humanitarian military intervention can be effective as to demonstrate that we don’t have the stomach for humanitarian military intervention. Real humanitarian intervention in the situation would have consisted of forcible regime change in Belgrade, imposition of our own solution to the problems of the region, and continued enforcement of the solution. I think that what was envisioned for our Kosovo intervention was something more along the lines of the cowboy actions that we’re frequently accused of—riding into town, killing the wicked saloon owner in a shoot-out, and riding off into the setting sun as credits roll.

The irony of the situation is that we did and do have interests in not intervening in the Balkans. Our relationship with Russia is not a zero-sum game. Their losses are not our victories. By intervening in Kosovo and now recognizing Kosovar independence we’ve further aggravated the tensions between the U. S. and Russia for the sake of turning over a thousand square miles of Yugoslavia to Albanian Kosovars. I believe that, too, is an error.

Part of what galls me about our intervention in Kosovo and the larger situation of the now decades long disintegration of Yugoslavia is that, while our actual interests probably run counter to intervention there, the same is not true of the various European neighbors who, while they have a genuine national interest in preventing humanitarian catastrophe in Yugoslavia, stood by impotent and immobile by design while we, by our unforced errors, enabled that impotence and immobility. I believe that the nations of Western Europe standing on their own two feet to accomplish what’s in their own national interest is in our national interest, too, but we insist in subsidizing their continued infantilization. We should be cultivating partners in promoting humane values; we are promoting dependency.

Not only has the intervention run counter to our actual interests but as I suggested yesterday supporting the sort of self-determination as has resulted in today’s Kosovar independence is a distortion of the American experience and policy. That’s what using a tool whose fundamental purpose is destruction has bought us.

1 comment… add one
  • Fletcher Christian Link

    Another point is that Kosovo will be the first Moslem state on European soil for nearly a millennium. It’s a VERY bad precedent.

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