Clinton Won His Pseudo-War but Faces Global Battles

Now that President Clinton has won it, will he call Kosovo a war?

Let us look at the other winners and losers, all mixed.

America . America, leading NATO, forced the Yugoslav Army to withdraw from Kosovo at hardly any cost in lives or even comfort. Two of our soldiers died in a helicopter accident, three were briefly taken prisoner. (Interestingly, the Serbs, who claimed they were the victims of an unjust war, called the Americans criminals, while Washington, which said it was engaged in a conflict, demanded that they be treated as prisoners of war.) This is as close to a bloodless victory as it gets. John Keegan, the English military historian, hailed it as the first victory of air power, although at the very end, a Kosovo Liberation Army attack flushed out Serbian units, thereby setting them up as targets, so the verdict on the old question of ground versus air may not in fact be in.

There was a cost in money and matériel. Mr. Clinton drew down our stock of cruise missiles. He will be scoring points against Congressional Republicans who voted against letting him pursue the air war. When those same Republicans push to restore the arsenal he has depleted, will he support them, or will he hold out for spending on midnight basketball?

America and NATO also face the cost of having troops stationed for years in a strategically null backwater. How many of these little protectorates are we planning to maintain?

The Serbian army . The Serbs retreat with their tails between their legs, but they retreat in good order, with their command structure and much of their equipment intact. They also at least temporarily accomplished their mission, which was to drive 1 million Albanian Kosovars from their homes. Think of them as the German Army after World War I, assuming they had destroyed France.

Serb Kosovars . The Serbian minority in Kosovo is hightailing it out of there, fearing retaliation at the hands of enraged Albanians. Some Serbs committed murder. Most showed indifference to the sufferings of their neighbors. The first offense, ideally, deserves more than displacement. The second offense does not deserve that. But that is what happens after wars of peoples.

Albanian Kosovars . As NATO moves in, the graves are starting to be uncovered. How many of these were dug and filled after we began the bombing campaign designed to protect their occupants? The Serb regime wanted to push Albanians out, and terrorize the rest. In the end, we stopped the Serb plan, but only after speeding it up hugely. Now the refugees are streaming back. Are they wise to do so?

The Kosovo War also raises a number of issues for at least the beginning of the new millennium.

Little wars . Military expert John Hillen wrote an influential article arguing, tartly, that superpowers do not do windows. By this, Mr. Hillen meant that the United States should not move unless the stakes are high and clear, and the effort is major. But other military intellectuals point out that doing the windows–messy, marginal disputes–takes much of a great power’s time (cf. 19th-century Britain, or Imperial Rome). In a Kosovo package in National Review , Michael Lind argued that Pentagon planners should give more leeway to the Marines, who historically undertake such missions (the Army prefers to move massively).

Wars for ideas versus wars for things . America has fought both kinds. We fought the War of 1812 and the Mexican War because we coveted land, World War II because we were attacked, the Gulf War to protect the world oil supply. But other wars, from the Revolution to the Cold War, were primarily about ideas. Clearly, Kosovo was the latter kind, since there was nothing we wanted or needed there, and none of the contestants menaced us. Was the idea of this war worth killing for?

The war’s supporters mostly gave bad justifications. If we want to stop massacres everywhere, we will be very busy, and we will fail. Mr. Clinton’s talk about the Balkans as an incubator of wider conflicts hasn’t been true since 1914. The best reason I have heard might be called idealistic gradualism. There is a de facto Pax Americana in the Western Hemisphere and in most of Europe. It may be decades, centuries or never before we can turn our attention to central Africa or central Asia, but meanwhile we do what we can. I might buy this argument. Too bad no one in Washington made it.

Europe . Our NATO allies, under their present “Third Way” governments, would like nothing better than to scrap NATO and run their continent themselves. As of now, their means fall far short of their ambitions. But their efforts can be expected to increase. How do we navigate a reconfiguring world? An idea from the turn of the last century–an English-speaking alliance–has been raised here and there. This idea raises questions of its own: Where would that leave Puerto Rico? Miami? Al Gore having not yet claimed to have invented the English language, the Administration has no thoughts about it. Neither does the Republican Party. Interested parties should submit proposals to Washington, the media and the Council on Foreign Relations.

Empires . Sifting through the ruins of the Balkans has revived nostalgia (see recent Op-Ed pages) for its last imperial ruler, the Ottomans. Empires typically fall short on political freedom, though they can do a good job of securing peace and prosperity. But there must be some organizing principle, either religious (the Sultan was Caliph, the Roman emperor was divine) or racial (Britain bore the white man’s burden). America acquired a mini-empire in the 1890’s, acting under a providential sense of manifest destiny, but we gave two of the biggest pieces (Cuba and the Philippines) their freedom and made the third (Hawaii) a state. What will move the peacemakers now? Mr. Clinton and his Euro-pals want to make America and Europe empires of liberalism.

A bad idea.