David Clark: Ten Years On, Kosovo Still Contentious

Roundup: Talking About History

[David Clark served as Europe adviser at the Foreign Office, 1997-2001.]

Ten years after Nato jets went into action against Serbia, the Kosovo war remains as controversial as ever. Welcomed by many at the time as evidence of a humanitarian world order in the making, its legacy has been overtaken, subsumed and ultimately distorted by the debate about the war on terror. What Vaclav Havel called "the first war for values" is now more often described as a dangerous precedent. Even Clare Short, a forceful advocate of intervention in the Balkans, attributed Tony Blair's foreign policy errors to the "taste for grandstanding" he acquired in Kosovo.

There are several reasons for this, the most important undoubtedly the effect of the Iraq war in sowing doubt about the legitimacy and efficacy of western military power. In departing from the principle of non-intervention and lacking a UN mandate, Kosovo is often regarded as the original sin that made Iraq possible. Even Russia's invasion and recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been characterised as blowback from Kosovo's declaration of independence a few months before.

Comparisons of this kind confuse more than they clarify. The war in Kosovo was a response to a humanitarian emergency, not a geopolitical power play. Even so, this point is still contested. Self-styled anti-imperialists, all too often apologists for the imperialism of any regime that opposes the west, have constructed an alternative history in which Slobodan Milosevic's crimes are minimised or excused and a rapacious west portrayed as the instigator of violence. In this history, his efforts to reach a negotiated solution were sabotaged at the Rambouillet peace conference by Europe and the US; and the deaths and refugee movements inside Kosovo were caused by Nato bombing.

These critics talk as if the destruction of Bosnia was a figment of the imagination. The reality is that by the time of Rambouillet, western leaders had wised up to Milosevic's game of rope-a-dope in which he negotiated peace in bad faith while continuing to unleash ethnic terror on the ground. They had already endured eight years of it. In Kosovo, Serbian forces had killed 1,500 and driven 270,000 from their homes before Nato acted. The violence accelerated immediately before and after the start of the bombing campaign, but opponents deliberately invert cause and effect...

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