David N. Gibbs: Was Kosovo the Good War?

Roundup: Talking About History

This article draws from David N. Gibbs's new book, First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (Vanderbilt University Press, June 2009), especially from chapter 7. Readers interested in obtaining full source citations can find most of them in the book or request them from the author at dgibbs@arizona.edu.

As the 1999 NATO war against Serbia reaches its tenth anniversary, it is being recalled with a measure of nostalgia. The Kosovo war is remembered as the"good war" -- a genuinely moral military action, which offers a reassuring contrast with the Iraq fiasco. The Kosovo war was undertaken (so the argument goes) only as a last resort, to restrain an unpleasant dictator (Slobodan Milosevic) who would only respond to force. And the war produced positive results, in the sense that Kosovo was freed from Serb oppression and Milosevic was soon overthrown. Now, a decade later, the Kosovo war is recalled as an exemplary case of humanitarian intervention, and is widely viewed as a model for possible interventions in Darfur and elsewhere. Indeed some of the key figures in the Obama administration, notably Samantha Power, have advocated that"humanitarian intervention" on the model of Kosovo should be a basic theme of U.S. policy.

Given the importance of Kosovo as a model for future military actions, it is important to understand more fully what actually happened in this critical case. New information has become available in recent years from the Milosevic war crimes trial and other basic sources -- information that casts the war in a wholly different (and not so positive) light. In what follows, I will review some of these revelations, and how they have discredited widely accepted myths about the"benign" character of the Kosovo intervention.

First, a bit of background: Kosovo had long been an"autonomous province" of the Republic of Serbia, initially as part of communist Yugoslavia. Within Kosovo, the population had been divided between an ethnic Albanian majority and a relatively small Serb minority, which constituted between 10 percent and 15 percent of the total population. Ethnic conflict between these two groups gradually destabilized the province. In 1989, the Republic of Serbia ended the autonomous status of Kosovo and placed it under effective martial law. A highly repressive system of rule was imposed that victimized Albanians in the province, while it favored the Serbs. Albanian efforts to escape this repression formed the basis of the armed uprising in the late 1990s, led by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). These efforts ultimately triggered the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Serbia. After the Serb defeat, an international peacekeeping force occupied Kosovo. With the peacekeepers still present, Kosovo officially seceded from Serbia and achieved full independence in 2008. A majority of the Serb population was ethnically cleansed from Kosovo, shortly after the NATO bombing, although a relatively small number of Serbs still remain in parts of the province.

Myth 1: NATO began its bombing campaign only after it had made every effort to avoid war and to achieve its objectives in Kosovo through diplomatic means. The war resulted because Milosevic firmly resisted a diplomatic settlement.

In reality, Milosevic was open to a diplomatic settlement, and this point is now well established by the very best sources. Specifically, Milosevic signed a series of international agreements in October 1998 that called on the Serbs to withdraw most of their forces from Kosovo and to implement a cease-fire. He also agreed to the deployment of an internationally organized Kosovo Verification Mission, which would supervise implementation of the Serb troop pullback. These agreements were brokered by U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke.

The Holbrooke agreement gradually broke down, as fighting continued between Serb and Albanian forces and then escalated during late 1998. At the time, it was widely believed that it was the Serbs who scuttled the agreement. However, we now know that this was not the case. In fact, the Serbs implemented the Holbrooke agreement, and it was the Albanians who caused the agreement to break down.

The evidence that the Serb/Yugoslav forces complied with the agreement comes from General Klaus Naumann, a German officer who played an important role in the diplomacy of this period (and who later participated in the 1999 NATO war). In 2002, Naumann appeared at the Milosevic trial as a key prosecution witness and stated the following:"The Yugoslav authorities honored the [Holbrooke] agreement ... I think one has to really pay tribute to what the Yugoslav authorities did. This was not an easy thing to bring 6,000 police officers back within twenty-four hours, but they managed." And General Naumann's views are supported by the Independent International Commission on Kosovo, which noted in its 2000 report:"Serbia initially implemented the [Holbrooke] agreement and withdrew its forces accordingly."

The breakdown of the Holbrooke agreement was actually triggered by the KLA guerrillas, who used the Serb restraint as an opportunity to launch a new offensive. This strategy is noted in the following exchange, between a BBC interviewer and General Naumann. The interview cites information from NATO and from the director of the Kosovo Verification Mission, which was responsible for overseeing implementation of the Holbrooke agreement: 

BBC:"We've obtained confidential minutes of the North Atlantic Council or NAC, NATO's governing body. The talk was of the KLA as the ‘main initiator of the violence ... It launched what appears to be a deliberate campaign of provocation [against the Serbs].' This is how William Walker [head of the Kosovo Verification Mission] himself reported the situation then, in private" (emphasis added).

General Naumann:"Ambassador Walker stated in the NAC that the majority of violations [of the Holbrooke agreement] was caused by the KLA."

The record is thus clear: it was the Albanian guerillas, not the Serbs, who caused the upsurge in fighting.

During February and March of 1999, the United States and several European allies organized an international peace conference -- officially intended to provide a comprehensive settlement of the Kosovo conflict -- that took place mostly at Rambouillet, France, outside of Paris. The Western mediators who directed the conference sought to end Serb repression in Kosovo, to re-establish Kosovo's regional autonomy (though still as a province of Serbia), and to establish an armed international peacekeeping force to oversee implementation. An independent Kosovo was not contemplated at this point.

Ultimately the Rambouillet conference broke down, and this failure led directly to the NATO bombing campaign. At the time, it was widely assumed that the Serbs had refused to negotiate seriously and were determined to use military force against the Albanians. However, a close reading of the record shows that the conventional wisdom was again wrong. In fact, the Serbs remained open to a negotiated settlement, and they resorted to force when a settlement proved unachievable.

Most participants in the Rambouillet conference conceded that the Serb delegation had actually accepted all (or virtually all) of the political demands that were put forward by the U.S. and European mediators. The Serbs"seemed to have embraced the political elements of the settlement, at least in principle," according to Marc Weller, a legal scholar who served as an adviser to the Albanian delegation. State Department spokesman James Rubin claims that the Serbs had agreed to"nearly every aspect of the political agreement." U.S. diplomat Christopher Hill stated that"Milosevic was open to the Rambouillet political deal." Even Madeleine Albright, though hypercritical of the Serb delegation, acknowledged that the Serbs had accepted most of the proposals for a political settlement. With regard to the more contentious implementation aspects, Milosevic himself implied that he would accept a peacekeeping force in Kosovo to supervise the agreement, led by either the UN or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He did, however, continue to resist the idea of a NATO-led force, which the United States demanded.

The available information suggests that a full settlement of the Kosovo conflict was within reach and could have been achieved at Rambouillet. What caused the agreement to break down was a new development that occurred late in the negotiation process. Specifically, the Western mediators now proposed that a"Military Annex" be added to the final agreement. The proposed addition affirmed that NATO peacekeeping forces would be deployed, and that these forces would have"free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia]." This section was highly significant; it meant that not only would Kosovo be occupied by a NATO peacekeeping force, but potentially all of Serbia and all that remained of Yugoslavia would be occupied as well. After the Military Annex appeared, the Serb delegation appeared to lose all confidence in the negotiation process, and the peace talks broke down.

The suspicious wording of the Military Annex was originally noted by British journalist John Pilger in 1999, during the course of the NATO bombing campaign. In response, U.S. officials have insisted that the Annex was a harmless detail, and deny that there was any effort to sabotage the peace talks.

The truth telling was left to the British. In a post-war parliamentary hearing, former Defense Minister of State John Gilbert affirmed that key negotiators were in fact seeking to sabotage the conference. Gilbert was the number two figure in the British Defense Ministry, with a specific responsibility for intelligence gathering, and he supported the war. He is surely a credible source. With regard to the motives of the negotiators, he offered this observation:"I think certain people were spoiling for a fight in NATO at that time ... we were at a point when some people felt that something had to be done [against Serbia], so you just provoked a fight." With regard to the peace terms themselves, he said,"I think the terms put to Milosevic at Rambouillet were absolutely intolerable: How could he possibly accept them? It was quite deliberate" (emphasis added).

Lord Gilbert did not specifically mention the Military Annex (and its clause about NATO access to all of Yugoslavia), but it is easy to see that the Annex fit in well with the overall picture of provocation that Gilbert described. And it seems likely that the United States played a major role in crafting the Military Annex, and thus sabotaging the talks: in memoirs, General Wesley Clark revealed that he personally helped with the drafting. In any case, the advent of the Military Annex undermined the prospect of a peaceful settlement.

I have elsewhere discussed at length the Clinton administration's motives for provoking a war; in this article, I will provide a shortened explanation. Basically, the United States was seeking a new justification for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which seemed to lack any plausible function since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The"successful" intervention in Kosovo played a key role in affirming NATO's importance for the post-Cold War period, and providing it with a new function.

Whatever the motives, the record suggests that the Clinton administration was seeking a pretext for war with Serbia. The collapse of peace talks at Rambouillet offered this pretext....

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Arnold Shcherban - 7/10/2009

You highlighted the crucial aspects
of "Kosovo affair" that once more confirmed the fact of NATO aggression
against Yugoslavia, in general, and Serbia, in particular, the fact which
has been pointed out by many objective historians and observers years ago.