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Ambassador James Bullington’s years in the career Foreign Service included three tours of duty in Vietnam. The following is the text of a speech he delivered to the Rotary Club of Norfolk, Virginia on June 23, 1999.

~ Ed

“But ‘twas a famous victory.”

American Interests,
American Values,
War in the Balkans

By J. R. Bullington*


NATO HAS WON A VICTORY in Yugoslavia in the military sense of compelling the enemy to withdraw his forces from the field of battle. The Kosovars are returning to their homes, or what’s left of them. And the victory was achieved at a cost of zero combat casualties to NATO forces. But is this really a victory for either American interests orAmerican values?

What have we really won?


•  We’ve won ownership of the Balkans problem, probably for a generation.•  We’ve won the right to manage relations between Albanians and Serbs, as we are already doing among Croats, Muslims and Serbs in Bosnia.

•  We’ve won a second international protectorate, Kosovo, to add to Bosnia.

•  We’ve won the obligation to deal with a massive humanitarian catastrophe and to rebuild an economically devastated, turbulent region.

•  We’ve won the ability for those who took us into this war to feel righteous.

And for these fruits of victory, we’ve paid a high price, in terms of NATO’s deterrent value and our relations with Russia and China. The price also included acceleration and intensification of ethnic cleansing, the very atrocity that the war was undertaken to prevent.

I’m reminded of a poem by Robert Southey, “The Battle of Blenheim.” Here are the last two verses:

“Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won
And our good Prince Eugene.”
“Why, ‘twas a very wicked thing!”
Said little Wilhelmine.
“Nay…Nay…my little girl,” quoth he,
It was a famous victory.”

“And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why, that I cannot tell,” said he,
“But ‘twas a famous victory.”

The ugly truth is that in this Kosovo war there is no victory in any meaningful sense. There are no winners, only losers.

Why is this the case?

     First and foremost, we have no national interest in the Balkans that justified going to war.

Unlike Saddam Hussein, Milosevic poses no threat to the world oil supply or to any other important resource or line of communication. He poses no military threat to our allies or to us. Yet, in setting forth the reasons for taking us into war, President Clinton said in his March 23 speech to the nation:

We act to prevent a wider war, to defuse a powder keg at the heart of Europe, that has exploded twice before in this century, with catastrophic results….[We are acting] so that future generations of Americans do not have to cross the Atlantic to fight another terrible war….Our stand in Kosovo…is a strategic imperative.

This may be good political rhetoric, but it’s historical nonsense and strategic buncombe.

World War I started not as a result of local ethnic conflicts in the Balkans, but because the great powers of the day chose to intervene in those local conflicts. If there is any lesson for today to be drawn from the Balkans in 1914, it is surely that outsiders should refrain from getting entangled in Balkan wars! And as for World War II, its origins had nothing at all to do with the Balkans.

It is simply absurd to assert that Milosevic has threatened – or is in a position to threaten – any important American interest.

No, this war was a humanitarian mission, a war of good intentions driven by people who believe we have an obligation to do whatever it takes to uphold our values abroad and shape the world in our image.

You don’t have to be an isolationist to be skeptical of this viewpoint.

Americans like to think we can solve any problem. However, as much as we may wish it were otherwise, there are some problems, including 600-year-old ethnic conflicts in the Balkans, that simply cannot be solved by foreign military intervention. These ethnic groups have lived together peacefully only when their coexistence was imposed under foreign empires or the Tito dictatorship. Now, this latest war has brought these ancient hatreds to a fever pitch.

In this situation, it is arrogant nonsense to suppose that after a brief period of NATO occupation the Serbs and Albanians will somehow reconcile.

Expelling the Serbs from Kosovo does not bring peace to the Balkans. At a minimum, NATO forces will have to police two protectorates – Bosnia and Kosovo – for years, perhaps decades, to come. Macedonia and Albania are more unstable than ever. Serbia, the largest state in the region, is a devastated country inhabited by sullen people nursing bitter grievances, and still ruled – like Iraq – by a rogue leader with his political power and most of his forces intact. And the equally embittered Albanians, now returning to a Kosovo that is still a province of Serbia, are unlikely ever to be willing to give up their struggle for independence.

This is not peace but a prescription for continuing chaos and future wars throughout the region.

     Second, this war in Yugoslavia, where we have no interests, has undermined other, truly important American interests, including NATO’s deterrent value and our relations with Russia and China.

Madeleine Albright and other advocates of “humanitarian interventionism” have questioned why we would want to maintain strong military forces if we aren’t prepared to use them in situations such as Kosovo. They also ask, of what use is NATO, now that the Cold War is long over, if it isn’t prepared to go “out of area” to take military action beyond the borders of its members.

The answer is that strategic assets, such as military forces and military alliances, are much better possessed than used. Nuclear weapons are one example. NATO is another. That is, the reason NATO was successful in the Cold War is that it never had to fire a shot in anger. The whole point of its existence was to make its use unnecessary!

Now, by attacking Yugoslavia, a minor state that did not threaten its members, NATO has squandered its prestige, credibility and deterrent power. The secret of its incompetence to effectively wage this kind of war is out. Today, NATO is increasingly perceived by most of the rest of the world as an international bully, unwilling to risk casualties to its own forces while it mercilessly bombed the defenseless in the name of those it proved unable to defend.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a leading spokesman for this war and other moral crusades, has written, “Imagine how Saddam will react to this victory; imagine the reactions of other dictators who are tempted to resolve their political problems by terrorizing their own people…”

OK, let’s imagine. Are evil leaders now likely to say, “I had better not do nasty things”? Or, are they more likely to say, “I had better prepare to deter external interventions. And the cheapest, easiest way to do so is to acquire weapons of mass destruction.”

If NATO is unwilling to risk the lives of its professional warriors to prevent evil in another country, is it more likely to put its civilian populations at risk against an adversary who develops the ability to kill large numbers of people with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons? Is Saddam today likely to have become a kinder, gentler person, or is he more likely to be accelerating his campaign to acquire these kinds of weapons?

The sad truth is that the Kosovo war is unlikely to deter evil dictators from doing evil, and it may well promote the further proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

     Furthermore, as the war has diminished NATO’s deterrent power, it has at the same time increased the need for deterrence by provoking renewed hostility from Russia.

Former Russian Prime Minister and Balkans envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin has said the bombing of Yugoslavia set back U.S.-Russian relations by several decades. And respected Russian historian Roy Medvedev has written, “No single event in the last 50 years has provoked such fierce emotions in Russia as NATO’s bombing of Serbia.”

Chernomyrdin and Medvedev are representative of the pro-Western group in the Russian leadership. Statements of anti-Western Russian leaders are truly frightening.

Opinion polls showed 57 percent of Russians had a positive attitude about the United States before the bombing began, with 28 percent negative. Now those numbers are 14 percent positive and 72 percent negative. With an enfeebled President and elections scheduled for next year, such figures do not bode well for U.S.-Russian relations.

In fact, we can already see a shift in the political balance of power in Moscow and the emergence of a more assertive foreign policy, typified by the Russian military’s occupation of the Pristina airport in advance of NATO’s arrival in Kosovo.

How far will this shift go? Obviously, no one knows, including the Russians. However, Henry Kissinger has warned that hostility toward America and the West generated by the bombing “may produce a nationalist and socialist Russia – akin to the European Fascism of the 1930s.” Imagine a 21st Century Russian Hitler armed with nuclear weapons!

     As for China, the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade galvanized long-standing hostility to the war and created a ground swell of anti-American feeling that threatens three decades of improving Sino-American relations. Coming at a time when other problems were already causing increased tension, it aroused a fundamental, historic Chinese sensitivity: the feeling of humiliation at the hands of foreigners.

Viewed through a Chinese prism, a view shared by most of the world outside of Europe and North America, the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” evokes the 19th Century European ideas expressed by the British as the “white man’s burden” and by the French as their “mission civilizatrice,” a unilaterally proclaimed “civilizing mission.” This was the philosophical basis – some would say excuse – for the era of colonialism and a long series of Western interventions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Relations with Russia and China are of fundamental strategic importance to the United States. Yet, we have seriously jeopardized these relations in order to prosecute an entangling war in a region where we have no important interests.

     Now, let’s look at the question of American values. Did we have to fight this war, without regard to our interests, in order to uphold our values?

We certainly had good intentions: to prevent the evil of ethnic cleansing. But, as the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And in this case, a military campaign whose central objective was saving the lives and homes of Kosovo’s Albanians instead greatly accelerated and intensified their slaughter and dispossession.

NATO intelligence indicated that, as part of a stepped-up campaign against the KLA rebels, Milosevic was preparing for more ethnic cleansing even before the bombing began. However, the bombing caused him not to halt it but to vastly increase its scope and scale. There was no deterrence. No one was saved. And this outcome was not only predictable but predicted.

On March 23, our Balkans envoy Richard Holbrooke delivered our final ultimatum to Milosevic: accept the Rambouillet agreement or be bombed. As he was leaving Belgrade, according to the New York Times, he was asked if he feared that NATO’s air attacks would push the Serbs into even more vicious ethnic cleansing.

“That is our greatest fear by far, by far,” he replied.

Then, asked what NATO could do, operating only from the air, to prevent such a catastrophe, Holbrooke fell silent and shrugged.

The Times does not record whether or not he also washed his hands.

Before the bombing, about 2000 Kosovars had been killed, and some 50,000 had become refugees. By the time it ended, tens of thousands were dead; almost all the rest, 1.5 million people, were forced from their homes; and Kosovo was devastated both by the Serbs and by NATO. Almost all the horrors now being uncovered – the killings, the destruction – took place after the bombing began, not before it.

President Clinton and his advisors simply miscalculated Milosevic’s reaction to the bombing and were wholly unprepared to cope with the results. Moreover, they remained steadfastly unwilling to provide the means – ground troops – which were clearly necessary to achieve the proclaimed ends – protecting the Kosovar Albanians.

As Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer put it:

He who does not will the means does not will the ends….So let’s hear no more of the lofty motives, the moral feelings, the humanitarian impulses of those who have driven us – and the Albanians – into this debacle….This is not humanitarianism. This is cynicism: fighting not to win, not even to save, but to feel righteous.

There is no evidence that the bombing saved a single Kosovar from ethnic cleansing. It accidentally killed many of them, along with hundreds of innocent Serbs. It was surely successful in destroying Serb airplanes and tanks and bridges and factories. But this was not the purpose of the war. The purpose of the war was to protect the Kosovars. In this, it clearly failed. It turned a humanitarian crisis into a humanitarian catastrophe.

Some wars are necessary; some wars are just. This war was neither. As a former Air Force officer who now teaches at the Army War College pointed out, “It was technically excellent, but strategically bankrupt.”

But what’s done is done. The war has ended for now, and that’s better than its indefinite continuation.

Where do we go from here?

In the short term, the occupation forces must be fully deployed, the Kosovo Liberation Army must be demilitarized, the refugees must be returned home, and Kosovo must be re-built. These are all enormous challenges that will not be easily or quickly met. Risks of further disasters are high. But because of our leadership in the war, the U.S. must also play a role in the post-hostilities recovery. However, the Europeans should bear a much-increased share of that burden.

We also need urgently to rebuild our relations with Russia and China.

For the longer term – which in this case will probably be measured in decades rather than years – NATO’s disentanglement from the Balkans requires a solution to the problem of Serbia, a ruined, defeated country harboring grievances against all its neighbors. This is a massive political, economic and perhaps even military undertaking, in which we should insist that the Europeans take the lead.

And finally, we need to have a serious national political debate on the broader foreign policy question of humanitarian interventionism, or as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman expressed it, “about how we should react when bad things happen in unimportant places.”

You can guess from my previous remarks where I stand on this issue. I believe that humanitarian problems should evoke strong humanitarian responses, strong political responses, strong economic responses, and strong action by the international community to isolate and punish the perpetrators. War, however, is not the appropriate response to humanitarian problems. War should be a last resort, when important national interests as well as national values are at stake.

The Gulf War was a good example: Saddam Hussein’s attack on Kuwait represented a serious threat to the world’s oil supply, together with a clear act of international aggression against a friendly country. Moreover, we used overwhelming force, applied suddenly and decisively, not limited force applied incrementally as in Kosovo. The outcome, though less than perfect, was nonetheless a real victory, a victory that protected both our interests and our values.

As we look to what is likely to be an increasingly turbulent global future, in which there will be pressure for U.S. military intervention in many places for many reasons, will our paradigm for decision-making be based on Gulf War principles or on Kosovo War principles? There is no more important question for our nation to decide.

Let the debate begin!  

James R. Bullington currently is director of the Center for Global Business and Executive Education at Old Dominion University and a senior fellow at the U.S. Armed Forces Staff College. He was previously a career diplomat, U.S. ambassador, and dean of the Department of State’s highest level training program, the Senior Seminar. He is a graduate of Auburn and Harvard universities and the U.S. Army War College.

NOTE: The debate has already begun in the pages of this journal. Click here to read the rich exchange between the author and a former diplomatic colleague, Amb. Richard Matheron, in the Letters from Readers pages. ~Ed.


Photos courtesy of Associated Press © 1999

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