Politics & Policy

Kosovo: Why I Say


I’ve been re-thinking this whole Kosovo mess, partly because of some very thoughtful critiques from readers, partly because this thing is a mess and clear thinking takes time. So please bear with me.

We are constantly being told that Yugoslavia is at a historic crossroads between many cultures, religions, and peoples. That’s all true. But that is a conclusion drawn from a two-dimensional map.

The more apt metaphor, I think, is that Kosovo is a black hole, bending perceptions, gravity, and most especially, time. That’s what Kosovo is — a crossroads in time. The closer you get to it, the more sense that makes. My first hand experience is obviously pretty limited. I was in Belgrade briefly in 1991, and it felt like I was on the set of Dr. Zhivago. Just walking from the train station to the heart of town, I felt like I was going through literal time zones. One moment I was looking at men in ancient-looking uniforms getting off trains. They had eye-patches and bandaged limbs. A few minutes later I was getting a Coke at a McDonalds. And five minutes after that I was in an Orthodox church watching old ladies praying for their sons. They looked just like old ladies from 500 years ago, praying for their sons. When I lived in Prague, I knew several refugees from Yugoslavia. They talked like they escaped not a place, but a time.

George Will likes to invoke the observation that the Balkans produce more history than they can consume domestically. I think that has it exactly backwards. The Balkans consume history on a colossal scale. Their insatiable hunger pulls in other nations — they export nothing. Modern states across Europe and across the Atlantic are being yanked backwards in time. Our leaders are talking about ethnic hatreds and grievances that are centuries old. For example, across Washington, policymakers are reading up on something called the Kosovo Polje, the Field of Blackbirds, where in 1389(!) the Serbs (along with Bulgarians and Wallachians, now known as Romanians) got wiped out by the Turks. As a rule of thumb, conflicts are complicated, if you feel the need to bone up on 610-year-old atrocities.

We are speaking in the languages of dead empires. We are justifying action because of mistakes made 85 years ago. President Clinton is competing with and comparing himself to Woodrow Wilson and Winston Churchill. That is my first major problem with this dirty little war; much of it can be ascribed to Bill Clinton’s ego. Last night in his address to the nation, Clinton asked, “Just imagine if leaders back then had acted wisely and early enough. How many lives could have been saved? How many Americans would not have had to die?” I for one do not relish spilling American blood, so Bill Clinton can dryclean his embarrassments by saying he prevented World War III. Besides, Milosevic is a terrible thug and murderer, but he is no Hitler.

Hitler brought history to other countries on tank treads. The only countries Milosevic has “invaded” are territories that only a decade ago were considered sovereign Yugoslavian territory. The boundaries of the “former Yugoslavia” are today considered the outer-reaches of some despicable “Greater Yugoslavia.” That doesn’t mean hundreds of thousands of innocents should be slaughtered to recapture the glory that was Tito. Still, the idea that Milosevic is capable of one day invading even Albania is, I think, nuts. He is, however, not only capable, but on the verge of dragging Albania (and Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, and others) into the historical vacuum of the Balkans. Which of course is the real problem. The black hole needs to be plugged.

People who say this is none of our business, today, right now, are wrong. On the practical level, the United States — rightly or wrongly — has put its credibility on the line. We made a threat and now we’ve got to back it up. The question of whether we were right to make the threat is academic now. This is where we are.

Strategically, of course, this is simply a mess. To do nothing is to allow Europe to be slowly pulled by the Balkan riptide. The longer that continued, the harder it would be for us to avoid getting involved. But to bomb without ground troops or a real objective may be like struggling in quicksand and may only exacerbate things. In one way or another, America has fought every major war since World War II in half-measures. I see no reason to think half-measures will work here either. Indeed, the Balkan black hole may draw us back to a time when we recognized that wars are not as sanitary as the casual lobbing of cruise missiles from a safe distance. But even at the end of the millennium, inaction justified out of a reluctance to “fight dirty” is dangerously self-indulgent. The stakes are too high; European stability and the integrity of NATO are too important to risk on the altar of principled isolationism. And then there is pesky morality. If you see an old lady being beaten up across the street, it is your obligation to stop it. We cannot pretend we do not see what is going on in Yugoslavia. We have been condemning it for a decade now. Just because there are risks doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. To say we should only enter conflicts we are 100% sure are risk free is to say we should never enter conflicts at all. That doesn’t mean we can or should interfere in every bit of nastiness everywhere. If it did, we would be bombing China right now because of Tibet; Russia because of Chechnya; and we’d be threatening Canada with sanctions over Quebec. One must take measure about what can be done versus the comparative horror of the offense. Concentration camps in Europe seem to qualify.


On a personal note, I would like to answer one criticism that a few readers have offered. Some of you think that I have no moral authority to endorse military action because the blood that will be spilled is not my own. It’s a fair point to a point and no farther. To say that those not at risk can never make judgments about sending American troops into harm’s way is an intellectually and morally flawed proposition. Why have civilian control of the (all-volunteer) military at all? Why should women, old men, or the handicapped ever be allowed to testify before Congress on matters of national security? Quite frankly, it is moral bullying of a high order to say that someone has no right to express an opinion on such issues unless he is where the bullets fly. Indeed, if the only people making decisions or voicing opinions were the people in foxholes, there would almost never be people in foxholes.

If I speak or have spoken too glibly about American lives, I apologize. I’ve never served in the military and my life is not on the line in Kosovo — or anywhere else. And, if you think I need anybody else to point that out to me, you are woefully mistaken. And if you think that disqualifies me or anybody else from speaking on these issues — you might as well turn off your TVs, throw away your modems, and stop buying the newspaper.


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