Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. This article draws on his testimony before the House International Relations Committee in early March.
The United States bestrides the world as a military colossus. By far the dominant global power, it is allied with every other major advanced industrialized state. America’s adversaries are poor, isolated, and pitiable: Cuba, Iraq, North Korea, and Yugoslavia.
But apparently Washington policymakers can’t stand the thought of living in peace. Traditionally, war has been considered a last resort. Yet this administration is implementing the most militaristic program in at least two decades. The President used U.S. troops to try to rebuild Somali society, bombed Serbian insurgents in Bosnia, warned of possible military action against North Korea, occupied Haiti, sent troops to Macedonia and Bosnia, has undertaken military exercises around the world, is conducting regular attacks on Iraq, and inaugurated aggressive war against Yugoslavia.
Obviously the administration, filled with high hubris, believed Belgrade to be an easy target. Washington was apparently convinced that it could impose an outside solution on an ancient ethnic conflict, micromanage a guerrilla insurgency, and unleash the dogs of war without their running wild.
The result was a disastrous miscalculation: the administration simultaneously magnified violence against ethnic Albanians and destabilized neighboring states. Yet U.S. officials responded to the charge that they failed to foresee the risks of their strategy by saying, essentially, yes we did. If true, the President was criminally negligent: he expected further attacks on Kosovars, massive refugee flows, and Serb intransigence, but did nothing to prepare for those consequences. Even he, one would hope, could not be so irresponsible.
It has oft been said that the world is a dangerous place, and it certainly is. But not particularly to the United States. Unfortunately, however, conflict does wrack many other countries around the world. There have been mass murders in Burundi, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan, and Uganda; brutal insurgencies in Angola, Congo, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, and Sri Lanka; bloody wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, India and Pakistan; endless civil war in Afghanistan; violent separatist campaigns in Iraq (Kurds), Mexico (Chiapans), Northern Ireland (Catholics), Russia (Chechens), Spain (Basques), and Turkey (Kurds); and varying strife in Burma, Georgia, India, Indonesia, Tajikistan, and elsewhere.
Then there is Kosovo. Without doubt, the situation is tragic. Yet the one constant of guerrilla insurgencies and civil wars is their brutality—by both sides. The Serbian government has caused many civilian casualties in Kosovo, but its conduct does not exist in a vacuum. Last June a U.S. diplomat in Belgrade told me: “If you’re a Serb, hell yes, the KLA [Kosova Liberation Army] is a terrorist organization.” Even ethnic Albanians admit that the KLA had targeted Serb policemen and other government employees, Serbs viewed as abusing Kosovars, as well as Albanian “collaborators.” Each cycle of violence spawned another.
The resulting suffering of Kosovars was obvious. Yet at least until NATO intervened, the fighting in Kosovo barely rose to the status of atrocity in today’s world. It certainly did not constitute genocide, a term now tossed around with wild abandon. At least three times as many people died in January alone in Sierra Leone as in Kosovo last year. Nearly as many people died in one three-day battle between Tamil guerrillas and the Sri Lankan government last fall as in Kosovo in all of 1998. By any normal standard, events in Kosovo are less important than those in many other nations around the world, where tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and even millions have died.
In 1991 the West encouraged the breakup of Yugoslavia. Then the United States and Europeans decided that Serbs were not entitled likewise to secede from Croatia and Bosnia, the latter of which burgeoned into a particularly bloody conflict. NATO eventually lent its air force to Muslims in Bosnia and helped impose the bizarre Dayton accord, under which three antagonistic groups are supposed to live together in an artificial state ruled by international bureaucrats. The same hypocrisy is being played out in Kosovo—Washington unreservedly supports Britain, Spain, and Turkey, for instance, in combating violent separatists, has placed no pressure on Macedonia to offer autonomy to its ethnic Albanians, and ignored massive ethnic cleansing of Serbs by Croats in 1995.
Indeed, contrast U.S. policy toward Turkey. Slobodan Milosevic is a demagogic thug. But the behavior of his government toward Albanians looks a lot like that of Turkey, a NATO member and U.S. ally participating in the assault on Yugoslavia, toward the Kurds. An oppressed people, the Kurds are seeking the right of self-determination. In response, Ankara destroys Kurdish villages and ruthlessly restricts civil liberties and political freedoms of Kurdish sympathizers. Some 37,000 Kurds have died over the last decade.
But the administration has voiced no outrage, proposed no bombing, demanded no occupation. To the contrary, Washington supplies the weapons Turkey uses to repress Kurdish separatists and apparently helped Ankara capture rebel head Abdullah Ocalan. There is much to criticize about Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, of course, but one could make similar judgments regarding the KLA. Hypocritical is perhaps the most charitable characterization of the administration’s policy. Although Washington need not act everywhere if it desires to implement a policy of humanitarian intervention, surely some objective standards are necessary. The administration has articulated none. In practice, Washington seems prepared to use military force under three conditions:
- those being killed are white Europeans;
- the perceived aggressor is not a U.S. ally; and
- there is saturation media coverage of the conflict.
This makes a mockery of the humanitarian pretensions advanced by Western leaders. Nor is there anything compassionate about sending others off to fight. It’s one thing to ask young men (and now young women) to risk their lives for their own political community. It is quite different for armchair warriors to treat them like gambit pawns to be sacrificed in some international chess game.
The administration’s faux humanitarianism creates severe practical problems as well. In particular, it encourages intensification of local conflict. Guerrillas like the KLA often undertake strikes in order to spark retaliatory atrocities that might bring outside intervention. Kosovar leaders long sought to influence media coverage. One activist admitted to me last summer that the prospect of NATO intervention “depends on how we look on CNN.”
Washington needs to return to the foreign policy of a republic, not an empire. It should be a shining city on a hill, an example to others, not the dictatress to the world.