Kosovo: "Twas a Famous Victory"

Mackubin T. Owens

July 1, 1999

Kosovo suggests that in the Age of Clinton, victory ain’t what it used to be. During the Vietnam War, we used to laugh and wonder why Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon didn’t just declare victory and bring the troops home. We knew the answer, of course. If the stated objective of the war wasn’t achieved, then one couldn’t claim victory. And this meant up until the very end. I have a bumper sticker on my car that says, referring to Vietnam, “I don’t know what happened! When I left we were winning.” Of course, we didn’t win, and my ironic bumper sticker doesn’t change that unpleasant fact.

Through most of our history, we knew what victory meant: the independence of the United States from Britain; the capture of Mexico City, the recognition of the current boundary of Texas, and the cession (with compensation) of territory; the extinction of the Southern Confederacy and the abolition of slavery; the defeat of Spain in one war and of the Central Powers led by Germany in another; the destruction of the Axis Powers; the collapse of the Soviet Union; and the abandonment of Kuwait by Iraqi forces. Since the
Republic of Korea survived as a political entity, even the Korean War was a victory, although in the aftermath of the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan, it did not seem so at the time.

What about Kosovo? On March 24, President Clinton declared the objectives of NATO’s war against Yugoslavia on behalf of the Kosovars (although, of course, it was not called a war). “Our mission is clear: to demonstrate the seriousness of NATO’s purpose so that the Serbian leaders understand the imperative of reversing course; to deter an even bloodier offensive against innocent civilians in Kosovo; and, if necessary, to seriously damage the Serbian military’s capacity to harm the people of Kosovo.”

To claim victory, it would seem necessary to have achieved these goals. But we have achieved no such thing. Instead, there are thousands of dead Kosovars and nearly a million refugees. There is widespread destruction in both Serbia and Kosovo. The southern Balkans have been stabilized. These outcomes are the result of a monumental miscalculation on the part of President Clinton and his allies. He expected that Milosevic would throw in the towel after a few days of desultory bombing, and if not, he could turn
to the approach that had served him well in his confrontations with Saddam Hussein, claiming success on the basis of a list of targets struck with stand-off weapons.

But Bill Clinton was busted by television. The cameras were there to record the human misery inflicted on the Kosovars by the Serbs even as the target list was being “serviced” in an air campaign so reminiscent of the incremental approach discredited in Vietnam that the same aviators who were required to execute it referred to it as “Rolling Blunder.” One is reminded of the observation by the Roman historian Tacitus about the Roman way of war: “They made a wasteland and called it peace.”

It was hard to spin a victory after a week of air strikes as the refugees streamed out of Kosovo, providing credible accounts of increasing, not decreasing atrocities committed by Serbs against Kosovars. Given the outcome, it is still hard to credit NATO with victory in Kosovo.

Of course, we have not even gotten to the agreement with Milosevic, whom NATO has made a partner in yet another Balkans peace agreement, even after the International Criminal Tribunal indicted him as a war criminal. Does NATO’s “victory” require Milosevic to abide by the Rambouillet agreement he rejected in February? Hardly.

There is now no provision for a future referendum to settle Kosovo’s political status. Indeed, Milosevic is assured of a NATO commitment to Yugoslavia’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The Kosovars, on whose behalf this war presumably was undertaken, might be forgiven for thinking it strange that this agreement makes NATO the long-term guarantor of Yugoslavian sovereignty over Kosovo.

Rambouillet also stipulated that the peacekeeping force in Kosovo would be an all-NATO force. This provision has disappeared, and if there were any doubts that Russia expected to be rewarded for brokering the agreement, they were exploded by the Russian coup de main against the airport in Pristina.

On the other hand, NATO is still required by the agreement to “demilitarize” (disarm) the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), achieving for Milosevic one of his major objectives in Kosovo. But the fighters of the KLA understandably may be reluctant to give up their weapons as part of an agreement that affirms Yugoslavia’s sovereignty over Kosovo. Attempts to enforce this provision may put NATO peacekeepers in harm’s way, leading to a situation reminiscent of Somalia, in which the very people they are supposed to help subject the peacekeepers to guerrilla attacks.

Finally, as Clausewitz reminds us, war is never final. “The defeated state often views the outcome as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date.” In the meantime, Milosevic has a number of options available to him for increasing the cost to NATO of its foray into the Balkans. He could attempt to destabilize the pro-Western regime in the Republic of Montenegro. He could threaten the Hungarian minority in the Yugoslav province of Vojvodina.

The consequences of Mr. Clinton’s “victory” extend far beyond the Balkans. First, the positions of Russia and China, two potential adversaries have been strengthened vis a vis the United States as a result of the president’s Balkan blunder. Second, US forces, already stretched thin by the combination of open-ended commitments and force reductions, will be stressed even further as a result of the requirement to participate in the Kosovo peacekeeping effort.

Third, President Clinton, confirmed in his belief that “immaculate wars” in which the US suffers no casualties are the wave of the future, may be inclined to misuse military force. And finally, the constitutional separation of powers has been thrown out of balance. George Bush asked for congressional approval before he launched the war against Iraq. President Clinton has ignored Congress, and the Democrats, who used to draw the flawed War Powers Act like a gun against Ronald Reagan, remain silent.

If anything, congressional Republicans have behaved even more contemptibly than their Democratic counterparts. Cowed by President Clinton’s popularity and spooked by polls, they have said little and done nothing to defend Congress’s war power, the real one found in Article One of the Constitution. The Republicans are reminiscent of the Whig congressman, who, having witnessed the disappearance of the Federalist party after it opposed the War of 1812, withdrew his opposition to the Mexican War, remarking that he now favored “war, pestilence, and famine.”

The outcome of a war must be judged, not on the basis of a publicist’s spin, but according to its consequences. Good intentions are not enough. The benefits of the war must exceed the costs. Even a costly victory can be justified by the outcome. America’s most costly war was the Civil War, but most conclude that the benefits justified the cost. The benefits of NATO’s war against Yugoslavia do not exactly jump out at us. While allied casualties were non-existent, the unintended costs of the war, not only in the Balkans but also to American institutions, will be with us for years.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.