Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist Bloc, the states of Eastern Europe sought to reassert themselves as independent political entities. Milosevic presented many of his activities in a nationalist context. The moves toward "ethnic cleansing" were part of a larger campaign to solidify the new Yugoslavia as an ethnically homogenous Serb Christian state. The artificial order of Communism was going to be replaced by something of natural, domestic origin. The conflict between Christian and Muslim had been going on for centuries. Milosevic was merely attempting to achieve what others before him had not. Added to this particular brand of nativist reasoning was also the notion that Yugoslavia, along with other formerly communist Eastern European nations, should be permitted to govern its own affairs free of outside interference. At the time, in fact, many argued that a NATO intervention on the grounds of bringing a "better," democratic, and "more humanitarian" outlook to Yugoslavia, would only strengthen Milosevic's hand:
President Milosevic, who faced significant democratic opposition, can now pose as a defender of the Serbs' national integrity; the extreme nationalists and superannuated communists in Russia can portray NATO's actions as evidence of the west's arrogance and determination to humiliate their country.
NATO invasion could be linked to attempts on the part of the Western Bloc to expand its influence and control into Eastern Europe. The call for attacking the "barbarians" in Yugoslavia could redound to the detriment of true democrats and humanitarians. Russia, too, would not be pleased by direct Western intervention in its former sphere of influence.
The appeal to Slavic rights, on the part of Milosevic and his allies, would play well not only in Yugoslavia but in Russia with its long traditions of pan-Slavism. Russia, even in the days of the tsars had seen itself as the protector of Slavic peoples everywhere, and also of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Clinton's third rationale, that NATO must destroy Yugoslavia's ability to make war once more played to the nationalists in Yugoslavia and elsewhere. It could also easily be seen as stirring up anti-American, and anti-Western, sentiments in general. The United States was taking upon itself the role of "sole superpower," determining who could possess significant military capacity and who could not. Echoes of these arguments could be heard in the march to war in Iraq in 2002 and 2003. Opponents of NATO intervention could claim that countries had a right to decide for themselves whether to become part of the global order represented by the United States and its allies. American and NATO intervention would in this instance be but another outgrowth of Wilsonian interventionism - the empire of globalism that the forces of democracy and capitalism were endeavoring to impose on lands and peoples without such traditions or aspirations:
The American century was all about the separation of territorial and economic power; the rise of U.S. empire is premised on the disconnection between economy and politics understood in terms of the clearly demarcated arrangements of 'absolute' space."
American ideals were obliterating the older boundaries between nation-state and global community. In asserting their right to control the ethnic make-up and customs and laws of their nation, the Yugoslavians could be perceived as defending a long-standing system of international relations, one that pre-dated the two World Wars. Why shouldn't Yugoslavia be permitted to fashion its own destiny?
A similar argument could be applied within NATO itself. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was designed specifically to fight the threat of Soviet-sponsored Communism. Its very name implied the restriction of its activities to those territories fronting the North Atlantic Ocean. Though its membership had already been expanded in the days of the Cold War to include states, such as Turkey, that did not fit the geographical definition of the organization, its mission had, nevertheless; remained the same. Many could, and did, ask why an alliance the purpose of which was to prevent Communist aggression was now going to undertake military action against a minor state the activities of which did not present a direct threat to any of NATO's members. President Clinton sought a way around these objections,
By June 1998 [he]... was referring to the Kosovo crisis as not simply a humanitarian challenge and a foreign policy problem, but as also "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security [...] of the United States." At the same time, politically powerful imagery from the past, especially the need to learn from the failure of appeasement, was intertwined with the task of promoting the expanding agenda.
Kosovo was being tied into other American military adventures. The specter of Vietnam loomed especially large.
The American president was still struggling to find a role for American military power in a new, post-Cold War world. Vietnam had been fought in the name of rolling back the Communist advance. The United States had been defeated by militarily inferior local forces. In Western eyes, the "bad guys" had triumphed over the "good guys." NATO could be allowed its share of "mission creep" if the mission could somehow be depicted as a continuation of the same old battles. Those who opposed NATO interference would have disagreed. The United States was not fighting an existential enemy as Clinton insisted, but undertaking a role for which it had not been designed, nor intended. Was Bill Clinton struggling for a new role for an organization that should have ceased to exist with the death of Communism in Europe?
The various arguments presented for an against NATO intervention in Kosovo all carry considerable weight, yet, the profound humanitarian losses themselves cried out for action. Certainly, Yugoslavia, as other nations, should be allowed the freedom to determine its own destiny and form of government. Different peoples do possess different customs and laws. Still, the Muslim Kosovars had inhabited those lands for hundreds of years. True there had been fighting for nearly as long. Both sides had committed terrible atrocities. All the guilty parties should have been prosecuted. In the case of humanitarian violations, justice should have been blind, and the West should not have taken sides. but, in terms of the Conflict of the 1990s, it was not the Kosovars who had tried to remove or exterminate their rivals. Slobodan Milosevic and his associates undertook a deliberate and calculated policy of eliminating the Muslim community from their midst. The Nuremberg Trials and Tokyo war crimes trials had definitively established the principle that acts of horror and brutality cannot be committed against civilian populations during time of war. The republic of Yugoslavia had clearly launched a war against a segment of its own population - a population that had not risen up against the government, nor, without provocation, undertaken any violent acts against either the administration, or the Christian population in general.
The case for humanitarian intervention was obvious.
As for the expansion of NATO's mission, this can be overlooked in terms of conditions on the ground. NATO was not founded to undertake humanitarian missions. Its reason for being was gone with the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Communist Bloc. Nonetheless, NATO represented a convenient agglomeration of forces - a community of will - that could be used for humanitarian purposes. In the case of Kosovo, NATO chose to act when others would not. President Clinton pushed for intervention for many reasons, not all of which related to the well-being of the Muslim inhabitants of Kosovo. He sought to achieve long-standing American aims under the guise of global desires and generally-recognized humanitarian principles - principles to which previous Yugoslav governments had subscribed. Still the use of NATO remained necessary if Milosevic's depredations were to be stopped. Only by defeating Milosevic and destroying Yugoslavia's ability to make war, could the Kosovars be saved. NATO was the force available, and it was the force used. True international action would have been preferable, but under the circumstance, NATO intervention was all that could be achieved. The Kosovars did not deserve to die for Serb nationalism.
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