The Indianapolis News
April 1, 1999
Alan W. Dowd

The United States is at war around and above tiny Kosovo, a Connecticut-sized swath of Yugoslavia populated by ethnic Albanians. Now that the West has summoned the courage to join the battle, many are asking, "Why Kosovo?"

At its core, the case for Kosovo is the case against Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic, Europe’s only dictator. In 1989, soon after he ascended to power, Milosevic made an incendiary speech about Kosovo, promising to reclaim it for the Serb people. In the decade between now and then, he has tried to make good on that promise.

Before Milosevic’s war began, there were two million Kosovars, 90% of them Albanian. They lived under a system of autonomy, which happily kept their ancient Serb rivals at arm’s length. But Milosevic steadily revoked their autonomy, first with decrees, then police, then tanks. He has always been the aggressor. In fact, the Kosovars didn’t begin to talk about independence until they saw what Milosevic was doing in Bosnia.

Today, they are under the heel of Serbian nationalism, and a quarter of them are gone. Thousands are dead; most are refugees. Friendless and homeless, they now survive in the hills overlooking their burning villages or in the sanctuary of neighboring countries.

Kosovo is just a piece of Milosevic’s Greater Serbia. Remember, it was Milosevic who tore Yugoslavia apart by not allowing Slovenia to take its seat in the country’s rotating presidency. It was Milosevic who lit the fuse in Croatia and Bosnia by arming the Serb minorities in those countries. It was Milosevic who "cleansed" Bosnia of two million Muslims, butchering 250,000 of them. It was Milosevic who stoked the flames in Kosovo.

NATO and the White House sat idle during much of the Bosnian phase of Milosevic’s war. They were rightly criticized for not intervening. As the bodies piled up in Bosnia, President Bush did send a secret communique to Belgrade, explicitly warning Milosevic to keep his hands off Kosovo. President Clinton continued that policy. Milosevic heeded the warnings until last year.

As Milosevic carved up Bosnia, pundits and politicians asked, "What’s NATO for, if not to defend innocent people in the heart of Europe?" Ironically, many of those who criticized NATO for being weak, feckless, and irrelevant in Bosnia now criticize the alliance for being reckless, thoughtless, and hyperactive in Kosovo.

Those who level such a charge at NATO and the president have a responsibility to tell us their solution. If doing nothing in Bosnia was wrong and doing something in Kosovo is wrong as well, then what is right?

It’s a hard question because this is a hard issue. The president has had difficulty outlining our interests in Kosovo. There are no tangible, immediate threats to U.S. interests in Yugoslavia. There is no oil there; no American bases have been bombed, no ships sunk, no citizens threatened. But that doesn’t mean the Balkans are void of American interests.

The stability and peace of Europe have always been in our national interests. If European peace is threatened by Milosevic’s wars, then America itself is threatened. The threat may be distant, but it is real.

When Europe went to war in 1914, we were certain it would not affect us. And we didn't act until hundreds of Americans were killed on the open seas. By 1917, our boys were in the trenches.

The Germans were a threat long before they invaded Poland. Four years earlier, Hitler daringly and illegally occupied the Rhineland. Postwar treaties authorized the allies to intervene. But we did nothing.

The Japanese, too, telegraphed their moves. We knew their intentions while they were still relatively weak, when they raped Nanking and slaughtered 300,000 Chinese in 1937.

We could have acted against Stalin before he sealed off Eastern Europe, when he lacked the means to blackmail and checkmate us with atomic bombs. But we didn’t.

We didn’t act because, in each case, we defined our interests narrowly and shortsightedly. Had we done the same in 1990, the United States would not have gone to war over Kuwait. Contrary to popular belief, most of Kuwait’s oil goes to Europe, not the United States. America's oil comes mainly from this hemisphere and Saudi Arabia. Iraq attacked neither in August 1990.

Nor would we have formed NATO. The Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe had no direct impact on the people of the United States. The Soviets never touched a square inch of America.

Foreign policy is often based on hard-learned lessons from the past. We saw in Bosnia Milosevic’s methods and goals. We saw how they frayed our alliance and pierced our conscience. And we learned in Bosnia to intervene early, in order to prevent genocide.

Milosevic is not Hitler; the president overstates badly in comparing them. But his methods—and the long-term impact they could have on Europe—are similar. Had we averted our gaze from Kosovo, NATO’s credibility—already weakened during the Bosnian war—would have been obliterated, throwing open the door to other ethnic wars, launched by other dictators, in the name of other hatreds.

The West tried to help in Rwanda, and failed. The West tried to help in Somalia, with an overwhelming military force and a completely selfless mission, and failed.

However, when NATO intervened in Milosevic’s war on Bosnia, the war ended. These lessons have not been lost on the Clinton Administration. Bill Clinton’s foreign policy has been haphazard, undisciplined, and misguided. But just as a bad gardener can sometimes raise a good crop, so too can a bad president sometimes choose the right policy. The president has done exactly that in Kosovo.

War is much easier to start than stop, but one fact should never be overlooked: Milosevic and his followers started this war. NATO did not trigger the pogrom in Kosovo; Milosevic had been planning a spring offensive for months. When this war ends, the destruction, the bodies, and the blood will be at his feet.

A Proverb admonishes, "Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act." The Kosovars deserve our help, and it is definitely within our power to act.