In July 1913, the chancellor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire received a written warning from his foreign minister not to try to solve the Serbian question by "force of arms." He ignored the advice. A year later, Austria declared war against Serbia. Four years after that, its empire went out of business.
Today, NATO, another multiethnic, multilanguage organization with an identity crisis, is riding a wave of popular revulsion over new atrocities toward military intervention in Kosovo. "Preparations are in full swing," announced a NATO spokesman, making the proposed hostilities sound like a homecoming dance, blissfully oblivious to history's warnings. This is typical of the modern style of diplomacy. Former Sen. Bob Dole, a tireless advocate of American military involvement in the region, dismisses history because it makes things "complicated."
This approach--willful ignorance of local conditions abetted by a canonical belief in the victory-delivering capability of military might--was favored by the top brass in Vietnam. It produced disaster there. Whether NATO can make it work better in Kosovo remains to be seen.
Kosovo is fearsomely complicated. This is not merely an excuse offered by opponents of military intervention, but a statement of the obvious fact that rational analysis should precede major decisions. Unless Western policy can resolve the Balkans' inherent complications, intervention risks making matters much worse, especially for the Kosovo Albanian refugees.
Some of the contradictions seem almost technical. For example, bombing is likely to fuel the fires of Kosovo's independence, a goal that the U.S. does not support. Further, NATO intervention in Kosovo directly contradicts the premise of multiethnic principles of the Dayton accords, which veto special treatment on ethnic grounds.
A much more serious objection, however, is that bombing directly serves Slobodan Milosevic, whom Congress earlier this year called "Europe's longest serving communist dictator." What country, when under attack from outside, does not rally to its leader? Look at Saddam Hussein. For Milosevic, the bombs cannot fall too soon. Likewise, he hopes Western sanctions will continue indefinitely. By turning daily life into a struggle for survival, they sap the energies of decent-minded people who might oppose him.
Some of Milosevic's democratic opponents, Bishop Artemije Radosavljevic of Kosovo and former Belgrade Mayor Nebojsa Covic, visited Washington last month to warn that bombing would play into Milosevic's hands and undermine their efforts. They made little progress. The "CNN factor" is too strong, they were told on Capitol Hill.
This gives the game away. NATO's plans are directed less at resolving the Kosovo crisis than at making the about-to-be-expanded alliance look relevant. As Defense Secretary William Cohen said at the Sept. 25 NATO conclave, "NATO's credibility is on the line." In effect, we are witnessing a NATO job search. And the results are entirely counterproductive. NATO's potential involvement has radicalized all sides in Kosovo, as was vividly illustrated by last week's attempted assassination of Sabri Hamiti, a pro-negotiation moderate close to the Kosovo Albanian leadership. In Belgrade, bombing will strengthen the hard men around Milosevic and sound the death knell of the brave Serbs who dare to oppose him.
Earlier this month, NATO leaders counseled Iran against armed intervention in Afghanistan. NATO is administering similarly cautious advice in other conflicts such as Nagorno-Karabakh and Congo. What is so different about the Balkans? Is it to do with the relative value placed on European as opposed to Asian and African lives?
This is not a prescription for inaction. Following the NATO meeting, Cohen went onto the inaugural session of the Southeast European Defense Ministerial. Taking place in the less glamorous but arguably more purposeful surroundings of Skopje, this grouping includes key countries with a real stake in the Balkans, including Italy, Greece, Albania and Turkey. They should be given the lead in delivering immediate humanitarian aid and undertaking the painstaking, low-profile mediation that might achieve a lasting settlement. This would also free NATO to concentrate on its prime mission of strategic defense. This is where NATO's credibility resides, not in TV-driven adventurism.