Kosovo Option: Conditional Surrender

While Bob Dole is justifiably outraged and saddened by the plight of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo [“We Must Stop the Kosovo Terror,” op-ed, Sept. 14], he neglects to examine the immediate causes of today’s conflict and, as a result, offers a prescription that would make the situation only worse.

The fact is that Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic eschewed ethnic cleansing in Kosovo for nearly a decade before Kosovar rebels began killing Serbian police early this year. To combat this perceived terrorism, he launched a disproportionate—but initially circumscribed—response that was regrettable but understandable. Indeed, the United States itself embraced such a policy in 1986, when it launched a sizable bombing raid on Libya in response to a terrorist attack that killed one American serviceman in Germany.

Belgrade’s initial crackdown, however, only enflamed Kosovar emotions, increasing rebel support at home and from expatriate donors. Such new resources—combined with hope inspired by NATO threats of intervention—emboldened the rebels to seize large swaths of territory. Milosevic, confronted by this rapidly growing rebel threat to his authority, then switched to the present scorched-earth, counterinsurgency policy.

While Milosevic’s tactics are appalling, the uncomfortable truth is that today’s refugees are thus a direct consequence of the initial rebel attacks.

Ironically, Dole decries efforts “to impose a moral equivalence between Serbian forces and the small band of Albanians who have taken up arms against them.” I agree, but for opposite reasons. Serbian forces responded to an acute provocation from “terrorists”—as U.S. officials labeled them at the time—and have succeeded in defending fellow Serbs. By contrast, the Kosovo rebels started a war they could not win and thereby caused the displacement of tens of thousands of their brethren. While their frustration at Belgrade’s rule is understandable, what could be more morally reprehensible than initiating actions that bring needless suffering on one’s own people?

Dole’s prescription—for the United States and NATO to pressure Milosevic to withdraw unilaterally from Kosovo as a prelude to negotiations—is a recipe for disaster. First, it is a non-starter for Milosevic, who knows such a withdrawal would prompt Kosovo’s secession. Even worse, Dole’s proposed hard line toward Milosevic would only encourage the rebels to stick to their guns, rather than compromise, in the continued hope of foreign intervention. The longer they fight, the more Milosevic punishes the villages in which they hide, making Kosovar civilians the real losers.

Others propose that NATO dispatch an occupation force to keep peace in Kosovo. While it might succeed, there are several reasons to avoid this option for now. First, it might only postpone the resumption of violence until Western forces tire and withdraw. In Bosnia, the jury is still out on this question. Second, we would be intervening in a civil war prior to the signing of any peace treaty, making it more like Somalia—where U.S. troops became targets of combatants—than Bosnia. Third, and perhaps most important, such intervention would reward the Kosovo rebels for their terrorist tactics, as their strategy all along has been to provoke a sufficiently large Serbian crackdown to draw in the West. By falling for it, we would encourage similar extremism by secessionists around the world.

There is a better solution. The United States immediately should call on the Kosovo rebels to surrender—on the condition that Milosevic will, in return, cease his military crackdown and continue negotiating autonomy. Dole rejects such talks as asking victims “to negotiate with those who are attacking them.” But it was the extremist rebels who initiated the current tragedy, making it their responsibility to resolve it. If the rebels refuse, they do not deserve Western intervention and should be left to suffer the consequences. If Kosovo’s public disagrees with the rebels, it could reduce its own suffering by ceasing to provide them haven.

I hope, however, the rebels would take up the offer. Then, if Milosevic rejected it or accepted it in bad faith by renewing his campaign of ethnic cleansing, he would reveal himself an unprovoked aggressor in Kosovo. At that point, NATO intervention would be justified.

More likely, however, Milosevic would accept the deal, as it would return Kosovo essentially to the status quo ante. Dole rightly criticizes such an outcome as not “just, permanent or democratic.” On the other hand, this strategy could end the violence, avert an impending humanitarian disaster, and hold open the possibility of real autonomy when and if progressive leaders arise in Belgrade.

As Dole used to say on Capitol Hill, we should not make the perfect the enemy of the good.