Those calling on NATO to launch a humanitarian military intervention in Kosovo should consider that such action inadvertently could amplify the rate of killing.
While I have no sympathy for Slobodan Milosevic’s discriminatory policies or excessive counter-insurgency tactics, by recent regional standards, Serb forces in Kosovo have been relatively restrained in their use of force, apparently in an effort to avoid provoking a NATO response.
For perspective, the 1998 killing rate in Kosovo is approximately one-hundredth that in Bosnia in 1992—an estimated 700 dead during the present campaign compared to tens of thousands in the earlier ethnic cleansing.
If NATO intervenes on behalf of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo rebels, however, Serb forces would lose their main motivation for restraint and could well switch to genocidal tactics, killing many thousands of Kosovars before NATO stopped the violence. That is precisely what happened in Bosnia, and the same could happen in Kosovo.
If our goal really is to save lives, we should call on the rebels to lay down their arms and insist Milosevic reciprocate by halting his violent counter-insurgency. If the rebels do surrender, Milosevic probably would reciprocate, just as he eschewed excessive violence in Kosovo for nearly a decade, until the rebels started killing Serb police officers early this year.
If the rebels refuse to give peace a chance in this manner, why should we intervene on their behalf? If they embrace peace, but Milosevic persists in murder, only then would NATO intervention be justified—but on a grand scale, with tens of thousands of ground troops to guard against a genocidal backlash.
In some cases, military intervention is the best way to save lives. As yet, Kosovo is not one of them.