Foreign Policy

How Kosovo Buried The Bush Doctrine


After a lingering illness, the Bush Doctrine shuddered and died shortly after Sept. 26. On that day, advancing Yugoslav (read: Serb) troops arrived in the village of Gornje Orbrinje, in the lower Drenica Valley of Kosovo, and massacred a family of 18 women, children and old people who were fleeing for their lives. The victims were shot in the head at close range, mutilated and thrown into a gorge. Four days later, a ghastly image of the bodies seared the front pages of newspapers around the world.

In Kosovo, Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic had set out to crush a violent rebellion by the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army, using the ancient method that Tacitus ascribed to the Romans: "They make a desert and call it peace." For NATO, the Serb massacres were the last straw. In early October, NATO put a gun to Milosevic's head, threatening him with air strikes if he did not withdraw from Kosovo. Milosevic agreed to reduce (but not eliminate) his forces in Kosovo, a commitment that will be verified by 2,000 unarmed interobservers and by NATO reconnaissance flights. This week, for the first time, Milosevic seemed to be getting serious about actually withdrawing troops. Next year, according to the deal, there will be some kind of elections, aimed at some sort of local autonomy for the Kosovars.

Milosevic dislikes the deal he was forced to sign, and he will take every opportunity to undermine it. The Kosovar rebels also dislike the deal, because it denies them the independence they want. The guerrillas are already reoccupying military positions from which the Serbs had bloodily dislodged them. But the killing has stopped for a while. The price is that NATO is in Kosovo up to its eyeballs.

To those who wearily track Balkan butchery, it all sounds so tediously familiar. The situation in Kosovo, however, is worth a moment's extra reflection, for it does not fit the standard Balkan pattern in one important respect. Although Kosovo's 2 million people are 90 percent ethnic Albanians, the region itself is a part of Yugoslavia, whose dominant Serbs claim ancient ties to it. Milosevic's government may be brutal, stupid and inept, but its sovereignty over Kosovo is not in doubt. Under the Bush Doctrine, this was a distinction with a difference.

The Bush Doctrine–actually, more a disposition than a doctrine–held that the great powers should care much more about aggression across established borders than about aggression within them. Like other foreign policy rules of thumb, this was sometimes observed in the breach (Bush invaded Panama, which hadn't invaded anybody). Also like other foreign policy rules, it was flawed, especially from a moral point of view. Does China send tanks to crush peaceful students in Tiananmen Square? Then protest dutifully, but shrug and send a top adviser to sip wine with the Chinese leadership. Does Saddam Hussein gas the Kurds of Iraq? Ugly, of course, but his business. But when Saddam traduces the Kuwaiti border–this will not stand!

Why fetishize the lines on a map? If Germany had set out to murder all its Jews, but without first invading Poland, should the world have settled for tut-tuts and economic sanctions? What about Rwanda, where the world did stand idly by?

Thanks partly to problems like those, the Bush Doctrine lost the 1992 elections. President Bush on Bosnia (Aug. 7, 1992): "I do not want to see the United States bogged down in any way into some guerrilla warfare. . . . There are a lot of voices out there in the United States today that say use force, but they don't have the responsibility of sending somebody else's son or somebody else's daughter into harm's way. And I do." Candidate Bill Clinton (Aug. 5, 1992): "With United States support, (the United Nations) needs to consider doing whatever it takes to stop the slaughter of civilians. . . . I would begin with air power against the Serbs to try to restore the basic conditions of humanity."

Bushism would have kept its distance from Bosnia; Clintonism as advertised would have gone in. Clintonism, as delivered, dithered. An arms embargo stripped Bosnia's besieged Muslims of the means to defend themselves, and a U.N. peacekeeping force on the ground effectively shielded Bosnian Serb forces from air strikes. Between 1992 and 1995, as the Western allies issued one hollow threat after another, the Bosnian Serbs committed atrocities, won the war and split up the country.

NATO, to its credit, does not want to repeat the Bosnian mistake in Kosovo. But in Kosovo things are a bit different. In Bosnia, Milosevic was a neighboring imperialist; in Kosovo, he is the sovereign, brutally (and successfully) crushing a rebellion within his own borders. Here, at last, Bushism and humanitarianism collide head-on. Stay out? Or go in?

The case for jumping in decisively, as NATO has done, rests on the established fact that Milosevic is a wily bully to whom bombs are more persuasive than arguments. Even if–or, rather, when–the Kosovo deal disintegrates, the time that NATO has bought has already saved some lives, and may allow some of the area's 300,000 or so refugees to return to their homes (if their homes have not been razed by Milosevic's forces). Good. Yet doubts linger. Despite everything, there is still a case for Bushism, because the promises it makes are ones it can keep.

The world is full of brutal regimes and oppressed peoples; the threat of force can be invoked only spottily and backed up only occasionally. Perhaps even spotty humanitarian intervention is better than none at all? Maybe, but maybe not. Foreign intervention can curtail bloodshed, but it can also foment instability. The Kosovar rebels were too weak to win on their own, and rebelled partly with the hope of attracting NATO's support. "I wish NATO had bombed them," one young Kosovar woman told The Washington Post, speaking of the Serbs. "Bombed them back to hell." Does the threat of force, then, make the world more or less stable? More or less humane? Impossible to know.

We do know, though, that lending support is easier than withdrawing it. Foreign force is all that holds the Dayton accords together in Bosnia; if NATO leaves, the war resumes. The same would probably be true in Kosovo. Even a great power can keep its eye on only a few foreign involvements, as America is discovering just now. Iraq, having been threatened with bombing as recently as February, is now cheerfully spitting in the eye of the U.N. Security Council's arms inspectors. "Now inspectors can't go anywhere unannounced, and the United States and Britain offer little but muffled complaints," reports the Associated Press. Why? "Washington and London have delegated negotiations on the impasse to the U.N. chief while they deal with Kosovo and the Middle East peace process." If Milosevic's loss is Saddam Hussein's gain, is that a win?

Moreover, there is a moral price for a halfhearted humanitarian intercession, and humanitarian intercessions are always halfhearted, because Americans value a single American life at a hundred or a thousand times the price of a foreign life. That may be wrong, but it is a fact, and the Milosevics of the world know it well. The Serbs will use the 2,000 unarmed monitors as either hostages or human shields. The Kosovars may do the same. To assume moral responsibility for Kosovar lives without committing American lives is a recipe for the sort of fiddling around that so bloodied the allies' hands in Bosnia.

Pessimists expect Milosevic to use his remaining forces in Kosovo to harass the guerrillas, who will use NATO's protection as cover for military entrenchments, while NATO dashes hither and yon issuing warnings, demanding withdrawals and generally trying to administer a local war. Optimists will say that NATO can bring some stability and save some lives. The optimists may be right: Among those who finally rejected the Bush Doctrine in Kosovo was none other than George Bush. Fearing that a conflict there could ignite a larger regional war, shortly after Christmas of 1992 he quietly warned Milosevic to leave Kosovo alone, on pain of U.S. military action.

Still, using American muscle and bluster to prevent an attack is not quite the same as parachuting into a battle that is in full swing. In Kosovo, NATO now launches a policy of great consequence. National borders, says NATO, will no longer be sanctuaries for tyrants.

An admirable promise–until it is broken. The Bush Doctrine, whatever its shortcomings, was a crude proxy for a useful insight: Wars can be started to save foreign families from massacres, but they can be sustained only on grounds of national interest. Bushism was not a very good policy, but it was a defensible and realistically modest one–a flawed policy for a flawed world. It deserved two cheers, or maybe one and a half. So let us pause to remember its unlovely virtues, as it passes into history.