Why We Bomb You


"Pressed about the Albanians, Mile…cites the purging of 200,000 Serbs from the Krajina region of Croatia in just a few days when Croatian forces recaptured Serbian-held territory there in 1995. `The Americans did nothing,' he said.

"`So where were the Americans when the Croats were killing Serbs in Krajina?' he asked. `Why didn't NATO bomb Zagreb?'"

–The New York Times, April 19, 1999

Dear Mile,

Bombs, NATO's bombs, bombs dispatched from a safe distance by my country and its allies, fall around your house at night. Your little daughter Sara, who likes Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers, sleeps in the basement, cowering as the house shakes and the walls crack. The Times, which does not give your last name, says you are 37 and live with your wife and two children in a suburb of Belgrade. Asked about Kosovo and the war, you parrot the Yugoslav government's propaganda nonsense. But then you say something that is quite true. The United States and NATO stood with their hands in their pockets when Croatia "cleansed" great multitudes of Serbs in 1995.

Your question deserves an answer, if there is one; and the Americans also deserve an answer, if we are to make sense of our policy. Why intervene to save the Albanians of Kosovo when the Serbs of the Krajina were ignored?

I can think of a glib answer and a crass answer, both of them correct but inadequate. The glib answer is: "Since when are Milosevic and his butchers entitled to engage in moral quibbling?" The crass answer was stated with icy brilliance by Irving Kristol back in 1990: "The truth is that, not only does our foreign policy have a double standard with regard to what is now called `human rights,' but we have a triple and quadruple standard as well. Indeed, we have as many standards as circumstances require–which is as it should be."

True, and true. Still, inasmuch as both of those replies relieve Americans of the obligation to think about what we are doing to you and Sara, neither will suffice. So your question stands. Why Kosovo but not the Krajina?

The Krajina, which means "military frontier," runs along the eastern border of Croatia, adjoining Bosnia. It was inhabited by ethnic Serbs for centuries, and parts were majority- Serb. In 1990, the nationalist government of Croatia, under Franjo Tudjman, moved to break away from Yugoslavia. Alarmed at being stranded under a hostile and repressive regime, nationalist Serbs of the Krajina rebelled and seceded from Croatia. They then set about violently driving out Croats, in what turned out to be a preview of Serbs' behavior throughout Bosnia. All this they were able to do because they enjoyed the help of Milosevic and his Yugoslav army.

For four years, as war raged in Bosnia, the Croatian government bided its time and gathered strength. On Aug. 4, 1995, 100,000 Croatian troops launched a sudden and overwhelming strike into Krajina: Operation Storm. Milosevic simply abandoned his Croatian Serb brothers, and within days, while the West was still rubbing its eyes, the Croats had retaken the Krajina. The region's ethnic Serbs, as many as 200,000, were now streaming in desolation toward Bosnia and Serbia, as Croats lined the roads to curse and spit at them. Empty villages and burned houses and piles of abandoned possessions were left behind.

Until Kosovo, this was the biggest (though not the most brutal) ethnic cleansing of the Balkan wars. The Croatians denied having any policy of cleansing, but in March of this year, reports The Times, the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague concluded that "the Croatian Army carried out summary executions, indiscriminate shelling of civilian populations, and `ethnic cleansing.' " In a report leaked to The Times, the tribunal's investigators said: "In a widespread and systematic manner, Croatian troops committed murder and other inhumane acts upon and against Croatian Serbs."

And where was the West? During the Krajina offensive, American and European officials warned Croatia not to go too far, but they conspicuously declined to threaten sanctions. The signal to Tudjman was described as a "yellow-light approach," or even an "amber light tinted green." According to news accounts, Madeleine K. Albright, who was then the American ambassador to the United Nations, was among those who argued in 1995 that the Croatian offensive could not be stopped and might bring some benefits. Today, as Secretary of State, Albright is particularly vocal in her advocacy of force to project humane values in Kosovo.

Which Albright is to be preferred, yesterday's or today's? Maybe yesterday's. The Croatian advance in 1995 rolled back the Serbs' gains in Bosnia, lifted the Serb siege of the United Nations' "safe haven" in Bihac, and generally put belligerent Serb forces on the defensive. The Krajina offensive was a terrible thing, and it was also a very useful thing. The Dayton peace agreement of November 1995 owed its viability to the Croatian offensive.

But your question still nags. Why shrug in the Krajina but bomb in Kosovo?

One answer is that the Kosovo cleansing is the greater monstrosity. In Krajina, the flight of the Serbs appears to have been at least partly, if not largely, a by-product of military action (although, to be sure, a desirable by-product, from the Croatians' point of view). By contrast, in Milosevic's Kosovo operation, as one NATO diplomat puts it, "the civilian population is the military objective." The distinction between victimizing civilians and targeting them would, no doubt, strike your daughter Sara as a fine one, but it is worth preserving nonetheless.

Still, that distinction alone does not quite suffice. For it is entirely possible that the Milosevic regime's startling brutality in Kosovo is a fact in which NATO is itself implicated. We know that, even absent NATO's military involvement, Milosevic was preparing a large attack on Kosovo (which, recall, is part of his country). But what kind of offensive would he have mounted if NATO had kept its planes on the ground?

We will never know, but certainly the air war gave Milosevic every reason to roll up Kosovo quickly and ruthlessly, before the bombing debilitated him. The bombing also gave him every reason to displace rivers of civilians, both to give NATO headaches in neighboring Albania and Macedonia and to provide human shields for his troops in Kosovo. Without the bombing, the West might have used its sway in Kosovo much as it did in the Krajina: to restrain an ethnic cleansing that it could not stop. Milosevic might have conducted a lightning military sweep against the Kosovo Liberation Army and its sympathizers, in which civilians might have been victimized rather than targeted.

But for NATO's intervention, in other words, Kosovo might have looked like the Krajina–which NATO tolerated. If that is the case (though who knows?), then NATO's access of rectitude in Kosovo has cost many innocent lives.

No moral clarity there. So we are back, once again, where we began. Why Kosovo but not the Krajina?

Because, Mile, the Krajina campaign worked. It made peace possible, and the gain was worth the cost. Tudjman's action ended a war, whereas Milosevic's action threatened to start one.

The allies say they are fighting in Kosovo because the wholesale cleansing of a civilian population is intolerable, but we know, from the Krajina, that the wholesale cleansing of a civilian population is only sometimes intolerable. What we are really bombing your city for, Mile, is peace.

You laugh, bitterly. Bombs for peace? Your daughter cowering in the basement, for peace? Yes: just so. And just as the Krajina action was tolerable because it worked, so the bombing of your city (and possibly the invasion of your country and the killing of some of your countrymen, and some of mine) will be tolerable–if it works.

"Working," in this instance, does not necessarily mean imposing the terms of the Rambouillet agreement (absurd now, despite NATO's insistence), or escorting all or even most of the Albanian refugees back to secure homes in Kosovo, or keeping Kosovo unpartitioned, or putting Milosevic out of business. Those things would be nice, but they are not essential. Rather, what is essential to justify the action in Kosovo is what was also essential to justify the inaction in the Krajina: the attainment of a lasting peace.

I don't know what NATO will do, but what it ought to do is wage war until Milosevic drops his price enough to allow a deal. To make peace and declare victory will mean betraying some NATO rhetoric and some, or many, Kosovar refugees, who will never see home again. Those betrayals, like the cleansing of the Krajina in 1995, will be rotten. But they will be tolerable–if they work.