By Eric Jansson
Published by BIRN's Balkan Insight
Name a war in which the victor, having smashed a rival, feigns neutrality at the end and chooses not to dictate terms.
The answer: Kosovo, 1999.
There has only ever been one war like this – and on December 10 we will begin to learn even more than we already know about the wages of war as waged by wimps.
The crisis everyone now sees coming was built into the original intervention as orchestrated by Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and the NATO allies.
Clinton and Blair have never lost their feelings of romance over Kosovo. It remains their “humanitarian war” – a first “victory” for a NATO alliance finally bold enough to articulate its post-Cold War raison d’être: hard power with good intentions “on the doorstep of Europe”.
Independence for Kosovo was never the objective. Instead, Clinton and Blair created favourable conditions for independence, then withheld it. How much greater their power appeared: to win a war and yet defer the spoils!
With Serbia still smoking, Slobodan Milosevic declared victory. The victors roared with laughter. Yet now, from the grave, Milosevic may get the last laugh.
We are witnessing the delayed unfolding of a truth obvious already in 1999 but denied by many: Clinton’s model of American interventionism as witnessed during and after the Kosovo war was fundamentally flawed – no less flawed than the updated model more recently introduced by George W. Bush, merely different.
With Bush’s interventions, the world feels the blowback right away. With Clinton’s, we wait.
The fundamental mistake was to ignore a basic principle of war, to claim and pretend – in a different way than Bush proposes – that there can ever be “a new kind of war”.
The basic principle ignored is that, in war, opposing sides fight to dictate terms of peace. They do not fight to negotiate terms of peace afterwards in Vienna. Failed negotiations are the precise reason that war is joined, and victory is the only reason to fight. Fight to negotiate, and war becomes absurdity and atrocity rolled into one.
After a war, the window of time in which to dictate terms of peace is limited. The victor must strike while the iron is hot, allowing beneficiaries of the terms to celebrate and vanquished survivors to regain their feet while acclimatising to a viable post-war reality.
By contrast, when conciliatory diplomacy follows military victory, and terms are deferred, both victor and vanquished are denied the privileges of resolution. At this point, any return to negotiation becomes awkward if not pointless, as has been the case for Serbia and Kosovo.
Time stands still. Principal actors leave the scene. To others they leave the only important questions: who will lose what, and is there any chance of gain? These are the questions Kosovo faces today.
Many times I have walked down Bill Clinton Boulevard, in Pristina. I always look up at the big billboard bearing the former president’s image. He smiles and waves. How horrible war is, I think, and how tragic this non-peace has been.
Victims of the non-peace, Kosovar and Serb alike, struggle to understand why this strange fate has befallen them.
“Didn’t we fight a war?”
“Didn’t we win? Where is our victory?”
“Didn’t we lose? Can we still win?”
Tension grows in the awkward silence. For eight years, the interventionists have tried to fill this silence with statements and initiatives suggesting a certain momentum toward resolution.
Indeed, the perception of momentum quickly became the new key to victory after 1999, with the interventionists habitually seizing on any and all positive change as proof that their plans for Kosovo were working.
A policy of optimism prevailed, with inconvenient obstacles to success routinely denied or ignored. It was as if, when the smoke of battle cleared, a haze of Clintonian, Blairite relativism and denial blew in behind it.
As a foreign correspondent who began covering Kosovo after the war, I quickly learned it was considered rude or even taboo to describe Kosovo as “a province still within Serbian territory under international law”, which I routinely did in my articles, citing UN Security Council Resolution 1244.
Yet, at the same time, colleagues of mine who presumed that Serbia could never stake any claim on Kosovo again complained that it was equally taboo to mention “independence”, because it forced an awkward issue.
US and European diplomats irritably dismissed Russian opposition to Kosovo’s potential independence, belittling it as a minor tactical ploy. Any questions about precedents in international law they pooh-poohed scornfully.
A gulf in perspectives opened up between European diplomats in Pristina and their colleagues in Belgrade. Privately, those in Belgrade complained that their colleagues suffered from “Pristina syndrome”. Publicly, they denied their quarrels.
All sense of reality evaporated. About two years ago, in late 2005, a senior UN diplomat told me in absolute seriousness that he no longer had any doubt that Kosovo would be independent before the end of 2006, and that Belgrade and Moscow were prepared to acquiesce. Oh, really?
Worst of all, the haze of relativism and denial obscured gross neglect of human suffering and sometimes active mismanagement by international officials whose duty it has been to live within, and embellish, the big lie that Kosovo was becoming a multicultural model in the Balkans.
This lie was exposed violently in the pogroms of March 2004, at which point panic set in amongst the interventionists. It has taken until now for policymakers to acknowledge the broader consequences.
Nothing fundamentally is solved. The primary question that led to war over Kosovo – independence or no independence – is as unanswered as it was in 1999.
Fault for the war, originally, lies with local actors on the ground. However, fault for this perverse non-peace and for much of the nonsense that has prevailed within it belongs to the international actors who waged a war without the guts to dictate clear terms afterwards.
On this point, at least, Kosovars and Serbs should be able to agree.