AS AMERICANS DEBATE what President Clinton’s legacy should be, too little attention is given to his remarks on Kosovo. The United States launched a war against a European nation largely at Clinton’s behest. Clinton’s war against Serbia epitomized his moralism, his arrogance, his refusal to respect law, and his fixation on proving his virtue by using deadly force, regardless of how many innocent people died in the process.
Clinton claimed on March 24, 1999, that one purpose of bombing Serbia (including Kosovo) was “to deter an even bloodier offensive against innocent civilians in Kosovo and, if necessary, to seriously damage the Serbian military’s capacity to harm the people of Kosovo.” The CIA had warned the Clinton administration that if bombing was initiated, the Serbian army would greatly accelerate its efforts to expel ethnic Albanians. The White House disregarded this warning and feigned surprise when mass expulsions began.
Yet NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Wesley Clark said on March 26 that the upsurge in crackdowns on ethnic Albanians was “entirely predictable.” Since NATO had no ground forces in the area ready to intervene and since NATO planes stayed three miles above the ground to minimize pilot casualties, NATO could do nothing to stop the surge in ethnic cleansing. Violence spurred by the bombing was quickly invoked as the ultimate justification for the bombing.
The longer the bombing went on, the more brazenly NATO ignored the limits it had initially imposed on its targets in order to limit civilian casualties. In the final weeks of the 78-day war, all that mattered was finding new targets so that NATO spokesmen could continue their daily bragging about a “record number of sorties flown” and “record number of bombs dropped.” According to Human Rights Watch, at least 500 civilians were killed by NATO bombing; the Yugoslavian government claimed that 2,000 civilians were killed. NATO repeatedly dropped cluster bombs into marketplaces, hospitals, and other civilian areas.
As Serbian civilian casualties rose, purported Serbian atrocities mushroomed. On May 13, 1999, Clinton declaimed that “there are 100,000 people [in Kosovo] who are still missing” — clearly implying that they might have been slaughtered. Clinton also claimed that 600,000 ethnic Albanians could be “trapped within Kosovo itself, lacking shelter, short of food, afraid to go home, or buried in mass graves dug by their executioners.”
On April 15, 1999, Clinton opened a speech to newspaper editors by proclaiming the “stark contrast between a free society with a free press and a closed society where the press is used to manipulate people by suppressing or distorting the truth.” However, NATO consistently misrepresented its own actions. The Washington Post’s Bradley Graham noted on May 24, 1999, that Pentagon and NATO
briefings about the air operation have … acquired a propaganda element aimed at demonizing Milosevic and his Belgrade government and imparting a moral imperative to the conflict. U.S. and NATO spokesmen, in scripts closely coordinated with the help of several public affairs specialists loaned by Washington to Brussels, routinely mix reports on allied strikes with fresh accusations of atrocities by Yugoslav forces.
Graham noted that the spokesmen routinely sought to delay admitting NATO responsibility for bombing civilians for “at least one news cycle or two before owning up to attacks gone awry.”
For Clinton, bombing Serbia was a triumph of idealism. The Washington Postreported that on the day after NATO planes bombed the Chinese embassy, “Clinton complained to British Prime Minister Tony Blair that news coverage was not fully presenting the moral dimensions of the war.” In the final days of the bombing, the Washington Post reported that “some presidential aides and friends are describing Kosovo in Churchillian tones, as Clinton’s ‘finest hour.’” The Postalso reported that according to one Clinton friend “what Clinton believes were the unambiguously moral motives for NATO’s intervention represented a chance to soothe regrets harbored in Clinton’s own conscience…. The friend said Clinton has at times lamented that the generation before him was able to serve in a war with a plainly noble purpose, and he feels ‘almost cheated’ that ‘when it was his turn he didn’t have the chance to be part of a moral cause.’”
Clinton’s Kosovo peace
On June 10, 1999, NATO and the government of Yugoslavia reached an agreement to end the bombing. In his June 10 victory speech, Clinton proclaimed:
The demands of an outraged and united international community have been met. I can report to the American people that we have achieved a victory for a safer world, for our democratic values, and for a stronger America…. We have sent a message of determination and hope to all the world…. Because of our resolve, the 20th century is ending not with helpless indignation but with a hopeful affirmation of human dignity and human rights for the 21st century.
However, experts who compared the final surrender agreement with the Rambouillet text were surprised to see that NATO had dropped many of its most onerous demands from three months earlier. In a June 11 speech at an Air Force base, Clinton bragged: “Day after day, with remarkable precision, our forces pounded every element of Mr. Milosevic’s military machine, from tanks to fuel supply, to anti-aircraft weapons, to the military and political support.” Throughout the bombing campaign, NATO and Pentagon spokesmen gushed about the slaughter NATO was inflicting on the Serbian military.
However, once the bombing stopped, the Clinton administration was stunned to see the Serbian army withdraw in fine order with polished buttons and good morale. A confidential postwar U.S. military investigation concluded that the damage claims had been exaggerated nearly tenfold. In reality, only 14 tanks, 18 armored personnel carriers, and 20 artillery pieces were taken out, despite the claimed dropping of more than 20,000 bombs on the Serbian military.
On the other hand, NATO did have a very high “kill-rate” for the cardboard decoy tanks that the Serbs erected all over Kosovo. At the end of the war, the Serbian military largely was unscathed, but the country’s civilian infrastructure was in ruins. NATO bombs were far more effective against women, children, hospitals, and retirement homes than against soldiers.
After the peace agreement, NATO was plagued by a surplus of dead Serbian civilians and a severe shortage of dead ethnic Albanians. In late October, pathologist Emilio Perez Pujol, who headed a team of Spanish investigators in Kosovo, toldThe Times of London, “I calculate that the final figure of dead in Kosovo will be 2,500 at the most. This includes lots of strange deaths that can’t be blamed on anyone in particular.”
In a special videotape address to the Serbian people, Clinton declared,
I want you to understand that NATO only agreed to be peacekeepers on the understanding that its troops would ensure that both sides kept their commitments and that terrorism on both sides would be brought to an end. They only agreed to serve with the understanding that they would protect Serbs as well as ethnic Albanians and that they would leave when peace took hold.
In a Thanksgiving 1999 speech to American troops in Kosovo, Clinton proclaimed, “Thanks to you, we have reversed ethnic cleansing.” Clinton noted that there had been “almost one million refugees,” but “because we acted quicker [than in Bosnia], they all came home.” Clinton ignored the ongoing massive exodus of Serbs racing north for their lives. Jiri Dienstbier, the UN representative on human rights, declared in late 1999,
The spring ethnic cleansing of ethnic Albanians, accompanied by murders, torture, looting, and burning of houses, has been replaced by the autumn ethnic cleansing of Serbs, Romas [gypsies], Bosniaks, and other non-Albanians accompanied by the same atrocities.
One U.S. government official told the Washington Post in August 1999: “It looks like it’s over for the Serbs. We can talk about peace, love, and democracy, but I don’t think anyone really knows how to stop this.” A November 1999 report by the International Crisis Group concluded that “there are as many killings right now in Kosovo as there were before NATO intervened.”
Clinton also declared in November 1999 that the Kosovar children “love the United States … because we gave them their freedom back.” Perhaps Clinton saw freedom as nothing more than being tyrannized by people of the same ethnicity. Once the bombing started, NATO transformed former terrorists into “freedom fighters” — a term explicitly used in the June 1999 agreement between the NATO and the KLA. As the Serbs were driven out of Kosovo, Kosovar Albanians became increasingly oppressed by the KLA, which ignored its commitment to disarm.
In his 1999 talk to troops in Kosovo, Clinton bragged, “You just look around this room today. We just celebrated Thanksgiving, with, I bet you, conservatively, 25 different ethnic groups represented among the American military forces here in this room — maybe 50, maybe it’s more.”
Clinton’s standard of virtue seemed to consist of little more than ethnic bean counting: the greater the number of ethnic groups, the greater the virtue. He talked as if every bomb dropped was a triumph for multiculturalism and diversity. He was far more concerned with counting the number of ethnic groups at dinner than in noticing the ongoing purge of the Serbs. Since the United States promised to bring peace to Kosovo, Clinton bears some responsibility for every burnt church, every murdered Serbian grandmother, every new refugee column streaming north out of Kosovo. Despite these problems, Clinton bragged at a December 8, 1999, press conference that he was “very, very proud” of what the United States had done in Kosovo.
The legacy of the Serbian War
Clinton’s experience in Kosovo gave him great empathy for Boris Yeltsin when Yeltsin sent in the Russian military to obliterate Chechnya. At a summit of Western leaders in Istanbul in November 1999, Clinton declared,
We want Russia to overcome the scourge of terrorism and lawlessness. We believe Russia has not only the right but also the obligation to defend its territorial integrity…. Russia has faced rebellion within, and related violence beyond, the borders of Chechnya. It has responded with a military strategy designed to break the resistance and end the terror.
At the time Clinton endorsed Yeltsin’s policy, the Russian military was flattening Grozny with long-distance rockets and pounding the entire province with its bombers, making little effort to limit civilian casualties. A few weeks after Clinton endorsed Yeltsin’s policy, the Russian military announced that they would kill any person still residing in Grozny at the end of a 72-hour period. (At that time, an estimated 40,000 civilians, largely elderly, were still in the city.) This brutal ultimatum did not stop Clinton from later characterizing the Russian military assault as an effort to “liberate Grozny.”
In a CNN interview shortly after the peace agreement with Serbia was announced, the president enunciated what his aides labeled the “Clinton doctrine”:
There’s an important principle here…. While there may well be a great deal of ethnic and religious conflict in the world … whether within or beyond the borders of a country, if the world community has the power to stop it, we ought to stop genocide and ethnic cleansing.
The “Clinton doctrine,” if strictly followed, would mire the United States in scores of conflicts around the world. But even though there is little danger that Clinton would actually risk following his own doctrine, his all-caring rhetoric generated positive press.