Everyone misread Milosevic . . .

The Clinton administration deserves much of the criticism it is now receiving because it possessed classified evidence of Milosevic's intentions.

April 16, 1999|By Samantha Power

THE SMART thing for a pundit to say on television or in the press is, that the NATO strategy in Yugoslavia is a disaster and that the Clinton administration should have foreseen the bloody mass deportation now under way. But where were we self-styled experts when we were needed -- before NATO's bombing unleashed a killing and cleansing spree of Balkan proportions?

The answer is: nowhere. In the weeks before March 24, reporters, human rights monitors, congressmen and analysts examined just about every issue except the fate of the ethnic Albanians on whose ostensible behalf NATO would intervene.

Kosovo-watchers grilled the administration about the possible damage to U.S.-Russian relations, the utility of air power, the importance of concrete political objectives, the failure to adequately consult Congress, the durability of NATO unity, the number and variety of NATO targets, the fate of U.S. personnel in Serbia, the (non)deployment of U.S. ground forces, the future legal status of Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic, the strength of democrats in Montenegro, and the likelihood that Serbs would "lash out" at other Balkan countries.

Nobody stated the obvious: some 40,000 Serb Army, police and paramilitary troops backed by 300 tanks occupied Kosovo. More forces were on the way. A ragtag KLA force controlled scattered hilltops but possessed no heavy weapons. Some 1.8 million Albanians lived in Kosovo. Their fate -- and, specifically, the fate of Albanian men of fighting age -- was thus in the hands of Milosevic. And no international verifiers or reporters would be on hand to deter or bear witness. In hindsight, it seems it shouldn't have been hard for us to read the writing on the wall.

Don't get me wrong. The Clinton administration deserves much of the criticism it is now receiving because it possessed classified evidence of Milosevic's intentions. According to the New York Times, one advance intelligence report warned that the Serbs planned to cleanse Kosovo of Albanians within a week.

Yet U.S. planners both ignored such predictions and now gallingly deny that NATO sorties have helped unleash unprecedented Serb sordidness. But the rest of us ignored signals available in the public domain.

Lt. Col. Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, commander of Yugoslavia's Third Army, was quoted in the Washington Post on March 20 as saying: "If attacked from outside, Yugoslavia will deal with the remaining terrorists in Kosovo" -- "terrorist" being official parlance for all male Albanians over 16. Thus, as we slam the official decision-making process, we might also try to account for the staggering lack of foresight all around.

Like U.S. policy makers, the punditocracy misapplied the lessons of Bosnia. Because Milosevic signed the Dayton peace agreement soon after NATO aggressively bombed the Bosnian Serbs in September 1995, it became fashionable to point out that he was a rational actor whose primary interest was not Greater Serbia but Greater Slobo.

On this theory, NATO bombing would again give Milosevic the political cover he needed -- this time, to sign the Rambouillet accord granting Kosovo autonomy. In fact, owing to the visceral nationalism that Kosovo inspires among Serbs in Serbia, he has thus far concluded that he would suffer more politically by losing Kosovo than by absorbing a NATO bombardment.

In their rush to dub him opportunistic, many also neglected the fact that Milosevic is a creature of his own political culture, a key characteristic of which is "inat," a Serbo-Croatian word that means some combination of spite, indignation and chutzpah.

If NATO was going to punish Serbia, then, by God, Milosevic was going to make sure the Albanians paid, too. And the most significant difference between Bosnia 1995 and Kosovo 1999 (never mentioned in the pre-bombing chatter) is that Milosevic could make the Albanians pay because 1.8 million of them were trapped under his dominion -- a far cry from Bosnia in August 1995, when virtually no Croats or Muslims were left in Serb-held territory. Had we looked further back to the NATO mini-bombings of 1994 and 1995, we would have seen the Serbs retaliating against U.N. peacekeepers whom the Serbs forced to lie face down on Serb airfields. It wasn't until these potential hostages had departed Serb territory that NATO could bomb without fear of reprisal. But Bosnia was ethnically tidy in a way that Kosovo is -- or, at least, was -- not.

If inat is an utterly foreign concept to U.S. policy makers and journalists alike, so, more generally, is the concept of radical evil. In the U.S. imagination, serial killers are supposed to be bug-eyed like Charles Manson. They simply do not look -- or talk -- like Milosevic, a man who has dined out on his charms and maintained a deceptive distance from his crime scenes. Yet it is now abundantly clear that this civilized costume cloaks a man utterly unconstrained by scruple.

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