Can an Unjust War Lead to a Just Peace?

Third Quarter 1999

by David A. Steele

Former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, Thomas Eagleburger, speaking on Nightline during the war over Kosovo, challenged Americans by saying, "I fear that we will not face ourselves. If we think we can painlessly push a button to correct an injustice, we will be viewed more and more as a world bully."

Whether, when, and how to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign country in order to stop terrible injustice has been an agonizing question for the United States and its NATO allies. After all, we have not taken such drastic measures in order to address equally if not more dire situations in Tibet, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guatemala, Chile, Chechnya, and numerous other locations in the world. Should we have taken this step now in Kosovo?

Western policy makers faced the pull of two opposite poles in a familiar tension between peace and justice. The loudest voices warned of the danger of neglecting justice and settling for pacification. The cry of appeasement echoed out of Munich and resonated with Western treatment of Milosevic during the war in Bosnia. On the other hand, the danger of fostering a crusade mentality, by emphasizing justice at the expense of peace, was merely a faint whisper reminding us of Viet Nam.

What Is a Just War?

The resort to war is always an indication that justice has been blessed as the pathway to peace, not vice versa. Such a choice is an extreme measure, involving an aggressive, painful, surgical operation. In the search for tools to help us better evaluate the justification of such invasive behavior, the church has, for centuries, relied on just-war theory. First put into a Christian framework by St. Augustine, these tenets have repeatedly been used to determine when it is justified to inflict pain in order to bring an end to a greater pain.

There are two parts to just-war theory. Jus ad bellum helps determine when it is justifiable to go to war. Jus in bello evaluates the conduct of war. In order to justify the start of a war, one must demonstrate that five conditions have been met: (1) right intention, (2) just cause, (3) comparative justice, (4) likelihood of success, and (5) last resort. In order to justify the ongoing conduct of a war, at least two conditions must be satisfied: (1) proportionality and (2) discrimination.

An honest evaluation of the conduct of the Yugoslav War in the light of the jus in bello criteria leaves us with some fundamental moral problems. NATO forces may well pass the test of proportionality. It appears that allied forces did not engage in overkill—the use of excessive force. The Albright doctrine, advocating the use of limited force to achieve limited goals in Yugoslavia, appears to have replaced the Powell doctrine that advocated the use of overwhelming force during the Gulf War.

NATO failed miserably, however, when it came to discrimination, limiting the war to military targets. According to internationally accepted norms, all military forces are required not only to avoid targeting civilians, but to avoid putting civilian populations at greater risk than one's own military forces. Dropping bombs from three miles high, even if they are precision guided, will result in what has been termed collateral damage, all too often a euphemism for civilian casualties (including Bulgarians, Chinese, and Albanians, as well as Serbs). Clearly the Clinton administration's choice of military strategy (no ground troops and no low-flying aircraft) was predicated on the conviction that the Western public could not tolerate the appearance of body bags. Public opinion polls, rather than moral considerations, dictated military choices. This ethical fault prompted Eagleburger to raise the specter of "the ugly American." Unless we face this moral failure, we may well learn the wrong lessons from this war. We may become trapped in a video-game war syndrome, with its illusion of painless victory in one conflict after another.

An evaluation of jus ad bellum in this case (the justification for going to war against Yugoslavia) also raises fundamental moral problems. The Western alliance may well pass the tests of just cause and right intention. The cause of protecting the Kosovar population from atrocities and ethnic cleansing was morally right. Even the revised goal of returning refugees to their homes is clearly a moral aim. There may be some question about the purity of intentions, but this is a highly subjective matter. On balance, therefore, we should credit the Western alliance with meeting the criteria of just cause and right intention.

Examination of the criterion of comparative justice, however, begins to raise questions about the morality of the Yugoslav War. In any conflict there are always competing visions of justice, coupled with divergent versions of history and litanies of victimization. The Balkans, and Kosovo in particular, are no exception. The Serbs point to Mafia drug dealing and atrocities committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army and to the fact that resurgent nationalism started among Kosovo Albanians well before the current wave of Serbian nationalism. Serbs also condemn NATO aggression against their sovereign state, pointing to the fact that Yugoslavia has not attacked any other nation and concluding that NATO has violated both its own charter and the UN charter, which require respect for national sovereignty. In fact, it is quite clear that NATO has not played by the rules of international law as codified in the twentieth century.

The greatest challenges to justification of the Yugoslav war, however, are found in examination of the last two tenets of jus ad bellum, the likelihood of success and last resort. Before bombing commenced, the U.S. administration claimed that Milosevic would bow to NATO demands soon after bombardment began. Even at the time, however, it was clear to anyone with knowledge of the region that the Serbian people, not only Milosevic, would refuse to give up Kosovo so easily. It is now abundantly clear that NATO did not meet its original goal of preventing mass ethnic cleansing. Even worse, the removal of unarmed international monitors from Kosovo, a necessary condition for bombing to commence, gave Milosevic the unhindered opportunity to embark on his campaign of planned terror. Furthermore, it is still unclear whether NATO will be able to succeed in its revised goal of repatriating refugees and maintaining a secure, multi-ethnic Kosovo within the borders of Yugoslavia.

In fact it is very plausible that pursuit of a secure, multi-ethnic Kosovo could have more easily been achieved without a bombing campaign. If NATO troops could have become peacekeepers without first being combatants, the initial level of trust would have been much higher, enabling them to be more credible intermediaries. This, then, is the most important question: could the Western alliance have accomplished its goals through a non-violent approach or was war the regrettable choice of last resort?

Firsthand Experience

At this point I rely on my personal experience—as a back channel of communication between Yugoslav and American governments—to conclude that NATO did not explore all possible alternatives to war. Together with Serbian and American colleagues, I was privileged to be part of a brainstorming process that fed new ideas into the very top levels of both Yugoslav and American governments leading up to and during the negotiations at Rambouillet. Responding to Serb concern that NATO troops would come to Kosovo as occupiers, we developed six alternative models of troop deployment in an attempt to resolve the biggest sticking point of the negotiations. Our proposals included de-emphasizing the NATO name (without giving up NATO control), revising the plan to divide Kosovo into zones (a plan that reminded Serbs of German occupation in World war II), and emphasizing partnership between Yugoslavia and NATO (for example, a proposed offer of counter insurgency training to the Yugoslav army and police). These ideas were checked with the Yugoslav desk at the State department and a former U.S. ambassador during the Clinton administration. With a clear indication from both these sources that all our suggestions were negotiable, the proposals were then sent directly to Milosevic and to an American under secretary of State.

Weeks later, chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill told me that none of these ideas was discussed at the Rambouillet talks, even though all of them would have been acceptable. The West did not explore such ideas because it had concluded that coercion, with a take-it-or-leave-it offer, was the only way to deal with Milosevic. One of the Kosovo Albanian delegates at Rambouillet, Edita Tahiri, even refused to refer to the process as negotiation, saying that it was an attempt at arbitration, but without prior consent. My sad conclusion is that we chose "diplomacy by threat" rather than look for ways to adjust on matters that were central to the Serbs but of little importance to us. Instead of confronting one intransigent position with another, we could have approached the negotiations by seeking to understand the fears, the defensiveness, and the legitimate needs that underlie pronouncements on all sides.

At the end of the war, negotiators finally used a truly creative problem-solving process to overcome the final hurdle, the sequencing of Serbian troop withdrawal, deployment of NATO forces, passing a UN resolution, and stopping the bombing. The operative motif became "synchronization" of all component parts into a workable plan. When all sides finally found the will to negotiate, creative problem solving proved to be possible, even with Milosevic. If the modus operandi for the future can be synchronization, rather than "diplomacy by threat," there is a better chance of achieving both peace and justice in Yugoslavia and in other intractable conflicts around the world.

[Dr. Steele is Director of the Conflict Resolution Project and a Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.]