Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Strategy and Justice in Kosovo

Keith Pavlischek


April 26, 1999

Good thing the police in Colorado didn't approach the tragedy at Columbine High School the way the U.S. and NATO are dealing with the Serbian forces in Kosovo. If they had, police helicopters might be allowed to patrol at high altitude, the juvenile terrorists would be assured that they need not fear a ground assault by police forces, and SWAT teams, trained to protect the innocent and capture or kill terrorists, might be assigned other tasks—leading a pep rally chorus of "Give Peace a Chance," perhaps.

As Sen. John McCain said in reference to Operation Allied Force "the president wants to win a war without waging a war." A greater mismatch of military means to political ends is hardly conceivable. Put simply, President Clinton's ambitious objectives are unachievable without risk. But his military means are excessively modest and cautious. It's a textbook example of strategic incompetence.

The original political objective was to force Milosevic to stop the genocide and expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. Not only has the military operation failed to achieve that objective, but the means employed—air attacks against strategic targets in Serbia coupled (incredibly!) with a publicly announced intent not to deploy ground forces—have actually accelerated the genocide and exacerbated the refugee crisis. You can no more prevent genocide and "ethnic cleansing" from 14,000 feet than you could have stopped the "Trench-Coat duo" with police helicopters alone.

But it's even worse than that. When air power finally was brought to bear on Serbian forces in Kosovo, the pilots were flying at such a high altitude to prevent friendly casualties that we killed scores of the very refugees we set out to save.

This is not to say that the pilots who killed the refugees are morally culpable. They had neither the intent nor the foresight that innocents would be killed. According to the Christian just-war tradition, both conditions are necessary to render them culpable. And in many cases even foresight is permissible if the target is of sufficient importance. Nor were the political objectives illegitimate. But statesmen do have a political and moral obligation to align military means with political objectives. And if things go wrong, they must modify either the objectives or the means. If statesmen don't, they are morally culpable.

Some "realists" urge more ambitious objectives. Overthrow Milosevic, they urge. In for a dime, in for a dollar. Neo-isolationists such as Pat Buchanan, on the other hand, urge a radical modification or abandonment of the objectives. Cut the losses and get out. The isolationists want to withdraw immediately and the realists want to march to Belgrade. Neither, I think is wise, but they are at least more coherent than the current policy.

The preferable alternative is to realign the military means to the political objectives (Sen. McCain's view). To prevent genocide and protect refugees is a just and legitimate objective. But clearly that requires the use of ground forces. That's a dangerous strategy at this late date. But time is running out for the 500,000-750,000 displaced refugees still in Kosovo!

The Kosovars deserve better. So does NATO. Without a change in military strategy and the required political leadership, we are on the way to losing the war and destroying NATO in the process. One suspects, however, that President Clinton will never admit to having lost the war. Conveniently enough, Milosevic could claim that he won the war, while Clinton can deny losing it, because, after all, it technically wasn't a real war in the first place. This may be politically expedient, but it isn't just.

—Keith J. Pavlischek, Fellow
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”