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

Kosovo and American Power

Keith Pavlischek


February 15, 1999

The crisis in Kosovo forces Americans to consider once again their role in a post-Cold War world. Whatever the outcome of current peace talks in Rombouillet, France, it is difficult to see how any solution can be achieved without employing U.S. military force.

The conflict in Kosovo is difficult for Americans because there are no "vital" national interests at stake. And yet, the U.S. is, and for the next two decades will be, an unchallenged global military power. The fundamental question is this: how does a great power that wants to promote international rules and norms deploy its military, economic and diplomatic resources when less-than-vital interests are at stake? And how does it do so when European allies are not yet willing to act apart from U.S. leadership, even in Europe?

Advocates for American leadership argue that a "do-nothing" strategy holds higher humanitarian and strategic risks than engaging militarily now. They insist that extensive human rights abuses committed by the Serbian forces simply cannot go unpunished. And they fear that the violence will spread. The "nightmare scenario" is for the instability in Kosovo to spill into Albania and Macedonia. In turn, this could draw Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria into a major regional conflict.

Not that the military options are all that pleasant. If the peace talks break down, NATO, led by American air power, will likely launch air strikes against Serb forces in Kosovo as well as other parts of Yugoslavia. The objective would be to force an agreement and then introduce ground troops to keep the peace.

However, this is a risky strategy. While NATO air strikes can significantly damage Serbian forces, they are also likely to make a peace keeping mission even more difficult. It increases the likelihood of casualties among follow-on peacekeepers. Also, American and NATO analysts fear that the ethnic Albanian separatist movement, the KLA, would take advantage of NATO air strikes to step-up its own activities against Serbian forces. But military action that strengthens the hand of the KLA runs counter to one of the goals of putting peace keeping troops on the ground: to shift political and military influence away from the KLA to less militant political leaders in Kosovo.

Most Albanian Kosovars want a peaceful solution to the crisis. Albanian Kosovar leader Ibrahim Rugova does not favor change through violent means, but his failure to win any concessions from Serbian President Milosevic has encouraged the KLA, which in turn led to the Serbian police crackdown, and the attendant atrocities.

The least worst solution would be a negotiated interim peace agreement, which would permit the introduction of a peace keeping force without resorting to air attacks. Still, such an agreement would require tens of thousands of ground troops, including about 5,000 Americans. Again, if the Americans dont commit, then neither will the Europeans. That pretty much forces our hand for now. But since a peace keeping force may be there for a generation, American leaders should be asking how much longer it will take for Europe to take the lead in policing its own back yard.

—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.”