Serbia and Kosovo;
Slobodan Milosevic and Bill Clinton

Policeman in Kosovo (above left) amidst rubble of Pristina after bombardment flashes Serbian victory sign. U.S. soldier (above right)on patrol in Bosnia. F-117 "Nighthawk" Stealth Fighter (below center).

April 6, 1999

      Dear ------,

      Could the Yugoslavia situation be any more of a mess? I support the strikes and would have preferred to have seen them unleashed five years previously during the Bosnian disaster. However, the reality on the ground today (as evidenced by the waves of refugees) is such that we and the other NATO countries are presented with bad and worse options. The Balkans is a rough neighborhood, and I think Clinton is in over his head in dealing with Milosevic. I myself was surprised how audaciously ruthless and rapid Milosevic was in his rape of Kosovo, and I wonder if -- as things stand now -- we have only made the situation worse. "The Butcher of the Balkans" called Clinton's bluff with the air strikes and now Slick Willy (and the United States) is unwilling to send in ground troops; if you are going to play only half-way with such a psychopath, you might as well not play at all. In its half-hearted response so far, NATO looks feckless and foolish! We got into the Balkan mess in order to prevent something from happening. It happened anyway. Milosevic is playing for keeps. Is Clinton? You knock a wily-street fighter like Milosevic to the ground, you had best cut his throat before he gets back up and stabs at you in some sneaky, underhanded way. Look at the legions of panicked refugees systematically terrorized and turned out of their homes! "Go into the woods and die of hunger!" threaten Milosevic's henchmen (their faces often concealed by masks) as Albanians in Kosovo watch their villages go up in flames. "Let NATO save you!" taunt the Serb paramilitaries, as they threaten to kill (and often do kill!) those whom we sought to protect. This is no good. This cannot stand.

      Post-1945 Europe was supposed to be a place where nation states no longer brutalized their own citizens with impunity or penalized them for belonging to minority religions or communities. This notwithstanding, we now witness the spectacle of some 900,000 Kosovar Albanians fleeing for their lives at gunpoint and being herded into railroad cars in mass deportations. We hear chilling tails of what is going on in Kosovo, with no independent observers on hand at all. Look at all the women and children in the ranks of the miserable refugees -- but almost no men of "fighting age"! I watched closely how the Serbs "ethnically cleansed" their enemies during the Bosnian imbroglio; we can expect the worst in Kosovo: mass graves, detention centers, widespread rape -- the works. There are few crimes Milosevic would not commit to strengthen his hand, few crises he would not create or exploit to consolidate his grip on power; Milosevic's rump-Yugoslavia today is an outlaw state run by neo-nationalists and gangsters! It all reminds one terribly much of the darker moments of WWII. Kosovo burns. The world watches.

      Do we Americans and Western Europeans have shame and blood guilt on our heads for helping to bring this about? The ethnic Albanians in Kosovo were already in big trouble with Serb troops massing at the border, but have we made it worse with these retaliatory attacks? Can we reverse the situation on the ground by use of air power alone, as Clinton assures us? Do we kid ourselves if we think we can, like Zeus, send thunderbolts down from the sky until the little people on the ground bend to our will? Wars are won by men with rifles occupying the contested ground, despite comments by certain air force generals to the contrary. We need to send in combat soldiers to do the job if we want the ethnic cleansing stopped. But a ground war would be a giant bloody affair with unpredictable consequences -- especially with the Russians! But to just watch the Kosovar Albanians be abused and Milosevic and his Serb nationalist cronies continue to get away literally with murder is an equally unattractive option. Did we and our allies actually mean it when we said that the Serbs had gone too far this time? The whole scenario is depressing and dispiriting!

      I see international affairs differently than you. I see the world as basically a hostile place with historical and irrational tensions seething below the surface, ready to burst up. No amount of volunteering or check writing to refugee agencies is going to stop a man like Milosevic at the head of an outlaw government; there is no "humanitarian" solution to this humanitarian crisis! No, the best you can do is contain Milosevic, and if that fails you have to grab a big stick and hit him with it until he gives up. If we Americans want to stop genocide in Rwanda or Kosovo or Kuwait, then we need to be willing to shed American blood and slug it out down in the mud with those responsible. Super-sophisticated stealth bombers, aircraft carrier battle groups, and other advanced weaponry orbiting the environs of Yugoslavia are not the cure for Milosevic's ethnic cleansing carried out principally by guns and knives at ground level in Kosovo. We lob missiles at Milosevic, and he throws refugees back at us! This is not a winning formula! So far, the NATO campaign has been singularly ineffectual in stopping Milosevic's systematic emptying of Kosovar Albanians. That being said, what do we do now? Is it worth the price? Why us?

      The world badly needs a policeman, and I tell myself we are not the world's policeman. Why is it our problem? This Godforsaken corner of the earth far away from American shores? But then some atrocity happens and if we don't do anything, nothing gets done. We are the last superpower, and all that: we have the means, if not always the will, to stop murder when it happens en masse around the world, and nobody else does. But we are damned if we intervene and damned if we don't! If one goes to stop a murderer, it often means one must kill the man to stop him. This murderer has a mother, family, and friends, too. Nobody likes the police. Their business is often a dirty, thankless one. I would not ascribe to John Kennedy's "go anywhere and do anything" around the world in the name of our democratic ideals and then have us jaunt off like Don Quixote on Rocinante crusading in search of evils to combat and doing more harm than good in the process. On the other hand, I would support action where a great wrong is clearly occuring, the area proves important to us, our military bases are located nearby, and events give us time to study the issues and debate the alternatives. Kosovo is clearly all these. Convenient it would be to pass off the crisis in Kosovo to another well-intentioned superpower of the future or some international political body with the power and will to enforce a peace, but such does not exist at the moment. Some argue the United Nations should handle this affair; but in its astonishingly inept handling of the Bosnian war with their worthless "peacekeepers" in baby blue helmets being bullied by all sides, the U.N. as a player to be taken seriously in the Balkans has disqualified itself in the eyes of every direct participant in the current fracas. If we don't stand up and take the lead in Kosovo, nothing will change. The carnage will continue. Indefinitely.

      But still! A part of me would like to wash my hands of the region which used to be known as Yugoslavia and be done with that corner of the world and its ancient, irrational ethnic bloodlettings. On the cusp of the 21st century, these people act as if they were living at the end of 1300's! "Let them marinate in their own unsavory juices!" I am tempted to say in witnessing the slaughterhouse of medieval animosities which is the Balkans today. They have been butchering each other since long before our time, and most likely they will be butchering each other long after we are dead, buried, and forgotten. On the other hand, I can hardly tolerate the thought of watching another Sarajevo or Srebrenica-style massacre on the news evening after evening. I would almost support the NATO strikes and a land invasion of Kosovo on purely humanitarian grounds, but this would only bring more suffering and death -- at least in the short-term -- and would be a decidedly grim affair. As someone who has seen violent death, I find little joy even in winning a battle like that -- lots of young American soldier's wives and mothers getting phone calls, "We regret to inform you..." But when someone comes to murder your neighbor and no help is available, you grab your shotgun and go yourself outside! Imagine the uproar if NATO did nothing but watch Milosevic ethnically cleanse his opponents in Kosovo, as he did in Bosnia! If we let the Serbs pursue a policy of brutalizing and banishing an entire people from a territory, if individuals can be raped and murdered with impunity in the name of someone else's ancient historical grievance, if they can be stripped of all their possessions and declared persona non grata, if we just let all this happen out of indifference, complacency, and short-term political convenience, then it appears we have not learned the lessons this 20th century has to teach us on the European continent. But damned if we do, damned if we don't! To stop the Serbs on the ground in Kosovo will be bloody, grinding work! Yet that the work be bloody and grinding does not mean it shouldn't be undertaken. You will note my unease and ambivalence. You will note also my frustration.

      Hard decisions are called for now from leaders with backbone, and I think Clinton (and especially certain West Europeans like the Italians!) is in way over his head; the ethnic Albanians are the ones who will pay the consequences. We and the other NATO countries will most likely bomb Yugoslavia for another couple of weeks, and the Serbians will exit this affair only more impoverished and even more of a pariah state isolated from the rest of the world than they are today. We will quarantine the Serbs economically and bomb Yugoslavia into the pre-industrial age of a very poor Third World country (as we did to Iraq in 1991) and still Milosevic will defiantly let his people pay for the folly of his policies; nothing will change much on the ground in Kosovo. We and the West Europeans will pick up the bill for much of the refugee clean-up, re-settlement, etc. Their will be no justice, and Milosevic and his gangster cronies will have gotten away with enormous crimes once again. The ethnic Albanians who survive Milosevic's inferno will have to make new lives for themselves in foreign countries. They will lose everything, except maybe their lives. NATO will pick up the shards of its credibility and limp into the future sans integrity or self-respect.

      I suspect only a ground war will stop this; as the army states its mission: close with and destroy the enemy. If we fear so much a country the size of Ohio with only 10 million persons armed with antiquated Russian weaponry, then we deserve all the scorn and shame the Albanian Kosovars can heap on us for having involved ourselves in the region in the first place! May history damn us if our response to Milosevic's ethnic cleansing of Kosovo is merely to provide material and emotional relief to desperate refugees and -- unwilling to bear the labor of undoing it -- accept the status quo Milosevic has achieved by effectively banishing nearly a million people from their country! Look at all the NATO soldiers feeding refugees and palliating their suffering rather than working to bring it to its conclusion! Thus they simply contribute to the problem rather than strike at its root! The vocation of an army is to kill, not do social work! We cannot avoid the dirty, grim work which need to be done in Kosovo with spin management and the politics of denial! This has been the policy we have chosen, to our great disgrace, in the recent past! Empty saber-rattling and sluggish indifference has gotten us nowhere in the shattered corpus of what used to be Yugoslavia! Bosnia was a warning and a prelude to Kosovo that we and our European allies, along with the United Nations, ignored for four years. "They will come to tire of this action and sooner or later seek an accommodation with me," concludes Mr. Milosevic, with good reason. "NATO will sell the Kosovar Albanians down the river and Clinton and I can both declare diplomatic victory." With air strikes NATO will make symbolic gestures and noises to save face but will supposedly prove unwilling to shoulder the necessary costs to un-do on the ground what has been done in Kosovo. The United States supposedly cannot tolerate combat losses and Americans have no stomach for war. "Thus having largely accomplish my goals, I will throw the West a bone, sign an agreement with them mostly favorable to myself, and laugh up my sleeve at what fools and dupes they be -- exactly as I did with Bosnia in the Dayton Accords." It might still happen! Milosevic has played us like a champ since the Bush Administration; he will try to ride out this latest storm, experience having given him no reason to believe NATO is ultimately to be taken seriously. Such is the unhappy position in which we have placed ourselves after years of reactive, pusillanimous policy towards Milosevic and his aggression. The bill has come due to be paid, with interest! In basic training a 19-year old private soldier learns not to point a rifle at the enemy unless he is prepared to pull the trigger and do the job. With so much more formal education and life experience, President Clinton learns this lesson awfully late in the day.

      So I say this with grave reservations but I say it anyway: Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war! Let the Serbs learn to fear us! Milosevic (for many years now!) has gotten way too big for his britches. It is past time for him to be taken down a notch or two, in my opinion. Let it happen. Give the air war more time to effect results, but don't let that scoundrel Milosevic weasel his way out of this one! I pity the innocent Serbs who will be ground up in this war, but such is the end of the reckless, perilous path Mr. Milosevic (the Serbian leader) has chosen for his country: his people will pay the costs. The Serbs know very well how they have suffered in the past, and it enables them to fail completely to recognize the evil they are doing today: Milosevic first took power 10 years ago precisely by playing up national mythologies in Kosovo, and now Serbia is fairly saddled with him, his persecution complex, and where it has so bloodily led the region. Having thought they had embraced certain essential human rights and peaceful relations in the latter part of this century as opposed to the widespread and virulently widespread political violence of earlier decades, the Europeans have discovered they are living in the same slaughterhouse they have always inhabited; and to nobody should this be more apparent than to the Serbs.

      The Serb people themselves might yet be rid of Slobodan Milosevic: there is an educated base of citizenry in Serbia who are aware of the choices available and what is at stake. Xenophobic nationalism and ancient grudges nursed into fresh mutinies need not be the cornerstone of post-Tito Yugoslavia! One hopes the Serbian people are not akin to miserable Iraq: a population able to be single-handedly cowered into submission by a reckless strongman able to mesmerize a nation and willing to sacrifice it entire on the alter of vanity and ambition! Iraq today is a country subsumed by the despotism of Saddam Hussein; there dwells in that land no force of any consequence independent of his eye or contrary to his will. In Belgrade the Milosevic's socialists and the associated crony capitalists hold power opaquely and largely divorced from the general public -- backed up as they are by true-believer extremists in the Serbian Radical Party and the scorched-earth nationalist hotheads bred among the refugees and paramilitary groups from Bosnia. Indeed it is as Plato is purported to have claimed: "The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." But as "evil men" have brought Serbia to its current perilous state of affairs, there exists also in Serbia a semblance of a civil society independent of Milosevic and real democrats in the liberal democratic tradition: there is a basis for some kind of alternative regime in Belgrade that could help the place evolve into a "normal" country.

      As opposed to other areas of the world, we and our Euro-Atlantic allies have the power and the resources to set a different tenor for what happens in our backyard. "We kid ourselves if we think we can end hundreds of years of ethnic animosity in the Balkans and their tribal politics of blood and soil," a friend exclaimed to me. "The Serbs will simply wreak revenge on the Albanians at some future date, and the cycle will continue." That we cannot end these ancient animosities I have no doubt; but if the West gets its way in Kosovo the Serb authorities won't be wreaking any more "revenge" there for many years to come: the place will be a NATO protectorate. Perhaps might cannot make right, but it can restrain evil. "We have lost the goodwill of many Serbs who previously had idealized the Western values of freedom and democracy!" continued my friend. Considering the events in Bosnia over the past ten years and more recent circumstances in Kosovo, the goodwill of the Serbs is something with which we in the West can live without. The international centers of power seated in Berlin, Paris, London, and Washington D.C. will survive just fine without the approval or support of Belgrade, thank you very much.

      So let us see what we Americans and our European allies can do. If Milosevic and his policies should prevail in Serbia and by extension in Kosovo we can make it so he, his country, and its power hardly matter anywhere beyond the few miles surrounding Belgrade. If after a decade of ethnic conflicts, international sanctions, and economic decline the Serbian people because of fear or inertia have become resigned to authoritarian rule and consequently choose to fail to oppose Milosevic and the path he has chosen for them and their future, they still have made a choice. In one direction lies closer integration with the powerful economies and political stability of the Euro-Atlantic Alliance and peace and prosperity. On the other side lies Milosevic and war, misery, and poverty. The blood-red scourge of the war-god Ares walks with Milosevic like fleas follow a dog: he is responsible for the deaths of some 250,000 people and the displacement of 4 million others in the four Yugoslav wars he has provoked and then pursued. Serbia is at risk of joining Syria, Cuba, Lybia, Algeria, Iraq, North Korea, and the many African states that reside almost entirely outside the global economy and are weak enough and small enough so that the larger world hardly notices their absence. Even more than in overwhelming military might, the true power animating the 19-nation alliance prosecuting this war against Serbia is economic in nature. Make no doubt about it: people die of poverty.

      We wished the problem simply to go away by itself; it has been almost ten years now, however, and the problem is more acutely painful than ever. Nevertheless, if Milosevic scrapes for a fight with all the major powers of Europe and North America, then time is ultimately very much against him. But in the short-term we cannot avoid dealing with the crisis as currently it is; the situation in Kosovo needs be resolved, the "ethnic cleansing" has to be reversed, and a new modus operandi in Europe must arise Phoenix-like from the ashes. This should be accomplished by peaceful means if Milosevic will give in to NATO demands. It should otherwise, in my opinion, be effected by invasion and violent, wholesale removal of Serbian military forces from Kosovo. The province of Kosovo is the size of metropolitan Los Angeles; a reinforced armored column backed up by massive air support could cut through it in weeks if not days. We can arm the Kosovar Albanians and let them defend what we have won for them. We have the power. Do we have the will? For nearly a decade and to the tune of several hundred thousand lives lost the open wounds which are the Yugoslav wars have run red. It is time for them to stop. No more half measures. No more putting off today's problem (ie. Milosevic and aggressive Serbian nationalism) until tomorrow by making short-term accommodations which lead to the long-term deepening of crises. Let the work begin in earnest. Strike decisively and incessantly at Serbian military forces and infrastructure this spring and into the summer. If the Serbs don't give in to NATO conditions for peace in Kosovo and a return of the refugees, then make the preparations this fall and winter for a ground invasion next spring.

      Yes, a ground war will cost us Americans much in treasure and, much more importantly, in blood. We will take combat dead. We Americans in earlier generations could suck it up and be tough enough to sacrifice; I wonder about this country today, made soft by affluence and a lucky streak in foreign policy for many years now. Clinton symbolizes much of that for me, even as I voted for him twice and have no regrets today (well, not too many regrets). These are times requiring clarity of vision, inspired leadership, and decisiveness. It is, in the main, Clinton's call how to prosecute this war. The stakes are high, the situation complex; history is watching, history will judge. The shape of tomorrow depends on our decisions today.

      Reflecting on these "decisions" I can easily imagine unhappy outcomes to all possible choices! There are phantoms around each corner and pitfalls in every direction! What to do? Indeed! But nations cannot afford to play Hamlet, debating alternatives indecisively and indefinitely: "...the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." Choices must be made, a course charted, so that the ship of state might arrive at its destination. To waver and to drift fecklessly is to be lost. Would that air power were enough to garner a negotiated settlement to this war! Enough to end the cancer that has eaten away for so long at the former Yugoslavia! Would that I could be more sure in knowing which way we should step! Unsure, I look to President Clinton for leadership. Let him rise to the occasion.

      Mr. Clinton, this is no time to go wobbly. You risk gaining the hatred of those you attack, as well as the contempt of those who conclude you are unequal to the challenges of your office. See to the end that which you started.

      Very Truly Yours,


"If we fear so much a country the size of Ohio with only 10 million persons armed with antiquated Russian weaponry, then we deserve all the scorn and shame the Albanian Kosovars can heap on us for having involved ourselves in the region in the first place!"


"Prayers and letters to the editor were not going to stop the violence and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo; hot steel and political willpower ended this war."