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A Weak Peace: There’s Joy in Belgrade, Only Relief in the West

Author: Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
June 13, 1999
Los Angeles Times


As Yugoslavia’s bloodstained, dishonored and criminal army began slinking out of Kosovo last week, the United States and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization heaved an enormous sigh of relief. Unless Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic manages to pull yet another rabbit out of his hat, it looks as if the war is finally grinding to a halt.

Oddly, there was more public celebration in battered Belgrade than in the Western capitals when the final agreement between NATO and Yugoslavia was announced. While horns honked, fireworks exploded in the sky and pretty girls kissed soldiers in the Yugoslav capital, House Republications debated cutting off funds for U.S. peacekeeping troops, and channel-surfing Americans flicked past the news shows to catch up on "Baywatch."

The joy in Belgrade is easy to understand. A week ago, Yugoslavia faced an indefinitely prolonged bombing campaign, with the danger of a ground war ahead. No more air raids in the middle of the night; no more power and water outages; no more conscripted teenagers heading for the front: What’s not to like?

The West’s apathy takes a little more explaining. NATO has just held together through its sternest military test in 50 years. Nineteen democratic countries have rolled back a criminal army and prevented it from completing the most horrible crime in Europe since the end of World War II.

We win, the Serbs lose.

So why aren’t we happy? Why aren’t we honking horns and dancing in the streets? Where are the VK Day celebrations for the victory in Kosovo?

One reason is that these wars are like contests from hell. First prize: one NATO protectorate in the heart of the Balkans. Second prize? Two NATO protectorates in the Balkans.

There’s another reason for the unenthusiastic reception here to the end of the war. The agreement, alas, isn’t exactly a win.

The United States presented the Serbs with a long list of "non-negotiable" demands this year. With allied cohesion crumbling, the price of the war in damage to U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Chinese relations growing every day and the administration desperate to find a face-saving exit from an increasingly unpopular and unpredictable conflict, the Clinton administration did what it knows best: It caved and spun.

On a number of key "non-negotiable" demands, the administration bought a peace agreement by accepting Russian conditions. The Rambouillet accords—the agreements we went to war to enforce—gave NATO troops the right to travel anywhere in Yugoslavia they wished. That would have been bad news for indicted war criminal Milosevic: With NATO soldiers driving all over his country he wouldn’t have anywhere to hide.

But, desperately anxious to close the deal, the White House caved on this. Under the new peace plan, Milosevic has kept NATO troops out of his remaining territory. This concession gives him a concrete item to point to as something he "won" in the war. NATO demanded that he allow what in practice amounted to a Yugoslav surrender of authority throughout the country; Milosevic stood up to NATO, and the bullies backed down. He will use that fact to help make the case why the Yugoslavs should keep him in power—and out of jail.

Then there’s the question of the peacekeeping force. Last winter, we demanded the Yugoslavs accept a NATO-led peacekeeping force or face war. They refused, we went to war, then stopped the war before the details of the peacekeeping force were worked out. NATO, under pressure to stop the bombing before the Russians agreed on the relationship of the Russian force to NATO—and on the question of where troops will be deployed.

The panic that swept through Western diplomatic and military offices Friday when Russian troops were seen heading toward Kosovo reflects this basic hole in the agreement: There is nothing on paper to prevent the Russians from establishing a Russian zone in Kosovo, which would effectively be a safe zone for the province’s Serbs and a no-go zone for ethnic Albanian refugees.

It was unclear on Friday whether the Russians would accept NATO’s terms for participation in the peacekeeping force, but it was amply clear that NATO had stopped the war without a clear, unambiguous agreement on this once-essential point.

The White House’s third cave: The Rambouillet accords laid out a clear path for the Kosovars to move toward independence after a transitional three years. That pledge has been dropped. The current agreement makes pious, vague references to the "spirit" of the Rambouillet accords, but gives more weight to Yugoslavia’s legal rights over the province.

Add it up, and see the sad truth: The war flopped. It is true that the Serbs have withdrawn, but general agreement had been reached on this point before the bombing began. The deal of June was on the table in February; if we had been willing to accept U.N. authority, Russian troops and Yugoslav sovereignty, we likely could have had it, or something very close, without firing a shot.

While the bombing didn’t get us much in the Balkans, it cost us plenty elsewhere. It’s not just that China is angry about the embassy bombing and Russia is mad about the whole thing. Tiffs like this are the normal stuff of international relations.

The real damage come from the hasty settlement that a badly rattled administration accepted under heavy allied pressure to put a face-saving end to the war. By accepting Russian and Chinese demands to put the settlement under U.N. authority, the problems that future U.S. governments will face when they need to use force without a U.N. mandate.

The United States is the world’s greatest military power today. While we prefer to use force with U.N. authority, we must reserve the right to use military power whenever we think it necessary in defense of vital U.S. interests. As rivals and potential adversaries, Russia and China want to limit U.S. freedom to use military force and, especially, to force us to work through the Security Council, where Russia and China both have vetoes.

One key U.S. goal in this war was to establish the legitimacy of NATO interventions without a U.N. mandate and to build backing among our European allies for more such interventions in the future. We failed. By going back to the Security Council (we did it under heavy pressure from our allies), we tacitly conceded that NATO interventions need U.N. mandates.

This isn’t a victory for the Serbs, but it is a political defeat for the United States—and a first-class diplomatic victory for Russia and China. We wanted to carry out the war as a NATO campaign, but the Yugoslavs refused to surrender to NATO, either at Rambouillet or during the bombing.

The U.S. dream of a NATO willing and able to intervene "out of area" without a Security Council mandate is farther away now than it was three months ago. NATO’s first war will probably be its last, and it is difficult even to imagine the circumstances that will ever again lead Germany to fight by America’s side without a clear mandate from the Security Council.

Meanwhile, the endgame continues. If the Yugoslavs overthrow Milosevic and send him to stand trail for his crimes, the U.S. comes out with more dignity, and this weak peace looks better. If Russia manages to get an occupation zone, the U.S. suffers an unspinnable public defeat.

Don’t look for ticker-tape parades and champagne corks on this one. An unnecessary war has brought an ambiguous peace. Let’s just hope it lasts.