Bruce D. Larkin. Professor of Politics, University of California at Santa Cruz. 13 April 1999.

Is the US bombing of March-April 1999 Sound Policy?

Is the US bombing, largely in Kosovo and Serbia, sound policy? Or is it an expression of Pentagon power? Hegemonistic hubris? The Cold War brought back to life?

I apply the following rules of thumb:

[i]    politics is always preferable to coercion;
[ii]    individuals and peoples have a strong claim to civil security;
[iii]    the war party, claiming that coercion, force, or war is required to maintain civil security, bears a heavy burden to show that civil security cannot be otherwise achieved;
[iv]    bullies should be resisted;
[v]    discriminate force is always preferable to indiscriminate force;
[vi]    every choice of coercion, force, and war further instantiates the ‘war script’, creating a basis for future claims that war is the ‘appropriate’ policy in given circumstances;
[vii]    if coercion, force, or war is chosen, its use should be subject to thoroughgoing civil accountability.

On these guidelines, force to block repression and expulsions in Kosovo, and restore people to their homes, is both appropriate and required, but bombing bridges and industrial targets risks ‘indiscriminacy’ and undermines nascent political coalitions, in Serbia and Montenegro, against Belgrade’s reliance on violence and terror.

1. Framing: An Issue of Civil Security

The problem presented by Kosovo is that a large part of the population of Kosovo was confronted by a threat to its elemental civil security.

2. Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo were Right in Fearing for their Homes and Their Lives

The examples of the Serb leveling of Vukovar, the Croat expulsion of Serbs from the Krajina, and the crushing of the ‘safe havens’ in Bosnia-Herzogovina were more than sufficient reason for the Kosovo Albanians to fear for their future.

Retrospectively, the fact that they have taken flight, and the accounts of Serb measures to drive them from Kosovo, confirm their assessment.

3. Yugoslavia, in 1991, Ceased to Assure Civil Security to Its Population

The raison d’etre of the nation-state is to serve its people, foremost by ensuring elemental security. In 1991, as it collapsed due to Slovenian and Croatian withdrawal, and Serb assertion, Yugoslavia ceased to provide civil guarantees to all of its constituent communities.

4. Yugoslavia Ceased to Exist in 1991

Properly understood, the state of Yugoslavia ceased to exist in 1991. The successive departures of Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia reduced it in population and geography. More significantly, the political understandings on which Tito’s Yugoslavia had established its legitimacy were ruptured. [Note that for a long period the United Nations declined to accept that the government claiming authority in Belgrade was the heir of Yugoslavia’s United Nations seat.]

5. Yugoslavia’s Claim to ‘Sovereignty’ is a Throwback to the Past

A major fact about the last fifty years is that the whole idea of the ‘state’ is changing. It is no longer true–and has not been true since Leopold was forced to concede to European criticism of his rule in the Congo a century ago–that states can succeed in claiming a right to treat their subjects as chattel. Europe was tested on this issue in the 1940s and resolved it definitively in 1945.

On the question of rights, as on nuclear weapons, environmental harms, and the suppression of illegal acts, states are submitting their sovereignty to international norms and practice. No longer can states act against the common good by shielding behind ‘sovereignty,’ ‘national rights,’ ‘territorial integrity,’ and ‘non-interference in the internal affairs . . .’

While states continue to assert their special character, that has in practice been restrained and qualified.

6. The ‘NATO Problem’ is That the NATO States Have Been Afraid to Act as They Should to Ensure Civil Security in Kosovo

The main problem in Kosovo is not that NATO is acting, but that it has been unwilling–at least until today–to address the issue of civil insecurity by the only effective means: achieving civil security on the ground.

Yugoslavia denied its citizens the right to live daily life without fear and with assurance for the future. But such insecurity is not abstract: it is fear of assault by men armed and violent. The response, in every society, is to maintain a police presence which will treat violent acts as crimes, finding, seizing, and holding those who commit them. As Jeremy Bentham long ago noted, justice–to be an effective deterrent–must be prompt and sure.

In Yugoslav conditions, civil security can only be achieved by an effective, restrained, professional police in turn protected by military force.

But no state has been willing to commit its military to such work on the ground. From 1991 to 1993 they vacillated. From 1993 to 1995 they deferred to an ineffective force under United Nations auspices, hobbled by lack of personnel and by crippling operational limits. Dayton put the seal of approval on ethnic cleansing. Forces were on the ground, some deferring to Serb hegemony, and others seeking to enforce an uneasy civil peace. The bottom line is that the NATO states have been unwilling to confront the Yugoslav army on the ground and have been unwilling to guarantee against thuggery and intimidation.

7. Bombing is a Bad Scene, but Late in the Play a Prerequisite for Security on the Ground

We know the reasons why bombing is bad policy:

[i]    it disrupts civil life;
[ii]    it is inherently inexact, killing and maiming innocents;
[iii]    it can only achieve destruction;
[iv]    it is bad precedent; and,
[v]    in this case, it is without UN Security Council approval;
[vi]    it cannot protect the Kosovo Albanians; and
[vii]    it reenforces Milosevic’s claim to act for Serbs and undermines anti-Milosevic coalitions.

The Kosovo Albanians can only be protected–as long as Serbia insists on military control in Kosovo–by ground troops. And that requires the expulsion of the Yugoslav army from Kosovo. Air strikes alone will not accomplish that. Against their political wish not to commit ground troops to fight in Kosovo, the European and North American NATO members must face the fact that they can meet their obligations to decency only by commanding troops to put themselves at risk.

Focused air attack can be justified as needed to create favorable military terms for ground troops.

8. Don’t Lose Sight of the Fact That Milosevic is the Moving Agent of Force

To call the Western democracies ‘restrained’ is cynical understatement. They have repeatedly failed to act on behalf of elemental decency, not only in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, but in Rwanda, and Burundi, and elsewhere.

The bombing campaign was a reluctant undertaking. After all, March 1999 is almost eight years after Vukovar. The piecemeal bombing in Bosnia-Herzegovina came after the failure of the ‘safe havens’ and the Dutch disgrace. Throughout this entire period Milosevic has been granted the time to modernize and prepare, subject only to a leaky economic embargo. The democracies have allowed ‘ethnic cleansing’ to go on and have bought deeply into it to avoid domestic inconvenience.

There is responsibility enough for everyone. Susan Woodward makes a strong case that the delicate fabric of political understandings and accommodations in Yugoslavia was undone by Western imposition of market requirements in the 1980s.

Nonetheless, Milosevic bears individual responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands and the displacement of hundreds of thousands over eight years. This is not to diminish the responsibility of Tudjman and others. But Milosevic has occupied the cockpit and he has piloted Serbia on a path of death and destruction.

9. The General Model of Civil Security

How are politics and force to be balanced when the State fails? What should the democracies have done?

The key is a civilian police force, jointly indigenous and foreign, acting under civilian control. Acts of violence against the people, then, are crimes.

If that force is attacked, it must be defended by an army. And the army must be free to defend itself.

The ‘safe haven’ so established should be gradually extended, but not so far, or in such a way, that it seeks out the Milosevic forces in order to ‘crush’ them.

The object throughout should be open justice, avoidance of favoritism and corruption, and respect for communal difference.

There was a strong case to tell Yugoslavia in mid-1991 that its army was to be barracked, while European forces halted the violence at Vukovar. Similarly, an adequate European force, requiring that Tudjman not commit acts against Croatia’s Serbian population in late 1991 and 1992, might have prevented the breakdown of comity in Croatia.

10. What Can Be Done Now?

Now Kosovo is in shambles, and NATO’s tardiness cannot be repaired. The following steps are the best of a bad lot:

[i]    focus air attacks on the repressive military and paramilitary in Kosovo and their immediate supply lines;
[ii]    as soon as military preconditions are ready, insert ground troops and expel remaining Yugoslav armed forces from Kosovo;
[iii]    return the population, Albanians and Serbs, as many as are willing to do so;
[iv]    enforce civil security;
[v]    protect the civil forces by a stout military capacity at the borders, ensuring against any use of Yugoslav military force; and
[vi]    move promptly to create the prerequisites for a sustainable, participatory society, governing itself with justice.

11. A Note About the UNSC

If the United States and other NATO countries bear responsibility for failing to act, so too do Russia and China for failing to grant the need for civil security and insist on measures to ensure it. The canonical recitation that both Russia and China fear breakaway regions simply fails to justify their acting as they have.

Certainly the Security Council has already been deeply embarrassed by its failure in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and yet there has been a modicum of US-Russian cooperation. Over the longer term, the five permanent members jeopardize the UN structure, and its promise, if they fail to negotiate their differences directly.

© 1999 Bruce D. Larkin. This statement may be freely reproduced, provided it is reproduced in its entirety, including this notation. Any other use, including quotation, is permitted only with the written consent of the author. Contact larkin@learnworld.com    This note was originally posted to

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