Wars of Hatred
Ending fourteen months in which he was resolute only for drift, Bill Clinton lurched into a bombing campaign against Serbia whose goals he never defined and whose consequences he did not anticipate. As a result, the Kosovar Albanians, NATO, and the United States face a genuine disaster. Administration officials have been incompetent in articulating the reasons for responding vigorously, and it falls to their critics to make the case. The president has shown himself so opportunistic that the arguments he does make -- such as his rather offhand comparison of Milosevic to Hitler -- tend to be discredited.
But the president's comparison to Hitler may be more apt than he knows. As I shall argue, ethnic cleansing and genocide, while not the same, are kin and spring from different sources than the traditional oppression of minorities. Rather than atavistic political manifestations, these forms of violence are disturbing products of modernity.
The most prominent arguments against strong intervention in Kosovo -- the "ancient enmities" argument and the "Why not everywhere?" argument -- assume that ethnic cleansing is nothing new. A classic formulation of the former is: "It's a civil war. Generations -- no, centuries -- they've been fighting." The latter is simple: If we will fight for the suffering Albanians of Kosovo, why not for the victims of oppression in southern Sudan, in Sri Lanka, in Sierra Leone, and in fifty other places?
The Nazi genocide, by contrast, clearly was unusual, and invoking it now is not entirely polemical. To be sure, Serb nationalists have never sought the extermination of Albanians or objected to their living in Albania, whereas Hitler wanted to wipe out every Jew. Yet Serb officials speak of Albanians in terms reminiscent of Nazi rhetoric, with its biological and sexual obsessions. "Serbs think with their brains, Albanians with their genitals," the foreign minister of the now-defunct Serb mini-state in Croatia told me.
Moreover, Kosovo and the other instances of ethnic cleansing since 1989 have psychological and civilizational roots similar to those of Hitler's racial program. Real ethnic cleansing -- the attempt to eliminate from one's territory all the people of a given identity -- is rare in human history. It seems to have been first practiced by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who killed the men of conquered cities like Melos and Carthage and sold the women and children into slavery. It is significant that this was done not by the monarchies or oligarchies, like Persia or Sparta, but by cities ruled by the whole people, by democracies or at least republics. In the Middle Ages the Jews were repeatedly expelled from European countries, beginning with England and ending with Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497. Paradoxically, these ethnic cleansings occurred not in the depths of the dark ages but in more civilized times and places; the survival of many Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom is an indicator of its backwardness. Ours, of course, has been the great century of ethnic cleansing. Over the broad sweep of history, this impulse has gone not with underdevelopment but with progress.
History is full of ethnic oppression and ethnic massacres. But ethnic oppression and ethnic cleansing are not the same. We casually equate the instances of ethnic conflict in Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Iraq. But Saddam Hussein has never tried to eliminate the Kurds or the Shiites (half the population): He wants to rule them and exploit them, and he is willing to use the most brutal means. Similarly, in Rwanda and Burundi, few, if any, of the ethnic massacres since 1963 apparently have been attempts to kill an entire ethnic group. In Rwanda in 1994, I am told, many Hutus sheltered Tutsi friends. These horrors are extreme cases of a situation common in most of Africa and in other third-world countries: An ethnic group uses political institutions to secure a disproportionate share of the offices and wealth; then it uses the powers of the state to quell the inevitable discontent among other ethnic groups, killing people where necessary.
Ethnic conflict provoked by discrimination is characteristic of third-world countries like Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Iraq, Guatemala, and Sri Lanka. This kind of conflict is tragic, but it rarely demands U.S. action. It forces on ethnic minorities a bad situation, but not usually an impossible situation. One can live one's life while accommodating oneself to the domination of another ethnic group and seeking to avoid victimization wherever possible. In countries with traditional politics, focused on who gets the larger share of the pie, ethnic minorities usually can survive. There are usually as much corruption, friendship, compassion, and favoritism as there is discrimination, precisely because such regimes stand for no principle that they rigorously impose.
A different pattern of ethnic conflict is characteristic of the liberated Soviet bloc. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict flared in 1988 and was followed by ethnic cleansing in Azerbaijan proper and in Armenia, Croatia, Bosnia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, North Ossetia in Russia, and now Kosovo. This pattern starts not with discrimination, but with the coexistence of ethnic groups that enjoy group rights, often in a region dominated by one ethnic group, within a larger republic dominated by another.
In fact, it is collapsed communism that has offered the most fertile soil for ethnic cleansing. The very phrase, coined in the early 1990s, in Russian and Serbian uses the word chistka, the standard term for a party purge. As a consequence of the transition from Communist political forms to new ones, including the democratic mobilization and privatization the West has favored, the structures of the state are decisively weakened. In Kosovo, after Milosevic took w away the province's autonomy, the Albanians in effect seceded from the state and set up a competing government.
In the absence of normal state institutions, a situation arises where, as Michael Ignatieff explains in Blood and Belonging, "If you can't trust your neighbors, drive them out. If you live among them, live only among your own. This alone appeared to offer people security. This alone gave respite from the fear that leaped like a brush fire from house to house." In the absence of an ideological justification for ruling over people, like Marxism-Leninism, and of effective, politically neutral police and courts, communities fall back on the simplest, most instinctive definition of the political community: It is composed of people like us, neighbors who share our identity, ethnic or religious. What then is to be done about the others, who have an identity different from ours? Here comes the impact of modern notions of mass mobilization and popular rule. We disenchanted modern men no longer have available theories to justify the rule of one class, race, or religion over others. If we are thoroughly modern relativists, who cannot judge other people, we begin to lack even a justification for assimilating the Other in a dominant culture or constitutional system. As the brilliant Hungarian thinker G. M. Tamas, now at Georgetown University, has pointed out, the shift of orientation, in Western societies, from integration to multi-culturalism parallels the shift in the post-Communist world in 1989-92 to a desire for the ethnically pure community achieved by ethnic cleansing.
Ethnic cleansing is an appalling solution to a deeply felt quandary of modern man, who acknowledges no authority, who "privileges" no discourse, world-view, or institution over others. In different, vastly harsher circumstances, it is a solution akin to separate academic departments for African-American studies, women's studies, Jewish studies. We don't want to be judged by the Other; let us just keep to ourselves and do our own thing. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is so consistent that he regards ethnic Serbs in Sarajevo, who in an earlier age would have been seen as a source of influence or a potential Fifth Column, as hostages: They must separate and live with their own kind. Contemporary ethnic cleansing is not imperialistic, but says: Leave us alone -- once we have gathered in all of our own people. In Kosovo, it says: What can be done with the Albanian Other on our Serb land, within our Serb community? The only solution is to drive him out or kill him. If he dominates numerically, we no longer rule; there is no legitimate authority any more.
Far from being the reaction of an oppressive government that wants to rule people against their will, ethnic cleansing presupposes the impossibility of imperialism and domination in the modern world. It is thoroughly at home in the post-Gorbachev world, where rulers like de Klerk in South Africa, Rabin and Peres in the West Bank and Gaza, and Blair in Northern Ireland are, like Gorbachev, giving up on governing peoples against their will. The frightening thing about ethnic cleansing is that it is not a remnant of political backwardness, but a manifestation of what may be deepest in us modern men and women. It does not go with autocracy, imperialism, and oppression, but with popular rule, community, authenticity, self-expression. It could be the wave of the future.
It is here that there is a certain connection, though a complicated one, with Hitler's genocide. Hitler was impelled to ethnic cleansing and mass murder by a combination of post-Christian anti-Semitism, muddled 19th-century scientific materialism, primacy of the body and "race," social Darwinism -- and the relativism he drew from the philosopher he most admired, Friedrich Nietzsche. In 1933, Germany was the most intellectually sophisticated country, the most "post-modern," anywhere. Since 1945, Nietzsche's relativism or "nihilism," to use a term he coined, has swept the world. In this country, conservatives talk about "values," a term from Protestant theology that Nietzsche adopted to express the impossibility of reaching universal standards of right and wrong. As for Americans generally, their reaction to the Monica Lewinsky scandal showed how deeply the idea that we can't judge each other's behavior has taken root.
What is the political implication of this historic turn in human consciousness? The Nazi regime, is, to date, the government most permeated by nihilistic thinking. Liberal democracy, in contrast, is a project of 18th-century rationalism. It insists that the best political order can be rationally justified and assumes that people of utterly different origins can become full participants. How liberal democracy will fare under relativism, now that its certainties are no longer bolstered by the Cold War, remains to be seen. But the effect of relativism on societies without liberal-democratic traditions and institutions is clearer.
The collapse of communism, with its deadening reign of a Truth in which no one believed, has opened the former Communist world to the impact of relativism. If no one has the right to judge what is good and bad, which form of government is better or worse, we must fall back on the only community that is given, prior to argument and demonstration: the community of ethnicity and religion. And if there are Others in the community, there is nothing to do but drive them out or kill them; the collapse of rationalism leaves no way of including them, the equality of values no excuse for ruling them. Thus, the possible consequences of this pattern of ethnic conflict are far worse than the consequences of the third-world pattern, the human price far higher. It simply becomes impossible for the outsider to coexist in a community dominated by post-modern ethnic consciousness.
It is a matter of great moment that the forces of liberal democracy should stand against this terrifying phenomenon -- which may be not the vestige of something the world is growing out of, but the reappearance of a horror the world only began to sample in 1933.
The Hatred of War
In contemporary ethnic cleansing, we are becoming aware of a new current in history not yet fully visible. Understandably, we have had trouble naming it and responding to it. Our president has identified Milosevic's ethnic cleansing both with Hitler's Holocaust and with scattered incidents of gay-bashing.
Further impeding our ability to respond is another new and elusive historical current: the fading away of modern war as an accepted way of solving nations' problems. Throughout history there has been violence between individuals and groups; indeed, in the former Communist world, violence is even increasing. But conflicts like those in the Balkans in the 1990s are not war in the sense that emerged in the 17th century and culminated in the cataclysm of World War II -- sharply distinct from peace in time and place, undertaken by states against other states, for political goals, and by means of trained armies. In Bosnia and Kosovo, as in Transdniester, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya, and Tajikistan, peacetime seems like war, wartime like peace. Most of the victims are civilians, as are many of the fighters, among them criminal gangs raised not by the state but by gangster-warlords like Arkan. The aims include the plunder and rape of enemy civilians.
At the same time, it would seem that the West no longer wishes to wage war. Thus, in the Kosovo conflict, when NATO decided after long hesitation to hit military targets in the enemy's capital, it chose to hit them in the middle of the night, lest enemy soldiers be killed or wounded. An observer from a different era, looking at Western conduct in Bosnia and Kosovo, might conclude that no war, but some sanguinary ritual or game, was in progress. The events would seem to add up to some sort of handicap race.
In a handicap race, an attempt is made to compensate for the fact that different racehorses have different capabilities. The healthiest and fastest horses are loaded with weights, just sufficient to give the feebler horses a chance against them. The handicaps we impose on Western forces take many forms.
They take the form of sanctuary areas, for instance, like the bases in baseball, where we undertake not to attack the enemy. Thus, in Bosnia, when we were angriest at the Bosnian Serbs, who had just massacred the Muslim civilians of Srebrenica in cold blood, we bombed around Pale but left the Bosnian Serbs' stronghold in Banja Luka untouched. Throughout the long, agonizing war in Bosnia, we carefully respected the Bosnian Serbs' greatest vulnerability: the Brcko or Posavina corridor connecting Serbia proper and Serb-occupied Western Bosnia in the north. Serb reinforcements, fuel, and ammunition were funneled through this bottleneck less than five miles wide, commanded on both sides by Bosnian and Croatian guns. From Cannae to Desert Storm, the peak of the military art was to encircle and destroy the enemy. In Bosnia, we didn't even want to think about it.
At other times we let Milosevic call timeouts from the game. We did this again in recent months in Kosovo: NATO made demands under threat of military action; Milosevic agreed to some, or simply agreed to negotiate; we dropped our threats; and the cycle started all over. Are we doing this for fun? If so, we've been playing it right: Milosevic concedes something, though no one believes his promises; our jockeys slacken their efforts; his sprint ahead; then we try to catch up. We won't know the winner till the end of the race. Bosnia went on this way for years.
This mode of behavior on NATO's part reflects a historical pattern in the West. Since 1815, when the last foreign wars involving Switzerland and Sweden ended, larger and larger zones of peace have been created in Europe and North America. Today, although there are many tensions between the United States and Canada, or between Germany and France, it is unthinkable that these nations' statesmen would resort to war to get what they want or that their publics would be willing to fight. This is the phenomenon that Michael Mandelbaum and other theorists have labeled "debellicization": the gradual inanition of "major war," meaning war in the sense accepted since about 1650; its disappearance from the repertory of politics, of statesmanship, and of life. The result is NATO in the Balkans: We don't seriously wage war against Milosevic because we don't like war anymore.
For relations between Germany and France, this great transformation is an almost unmixed gain. For the Balkans and the Caucasus, its benefits are not so clear. When "major war" becomes obsolete, how do we respond to violence of the kind employed by Milosevic as well as by kidnapping gangs in Chechnya, warlords in Somalia, drug traffickers in Colombia, and Islamic terrorists such as Osama bin Laden? Milosevic seems able to employ his style of violence much more effectively than we can employ ours. This great historical transformation, and its effect on our reaction to ethnic cleansing, requires urgent reflection.
Professional soldiers have contempt for the handicap-race approach to war. The game-like character of the enterprise means that the military services cannot do a professional job, and they don't want to do less. For soldiers, to use force is to wage war. The aim of war is victory, usually achieved by crippling the opposing forces in the shortest possible time. In war, there are two sides: your side and the enemy. If others are shooting at the enemy, they are your allies. In a war, it is useful to have allies: Sometimes they can do things more easily than you can -- for example, accept casualties, or fight for less money. War is a great simplifier.
But what we have avoided like death itself in the Balkans is saying we are fighting with the Bosnians or the Kosovars. Even today, we officially oppose the independence of Kosovo, although we are bombing Serbia daily to protect people who will accept nothing else. In fact, what we seem to be doing in Kosovo is what we did consciously in Bosnia: seek to impose some neutral, objectively fair solution on all the hostile parties. This may be wonderfully idealistic, but it creates a tremendous practical problem: The parties involved all oppose the neutral solution. This vastly increases the diplomatic muscle or military force required to secure it -- and does so at the very time we have crippled ourselves with the handicap-race syndrome. Just try to imagine World War II fought this way. We couldn't have provided Lend Lease or fought alongside the Allies because Churchill was a colonialist, Stalin a Bolshevik.
If there are no local friends in ethnic conflicts as we fight them, there also seem to be no enemies. We want to hurt Milosevic just enough to make him accept our neutral, objectively fair solution but not enough to destroy him. Does this sound familiar? It is exactly the strategy by which the Johnson administration fought the Vietnam War. Harvard professor Thomas Schelling, who invented it, called this "coercive diplomacy." The idea is not to destroy the other side's capability to resist you, but to affect his calculations in a bargaining process. In coercive diplomacy, we bargain by hurting the enemy; we try to reach a point at which for Milosevic, the pain from cleansing Kosovo outweighs the gain.
In Vietnam, it didn't work. And it hasn't worked well in Bosnia or Kosovo. It is a typical creation of intellectuals, wonderfully deft and subtle in principle but too complicated and ambiguous for any actual coalition to pull off in the confusion of the actual Balkans. Amazingly, the American national-security establishment keeps trying it again and again, although the country was irreparably maimed by the first attempt. Such a strange pattern belongs not to the world of problem solving but to the world of ritual. It suggests that what is at work beneath the surface is not the will to manage crises, but rather the habit of projecting on real events a psychological need for "debellicization." Out of this confusion, nothing can come except endless dithering over means and groping for goals, false hopes, disappointment, and futility.
In this slough we will wallow helplessly until we return to the inherent logic of the use of force: Force should be used only to wage war. And war is no handicap race: It allows for no sanctuaries, no timeouts, no weapons or tactics whose use is excluded from the beginning. In the Balkans, if we are to wage war, we must wage it against Milosevic, his regime, and his special police. This does not mean waging war against the Serbs, who suffer from the corruption of the regime and the international isolation it has brought to Serbia, and who scorn Milosevic's corrupt gang even as they spit defiance at NATO. Every statement of NATO's intentions toward Kosovo should (but does not) reiterate our resolve to secure, in any settlement, the Serbs' continued control of their shrines and historical sites, as well as internationally guaranteed rights for the Serb minority. To accomplish this will not be easy in the disastrous situation that has arisen.
Similarly, we must face the fact that we are on the side of the Kosovars. Because we are on their side, we can expect their assistance in what we are doing. And we can expect the support of Milosevic's other enemies, Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, and the pro-Western Montenegrins. Of course, taking someone's side is complicated by the fact that our allies never have all the attitudes we would choose. But if we are on their side, we gain more influence over them than if we were trying to impose our own neutral solution. Only by taking someone's side can we substantially influence their goals. Luckily, the Kosovars seem to have a stronger sense of community than the Bosnians and to unite more clearly behind responsible leaders. Nor is the ethnic map of Kosovo as complex as Bosnia's -- there are only two contending sides instead of three. In these respects the Kosovars are likely to be easier allies than the Bosnians.
So, then, should we arm the Kosovo Liberation Army? This is the right idea, but the wrong slogan. What we need to do is arm and fight alongside a Kosovar military force. The KLA is a coalition of armed bands, some containing dubious elements like drug traders and Marxists-Leninists. Although we do not know enough to be sure, it seems that the KLA was unable to impede Milosevic's ethnic cleansing. Thus, in the present national emergency, the KLA is largely discredited. There is every reason to mount a new military effort that is above faction. Anyone who is fighting beside the Kosovars, supplying them with arms, training, and money, will be in a position to influence the leadership, and agenda of their military force.
To fight beside the Kosovars is important for another reason: It is the only way to get out. We do need an "exit strategy," both because domestic anxieties demand it and because the Balkans are not, ultimately, a vital American interest on a par with Central Europe or Japan. The notion that we should make Kosovo a sort of NATO protectorate will result in endless demands for troops and money, endless headaches and recriminations. The great difficulties in implementing the Dayton accords in Bosnia show how badly such arrangements work in practice.
The final objection to arming the Kosovars is that it would take too long. It is odd to hear this from the same administration that urges us daily to wait for the results of the bombing. The time it takes to create a military capability among defeated guerrillas and enraged refugees is being overestimated. We need only two things from a Kosovar military force: first, a willingness to commit itself, on the whole, to the settlement we reach together and not to wreck it behind our backs; and second, a province-wide guerrilla threat that will work synergistically with our air power to cripple the Serb army and police in Kosovo, as the French resistance worked with the Allied bombing campaign to paralyze the Wehrmacht in May-June 1944. We could begin to create this threat in days, by airdropping simple weapons in areas where the KLA is still active. The rocket-propelled grenade launcher was the weapon of the Chechen and Afghan victories, and the Kosovars don't have many. Judging from the speed with which untrained but highly motivated Americans were turned into adequate armies in 1861 and 1917, we could probably train an awesome Kosovar guerrilla army in three months.
Finally, do we need to "go in on the ground"? Yes, though there is no need to rely primarily on Western troops against Serbia in ground combat. Nor should we require 200,000 NATO troops -- the figure invoked to prevent any NATO action at all. It was a much smaller Croatian army, trained by retired American officers and supplemented by NATO air power, that more or less brought the contending forces in Bosnia to a settlement. Talk of "going in on the ground" tends to come from those who crave an imposed, neutral solution and embrace the notion of a protectorate. Most of what NATO could do would be done better by our Kosovar allies working with our air power.
As Paul Wolfowitz has argued, the capability of air power is far greater today than ever before in history -- if we use it effectively. But it is very hard for air power to be effective against an army that doesn't have to come out of hiding and fight. In our panic, we have decided to send to the Balkans a mere 24 of some 2,000 Apache attack helicopters, our most effective system for the Kosovo theater. We should send in a few battalions from Macedonia to seize "sanctuaries" in the easily defensible southwest corner of Kosovo and beyond the Kacanik pass. Units of similar size could seize communications links to Kosovo, such as the tunnels and river crossings beyond Podujevo. And we should begin creating the infrastructure for a much more massive heliborne and armored attack from Albania and Hungary, should that be necessary to end the war.
A problem, we all know, sometimes grows beyond its measure. We begin to worry not about the problem but about how we can deal with it, then about whether we can deal with it at all. Forgetting the scale of the problem and our own strength, we soon descend to anguished self-doubt and paralysis. For the West, the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia became such a problem, and the catastrophe in Kosovo is developing the same way. But NATO, which enters the millennium as the only superpower alliance, commands the power to end the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. For the liberal democracies, it may not be grandiose to say that their understanding of civilization is at stake. What is necessary is to face the depth of the emergency and summon the will to wage war.
Charles H. Fairbanks Jr. is director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.