March 11, 1999




According to press reports, the House of Representatives will begin debate today on a resolution regarding American troop deployments to Kosovo. Many of those opposed to deployment have looked to a recent article by Henry Kissinger for arguments in support of their position. What follows is a concise critique of Kissinger’s reasoning authored by Seth Cropsey. Seth Cropsey is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, former department chair at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch, Germany, and a former senior defense department official in the Reagan and Bush Administrations.

Kissinger on Kosovo: Dead Wrong
Seth Cropsey

On February 22, 1999, Henry Kissinger published a column in the Washington Post that argued against deployment of U.S. troops to Kosovo. In the article, Kissinger asserts that America has no important strategic interest at stake; that the Balkan peoples are incapable of political moderation and, hence, self-rule; and that Kosovo's status as a part of a sovereign state precludes military intervention.

Kissinger’s piece has provided intellectual cover to a significant number of conservatives opposed to sending troops to Kosovo. In some respects, their opposition should come as no surprise. The Clinton Administration has failed to explain adequately what the U.S. interests are in intervening in the Balkans or shown that it is serious about what needs to be done to protect those very interests. Yet there is a danger here that the pleasant sensation conservatives get from opposing whatever President Clinton proposes will, in turn, nourish a growing taste for reducing America's leadership role around the world that is both strategically and politically destructive.

But what about Kissinger's arguments against involvement? Are the Balkans as irredeemably incapable of "Western concepts of toleration" as he states? The record shows that he is wrong — in Kosovo as well as elsewhere in the region.

Slobodan Milosevic used the issue of control over Kosovo's 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority as a plank in the platform that brought him to power ten years ago. Milosevic subsequently deprived the province of the autonomy that it had enjoyed since 1974. The Kosovars responded with restraint. When Albanians were banned from teaching at the University of Pristina or when they were driven from all public-sector jobs, they peacefully established their own institutions -- for learning, medical care, publishing, and collecting taxes.

Their leader at the time was Ibrahim Rugova, who holds a doctorate in literature from the Sorbonne and who has looked to Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. as guiding examples for reversing Serb oppression.

But Albanian restraint has not been met with corresponding restraint on the part of Belgrade. Serb violations of the Kosovar Albanians’ basic legal and human rights has only increased, culminating in the murderous campaign of the past year. In light of this record, it is no surprise that Albanian support for the Kosovo Liberation Army has grown. But what support that exists today for the KLA among the population is clearly and immediately the consequence of Milosevic’s brutal rule and the absence of any alternative means to protect their families and homes, and not the product (as Kissinger implies) of some “age-old conflict.”

Nor is it the case that the Balkans is a region devoid of examples of political moderation and compromise. During the last week in February -- the same week that Kissinger dismissed people in the region as unfamiliar with compromise -- reports aired on the BBC and appeared in The Economist which contradicted him. The BBC reported that Bulgaria and Macedonia re-solved a long-standing dispute over the future of Bulgarians who speak a Macedonian dialect, a dispute which potentially raised old and bitter territorial issues. The agreement foreswore irredentist claims and included trade agreements, as well as the promise of continuing talks on military cooperation between the two states. Five days later The Economist ran a story about the resolution of a dispute between Turkey and Bulgaria over the fate of the approximately 700,000 ethnic Turks who comprise about nine percent of Bulgaria's 8.5 million population, helping patch up an issue which dates back to the beginning of Ottoman rule.

The Kosovars' own restraint in the face of Serb repression as well as other current and ongoing efforts of elected governments in Montenegro and Macedonia show that the claim that people in the region are unsuited by culture and temperament to democracy is wrong. There is a reasonable chance that political compromise, toleration, and respect for minority rights can take root in southern Europe just as they were able to in northern Europe. But the prospects for democratic governance are immeasurably diminished by the continued rule of the man who is the single greatest threat to moderate politics in the region, Slobodan Milosevic.

The United States' strategic objective in southern Europe should be to equal its accomplishment of the 20th century: ending the great power competition that plagued northern Europe for the past six hundred years. In southern Europe, success means preventing ethnic rivalries from enmeshing other European and Eurasian powers as it did in World War I and can still do. In achieving this, America’s great interest is to protect the peace that we and our allies in two hot wars and one cold one have fought for in the north. This task requires a cooling of the region's ethnic tensions that it has been Milosevic's consistent policy to fan into hatred and bloodshed. Thus, the U.S. has a very substantial interest in preventing Milosevic from brutalizing Kosovo, an act that will be followed by aggression against the non-Serb population of Montenegro, thus consolidating his position as the most powerful enemy of democracy on the European continent.

Finally, Kissinger's point -- one often repeated in Congress -- that Kosovo's status as a Serbian province nullifies the just use of force is a legalistic excuse for inaction. Indeed, it is hard to understand how a man born in a suburb of Nuremberg, where captured Nazi bosses were tried for crimes against humanity, could argue that sovereignty is an acceptable reason for not militarily intervening to prevent the Serbs from committing new atrocities.

If these dubious arguments win over Republicans today, they are likely to erode further the party's support for using the world's most powerful military for anything save an invasion of the American mainland. By allowing the current administration's foreign policy objectives to serve as the guide to what they don't want, Republicans will allow Bill Clinton to wrench the GOP away from the success of its previous half century: the principled and effective advocacy of an active foreign policy that protected the U.S. and its allies as it promoted democracy around the world.

Before becoming president, Ronald Reagan fought Henry Kissinger’s cramped vision of American power in the world and his depreciation of the role of principle in American foreign policy. Conservatives ought not let Kissinger define the limits of American leadership now.