Kosovo: No Retreat Possible

The debate between idealism and realism in U.S. foreign policy dates back to the birth of the nation. Thomas Jefferson saw America's role in the world in idealistic terms: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against any form of tyranny over the mind of man." Alexander Hamilton was ever the realist: "Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct." In the end, Jefferson's idealism triumphed because it suited the moral, humanitarian strain in America. After all, the U.S. fought an empire to be free. And Woodrow Wilson led the U.S. into war to make the world "safe for democracy." He said: "America is the only idealistic nation in the world."

Which brings us to Kosovo. Try as they might, foreign policy realists cannot make a solid case that U.S. intervention is in the national interest. The fighting is a civil war between two religious groups that dates back a thousand years. The regional conflict doesn't threaten Western Europe. It isn't near any oil. Failure to act reflects poorly on the credibility of U.S. leadership, but no more so than not stopping the massacres in Rwanda. NATO was never designed to intervene in Balkan atrocities. Intervention actually hurts American interests by antagonizing Russia, the one country with tens of thousands of nukes. In terms of realpolitik, intervention doesn't parse.

Only an idealistic case can be made for American action in the Kosovo conflict, and it is a good one. After the horrors of the 20th century, how can civilized, decent people permit genocide? After the rise of Hitler, the camps, and World War II, how can good people allow such evil to exist?

But there is a problem with idealism as foreign policy. Successful implementation requires the kind of military force that repulses idealists. Combating evil carries a high price. To stop Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbs from butchering the people of Kosovo would require implementing the Powell Doctrine: Apply overwhelming force to achieve specific goals. In the Kosovo fighting, that would mean sending up to half a million NATO troops into the region--hardly a pleasant prospect. Serbia and Kosovo are mountainous, forested areas, not flat desert as in Iraq. And the Serbs have a long history of being smart guerrilla fighters. Serbian partisans pinned down 20 divisions of German troops in the hills during World War II. They are likely to take to these familiar hills if NATO were to invade. Still, by promising not to send in troops from the very beginning, Clinton immediately gave away the bargaining tool that could have made the difference.

So far, the bombing has led to the strengthening, not weakening, of Milosevic and an increase, not decrease, in Albanian refugees fleeing Kosovo. Surprised and incredulous that they could not bomb Serbia back to the bargaining table, Washington and NATO now face the risk of severe embarrassment. Unless steps are quickly taken, one outcome of the bombing could easily be Milosevic remaining in power and in control of a depopulated Kosovo.

What to do? First, NATO should step up the bombing, even if it means taking more risks. Second, the U.S. and its allies must prepare for a massive troop buildup if it becomes necessary. And of course we should use Soviet Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to help broker the inevitable negotiations. The goal is not an independent Kosovo but an autonomous region of Serbia--the state of affairs that existed under Marshall Tito. NATO troops would be needed to keep the peace and resettle the returning refugees. It's time to face up to what must be done. There is no retreat possible.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.