With Kosovo's formal declaration of independence from Serbia on Monday, and the United States' decision to extend recognition to the planet's newest country, the time has come for a look back on the approximately 10 years of intense U.S. involvement in that conflict. Kosovo is a tiny, seemingly worthless patch of land lacking in all natural resources, but it plays a strangely large role in our foreign-policy debates. During arguments about the Iraq War, in particular, liberal hawks had a habit of wielding the poor Kosovar Albanians as a cudgel: If you supported Bill Clinton's 1999 bombing campaign, the argument went, then surely you could support a war against Saddam Hussein.
Then and now, many pro-Kosovo, anti-Iraq liberals could persuasively (Kenneth Roth's 2004 "War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention" is my personal favorite) argue that various factors distinguish the two cases. Still, the argument was never about a strict Kosovo-implies-Iraq logic. Rather, first Bosnia and then Kosovo provided the impetus for an intellectually influential, humanitarian hawk movement aimed at advocating the use of military force to advance liberal values whose leaders, inspired by the success of Kosovo, saw Iraq as potentially continuing the momentum built up in the Balkans.
Today, there are few left-of-center defenders of the Iraq War as it actually exists, but there continues to be considerable concern about an "Iraq Syndrome" overreaction to the chaos that has followed the invasion. Kosovo, in this scheme, is supposed to be the "good war" that serves as a reminder of the positive potential of military force. Thus, even as center-left figures agree that the unilateralism of the Bush era must come to an end, there's a desperate search to find some new mechanism -- perhaps a Global NATO or perhaps a Concert of Democracies -- that could authorize a war that, like Kosovo, is fought neither in self-defense nor in defense of an ally nor with the approval of the U.N. Security Council.
In that light, it's worth taking full measure of how modest our accomplishments in Kosovo have been. The declaration of independence marks not the fulfillment of NATO's objectives in Kosovo, but something more like NATO accepting the fact that those objectives will not be achieved. Rather than a rights-respecting democratic government for an autonomous province, we have a ramshackle state dependent on external support dominated by a sectarian party and where the country's Serb minority rejects the legitimacy of the government and refuses to acknowledge the country's newfound independence. Our successful effort to halt and then reverse the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians was merely followed by a substantial counter-cleansing of Serbs. Human Rights Watch's memorandum on the occasion of Kosovo independence is a bleak reminder of what success has looked like:
Violence against minorities has been a persistent feature of Kosovo's post-war history. Minority communities, including Albanian-speaking Ashkali, were the primary target of the March 2004 riots in Kosovo. Today, with much of Kosovo's Albanian and Serb population separated geographically, there are fewer incidents. But security incidents continue in the remaining ethnically mixed areas, including physical assaults, theft, and violent property-related disputes. Acts of vandalism against Orthodox churches and monasteries continue, damaging confidence and undermining community relations.
Now that Kosovo is formally separate from Serbia, it seems overwhelmingly likely that protecting the rights of the country's geographically concentrated Serb minority will either require the indefinite presence of international troops or else a further round of secession in which Serb sections of Kosovo are carved out and allowed to re-integrate with Serbia. This still looks defensible compared to the alternative course of action of standing aside and letting Milosevic have his way with the province. But many hawks looked at Kosovo and saw not a boundary case for when the use of force might be legitimate, but a new baseline against which future interventions should be judged. If you were willing to use force against Milosevic, the thinking went, then why not Saddam? Why not Sudan? This line of thinking came to a bad end in Mesopotamia, but many harken back to the Balkans to try to make the case that Iraq should be considered an exception and not something that casts aspersions on the utility of unconstrained American power. In reality, Kosovo, though much less disastrous than Iraq, has, like Iraq, turned out to be more problematic than enthusiasts advertised and should, like Iraq, mostly inspire humility about what we can expect to achieve through force.
The truth, though disappointing from the point of view of journalism, is that the most promising humanitarian elements of foreign policy tend to be the boring ones. Timely and effective diplomacy can often avert humanitarian catastrophes before they break out at much lower cost than coercive force can end them once they've started. And the U.N.'s traditional peacekeeping operations, where parties to a conflict request third-party troops to help monitor and enforce a peace deal, have a solid track record of success but are perennially under-resourced by an indifferent United States. Greater commitment -- political, financial, and (when appropriate) military -- to these kinds of operations would bring much larger humanitarian benefits than would any hypothetic humanitarian wars.
Nevertheless, the debate in the United States remains oddly dominated by the specter of unilateral military coercion as a potential tool of humanitarianism, as if the only viable alternative to a callous indifference to the fate of foreigners is to have the Pentagon identify some "bad" foreigners and kill them. One doesn't need to regret the 1999 military operation itself to regret the ways in which hubristic overestimates of what's been achieved in the Balkans have fed into this mentality.