Article by Peter Maass

It’s Risky to Talk Tough on Kosovo

The New York Times  |  March 10, 1998

The Clinton Administration does not hesitate to express its moral outrage when a crisis unfolds in a place like Kosovo, a province of Serbia where 90 percent of the residents are ethnic Albanians.

“We are not going to stand by and watch the Serbian authorities do in Kosovo what they can no longer get away with doing in Bosnia,” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned after the Serbian police and paramilitary units killed scores of men, women and children in what Serbia portrays as a war on terrorism. Ms. Albright’s warning sounds stern, but how serious is she? It is far easier to be the world’s conscience than to be the world’s policeman.

The United States and several allies agreed yesterday to impose mild economic sanctions on Yugoslavia. But if the violence continues, will the Clinton Administration rightly insist on stiffer sanctions? Will it resort to military measures? What does Ms. Albright mean when she says the United States is “not going to stand by”? Does the Administration plan to litter Belgrade once more with Security Council resolutions?

Most likely, Ms. Albright hopes Kosovo will quiet down, averting the need for hard decisions, but she may not be so lucky. She should keep in mind a lesson from Bosnia: at the outset of a crisis, it may be better to tell the truth than say the right thing. The strong expression of moral outrage—without an accompanying will to do anything of substance—can be worse than useless; it can be harmful.

The expression of outrage has many effects. It reassures the American public, which wants to hear the White House say the right thing (though not necessarily do the right thing if that means risking American lives). Outrage also puts the perpetrator—in this case, President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia—on notice that he will be punished unless he changes his ways. Lastly, the expression of outrage gives hope to victims by letting them know that the world’s superpower may come to their rescue. This is what can be harmful.

When the former Yugoslavia was falling apart in 1991 and 1992, the Bush Administration made it clear, in the memorable words of James Baker, then Secretary of State, that it had “no dog in that fight.” Mr. Baker was wrong about that—the stability of Europe and NATO was at stake—but at least he was honest. The independence-minded Governments in Croatia and Bosnia knew they would not get much help from the Bush crowd.

But Bill Clinton, running for President at the time, called for strong action against the Serbs. Once he took office, the moral posturing became fiercer, though action was not forthcoming until 1995, when the Dayton accord was imposed and troops were dispatched to Bosnia. In the interim, Bosnians died by the thousands.

Throughout the war, Bosnia’s desperate Government hoped for military support from the United States, or at least the lifting of a crippling arms embargo. Salvation seemed possible because the Clinton Administration never ceased expressing its outrage and never ruled out military intervention, notably air strikes. The prospect of American rescue was not the sole or main reason Bosnians fought and died—but it played a role.

Needless to say, the expression of outrage in Washington no longer carries much weight in the Balkans. Mr. Milosevic knows not to take the Clinton Administration’s warnings seriously. Kosovo’s Albanians are well aware of their geopolitical quandary. They reside within the internationally recognized borders of Yugoslavia. They know better than to expect the Administration’s actions to be consistent with its oratory.

But hope springs eternal, even when we wish it would not. If the Administration has no intention of truly standing up to Mr. Milosevic, its moral posturing should be accompanied by an honest assessment of the actions it will not take. Ms. Albright, who knows the lessons of Bosnia better than anyone else in the Administration, should not begin another process of conscientious hypocrisy.