Myth About America's Commitment In Kosovo

Report Europe

Myth About America's Commitment In Kosovo

August 24, 2000 24 min read
John Hulsman
Former Senior Research Fellow
John is a former Senior Research Fellow.

In 1999, peacekeeping troops from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and officials from the United Nations arrived in Kosovo to attempt to reconstruct the war-ravaged, ethnically divided Serbian province. Despite their efforts, peace has not come to Kosovo. The strain on the alliance forces is beginning to show. Today, the 5,900 U.S. troops that President Bill Clinton committed to the mission are in harm's way, trying to separate the warring factions while acting as social workers and performing other civic duties, with no end to the deployment in sight. The open-ended nature and costs of this mission, combined with its ineffectiveness in achieving its goal of creating multiethnic harmony, is causing increasing frustration in Congress, as recent deliberations over the defense funding bills before the House of Representatives and the Senate demonstrate.

Congress is right to be concerned; American taxpayers paid for a large part of the effort in Kosovo, including the bulk of the NATO air campaign against Slobodan Milosevic's forces. This imbalance in burden-sharing put undue strain on the U.S. military. After the air campaign ended and the NATO-led peacekeeping force (KFOR) took over, America's European allies, embarrassed by their lopsided lack of involvement in the war, pledged to shoulder the majority of the peacekeeping burden. Yet as Brigadier Richard Shirreff, the British commander of NATO forces in Central Kosovo, noted, "The EU [European Union] seems incapable of getting anything done without a bureaucratic wrangle.... The international community and the bureaucracy of the EU are finding it next to impossible to release the money [promised]."1

House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R-OH) is among those who sought to address this continuing burden-sharing imbalance through legislation. Kasich has offered an amendment to the defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2001 (H.R. 4205) to require the President to monitor and report to Congress on the allies' efforts to fulfill their financial commitments, and to enable Congress to terminate funding for the U.S. deployment after April 1, 2001, if the President does not make such certification. The Kasich amendment, approved 264 to 153, is now being considered by a House-Senate conference committee. Specifically, it stipulates that the Europeans must fulfill 50 percent of the overall allied pledges for Kosovo reconstruction in 1999 and 2000, 85 percent of the humanitarian pledges, and 90 percent of the funding needed for a civil-military police.2

In a similar effort, on May 9 Senators John W. Warner (R-VA) and Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) offered an amendment to the Senate's defense appropriations bill for fiscal year 2001 (S. 2521) to restrict the U.S. involvement in Kosovo. The Byrd-Warner amendment, which was defeated by a close vote of 53 to 47, would have terminated funding for the deployment of U.S. troops in Kosovo after July 1, 2001, unless the President submitted a detailed request subject to congressional debate and approval. Furthermore, the amendment would have required the President to submit a plan to Congress detailing the means by which U.S. ground troops would be replaced by allied forces. The close vote on this amendment illustrates that many Senators share the frustration of their colleagues in the House about the lackluster financial, technological, and military contribution that America's European allies have made to the Kosovo mission.

During the recent congressional debates, many argued that it is imperative for the United States to retain its combat troop presence in Kosovo. A withdrawal, they say, could harm America's interests. Yet such arguments rely on myths to bolster a mission that itself could prove disastrous for the United States. In each case, the reality on the ground in Kosovo makes clear that remaining indefinitely in the region is not in America's best interests.

Myth #1: Withdrawing U.S. troops from Kosovo will lead to heightened unrest in the province.
Speaking of the Byrd-Warner amendment, Vice President Al Gore declared that a withdrawal from Kosovo under the terms of the amendment would have "emboldened those in the region who favor violence as a solution to their disputes, and handed President Milosevic a victory that he could not win through military force."3

Indeed, many supporters of the intervention believe an American withdrawal would give the ethnic factions a target date to resume their hostilities. A recent Washington Post editorial stated, "Peacekeeping is inevitably open-ended: If you set a deadline for withdrawal, warmongers know they need only wait in order to resume
fighting."4 Renewed violence, supporters say, would leave America's European allies stranded in an unmanageable situation.

Reality: Unrest in Kosovo prevailed before, during, and after the air war, and the peacekeeping mission has not brought the Kosovars closer to multiethnic harmony. An orderly U.S. withdrawal will not change this dynamic.
It is far from certain that a withdrawal of U.S. troops would spur violence that would not otherwise have occurred. Ethnic and religious tensions have persisted in the area for hundreds of years and are likely to continue with or without the U.S. presence. To lessen the consequences for the U.S. military from an open-ended commitment in Kosovo, and to allow the Europeans time to decide if they wish to continue the mission, the United States could begin to withdraw its combat forces after privately informing its allies well in advance. The Europeans could choose to remain in the province or pull out as well. If they chose to remain, under the provisions of the NATO's Combined Joint Task Force mechanism (CJTF),5 the United States could contribute the valuable lift, logistics, and intelligence support that they will need.

Coordinating the withdrawal in this way would not be betraying the commitment the United States has made to its NATO allies. Instead it would send a signal that the United States recognizes that an indefinite deployment in Kosovo is not in America's best interests. Its allies would be under no pressure to reach a similar conclusion.

Myth #2: The Europeans are upholding their commitments in Kosovo.
With the United States, the European Union is contributing financing for the postwar reconstruction in Kosovo. Recently, the EU stated that it is making a very major contribution to the support of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and to the reconstruction of Kosovo. The EU bolsters this claim by detailing all of the different forms of aid it has promised to Kosovo, rather than what it has appropriated or delivered, to reach its estimate of almost $3 billion spent on the province.6 This sizeable figure is used to deflect the criticism that the Europeans are not fulfilling their pledges to carry more of the burden.

Reality: The actual European commitment to the Kosovo mission does not yet qualify as equitable burden-sharing.
America's contribution to the entire campaign has been significant. To cover for the European allies' warfighting deficiencies during the air campaign, U.S. aircraft flew two-thirds of the strike missions; nearly every precision-guided missile was launched from U.S. aircraft. The European allies' technological contribution to the war effort was hampered by a lack of computerized weapons, night-vision equipment, and advanced communications resources. Air Force General Michael Short, who oversaw the NATO bombing campaign, even curtailed European strike missions to avoid unnecessary risk to NATO troops. These shortcomings are the result of inadequate defense expenditures by the allies.

In all, the U.S. military commitment during the Kosovo war accounted for approximately 80 percent of the warfighting assets utilized by NATO.7 The postwar peacekeeping effort was supposed to remedy this burden-sharing imbalance within the alliance. As Kenneth Juster, a senior official in the U.S. Department of State under President George Bush, observes,

The United States, which carried much of the financial burden of the military operations against Serbia, reiterated its expectation that the EU would bear most of the cost of the long-term reconstruction of Kosovo. The EU agreed.8

As a result of the Europeans' failure to live up to their promises, the Byrd-Warner amendment was introduced. Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) argued that the purpose of the amendment was to express frustration at Europe's inflated sense of its political role compared with its underinflated defense capabilities. Lott warned, "Commitments are not being fulfilled by the Europeans, and that is unacceptable."9 Although the European allies have begun to increase their financial contributions, their efforts still fall short of their pledges. According to Representative Kasich, the allies promised $402 million to rebuild Kosovo but have provided only $93 million.10 This estimate conforms to figures provided by the allies themselves: When pressed for details about whether it could meet the burden-sharing requirements in the Byrd-Warner amendment, the EU provided estimates for reconstruction assistance that closely matched Kasich's figure.11

Myth #3: Significant progress has already been made in Kosovo toward nation-building.
The Administration consistently describes the situation in Kosovo as slowly but inexorably improving. On June 6, just before the one-year anniversary of the air war, for example, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, "There is a long way to go, but I think we also have to remember how far we have come and how important it was that the international community took steps for Kosovo. It is something I think we should all be very proud of."12 Samuel R. Berger, President Clinton's National Security Adviser, asserted, "KFOR and UNMIK have accomplished a great deal, building security and governing institutions out of chaos."13 Similarly, Secretary of Defense William Cohen said, "In not a great amount of time, we're making a good deal of progress."14

Reality: Little progress has been made in Kosovo toward democracy building and establishing the institutions that sustain a democratic society.
The facts on the ground in Kosovo do not support the conclusion that real progress has been made. Ethnic and religious violence continues, and institutions of civil society have yet to be established. Bernard Kouchner, head of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, has said of the ethnic and religious factions in Kosovo:

They still hate each other deeply.... Here I discovered hatred deeper than anywhere in the world, more than in Cambodia or Vietnam or Bosnia. Usually someone, a doctor or a journalist, will say, "I know someone on the other side." But here, no. They have no real relationship with the other community.15

Sadly, the allied victory in the air war and the subsequent peacekeeping efforts have done nothing to change the hearts and minds of either the Muslim Kosovars or the Orthodox Serbs and stop the killings in Kosovo. In Mitrovica, an ethnically diverse city, 53 Serbs have been killed or abducted in the last 10 months.16 Indeed, the most serious problem confronting the KFOR troops continues to be the sectarian hostility that has deep historical roots.

In an April 2000 study, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) noted that prospects for lasting peace in Kosovo, Bosnia, and other parts of the Balkans remain bleak; it warns of instability and even renewed violence in the future.17 Clearly, the cultural, economic, political, psychological, and military foundations necessary for genuine peace and long-term stability have not developed in Kosovo. Even experts such as the senior American officer in KFOR, Brigadier General Ricardo Sanchez, concede this point. Sanchez predicts that the Kosovo mission will keep NATO peacekeepers bogged down for "at least a generation."18

Little progress has occurred because military solutions cannot address the centuries-old sectarian and ethnic tensions that caused the conflict in the first place. Multiethnic harmony is largely a political and psychological--not a martial--phenomenon. Consider the effort to hold democratic elections in Kosovo: Despite the U.N.'s best efforts, only a few hundred of Kosovo's 100,000 remaining Serbs and a small percentage of its 15,000 Turks have registered to vote in the municipal elections to be held on October 28.19 Almost all the Serbs are threatening to boycott the elections. Bishop Artemije, a representative of moderate Kosovo Serbs, explained their position:

Until the Serbian community has equal rights--above all the right of life, work and freedom in Kosovo--it is absurd and it is not real to anticipate that we should come forward and participate, [that] would only confirm and would legitimize our exodus and the ethnic cleansing of the Serbs from Kosovo.20

The U.N.'s solution to this problem is far from democratic. It is strictly requiring all participating political parties to have women as one-third of their candidates. More troubling is that it plans to override the results of some of the elections to ensure proper minority representation. UNMIK head Bernard Kouchner has indicated that he will appoint Serbs to a percentage of posts even if they do not win them at the polls--a virtual certainty given the boycott by Serb voters.21 These practices are inciting further ethnic tension. The elections, if held without representation of all the ethnic factions, will give popular and international legitimacy to the nationalist agenda of the Kosovar Albanian candidates. If the outcome is not what the U.N. wants, it may decide to overrule the popular will of the voters, which will force confrontation with the majority population over the political status of the province.

Under such circumstances, the United States and its allies are likely to remain in Kosovo for decades, trying to use military force to end ethnic, religious, and economic hostilities. In the final analysis, Kosovo is a peacemaking , not peacekeeping, exercise. Peacekeeping involves monitoring a cease-fire that both combatants accept. Peacemaking, by comparison, entails establishing peace by military force, strong-arming the combatants to cease their antagonistic and aggressive activities. It is infinitely more difficult to establish peace when there is none than to keep it; at its core, it requires the troops to overcome the facts on the ground that tend to militate toward renewed conflicts. It is doubtful that America's NATO allies are ready to make the long-term commitment necessary to continue the peacemaking mission in Kosovo.

Myth #4: Leaving Kosovo will damage U.S. credibility and threaten vital U.S. interests.
Supporters of the intervention argue that instability in the Balkans could spread to the whole of Europe, making stability in Kosovo a vital American interest. Samuel Berger, for example, observed recently that the atrocities in Kosovo have "culminated in a grotesque campaign of mass expulsion that endangered stability and peace in the region."22 John Fox of the Open Society Institute stated that the Kosovo intervention is about "American national interests in Southeastern Europe ... the future of NATO, of U.S.-European relations and the region itself ... it's about the unfinished business of the United States and Europe in Europe."23

The supporters of the intervention also claim that a U.S. withdrawal from the region would make the United States appear to be an unreliable ally, damage America's worldwide credibility, and imperil the NATO alliance. For example, according to a recent report by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the President believes a U.S. withdrawal from Kosovo would be "counterproductive to peace in Kosovo and will seriously jeopardize the relationship between the U.S. and our NATO allies."24 Regardless of the merit of the intervention, these proponents of the mission believe the United States is obligated to stay in Kosovo for the duration.

Reality: Dedication to a lost cause will imperil U.S. credibility far more than would a prudent reassessment of U.S. interests.
For centuries, the region around Kosovo has been a cauldron of instability, yet the rest of Europe and the United States have prospered. Article V of the Treaty of Washington, which binds the United States to help its NATO allies defend themselves against aggression, does not legally obligate the United States to defend Kosovo. In addition, the United States has no history of extensive trading ties or historical or cultural kinship with the area that would lead to its classification as a vital U.S. interest. The recent unrest has had minimal effects on the rest of Europe. Thus, there is little reason to fear that continued instability in Kosovo would have a major effect on the stability of Western Europe, or any other vital American interest.

Nevertheless, the Clinton Administration accepts an open-ended nation-building commitment in Kosovo that far exceeds the province's strategic importance to America. It is this dedication to a lost cause that threatens America's credibility. History shows that military might alone cannot force genuine long-lasting peace upon historical ethnic and religious enemies. World War I started in the Balkans precisely because leaders after Germany's Iron Chancellor, Count Otto von Bismark, who had kept the peace in Europe for a generation, ignored his advice to stay out of the Balkan quagmire.25 In addition, President Clinton's attempts to intervene in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia failed, proving again that staying the course in peacemaking will not automatically result in real nation-building.

Continuing to participate in the no-win situation in Kosovo will expose the United States to unanticipated costs and increased risks, threatening U.S. military readiness and America's ability to support its alliances around the world. The United States should select its engagements based on national interest calculations, determining in each case how important an intervention is to America's core values and how urgently it must be acted upon.26 Thus, America's interests should determine its commitments; its commitments should not determine its interests.

There are three basic types of national interests. Vital interests are those that, when seriously and immediately threatened, warrant the spilling of significant amounts of blood or expending significant amounts of treasure to protect. Such vital interests include protecting the Western European allies from hegemonic aggression, as the United States did during World War II and the Cold War. Secondary interests are not as immediately important but could become vital interests if left unattended. One example is Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989. Peripheral interests "require no major effort or costly use of resources. While they should not be ignored and under some circumstances could lead to more serious security problems, they should not be high on the ... list of national priorities."27 Kosovo is such a peripheral interest.

How Washington responds when each of these types of interests are threatened will vary. The United States would consider going to war to protect its vital interests. It would apply severe diplomatic or economic pressure to buttress its secondary interests. And it would consider expending foreign aid or seeking a United Nations resolution to further its peripheral interests.

Proponents of humanitarian intervention have turned this interest calculation on its head. They would have America intervene militarily when its values but not its interests are threatened. But external challenges that offend America's values are not necessarily threats to America's survival and thus do not warrant the same response. The situation in Kosovo may challenge America's values, but this does not make it a vital national interest. America is more likely to risk losing its credibility when it undertakes missions that fail, when it commits to missions that drain valuable resources to no gain, and when it ties itself to risky ventures with uncertain outcomes.

Myth #5: Congressional attempts to oversee or restrict the open-ended commitment in Kosovo represent legislative overreach.
Critics of the Kasich and Byrd-Warner amendments would have Americans believe that Congress is attempting to wrest new powers from the chief executive. They cast Congress's attempts to exercise oversight of the U.S. commitment in Kosovo as an infringement on the rights of the executive branch. For example, the recent report by the OMB asserts that, "The President, as Commander-in-Chief, should retain the flexibility to judge our progress on burdensharing and encourage good faith efforts; he should not have his hands tied by rigid, numeric targets."28

Reality: Congress has an incontrovertible role in the decisionmaking process regarding the Kosovo intervention.
Although the White House remains the dominant actor in U.S. foreign policy decisionmaking, Congress has a long-standing and important role to play in this area because of its "power of the purse." Both the Kasich and Byrd-Warner amendments should be viewed as logical congressional reactions to the Administration's efforts to commit the United States to open-ended interventions without seeking its support. While few would disagree that the President needs flexibility when it comes to foreign policy decisionmaking, even fewer would say that he should have unlimited license to act without regard to funding, the impact on the military, or the constitutional balance of power.

Indeed, in Kosovo, President Clinton has acted without seeking congressional authority or acknowledging that Congress shares some of the responsibility for America's involvement in the Balkans. Congress never authorized, or even formally debated, the President's decision to deploy 5,900 troops to Kosovo. As Senator Byrd explains, the Administration prefers "a free hand to participate in military adventurism wherever and whenever they please. They don't want to hear a peep out of Congress."29

Congress has a constitutional responsibility to appropriate money for federal activities, according to Article I, Section 9, of the U.S. Constitution, which mandates that: "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law." Says Senator Byrd, "Instead of Congress' appropriating funds for expenditure by the Executive Branch, the Executive Branch is spending funds first and asking Congress after the fact to pay the bills."30 Acquiescing to the President would mean Congress is willing to abdicate its constitutional powers.

Thus, efforts by Members of Congress to assert legislative branch prerogatives are not an assault on executive branch decisionmaking. The alternative, the absence of congressional oversight and authorization, would give the President an unconstitutional blank check. Given the current President's penchant for open-ended humanitarian intervention, this would not be in America's best interests. Kosovo, in Senator Byrd's words, exemplifies "the arrogance of power in a White House that insists on putting our men and women in harm's way and spending tax dollars without the consent of their elected representatives."31

Proponents of the U.S. deployment in Kosovo ignore its high costs and emphasize its limited success. Using the myths described above, they have been able to sustain political support for the Kosovo intervention, yet the reality of the U.S. involvement is far different. The open-ended mission is straining the U.S. military, as demonstrated last November when the U.S. Army divisions responsible for the majority of global peacekeeping burdens--the 10th Mountain and 1st Infantry Divisions--failed to receive a passing readiness rating.32 Combat readiness is eroding, largely due to the increased frequency of U.S. troop deployments for non-vital missions.33 A loss of readiness limits America's ability to respond and act decisively in the future, when vital national interests are at stake.

Curtailing the U.S. combat troop presence in Kosovo is not a call to end America's global leadership role. Instead, it seeks to maintain America's ability to defend its vital national interests. To that end, the United States should consider gradually withdrawing its troops from Kosovo. The European allies would be free to decide to remain there; if they do, the United States should continue to support them with logistic and intelligence support through the CJTF mechanism.

In the meantime, Congress should continue to try to gauge the extent to which America's allies are fulfilling their pledges of burden-sharing in Kosovo and to require the President to develop a mechanism for withdrawal should they fail to fulfill these commitments. The Kasich amendment represents a good first step in restoring the constitutional balance between the executive and legislative branches of the American government.

It is time to reevaluate the entire Kosovo deployment with an understanding of the myths that have been perpetuating support of the mission. Stability in Kosovo is not a vital American interest, just as congressional oversight of Kosovo does not constitute legislative overreach. America's global credibility does not rest on the outcome of the Kosovo mission. There has been little progress toward nation-building in Kosovo even with America's involvement, and the allies have not contributed equitably to the effort.

This is the reality of America's involvement in Kosovo. If the case is considered on its merits, a decision to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Kosovo becomes the only logical outcome.

John C. Hulsman, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst for European Affairs in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

1. Stephen Grey, "British Commander Hits at EU for Kosovo Aid Delays," Sunday Times [London], June 18, 2000.

2. The Kasich amendment notes that these are pledges made by individual countries that are members of NATO and the European Union, as well as the European Commission.

3. John Godfrey, "Senate Rejects Kosovo Pullout," The Washington Times , May 19, 2000, p. A1.

4. Editorial, "Playing at Foreign Policy," The Washington Post , May 25, 2000, p. A36.

5. The CJTF mechanism allows a NATO country to decline to participate actively in a specific mission if it does not feel its vital interests are in danger. This decision would not stop other NATO members from participating in an intervention if they chose to do so, unlike a veto of a proposed operation.

6. European Union Press Release, "The European Union, Kosovo, and SE Europe," May 10, 2000. There are about 30,000 European troops deployed in Kosovo.

7. Alexander Nicoll, "FT Interview George Robertson: Balance of Forces," The Financial Times , September 15, 1999.

8. Kenneth I. Juster, "The Mistake of a Separate Peace," The Washington Post , August 9, 1999, p. A15.

9. Eric Schmitt, "Senators Reject a Deadline for Kosovo GI's," The New York Times , May 19, 2000.

10. Jim Abrams, "House: Limit Kosovo Involvement," Associated Press, May 17, 2000.

11. European Union, "The European Union, Kosovo, and SE Europe: FAQ," at

12. "Albright Defends Kosovo Operation as Anniversary Nears," Associated Press, June 6, 2000.

13. Samuel R. Berger, "Rebuilding Kosovo," The Washington Post , June 10, 2000, p. A23.

14. John Donnelly, "US General Sees Long Role in the Balkans," The Boston Globe , May 2, 2000, p. A1.

15. Steven Erlanger, "Aide Takes Stock of U.N. in Kosovo," The New York Times , July 17, 2000, p. A4.

16. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Newsline, July 18, 2000.

17. U.S. General Accounting Office, Balkans Security: Current and Projected Factors Affecting Regional Stability , GAO/NSIAD-00-125BR, April 2000.

18. Donnelly, "US General Sees Long Role in the Balkans."

19. Richard Mertens. "Wooing Serb voters in Kosovo," The Christian Science Monitor , July 20, 2000.

20. Andrea Koppel, "One Year Later, U.N. Administrator for Kosovo Urges Patience," at , June 10, 2000.

21. "Kouchner to Appoint Serbs to Kosovo Councils Despite Poll Boycott," Agence France-Presse, July 12, 2000.

22. Berger, "Rebuilding Kosovo."

23. Tyler Marshall, "U.S. in Kosovo for the Long Haul," The Los Angeles Times , June 10, 2000.

24. U.S. Office of Management and Budget, Statement of Administration Policy: S. 2521--Military Construction Appropriations Bill, FY 2001 , May 16, 2000.

25. Misha Glenny, The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers 1804-1999 (New York: Viking Press, 1999), p. 143. In Bismark's famous words, "the whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier."

26. Kim R. Holmes and John Hillen, "Defining U.S. National Strategy," in Restoring American Leadership: A U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy Blueprint , Kim R. Holmes and Thomas G. Moore, eds. (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 1996), p. 9.

27. Ibid. , p. 32.

28. Office of Management and Budget, Statement of Administration Policy: S. 2521 .

29. Eric Schmitt, "Senators Reject a Deadline for Kosovo GI's," The New York Times , May 19, 2000, p. A1.

30. Joint letter from Senator Robert Byrd and Senator John Warner, advocating passage of their amendment on the Kosovo intervention, May 11, 2000.

31. Ian Christopher McCaleb, "Senate Turns Back Attempt to Pull US Troops from Kosovo," CNN , May 18, 2000.

32. Bradley Graham, "Two Army Divisions Unfit for Major War," The Washington Post , November 10, 1999, p. 9. Recent debate over the readiness of these divisions cannot change that assessment.

33. Richard Hart Sinnreich, "False Fights About Readiness," The Washington Post , August 14, 2000, p. 21.


John Hulsman

Former Senior Research Fellow