The Heritage Foundation

Backgrounder #1281

May 13, 1999

May 13, 1999 | Backgrounder on

Catalogue of Confusion: The Clinton Administration's War Aims in Kosovo

On March 24, 1999, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) began Operation Allied Force against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. That evening, President Bill Clinton explained to the American people that the NATO air campaign was intended to avoid "an even crueler and costlier war"; "to prevent a wider war in Europe"; and to "seriously damage the Serbian military's capacity to harm the people of Kosovo."1

Unfortunately, NATO's air campaign has produced only mixed results. Since it began, the number of Kosovar refugees has grown significantly, the brutal Serbian offensive in Kosovo has intensified, and Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic's defiance has increased. To maintain the operation, NATO has been compelled to nearly double the size of its forces. These unintended outcomes are the result of a poorly conceived strategy and unrealistic war aims, made evident by the general air of confusion that pervades the Clinton Administration's rhetoric regarding its Kosovo policies.

The failure of the Administration's strategy to achieve its objectives has forced the Administration to issue a number of formal restatements of policy and war aims.2 The latest plan to resolve the Kosovo crisis was endorsed by the so-called G-8 countries (the Group of Seven industrialized democracies and Russia)3 on May 6, 1999, in Bonn, Germany.4 This statement of "general principles to a political solution"5 implicitly recognizes Milosevic as a negotiating partner and keeps Kosovo under Yugoslavian sovereignty.

The Bonn agreement is just one more attempt to redefine the ever-changing end game in Kosovo. Although the Administration is quick to assert the clarity of its aims, the record reveals that its stated objectives are in fact wavering, changing, and ambiguous. Furthermore, the Administration's objectives in Kosovo are far too numerous. Even under the most favorable circumstances, few if any of them could be achieved.

The following quotations, taken from public statements made by Clinton Administration and NATO officials, illustrate the confusion of aims that characterizes the Administration's policy toward Kosovo. The first set of remarks chronicles the Clinton Administration's objectives and demonstrates the general incoherence of its Kosovo policy. The second set illustrates outright contradictions in the Administration's policy.

TOO NUMEROUS TO TELL: THE ADMINISTRATION'S WAR AIMS IN KOSOVO

War Aim #1: Halt or restrain the killings of Kosovars.

March 19, 1999--Bill Clinton, President of the United States:

My intention would be to do whatever is possible...to weaken his [Slobodan Milosevic's] ability to massacre them [the Kosovar Albanians]....6

March 23, 1999--Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State:

[T]he purpose of [air strikes] is to deter Slobodan Milosevic from continuing on his rampage and...having his soldiers and special police torch the villages...and also to damage his capability to do that.7

March 23, 1999--James Rubin, State Department spokesman:

[T]he objectives of air strikes are to disrupt Serbs' ability to conduct future attacks against the population of Kosovo.8

March 24, 1999--Samuel Berger, National Security Adviser:

We have indicated that our intent [is] to deter him from launching a major offensive on Kosovo...to deter that kind of an attack....9

March 24, 1999--Bill Clinton, President of the United States:

We act to protect thousands of innocent people in Kosovo....10

Our mission is...to deter an even bloodier offensive against innocent civilians in Kosovo....11

The Record:
Yugoslav forces continue to kill in Kosovo.12 According to refugee accounts, mass executions and brutal atrocities are ongoing.13 NATO reports that at least 4,600 people have been killed in mass executions.14 It is not at all clear that the Administration's strategy has done anything to halt or restrain the killing of ethnic Albanian Kosovars.

War Aim #2: Prevent humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo.

March 25, 1999--Javier Solana, NATO Secretary General:

[W]e are determined to continue until we have achieved our objective, to halt the violence and to stop a further humanitarian catastrophe.15

March 29, 1999--Jamie Shea, NATO spokesman:

Our objectives are...to stop the violence in Kosovo [and] to prevent humanitarian catastrophes....16

The Record:
Since Operation Allied Force began, more than 750,000 Kosovars have become refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).17 The atrocities continue to occur at an alarming pace, and food shortages are becoming widespread.18 Even if the conflict were to stop now, Operation Allied Force would not have prevented a humanitarian catastrophe--that has already occurred.

War Aim #3: Expel Serb forces from Kosovo.

April 20, 1999-- Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State:

[O]ur goal for this conflict is...to try to get the Serb forces out of Kosovo....19

April 25, 1999--Samuel Berger, National Security Adviser:

[F]or the bombing to stop, there'd have to be an agreement by Mr. Milosevic for the Kosovars to come back.... [T]here would have to be verifiable, demonstrable beginning of that actually happening before we could consider a pause.20

April 26, 1999--Ken Bacon, Department of Defense spokesman:

NATO remains highly committed...to making it clear that there is no sanctuary for murderers and their forces in Yugoslavia.21

The Record:
The Serbs are still in Kosovo. In the weeks before the NATO campaign, Milosevic increased the Serbian troop presence in Kosovo from its normal level of 11,000-12,000 to 40,000 in and around the province, and he claims that those numbers have increased.22 The Bonn agreement calls for the "withdrawal from Kosovo of military, police and paramilitary forces"23 as one of its principles, but is unclear on details. It makes no reference to when the departure will take place or to whether all forces must be expelled. Whether this war aim eventually will be achieved remains uncertain.24

War Aim #4: Degrade the war-making capability of Yugoslavia.

March 26, 1999--Samuel Berger, National Security Adviser:

[O]ur optimal objective is peace. But should he [Milosevic] be determined not to choose peace, NATO will severely reduce his war-making capability.25

April 5, 1999--William Cohen, Secretary of Defense:

[We must] deter Slobodan Milosevic from carrying out his campaign of ethnic cleansing, and failing that, to make him pay a serious substantial price for doing so and to take his military down as best we can through the air power.26

April 28, 1999--General Hugh Shelton, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff:

I believe that bombing can accomplish the military objectives that we've laid out, which is to reduce his [Milosevic's] capabilities, his military capabilities, as well as his special police capabilities.27

The Record:
The air campaign has achieved modest success against the military targets of the Serb armed forces.28 For example, 25 percent of Serbia's tanks29 and over 80 aircraft have been destroyed.30 But the Serbs are not fighting a tank war and are putting up only token resistance in the air. The Serb war against the Kosovar Albanians is taking place on the ground. It is the Serb forces' ability to fight that war that needs to be destroyed; by that standard, this war aim has not yet been achieved.

War Aim #5: Return the refugees to Kosovo.

April 4, 1999--Samuel Berger, National Security Adviser:

We have got to continue an unrelenting bombing campaign...so that either he [Slobodan Milosevic] agrees to let these refugees back and live in autonomy and security, or at the very least, that we loosen his grip and his ability to impose his will on Kosovo.31

April 13, 1999--Bill Clinton, President of the United States:

We want the refugees to be able to go home, protected by an international security force, as they work toward self-government.32

April 25, 1999--Samuel Berger, National Security Adviser:

[F]or the bombing to stop, there'd have to be an agreement by Mr. Milosevic for...the Serb forces to leave. [T]here would have to be [a] verifiable, demonstrable beginning of that actually happening before we could consider a pause.33

The Record:
It is too early to make a judgment on the return of the Kosovars to Kosovo. To date, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than 750,000 refugees, many of whom were driven from their homes after Operation Allied Force began.34 NATO's ability to guarantee the safe return of all refugees will be the sticking point of any agreement. The achievement of that goal will go far toward defining victory in Kosovo.

War Aim #6: Prevent a wider war in the Balkans.

March 24, 1999--Bill Clinton, President of the United States:

We act to prevent a wider war; to defuse a powder keg at the heart of Europe....35

The Record:
The war in Kosovo has already spread. Serb forces have begun ethnic cleansing in Montenegro, have entered Croatia,36 and are attacking border towns in northern Albania.37 The fact that so-called front-line states, such as Bulgaria, have sought security guarantees from NATO indicates that the war could spread even further. Thus far, the Administration's actions in Kosovo actually have increased the chances of a wider war in the Balkans.

War Aim #7: Ensure self-government and autonomy for the Kosovars.

March 19, 1999--Bill Clinton, President of the United States:

I would hope that the [Rambouillet]38 agreement could be accepted.39

April 2, 1999--Bill Clinton, President of the United States:

I believe we have quite a good chance of achieving our objectives of the return of the Kosovars to live...with a measure of self-government that they enjoyed under the old Yugoslav Constitution....40

April 4,1999-- Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State:

Milosevic can...stop these atrocities [by working] out an agreement...that...would allow for there to be a multiethnic, democratic, autonomous region of Kosovo that would allow for there to be security with an implementing force in a peaceful environment, and would have the V.J. forces [Yugoslavia armed forces] get out.41

April 13, 1999--Bill Clinton, President of the United States:

We want the refugees to be able to go home, protected by an international security force, as they work toward self-government.42

The Record:
Autonomy would necessitate Serb rule over Kosovo with Kosovo retaining a degree of self-government. This has not been achieved, although it seems to be an objective of the Bonn agreement. NATO is very unclear, however, about how to reach a political settlement that includes the disarming of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).43 The problem is that Milosevic will be hard-pressed to agree to an arrangement that puts armed NATO forces in Kosovo, and the KLA may not disarm even if there is an armed NATO presence in Kosovo.

War Aim #8: Bring the Balkans into the mainstream of Europe.

April 12, 1999--Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State:

Our explicit goal should be to transform the Balkans from Europe's primary source of instability into an important part of its mainstream.44

April 26, 1999--Bill Clinton, President of the United States:

We're in Kosovo because we want...Southeastern Europe to travel the same road as Western Europe half a century ago, and Central Europe a decade ago.45

The Record:
The Bonn agreement makes clear that NATO is prepared to accept Slobodan Milosevic as the leader of Yugoslavia. By extension, it seems that mainstream Europe is going to accept him as a negotiating partner. The community of Western nations, however, will not welcome a dictator as an equal. Therefore, it is difficult to imagine a Yugoslavian "transition" into the European mainstream any time soon.

War Aim #9: Establish democracy in Serbia.

April 15, 1999--Bill Clinton, President of the United States:

Realistically, it will require a democratic transition in Serbia, for the region's democracies will never be safe with a belligerent tyranny in their midsts.46

April 19, 1999--Samuel Berger, National Security Adviser:

The President said [it] is hard to imagine a stable Balkans, stable Southeastern Europe without a truly democratic Serbia.47

April 20, 1999--Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State:

We believe that the Serb people would be better served by having a democratically-elected government that represents their values.48

The Record:
Operation Allied Force has done more to strengthen Slobodan Milosevic's dictatorship than to bring about democracy in Serbia. The NATO air campaign has driven the Yugoslavian military to rally around its leader and has restored the long-strained relationship between Milosevic and the Yugoslavian officer corps.49 As a result, Milosevic's grip on power has tightened. Furthermore, the Bonn agreement implicitly ensures the survival of Milosevic's dictatorship by accepting Milosevic as Yugoslavia's legitimate leader.

War Aim #10: Punish Serbia.

April 1, 1999--Bill Clinton, President of the United States:

Had we not acted, the Serbian offensive would have been carried out with impunity. We are determined that it will carry a very high price....50

April 5, 1999--William Cohen, Secretary of Defense:

[We must] deter Slobodan Milosevic from carrying out his campaign of ethnic cleansing, and failing that, to make him pay a serious substantial price for doing so and to take his military down as best we can through the air power.51

The Record:
This war aim has been partly achieved. According to the Administration, Yugoslavia will pay a "serious substantial price" for what it has done. However, the cost to the United States also has been very high. So far, it has taken NATO well over 17,000 missions to inflict that level of punishment.52 Moreover, even though this war aim is being achieved, as "defined" by the Clinton Administration, its overall utility is questionable because it has not had much effect in terms of the achievement of other, more substantive aims.

MIXED SIGNALS ON KOSOVO: EXAMPLES OF CONTRADICTORY STATEMENTS

How long a war?

March 23, 1999--Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State:

[Operation Allied Force] is going to be a sustained attack, and it is not something that is going to go on for an overly long time.53

March 24, 1999--Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State:

I don't see this as a long-term operation. I think that this is something...that is achievable within a relatively short period of time.54

April 4, 1999--Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State:

This is the 10th day of a campaign. We never expected this to be over quickly.55

Peace with or without Slobodan Milosevic?

April 7, 1999--Samuel Berger, National Security Adviser:

No, that [getting Milosevic out of office] has never been a military objective.56

April 19, 1999--Samuel Berger, National Security Adviser:

It's hard for me to imagine a truly democratic Serbia that Mr. Milosevic...would be leading.57

April 24, 1999--Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State:

I...spent time [yesterday] with...colleagues talking about a future for Southeast Europe, where democratic countries would be able to work together.... There is no place for a dictator like Milosevic in that kind of a different Southeast Europe.58

Ground war in Kosovo?

March 24, 1999--Bill Clinton, President of the United States:

I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war.59

March 26, 1999--Samuel Berger, National Security Adviser:

[T]here's no plan for ground forces. I don't think that would be wise....60

April 4, 1999--Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State:

[L]et me reiterate that the president has said that he has no intention or plan of sending in ground forces in anything but a permissive environment.61

April 22, 1999--Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State:

We do not favor the deployment of ground forces into a hostile environment in Kosovo.62

I think it is inappropriate to rule anything out, and we have not done so.63

April 24, 1999--Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State:

Secretary General Solana had announced that he wanted to update the planning and assessment about ground forces under a variety of environments. So we're waiting for that assessment.64

May 5, 1999--General Wesley Clark, Supreme Allied Commander:

[W]e've always looked at ground troop plans that we submitted. Since last July, we've been continuously reviewing and updating these and there are number of reviews underway.65

CONCLUSION

The Clinton Administration launched Operation Allied Force with a confusing array of often contradictory war aims, and progress on achieving these aims has been mixed at best. In some cases, it has been very slow; in others, it has been non-existent. To have any hope of achieving a positive outcome in its war on Slobodan Milosevic--a war for which it clearly was unprepared--the Administration will have to do a better job of anticipating the consequences of its aims and strategy.

Jack Spencer is a Research Assistant in The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

Endnotes

1. President Bill Clinton, address to the nation, Washington, D.C., March 24, 1999.

2. In press release 9M-NAC-1(99) 51, "The Situation in and Around Kosovo," dated April 12, 1999, NATO listed five demands that Slobodan Milosevic must meet in order to stop NATO's air strikes.

3. The G-8 membership includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

4. The Bonn agreement consists of the following general principles: the immediate and verifiable end of violence and repression in Kosovo; withdrawal from Kosovo of military, police, and paramilitary forces; deployment in Kosovo of effective international civil and security presences endorsed by the United Nations; establishment of an interim administration for Kosovo, to be decided by the Security Council, to ensure conditions for a peaceful and normal life for all inhabitants in Kosovo; the safe and free return of all refugees and displaced persons and unimpeded access to Kosovo by humanitarian aid organizations; a political process toward the establishment of an interim political framework agreement providing for a substantial self-government for Kosovo, taking full account of the Rambouillet accords and the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and the demilitarization of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

5. AP Online, "Text of the G-8 Statement on Kosovo," Bonn, Germany, May 6, 1999.

6. President Bill Clinton, press conference, Washington, D.C., March 19, 1999.

7. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, interview on Serbia on CNN's Larry King Live, Washington, D.C., March 23, 1999.

8. Press conference, U.S. Department of State, March 23, 1999.

9. Larry King Live, CNN, Transcript No. 99032400V22, March 24, 1999.

10. President Bill Clinton, address to the nation, Washington, D.C., March 24, 1999.

11. Ibid.

12. Brian Murphy, "Kosovo Refugees Recount Killings," Associated Press, May 3, 1999.

13. See the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Web site at www.unhcr.ch/news/media/kosovo.htm   and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Web site at www.icrc.org for more details concerning refugee accounts from the field.

14. Steven Lee Myers, "Deaths Reported, Air Attacks in Another Serb City Are Said to Have Killed 15," The New York Times, May 8, 1999, p. A1.

15. NATO Secretary General Dr. Javier Solana and SACEUR General Wesley Clark, press conference, NATO headquarters, Belgium, March 25, 1999.

16. NATO spokesman Jamie Shea and Air Commodore David Wilby, press conference, SHAPE, Belgium, March 29, 1999.

18. Anne Swardson and Jeffrey Smith, "Hunger Joins Kosovo's Perils," The Washington Post, May 2, 1999, p. A1.

19. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, and National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, press briefing on NATO summit and Kosovo, The White House, Washington, D.C., April 20, 1999.

20. "National Security Adviser Defends Clinton Administration's Kosovo Policy," CNN Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, Transcript No. 99042500V47, April 25, 1999.

21. Ken Bacon, Department of Defense news briefing, the Pentagon, April 26, 1999.

22. United Press International, Milosevic interview with UPI, Belgrade, Serbia, April 30, 1999.

23. AP Online, "Text of the G-8 Statement on Kosovo," Bonn, Germany, May 6, 1999.

24. In a statement issued on May 10, 1999, the Yugoslav Army Supreme Command declared that its mission against the Kosovo Liberation Army had been completed and that a partial withdrawal of its troops had begun the previous day. U.S. officials regard this statement as insufficient grounds for halting the air campaign.

25. Morning Edition, National Public Radio, March 26, 1999.

26. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of Defense William Cohen, statement on Kosovo, Washington, D.C., April 5, 1999.

27. Meet the Press, NBC News Transcript, April 28, 1999.

28. Daryn Kagan, "Gen. Clark: We're Winning, Milosevic Is Losing and He Knows It," CNN Live Event, Transcript No. 99042702V54, April 27, 1999.

29. Department of Defense briefing, the Pentagon, May 4, 1999.

30. Michael Holmes, "The British Defense Ministry Delivers Its Daily Briefing on Operation Allied Force," CNN Live Event, Transcript No. 99050502V54, May 5, 1999.

31. "Sandy Berger, National Security Advisor, on the War in Yugoslavia," Face the Nation, CBS News Transcript, April 4, 1999.

32. President Bill Clinton, statement on Kosovo, Washington, D.C., April 13, 1999.

33. "National Security Adviser Defends Clinton Administration's Kosovo Policy," CNN Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, Transcript No. 99042500V47, April 25, 1999.

35. President Bill Clinton, address to the nation, Washington, D.C., March 24, 1999.

36. Bob Hohler and Anne Kornblut, "Serb Unit Enters Croatia; Albania Force in Firefight," The Boston Globe, April 21, 1999,p. A1.

37. James Rupert, "Serbs Escalate Cross-Border Attacks Into Albania," The Washington Post, May 1, 1999, p. A12.

38. The Rambouillet agreement is a three-year interim arrangement meant to bring about a peaceful solution to the crisis in Kosovo. It requires democratic self-government for the Kosovars and provides for security by demanding the withdrawal of Serb military and security forces from Kosovo; a NATO-led Kosovo force (KFOR) would guarantee internal security for all Kosovar residents. Three years after entry into force, there would be an international meeting to determine a final settlement for Kosovo. The agreement was signed by all parties, except the Serbs, before the initiation of Operation Allied Force.

39. President Bill Clinton, press conference, Washington, D.C., March 19, 1999.

40. President Bill Clinton, excerpts from remarks, Washington, D.C., April 2, 1999.

41. "Secretary of State Discusses the War in Yugoslavia," Meet the Press, NBC News Transcript, April 4, 1999.

42. President Clinton, statement on Kosovo, Washington, D.C., April 13, 1999.

43. The Kosovo Liberation Army is a militarized rebel force of ethnic Albanians that uses violence in pursuit of its political goal of an independent Kosovo.

44. Press conference, NATO headquarters, Brussels, Belgium, April 12, 1999.

45. President Bill Clinton and NATO Secretary General Javier Solana, NATO commemorative ceremony, Mellon Auditorium, Washington, D.C., April 26, 1999.

46. President Bill Clinton, address to American Society of Newspaper Editors, San Francisco, California, April 15, 1999.

47. National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, press briefing, San Francisco, California, April 19, 1999.

48. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, and National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, press briefing on NATO summit and Kosovo, The White House, Washington, D.C., April 20, 1999.

49. Blain Harden and Steven Lee Myers, "Bombing Unites Serb Army As It Debilitates Economy," The New York Times, April 30, 1999, p. A1.

50. President Bill Clinton, remarks to Hampton Roads military community, Norfolk, Virginia, April 1, 1999.

51. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of Defense William Cohen, statement on Kosovo, Washington, D.C., April 5, 1999.

52. United Press International, "NATO: Errors Will Not Curtail Bombing," May 8, 1999.

53. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, interview on Serbia on CNN's Larry King Live, Washington, D.C., March 23, 1999.

54. "The Bombing Begins," The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Transcript No. 639, March 24, 1999.

55. "Secretary of State Madeleine Albright Discusses the War in Yugoslavia," Meet the Press, NBC News Transcript, April 4, 1999.

56. "Berger: `It's Not Enough to Simply Stop the Fighting and Maintain Everything Else as It Was'," CNN Early Edition, Transcript No. 99040706V0, April 7, 1999.

57. National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, press briefing, San Francisco, California, April 19, 1999.

58. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, interview by Sir David Frost on the BBC, Washington, D.C., April 24, 1999.

59. President Bill Clinton, address to the nation, Washington, D.C., March 24, 1999.

60. Morning Edition, National Public Radio, March 26, 1999.

61. "Secretary of State Discusses the War in Yugoslavia," Meet the Press, NBC News Transcript, April 4, 1999.

62. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, press conference, Washington, D.C., April 22, 1999.

63. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, press conference, Washington, D.C., April 22, 1999, in response to a question concerning ground troops.

64. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, interview by Sir David Frost on the BBC, Washington, D.C., April 24, 1999.

65. "Cohen: Release of Captured Yugoslav Soldiers Could Be Soon," CNN Live Event, Transcript No. 99050501V54, Washington, D.C., May 5, 1999.

About the Author

Jack Spencer Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity