Did the President Put Pollyanna in Charge of U.S. Kosovo Policy?

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If Washington needed a theme song for its Kosovo policy, the Beach Boys’ "Wouldn’t It Be Nice" might be a strong contender. When Moscow stole a march on NATO last Saturday by seizing Pristina’s airport, it was simply the latest indicator that U.S. strategy in Kosovo has been premised on an unhealthy dose of wishful thinking. The result may have been not only to underestimate the complexity of the Balkans, but also to usher in an unpredictable and dangerous new period in international relations. "This whole thing hasn’t been well thought through," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. "We’ve been abysmally wrong on a number of questions. The European NATO members in particular believe that Washington led them into a war without a clear plan, and the result is that they’re more likely now to try and go it alone on security questions."

Although NATO has managed to overcome most of the setbacks caused by its miscalculations, it may take years to recover from others. Herewith a catalogue of U.S. policy Pollyannaisms, and the rude awakenings they occasioned:

Policy Premise 1: The Serbs would give up Kosovo if threatened with force

The Rambouillet talks, which began in February, were premised on the idea that if Belgrade was presented with an ultimatum to hand the province over to NATO or face the alliance’s military wrath, Slobodan Milosevic wouldn’t risk a fight. The assumption was based on the Bosnia conflict, where he signed on to the Dayton Peace Accords after NATO began bombing Serb positions.

Rude Awakening 1: The Serbs were prepared to fight hard for Kosovo

Rambouillet hadn’t reckoned with the deep historical attachment to Kosovo across the political spectrum in Serbia. It would have been difficult for any politician to concede to NATO’s demands, let alone for Milosevic, who’d built his nationalist credentials on the promise to protect Kosovo’s Serbs, and whose officer corps was even more nationalist than he. Moreover, the Dayton analogy may have been stretched, in the sense that Dayton came after a three-year ground war that had left both sides exhausted. The Serbs called NATO’s bluff, leaving the alliance compelled to respond forcefully, for the sake of its credibility as much as anything else.

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