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Kosovo – ten years later

24 March 2009

March 24 marks the tenth anniversary of the start of the bombing of Yugoslavia by a U.S.-led NATO force. The bombing continued until June 10, 1999.

But the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession had begun almost a decade earlier, and lasted throughout the 1990s. It was a perfect example to illustrate Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, where local ethnic quarrels attracted international backing, and ended with the complete dismemberment of Yugoslavia.

It was also ironic that at the very time when South Africa was abandoning apartheid as evil and unworkable, Europe was adopting it with a bloodthirsty enthusiasm. And it was the second time in fifty years that Yugoslavia had been torn apart. For Yugoslavia the Second World War was also a civil war, but after the war there was no truth and reconciliation commission, no attempt to exorcise the demons of ethnic and ideological violence. Instead there were just idealistic slogans, and it was said that Yugoslavia had seven neighbours, six republics, five nations, four languages, three religions, two scripts and one goal – to live in brotherhood and unity (Crnobrnja 1994:15).

The last tattered remnants of the dream of brotherhood and unity were destroyed, if not forever, then for at least a generation by the Nato bombing.

Many books were written at the time, trying to explain or establish blame for the conflict, or to put a particular spin on it. Perhaps ten years later one can see it more in historical perspective, and a new book is shortly to be published that takes a fresh look at it: First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia by David N. Gibbs (Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, 2009).

Gibbs is an associate professor of history and political science at the University of Arizona. He says:

The 1999 Kosovo war is often remembered as the ‘good’ war which shows that American power can be used in a morally positive way and can alleviate humanitarian emergencies. In fact, the NATO air strikes failed to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo; instead the strikes worsened the atrocities and heightened the scale of human suffering.

The NATO states could have achieved a negotiated settlement of the Kosovo problem and resolved the humanitarian crisis — without war. However, the Clinton administration blocked a negotiated settlement at the Rambouillet conference, leading directly to the NATO bombing campaign. The U.S. government sought to use the Kosovo war as a means to reaffirm NATO’s function in the post-Cold War era. It was this NATO factor — rather than human rights — that was the main reason for the war.

The Kosovo war had many features in common with George Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. In both Kosovo and Iraq, American presidents avoided diplomatic avenues that might have settled the disputes without war, went to war by circumventing the UN Security Council, and engaged in extensive public deception.

All this shows the negative aspect of so-called ‘humanitarian interventions,’ which are advocated by Samantha Power in her book A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide. There is a tendency by many to simplify complex ethnic conflicts in ways that favor U.S. intervention, for example now in Darfur in the Sudan. There is also a tendency to ignore the danger that intervention, however well intended, runs the risk of worsening humanitarian crises.

For my own take on it, written ten years ago (though I believe it still applies today), see my article on Nationalism, violence and reconciliation.


  • Crnobrnja, Mihailo. 1994. The Yugoslav drama. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.
  • Gibb, David N. 2009. First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
  • Hayes, Stephen. 1999. Nationalism, violence and reconciliation, in Missionalia, 27(3), August, pp 187-202.
One Comment leave one →
  1. 14 March 2010 3:47 pm

    The Humanitarian War Fallacy

    Mises Daily:Tuesday, March 02, 2010 by Predrag Rajsic

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