Speech: Bill Clinton – “A Just and Necessary War” (1999)

This essay originally appeared in the May 23, 1999 edition of the New York Times.

A Just And Necessary War


WASHINGTON — We are in Kosovo with our allies to stand for a Europe, within our reach for the first time, that is peaceful, undivided and free. And we are there to stand against the greatest remaining threat to that vision: instability in the Balkans, fueled by a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The problem is not simply ethnic hatred, or even ethnic conflict. The people of the former Yugoslavia have lived together for centuries with greater and lesser degrees of conflict, but not the constant “cleansing” of peoples from their land. Had they experienced nothing but that, their nations would be homogenous today, not endlessly diverse.

The intolerable conditions the region finds itself in today are the result of a decade-long campaign by Slobodan Milosevic to build a greater Serbia by singling out whole peoples for destruction because of their ethnicity and faith. The brutal methods are familiar now. Spreading hate in the media. Killing moderate leaders. Arming paramilitaries and ordering soldiers to conduct planned campaigns of murder and expulsion. Eradicating the culture, the heritage, the very record of the presence of his victims. Refugees are not a byproduct of the fighting he has initiated; the fighting is designed to create refugees. We are haunted by the images of people driven from their homes, pushing the elderly in wheelbarrows, telling stories of relatives murdered.

We saw this for the first time in Croatia and in Bosnia. The international community responded at first with a studied neutrality that equated victims with aggressors; it followed with diplomacy and the deployment of unarmed peacekeepers with the mandate, but not the means, to protect civilians. By the time NATO acted, 250,000 people were dead, more than two million displaced, and many have still not returned. People will look back on Kosovo and say that this time, because we acted soon and forcefully enough, more lives were saved and the refugees all came home. The Balkan conflict that began 10 years ago in Kosovo will have ended in Kosovo.

We cannot respond to such tragedies everywhere, but when ethnic conflict turns into ethnic cleansing where we can make a difference, we must try, and that is clearly the case in Kosovo. Had we faltered, the result would have been a moral and strategic disaster. The Kosovars would have become a people without a homeland, living in difficult conditions in some of the poorest countries in Europe, overwhelming new democracies. The Balkan conflict would have continued indefinitely, posing a risk of a wider war and of continuing tensions with Russia. NATO itself would have been discredited for failing to defend the very values that give it meaning. Those who say Kosovo is too small to be of great importance forget these simple facts.

When the violence in Kosovo began in early 1998, we exhausted every diplomatic avenue for a settlement. Last October, we convinced Mr. Milosevic that he should withdraw some forces from Kosovo and allow an unarmed international presence. That is the solution advocates of compromise propose today. But it failed last fall. Mr. Milosevic broke his promises, poured more troops into Kosovo, poised for an offensive he had been planning for months. When it began, we had to act.

Mr. Milosevic’s strategy has been to outlast us by dividing the alliance. He has failed. Instead of disunity in Brussels, there are growing signs of disaffection in Belgrade: Serbian soldiers abandoning their posts, Serbian civilians protesting the policies of their leader, young men avoiding conscription, prominent Serbs calling on Mr. Milosevic to accept NATO’s conditions. Meanwhile, our air campaign has destroyed or damaged one-third of Serbia’s armored vehicles in Kosovo, half its artillery, most of its ability to produce ammunition, all its capacity to refine fuel and done enormous damage to other sectors of its economy. Though he has driven hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians from their homes, Mr. Milosevic has not eliminated the Kosovar Liberation Army. Indeed, its ranks are swelling, and it has begun to go on the offensive against Serb forces hunkered down to hide from air strikes.

Now Mr. Milosevic faces the certainty of continuing air strikes, the persistence of the K.L.A. and the prospect of having to answer to his people for starting an unwinnable conflict that is bringing military failure and economic ruin. The question now is not whether his ethnic cleansing will be reversed, but when, and how much of his military he is willing to see destroyed along the way.

While I do not rule out other military options, we are pursuing our present strategy for three reasons. First, and most important, it is working and will succeed in meeting NATO’s basic conditions of restoring the Kosovars to their homes, with Serb forces out of Kosovo and the deployment of an international security force. This force must have NATO at its core, which means it must have NATO command and control and NATO rules of engagement, with special arrangements for non-NATO countries, just like our force in Bosnia. Our military campaign will continue until these conditions are met, not because we are stubborn or arbitrary, but because these are the only conditions under which the refugees will go home in safety and under which the K.L.A. have any incentive to disarm — the basic requirements of a resolution that will work.

Second, this strategy has broad and deep support in the alliance, and allows us to meet our objectives. While there may be differences in domestic circumstances, cultural ties to the Balkans and ideas on tactics, there is no question about our unity on goals and our will to prevail. I have worked hard to shape our present consensus; 60 days into the air campaign, NATO is more unified on Kosovo than it was at the beginning.

Third, this strategy gives us the best opportunity to meet our goals in a way that strengthens, not weakens, our fundamental interest in a long-term, positive relationship with Russia. Russia is now helping to work out a way for Belgrade to meet our conditions. Russian troops should participate in the force that will keep the peace in Kosovo, turning a source of tension into an opportunity for cooperation, like our joint effort in Bosnia.

Finally, we must remember that the reversal of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo is not sufficient to end ethnic conflict in the Balkans and establish lasting stability. The European Union and the United States must do for southeastern Europe what we did for Western Europe after World War II and for Central Europe after the cold war. Freedom, respect for minority rights, and prosperity are powerful forces for progress. They give people goals to work for; they elevate hope over fear and tomorrow over yesterday.

We can do that by rebuilding struggling economies, encouraging trade and investment and helping the nations of the region join NATO and the European Union.

Already, the region’s democracies are responding to the pull of integration by sticking with their reforms, taking in refugees and supporting NATO’s campaign. A democratic Serbia that respects the rights of its people and its neighbors can and should join them.

If it does, we will help to restore it to its rightful place as a European state in the Balkans, not a balkanized state at the periphery of Europe.

The Balkans are not fated to be the heart of European darkness, a region of bombed mosques, men and boys shot in the back, young women raped, all traces of group and individual history rewritten or erased. Just as leaders took their people down that road, leaders must take them back to a better tomorrow. Ultimately, we and our allies can help make this happen, if we stick with NATO’s campaign and follow through with a strategy to insure that the forces pulling southeastern Europe together are stronger than the forces tearing it apart.

About Maximilian C. Forte

I am a professor of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. My areas of research and teaching interest are centered in Political Anthropology, with a focus on imperialism, neoliberalism and globalization, nationalism, democracy, and the international political economy of knowledge production. My long-standing research area involves the ethnohistory of Indigenous Peoples in the Lesser Antilles, and a focus on Indigenous resurgence in Trinidad & Tobago and neighbouring nations of the Caribbean.
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