War and Genocide in Kosovo: A Look at the Present Conflict

San Francisco, May 5, 1999

Bruce Pickering (moderator): Tonight's program is sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Northern California. My name is Bruce Pickering and I am director of programs here at the Council. The World Affairs Council is a non-profit, non-partisan membership organization devoted to public education on international issues. The Council hosts ten to fifteen Forums each month like this one and operates a lending library which houses the largest private collection of foreign affairs publications on the West Coast. The Council's education department hosts monthly teacher workshops and maintains a curriculum research center for kindergarten through 12th grade teachers. If you are not already a member I encourage you to take with you some of the publications and membership information located on the lobby literature table or visit our website at Before we begin, I would like to take a moment to call your attention to a couple of events here at the Council… […]

Turning to tonight's program, we are honored to have with us Mark Danner, who is a staff writer for The New Yorker and who is currently engaged in writing an extended series of articles on the crisis in Kosovo. The articles, which began with Mr. Danner's cover piece "US and The Yugoslav Catastrophe" in The New York Review of Books of November 20, 1997 and has now reached the number of nine, with the most recent being "In the Killing Fields of Bosnia" in the New York Review of September 24, 1999, were recently recognized by the Overseas Press Association's Edward Cunningham Award as the Best Foreign Reporting of 1998. They will be collected and published next fall in a volume entitled The Saddest Story: America, the Balkans and the post-Cold War World.

Mr. Danner joined The New Yorker in April of 1990. His three- part series on Haiti, entitled "A Reporter at Large: Beyond the Mountains," was granted the 1990 National Magazine Award for reporting. On December 6, 1993, for only the second time in its history, The New Yorker devoted its entire issue to one article, Mr. Danner's piece entitled "The Truth of El Mozote" and that article was an investigation into the notorious massacre in a remote Salvadoran town. It was granted an Overseas Press Club Award, a Latin American Studies Association Award and a number of other prizes. Mr. Danner's writing has also appeared in Aperture, Harper's Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review and on The Times Op-ed page. As a commentator Mr. Danner has appeared on The Charlie Rose Show, The McNeil-Lehrer NewsHour on PBS, CNN Prime News, ABC's World News Now and C-Span's Morning Show. And with that rather detailed introduction -but doesn't even do Mr. Danner justice - I would like to introduce Mr. Mark Danner.

Mark Danner: Thank you…Thank you, Bruce Pickering, for that nice introduction. I think it did me justice completely - I have no complaints - and thank you to the World Affairs Council for inviting me. And thank you to all of you for coming on this beautiful afternoon. I am particularly pleased that my parents are in the audience, in the front row, looking at me from far too close a vantage point, as is my girlfriend Catherine Lee.

It is a beautiful sunny day out. It has been six weeks now of many sunny days since the US has been at war. It is a kind of odd thing to realize. There are no bombs falling here, of course, there are no lines for food and no ration cards and most spectacularly there are no casualty reports. No body bags, no pictures of Americans injured or killed in the newspapers. On the other hand, there are a great number of people being killed half a world away. I would like to make a few comments about this rather interesting and unusual situation, and then I hope to open it to a lively few minutes of questions and answers. And I am hoping that some of my remarks may provoke you a little bit to ask some questions, maybe even some angry ones. I don't know; I hope so.

I would like to make three broad points about the current "crisis in Kosovo," as CNN calls it in its nightly reports. The first one has to do with a rather dramatic chasm between the ends that the president set forward for this war and the means he has chosen to achieve them.

The second point has to do very much with the press - in its ability to convey to you every day what is going on in Kosovo and in Serbia, and what the US is trying to achieve there — and that is the broad point that, in this particular conflict, what is present - what is going on day by day — is inextricably linked to the past. And when I talk about the past I mean not 800 years ago, or 700 years ago in a battlefield between the Turks and the Serbs of that time, but in fact everything that has happened for the last decade and that you have been reading about: the war in Croatia, the war in Bosnia, the peace agreement in Dayton and so on.

I entitled my last New York Review of Books piece "End Game in Kosovo" — that was number ten, by the way Bruce, not number nine, if anybody is counting. I am sure the editors there are counting actually. I entitled it "End Game in Kosovo," not because I thought necessarily that this would end matters, but rather that all the contradictions, hesitations, avoidances of decisions had finally come home to roost, if you would like to put it that way, in what is happening in Kosovo. What is happening there is not materially different from what's gone on in Bosnia or before that in Croatia; but the difference is that we are finally seeing it in front of us and the decisions seem to be pressed upon the American government and the governments of its allies.

Finally, the third point is a very broad one, and I am especially hoping that you will be provoked by this, because it concerns every one of you in the audience and every one of your friends who aren't here — and I call that the Athenian question. This is a rather high-falutin' name for a problem that Thucydides was the first to recognize and talk about and that is: how does a democracy operate in the world as a great power and as an empire? The US has had to, Americans have had to, consider this question a couple times before in this century, after the First and Second World Wars, and they are trying, or at least they should be trying, to consider it again and I think it is very closely connected to what is and isn't — what has and hasn't - happened in Kosovo. I think that that question has certainly not been answered or even confronted. Okay.

The chasm between ends and means. The president stood up and made a speech about six weeks ago. He addressed Americans. He said of our national interests, our vital interests in the world — the vital interests of America as a great power, and also to protect a couple of million human beings in Kosovo — that the US must use its war planes, must send its airmen and airwomen into battle to force Slobodan Milosevic back to the peace table to agree to a peace settlement put forward at Rambouillet in France. The peace settlement in its very broad outlines was this: that Slobodan Milosevic's troops would give up their arms, would withdraw from Kosovo; that the KLA — which is the guerilla army of the Kosovar Albanians - would give up their arms; that an armed contingent of NATO troops would occupy Kosovo and over a three-year period a solution would come, would be arrived at in one way or another, and that solution would probably bring in its wake autonomy.

That was what was stated at Rambouillet. Slobodan Milosevic did not accept this - in fact, he didn't even show up at Rambouillet, which was one of the ridiculous aspects of that conference. If "it ain't over until the fat lady sings" — well, at Rambouillet the fat lady didn't even show up. So this was the goal set forth by the president of the US. What followed? Well, we have had hundreds of sorties by American warplanes. They've involved the most sophisticated of America's weapon systems. Your tax dollars have bought these things over the last ten, twenty years: F-117 "stealth" fighters, B-2 "stealth bombers" — the latter of which are flying all the way from Hollman Air Force Base in New Mexico and flying back for each mission, refueled along the way. One could go on. I assume all of you are following this on CNN and other news stations, that you know in detail what is happening in this war, how the US is prosecuting it.

What is interesting, indeed striking, is that this bombing is being carried out from 15,000 feet and above. There is a problem with that, which again all of you probably know. Such bombing is effective against "fixed targets." It is effective against cities. It is above all not effective against small military units that are engaged in ethnic cleansing. It is not effective against individual groupings of armor: tanks, armored personnel carriers and so on. It is not effective against small groups of troops. And when Slobodan Milosevic sent his troops full-fledged into Kosovo and began an enormous campaign of ethnic cleansing in which now almost one million Kosovar-Albanians have been pushed out of the country, the means that American and allied leaders selected - that is, bombing from 15,000 feet or above - were absolutely incommensurate with the ends that were supposed to be achieved — that is, protecting these people.

Now we see that in Washington a debate has begun and is now heating up about the use of ground troops: "Should ground troops be sent to Kosovo?" I would suggest to you that the debate should not be about ground troops, that there is an intermediate step that has not even, or has hardly even, been examined. And that question, which I think all of you perhaps should be posing, is why indeed, as soon as those Serbian troops started to push out the Kosovar-Albanians from Kosovo, as soon as they started to kill a fair number of them, why were not lower flying planes, like the A10 "wart hog" — the famous "tank-killer" plane - why were not the Blackhawk helicopters, and the various other "systems," as the US Military forces call them — why were they not used? Why were they not used?

Well, there is an answer to that of course and probably all of you know that too. There was a risk of casualties. There was a risk of casualties. One of the keys to this operation — and we will look at this more closely in a moment when we talk about what I call the Athenian Problem - is that the US at this point in its history is absolutely unwilling to take casualties. Now, I am not going to stand up here and say it would be a good thing for US pilots to be shot out of the sky or a good thing for American airmen to be taken prisoner or to be killed. That would not be a good thing. But there is a question: When a war has begun and thousands of people whom the President has vowed to protect are being killed, does the US and its allies have any obligation to protect those people? And if they do have an obligation, is this absolute unwillingness to take casualties a reasonable excuse to avoid that obligation? Again, I hope we can return to that subject.

The present is the past. As all of you know, to say this is the "Crisis in Kosovo" is to make a distinction that is rather artificial. In 1987, Slobodan Milosevic - not then the leader of Serbia but a fast-rising protégé of a powerful politician named Ivan Stambolic - made a trip to Kosovo and made a speech. He said, most notably, to the Serbs, the angry Serbs there who were by then a small minority — about ten percent of the population, who were feeling oppressed by the majority Albanian population - he said to them: "They shall no longer beat you!" or depending on your translation, "They shall no longer dare to beat you!" Thenceforth, Milosevic's political career skyrocketed and he built that career on nationalism — on his extremely popular vow to protect the downtrodden Serbs.

Kosovo had been an issue in Serbia for many years, for centuries really, but Milosevic was able, two years later, when he took control of the Serbian government, essentially to revoke the autonomous status of Kosovo - to make of Albanians once more a persecuted minority and to put the Serbs once more in power. Before he took this step, the Albanians had controlled their own destiny since Tito's 1974 Yugoslav constitution. Tito had a particular idea of Yugoslavia, which is that the only way to make one country of these six unruly republics was first of all to limit and constrain the power of the Serbs - the overbearing republic. One of the things his 1974 constitution did was to divide and weaken Serbia by giving both Kosovo and Vojvodina (which is the Republic that is majority ethnic Hungarian) autonomous status.

This was in 1974. In 1989 Slobodan Milosevic revoked that status. This began his policy of trying to build a Greater Serbia and trying to build his own power on nationalism, Serbian nationalism. Now the history, which I am sure you all have followed in your newspapers, is a complicated one. But it is by no means in its general sweep impossible to understand — it went from Slovenia leaving the Republic in 1991, largely because Milosevic was willing to see them go, because there were no Serbs in Slovenia; to Croatia trying to leave the Republic in 1992 and the war beginning between Serbia and Croatia. And then began a program of ethnic cleansing centered in the Krajina, which was a region, and is still a region of Croatia that was largely populated by Serbs and had been for four centuries. Let me, I will ask your forbearance for a a moment because I am going to read a short passage to you which is a description of what ethnic cleansing is.

Step one — concentration. Surround the area to be cleansed, and after warning the resident Serbs, often they are urged to leave or at least told to mark their houses with white flags, intimidate the target population with artillery fire and arbitrary executions and then bring them out into the streets.

Two — decapitation. Execute political leaders and those capable of taking their places — lawyers, judges, public officials, writers, professors.

Three — separation. Divide women, children and old men from men of fighting age, 16 to 60 years old.

Four — evacuation. Transport women, children and old men to the border, expelling them into a neighboring territory or country and finally,

Five — liquidation. Execute fighting-aged men and dispose of the bodies.

Now I originally wrote that sequence about the Krajina. This is in 1991-1992. But it holds very clearly for the war in Bosnia and particularly Srebrenica, where about 8,000 men were eventually executed and buried in mass graves and it holds true yet again for Kosovo. So we have seen the technique is very familiar and if indeed Slobodan Milosevic's army and his security forces were able to remove a million or so Kosovar-Albanians from Kosovo in a matter of weeks - which is an extraordinary achievement actually logistically; it's incredible - the reason is because they were very well practiced at it. They had done it again and again and we have seen it again and again. There is nothing unfamiliar about it at all. The only thing different was the scale. I think it is rather important to remember this.

I mentioned, when I mentioned this theme at the beginning, that I felt this had a lot to do with the press coverage of what is happening now. That is, the act of memory, the importance of memory when looking at what is going on on our television screens. Now I am not arguing that the press, broadcast press, print press, is doing a bad job at covering this; but the press has an in-bred bias — not liberal, not conservative but simply to look at the news: what is new every day. When you get a story like this one in which the past is the present, the present is the past and the two are simply connected — the press has rather a difficult time doing justice to it. I will give an example of what has particularly irked me, and that is the proclivity of the press over the last six weeks to interview people who have had a very direct involvement in policy, in former Yugoslavia, beginning in 1991 to interview them as if they are just interested experts. I think if you have been following this at all you'll have seen probably Lawrence Eagleberger, the former Secretary of State under George Bush, being interviewed; I know I saw an interview conducted with him by Ted Koppel on Nightline.

Now Mr. Eagleberger was Secretary of State at an absolutely critical time in the early 1990's. The CIA, in an early, very long report, predicted very explicitly that Yugoslavia was about to break up. This was in the fall of 1990, about eight months before there was any violence. The CIA report, I mean to read this is to wonder why the CIA can't be as accurate on other occasions. It is quite remarkable, and yet, no action was taken. I repeat that, no action was taken. Finally, in June, precisely a week before Slovenia and Croatia were going to withdraw from Yugoslavia, that is before the crisis was going to hit — James Baker, then the Secretary of State, flew into Belgrade and held a day of meetings. He met with every Republic leader. This was US diplomacy. He got back to Washington and was displeased to find that indeed the Croats and the Slovenes were still going to withdraw from the Republic, from Yugoslavia and it's clear from his memoirs that he was very upset about this, even offended. The problem was then handed off — I mean I am obviously stating this in rather broad brushstrokes, but I have to add to you that the brushstrokes are not that broad. It is rather remarkable US diplomacy early on. The problem was then handed off, and this was the word they used, to the Europeans.

The Europeans were very pleased. This was right after the Maastricht conference and the Maastricht treaty. There was a lot of optimism about Europe's combined foreign policy and the foreign minister of Luxembourg who will go down in history, probably the only foreign minister of Luxembourg to go down in history - his name was Jacques Poos; you should remember that name, wonderful name I think — Foreign Minister Poos said, "This is the hour of Europe." That was his quotation on receiving the Yugoslav brief. This was probably the height of optimism as we know it about Yugoslavia. Well, it's no surprise, it couldn't have been any surprise to the US that the Europeans were not very effective in stopping this war. The Europeans do not have an army, collectively, they have NATO, which is to say, they need the Americans. Since they had no coercive means, whatever - and I am not saying it would have taken military force to stop what was happening; in fact I happen to believe it wouldn't have taken military force if an effort had been made early on - the Europeans failed rather miserably.

The US on the other hand was at the point of its greatest prestige militarily, internationally; it had just defeated Saddam Hussein in an incredible fashion with a tiny number of casualties, in a demonstration of military power that left the world startled. The United States was in a position to bring to bear its diplomatic power and either stop the war entirely or at least limit it. Instead, the American State Department under George Bush decided to step back from the problem and do precisely nothing. Let me give you a few more brushstrokes, broad ones. By the time the war became as ugly as it was to become, which is to say when the concentration camps began to be discovered in 1992, late 1992, in the middle of the campaign between Governor Clinton and President Bush, Clinton realized that he had a very valuable issue on his hands. He could attack the Foreign Policy President on foreign policy, from the right: that is, you're not tough enough. And as Governor of Arkansas he had no record of his own, and he seized the chance. He made a lot of statements that the United States should go ahead and bomb, that there should be bombing used, etc., etc., very encouraging to the Bosnians at the time. Bush had great difficulty responding.

When Clinton took office, however, things changed rather abruptly. He realized, and there is a quotation in Stephanopoulos's memoirs about this, that he might put himself in the position of Lyndon Johnson, that is, giving up his domestic ambitions in an attempt to defend a people far away and of whom Americans knew little, basically. The decision was made to do little, and to blame it essentially on the Europeans. That is, the Americans wanted to bomb, the Europeans had troops on the ground by that time, delivering humanitarian aid, and the two together, those two goals together - America's ardent wish to bomb and the Europeans refusal to get out of the way - meant paralysis.

And so the matter remained until 1995 when you had a number of events, the most important of which was Srebrenica, which many of you may know about, in which a horrendous number of people were murdered essentially on American television screens. For a number of reasons, the administration at that time realized it had to make a deal. The most important reason, I would argue, is that the Europeans told Mr. Clinton that they were going to withdraw their humanitarian forces. And they called on him, or they reminded him, that he had made a promise early on that if they withdrew their troops, that American troops would have to come in and help them get out, because it promised to be a very messy thing, removing their forces. President Clinton, and this is a remarkable scene in Richard Holbrooke's book, To End A War. President Clinton was very angry to discover that he had made this promise. He apparently was not very aware of it, or thought he could get out of it, in any event. And he was reminded by Holbrooke and Warren Christopher, then the Secretary of State, that to back out of this promise would essentially destroy NATO. So President Clinton was essentially put in the position of having to send in American troops to get the Europeans out, or to intervene in some other way. The upshot of all of this was that there had to be a peace deal.

Now we are getting into the realm of Kosovo. The one thing that the Bush Administration did before it left office was it made what has become to be called the Christmas Warning, that is the lame duck President George Bush, around Christmas 1992 - after deciding to send troops into Somalia by the way, as Mr. Pickering and I were discussing before - did one other thing. He sent a letter to Slobodan Milosevic saying essentially do what you want in Bosnia — he didn't say that obviously, but that was the implication - but if you fool around with Kosovo, the United States will consider it in its vital interests to respond, up to and including with military force. This is in 1992. The Clinton Administration, shortly after it took office in early 1993, reaffirmed that pledge.

In 1995, in the fall conference at Dayton — I am sure all of you remember the date and conference - there was a question: do we bring up Kosovo. It was very clear that this conflict in Kosovo, it should be underlined, was a surprise to no one. It has been brewing throughout the whole decade. It has not been covered very prominently, because the wars were going on elsewhere - nearby but elsewhere. So a key question in this conference was should we bring up Kosovo. There was an obvious problem with bringing up Kosovo. In order to reach an agreement in Dayton, the United States needed Slobodan Milosevic. He was the only one they could deal with, the only one who could bring the Bosnian Serbs along, the only one who could affect an agreement. And as far as he was concerned, if Kosovo was put on the table, he was gone. Simple as that. No Kosovo agreement, no Kosovo involvement and there was one effect I should mention before we get to the third point — the Athenian Problem - and that is throughout this decade there had been a leader in Kosovo named Ibrahim Rugova — you may have seen him on your television screens - he likes to wear a little necktie around his throat, he is rather distinctive looking — he is an English professor actually, but he was the leader, at the time, of the Kosovar-Albanians and he was putting forward a policy of pacifism. He is an admirer of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and he said, "You know, if we just don't engage in armed combat, the West will eventually come and help us." Well, Dayton for him was a political disaster, because it showed that the West, when they finally came, much later than he had been telling his people they would, by the way, but when they finally came they weren't even going to look at the Kosovars. So it politically undermined him completely. And the KLA, about which the United States knew almost nothing, the Kosovo Liberation Army, suddenly took on a prominence they had not had before in a political force. And their policy of armed rebellion became for once, the only solution, which led up to the involvement of the United States in Kosovo.

A couple final points about going into the so-called Athenian problem: the United States twice in this century has had to look at itself as a world power and try to decide what indeed it would accomplish in the world, what would be the value of operating and intervening around the globe. The first time, the first great controversy about this was 1919 and 1920. President Wilson, and all of you I am sure know about this controversy very well, put forth the League of Nations at the Paris Conference and at Versailles. The League of Nations was supposed to end war as we know it. President Wilson came back to this country and was faced with a Senate, particularly Senator Henry Cabott Lodge, who were opposed to the commitments that entering the League would bring on the United States. In particular, the impression and perhaps the reality that the League, if it made a decision to respond to aggressive actions with military force, could in effect order American troops into action, without a vote of the American Congress. There was a huge struggle. Woodrow Wilson traveled around the country by train, speaking in favor of the League, Senators opposed it and eventually Wilson lost the fight, and he also lost his life with a stroke which eventually led to his death.

This decision led rather directly to the second World War because Wilson of course had also been involved in the creation of a number of small states in the East which is where the second world war began, although by the way, now we are being told — there are two interesting points that I feel have been brought up around Kosovo — one geographical, one historical. The geographical point is that Yugoslavia is in the heart of Europe. Again and again we hear it is in the heart of Europe. A general on television the other day was saying "this war in the heart of Europe" and I wanted to say, "Open an atlas, general, I am worried about your geography." The other, the historical point you hear made, is that two world wars have begun in the Balkans. And I want to say, "Really? I am not sure how the second one began in the Balkans." So please inform your children that they should not believe that, even if they are seeing it on the television.

In any event, the withdrawal of US power from the continent, and I don't mean simply US troops, but US power, US interest there, led rather directly to the Second World War. The men who were in control of the United States during the Second World War and who built the postwar order — the order of the Cold War - were young men after the First World War — we're talking about Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, George Kennan. All of these men remembered very well what had happened after World War I and what they were intent to achieve after the Second World War was to avoid withdrawal of the United States from Europe, to somehow secure the United States as a world power. They did that partly through geo-political means, that is looking at the Soviet Union - and I am not saying this was wrong - but posing the Soviet Union as the main ideological enemy of the United States; and also through rhetorical means, that is, most obviously, the Truman Doctrine, in which Harry Truman set before the United States the goal of supporting democratic peoples wherever they are, if they are threatened by uprising or outside forces.

Now this was a universalist mission that many in the United States opposed. George Kennan did, Walter Lippmann did — all of them thought this was a terrible idea: you know, how can you set this thing, this universalist goal before the United States? It will lead to horrible misjudgments, and some people would look at Vietnam, for example, and say indeed it did precisely that. It didn't set any limits to what US power should pursue. One thing it did do however was set before Americans, the American public, a very clear idea of what the mission of the country should be around the world.

Now we are in another period. It is not quite a postwar period, although many compare it to that, but there are some similarities. The United States is trying to develop - put it this way, its leaders have lost the context, or the rhetoric, or the language in which to talk to the public. The most obvious sign of that is the inability, in an operation or a war, which is what this is, like this one, to somehow take responsibility for casualties. In other words, the United States leaders, particularly the president, are enormously frightened of any casualties at all. Not 1,000 casualties, not 500, but none. Some of you may remember the weekend when the F-117 was shot down over Serbia. There was enormous terror in the White House about the political implications of this, that it could undermine the war effort, one plane being shot down, and because of this, to return to my original point, the war is being prosecuted in a way that is absolutely illogical. And the subject that we are now discussing - whether ground troops should be used - is not the subject we should be talking about at all. And I feel that until - I am not before you suggesting a solution, which I hope is my privilege Bruce, you can ask me about it later - I feel that until some language is found, in which American leaders can talk to the people about the role of the country in the world, which is to say until American leaders themselves have a clear idea of what they are doing, and of what is important and of what they should use their own political capital to support, we will continue, I am afraid, to expend our treasure and not our blood, in operations like this one. Not our blood, but the blood of other people.

Thank you. And I would be glad to take your questions.

Bruce Pickering (moderator): What do you make of the assertion by the Serbs that in fact Kosovo really is the sacred heart of Serbia and that its transfer to any other ethnic group is essentially akin to, or essentially be a hole in the heart of Serbia, was I think how I heard it referred to? 

Mark Danner: Well, it's a complicated question obviously, that has strong political and historical implications. The history of it is fascinating and contradictory. The war that gave Kosovo its magical shimmer in Serbian history — or the battle in 1389, the Battle of the Field of Blackbirds - was, everyone will tell you, a terrible Serb defeat, which let the Turks move in to seize Serbia and move into the Balkans. It wasn't quite that simple. It is arguable whether or not it was a defeat and the Turks did not move forward into, further into Serbia for about twenty years later. So the account of it that you are hearing now is somewhat false. It was not this heroic tale. It did not become the heroic tale it is now until the mid 19th century, which of course is true when you look at a lot of European nationalisms. It was developed — the laurel wreath man named Yagos, wrote this wonderful poem about the battle. It has very strong religious overtones in it, but it rather recent phenomenon, if you want to talk about 150 years or so as recent, as the touchstone of Serb nationalism. It is true that there are a lot of religious monuments there. It is also true that regardless of how long, and what the history is — politically the place does have this strong force within Serbia, there is no question about it.

On the other hand, on the ground the country, or the province, the area - whatever you would like to call it - has changed dramatically in the last 25 to 30 years. It has gone from about half and half Serb-Kosovar Albanian, to ninety percent Kosovar-Albanian. Now the Serbs would tell you the reason for this population shift was because the Serbs were being persecuted, and indeed they have been calling it genocide. This is the genocide of Serbs in Kosovo. Others would tell you that a lot of Serbs left mainly because of economic opportunity elsewhere So the history is rather complicated, but the political facts are rather clear and the most important one for us to consider today, it seems to me, is that at the Rambouillet conference the position of the West was very unfortunate because there seemed to be this assumption based on recent history, based on the bombing of Slobodan Milosevic in 1995, that Milosevic responds to force, ergo, if we threaten to bomb him over Kosovo, he will withdraw and accept what he already had taken as a solution: an autonomy that would in effect give independence to Kosovo.

The problem politically from his point of view was that he would then be giving up Kosovo without a fight. Now since he had made his entire career on nationalism, he had built it on Serb nationalism — and since it had begun in Kosovo itself — the idea that he could give up this territory without a fight to the West was absolutely politically impossible; he couldn't. And this was to me the great error among others, of Western diplomats at Rombouillet. So there are historical questions here obviously, but the political ones are most important. But I would urge everybody here to read Yagos' poem and it's a fascinating story behind Kosovo itself.

Man: Thanks for your talk. In the end of February I was in St. Petersburg, Russia attending a future war conference. We were supposed to be commemorating the anniversary of Ivan Bloch's work and it broke into a food fight between NATO and the Russians.

Mark Danner: When was this? February?

Man: Yes, end of February and over Kosovo actually. And the Russians made it very clear, their position that this was unwarranted incursion by NATO. I bring this up because I then left there, came back to San Francisco for a week and then went on to Argentina and it is very clear where their position is, especially the student population. So I have been void of American press, so my question deals with ….(silence until end of tape) ..

…(next side)…the UN has a human rights provision to deal with genocide, that actually the UN has a provision that no force will be used to change state boundaries and the last time I checked Kosovo was a part of Yugoslavia. My question is why is none of this discussed, why is no one considering those options and finally, I want to tell you that before you copyright your description of ethnic cleansing, almost word for word that was my apt (?) plan in 1965 when I was an intelligence officer to root out the guerilla movement in Vietnam.

Mark Danner: I see, maybe you should have copyrighted it, maybe they got a hold of it.

Man: I realize that America is a moral nation 30 some odd years later, but , it's not new.

Mark Danner: Yes, thank you, I certainly know that it's not new. Indeed, that was my point about Serbia of course, as well. Thanks for your question. Well, you asked two things really. Why is the issue of legality, in its many forms, not being discussed in the press. And that is a difficult question. I don't know how to answer it, except to say that the press tends to consider day-to-day immediate news and unless someone comes forward, like a diplomat who has some standing or, as it is called in the press, a recognizable handle, a handle being this Homeric epithet that you put after somebody to identify them, it won't get discussed because it doesn't seem to have any relevance to current news. I emphasize new as in news.

I think it is a very pertinent issue. NATO is obviously changing. It just celebrated, if you can call it a celebration, its fiftieth anniversary in Washington. It has only recently added three new countries. The United States now, and everyone in this room is pledged to defend now, by nuclear means if necessary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, about which there was very little public discussion at all — and the Senate had a rather desultory debate about it. I wrote about it and criticized it very heavily. I thought it was a very ill-advised decision, but part of this is NATO wanting to put forward and especially the United States wanting to reshape NATO as a force of intervention in what used to be called "out-of-area" situations. And this is an instance of it. How can we use NATO is essentially, the allies — how can we knit the allies to us and use them elsewhere than in Europe and people talk about..the cliché is that NATO is the most successful alliance in history. One of the reasons for its success is that its mission was so tightly defined. That has changed, and we are seeing now an instance of the future, and it is not a very encouraging one I don't think. The legality of it, to me, has never been satisfactorily explained.

The points you make are true about the United Nations. I think we should acknowledge though that the idea of sovereignty, and sovereignty being the basis of the international system, coming down to us from the Westphalia Treaty in the 17th century — that notion seems to be slowly changing, or at least has been thrown up in the air and is floating around a little bit. I don't know what the result will be but certainly this particular mission and also the larger issues of sovereignty having to do with money flowing in and out and so on, economic sovereignty. These are matters that I think this war will probably affect. But I am sorry I can't answer you with a more definitive answer. Perhaps you should write an op-ed piece in the press about it.

Man: I thought you were going to start talking about black helicopters. I agree with you that Clinton made excellent speeches on foreign policy in the 1992 campaign and I didn't think the Democrats should have conceded foreign policy as they seemed to have done. And Bill Safire voted for Clinton certainly based on foreign policy. But I think the problem is that if we had the Second World War televised the way it is now we probably would have been out of there after two days, too. I think Clinton wanted to, as you say, I think, I don't have to necessarily believe Stephanopolis, the turncoat, but the, I think that he wanted to, I think the Europeans didn't and that the Republican Congress wasn't willing to go along. That made it very difficult, and even now the Republican Congress won't go along. So I am not so sure he isn't doing as much as he can, because when you got a guy like Tom Campbell saying we can't put our troops in harm's way, and I don't think that we should squander lives wastefully, but I think that is what the military is for if they are going to engage in military operations, that there may have to be some casualties and unfortunately with the media coverage I think it is very difficult for this president or any president with doing anything, because the first drop of blood that spilled, everyone is going to say we have to get out and he is trying to run a practical, I think, operation.

Mark Danner: Well, thank you for your question. You make a number of points there that have very broad implications. Certainly the theater in which we conduct foreign policy, now and in particular interventions in war, is much different than it was in the Second World War and particularly the immediate news that we get and the political pressure that that brings. I agree with you. On the other hand, the necessity for a president to build public support to go out and make speeches, explain his position and persuade the country that what he is about to undertake is in the interest of the nation for this reason, that reason and that reason — that has not changed. FDR, of course had a difficult time, I mean the Japanese were of course very helpful to Roosevelt in getting the United States into the Second World War, as was Hitler. I mean it would have been a fascinating case and it's one of the great historical counterfactuals if Hitler, a few days after Pearl Harbor, had not declared war on the United States, how long it might have taken for the reverse to happen.

So in my view, television perhaps has changed the game, I mean it certainly has changed the game, but whether it has changed it to such an extent as you suggest I suppose I don't agree. I think an example of what a president must do, was George Bush in the fall of 1990 when he went around making speeches and tried to build support for the Gulf War — which, not many people remember now, never went beyond about fifty percent. You know, he made speeches, he went from issue to issue, first he talked about this is a case of aggression, we must oppose it. But the polls didn't move, didn't seem to affect peoples' opinions. Then he went to Kuwait and visited the troops during Thanksgiving and talked about Saddam with a nuclear weapon; well the polls didn't move really after that. Then James Baker said, I will tell you what this war is about: Jobs, jobs, jobs. You know, the economic issue. Well, the polls didn't move after that. Bush finally started talking about Saddam being worse than Hitler, which seemed to move the polls to some degree and they were able to push up support to a certain extent.

But you know, it is almost like we don't remember this now, or at least this is what I would argue. The president is supposed to sit there and say well, what is in the interest of the country? This is it. Well, I have to convince people, I am going to go out and convince them and if I can only convince four out of ten, I can only convince four out of ten, and I have to do what has to be done. I mean, it shouldn't be the other way around.

Now, as far as what you say about Clinton, I guess I have rather a different interpretation. I think he made a decision in the spring of 1993 that he was not going to get deeply involved in Yugoslavia and to some extent I blame Bush certainly a lot more than Clinton, because I think Bush at the time could have affected the situation with a minimum and perhaps no loss of blood. I think Clinton, by the spring of 1993, was no longer at that point. He would have had to be involved in a much more messy way. But, I agree with your points about the Republicans completely, so we can talk about that one.

Woman: I too enjoyed your talk and you raised a lot of important issues, but I am going to ask the question — what do you propose as a solution, if any … (laughter).

Mark Danner: You know I was looking among the crowd while I talked thinking there is someone who is going to come up and ask that. I wondered who it was. I thought you looked very suspicious.

Woman: gee, thanks a lot.

Mark Danner: You know, I have to say, first of all, and I am not trying to duck your question, but I don't consider it to be my job to stand in front of you and say 'we should do this, now' because you know frankly…

Woman: I am just asking for your opinion, what you see as a solution, I am not…

Mark Danner: I am getting ready, and one of the reasons I want to say that at the beginning is that we often forget this because we are so used to people appearing on TV, the so-called pundits, and saying, "Well, you know Clinton should do this and this and this. And everybody does this and you know we are so used to it I think that we never kind of think that well, none of these people have the information that he has, none of them have the intelligence information that he has ..

Woman: Excuse me, I would just like to interrupt for one minute, I agree with what you are saying, because I think unfortunately in this country a lot of people form their opinions based on what they hear on the news or what they read in the papers, so I agree with what you are saying.

Mark Danner: My final point before actually pinching myself to say something that answers your question is that you cannot of course really learn about this particular problem or a problem like it simply through the papers and through the press. You have to be willing to read books and go to other sources. I am teaching at Berkeley this year, and that's one of the things I tell my students all the time, probably completely in great futility. They look at me pityingly when I say this but still.

Now, what do I think the solution will be? Um, you know, if I had to predict what will happen, and I will try to do this, and I am not a prophet but I will say that somehow there will be a diplomatic solution to this and it will come about with the intervention one way or another of the Russians who are in a key position to solve it and should have been brought in much earlier and it is another example of the Clinton fighting the last war. I said they had made this assumption about Milosevic responding to force which is very silly. The other assumption is that we can't get the Russians involved, we can't get the UN involved, because the Russians are on the Security Council — that will eliminate our freedom of movement. Well, of course the opposite happened, which is that the Russians are in a position to resupply the Serbs if they really want to. I don't think they will because of their dependence on Western capital, but they will probably be the diplomatic conduit for some kind of solution — now what will that be?

I would say, if I had to predict it, that it will involve the UN, it will involve a force that will be less well-armed than NATO wants and it will involve some sort of semi-occupation of Kosovo. Will it bring all the refugees back? I doubt it, I really doubt it. Will it stop the bombing? Ya, I think so. Will it be a solution that leaves things better than they were before? I don't think so at all. The key problem is that the West had a position at Rambouillet and before, that was, it was self-contradictory. On the one hand it wanted to protect the Kosovars from Milosevic. On the other hand, it didn't want Kosovo to have independence because of the implication for instability in the Balkans. That is, if you had an independent Kosovo, you would have a greater Albania, conceivably. Conceivably the Kosovar, excuse me, Albanian occupied part of Macedonia would split off so the solution of independence was anathema as well. And that contradiction is going to be there after this, as well as it was before. I am sorry I can't give you a clearer…

Woman: Well, no, I wasn't expecting you to, but thank you.

Mark Danner: Thank you

Man: I ordinarily wouldn't be nervous addressing you, except that you are a Cal professor. (laughter)

Mark Danner: I am a visiting professor and even that is an exaggeration so don't..

Man: I liked your presentation also and this is what I have to say. You know, we talk about or we hear about a Hitler here, a Hitler there, and we laugh about whether Yugoslavia is the center of Europe or is it Berlin, or is it London. One center that is unmistakably near the area we are talking about, the Balkans, is the center of the Jewish world. Why isn't Israel doing more to help the displaced people, that are at the frontiers of Kosovo?

Mark Danner: Well, it's an interesting question.

Man: Well, somebody asked me right here what is Israel doing. Oh, oh I know that they took in one family and a lot was made of it. My reaction was how stingy….

Mark Danner: Well, the family that they took in - of course, Israel has an old tradition which goes by the name of Righteous Gentile and that is, anyone who during the war risked their lives to protect Jews who were threatened during the Second World War is automatically given citizenship and some degree of honor within Israel, and a good deal of effort was made in Bosnia for example to remove people like that. Some of them were taken out by bus, some of them, you know the Israelis were very active in getting people out. Now they didn't take in a great deal of Bosnians or anything. I am not sure quite how to answer the broader question. The Israelis have been somewhat involved in this in various ways. One is that the Serbs are trying, have been trying since the beginning to replenish their arms supplies via Israeli arms dealers. The United States has been pressuring the arms dealers not to comply and so far has been doing so successfully. So that is one aspect of this.

Man: And my question is the humanitarian, the moral element in this, helping the displaced people.

Mark Danner: No I understand that. I honestly don't, you are saying why don't they, I don't know how to answer you.

Man: We shouldn't be talking about Hitlers here and there and bringing up the matter of the Holocaust because the Jewish world just sits there doing nothing.

Man: This is very untrue. The first medical teams that went were from Israel. I don't really think you know what you are talking about you know, a very explosive subject.

Man: No, no, no, I was asking you the question because I don't know the answer, and you said I don't know what to say and if somebody else here has something to say like Israel is sending medical crews, then I am happy to hear that very much.

Mark Danner: Well, why don't we, I defer to the moderator but I would say maybe it would be better to finish with the questions, but it is up to you…

Man: I found the talk informative. I must admit I was left, however upset by a number of things you said and didn't say which reminds me why I have never believed that journalists should accede to the leadership of the country.

Mark Danner: Well, who does. Talk to Al Gore about that. He was a former journalist.

Man: I will try to focus this. My idea is that this is a sophisticated political group presumably and we can agree on facts even if we can't agree on conclusions sometimes. You said two things — the means to be achieved, not protecting the people; you also said the war is being prosecuted in an illogical way. I don't think so, I don't know how you can defend that.

Mark Danner: Could you be a little more specific about that..

Man: Well, you see this is a terrible situation. It is a no-win situation, it is a horrendous situation. Let's put that right out on the table. No one is going to win in this situation, no one could win and it's ugly, that's for sure. The second thing is and so my understanding of at least the tactical means of Clinton's effort were first he wanted to take the position that if he couldn't stop Milosevic's, if he couldn't force him to make peace that he could take away his war-making ability by attacking strategically some of the means of production for the war or whatever else NATO has agreed on. The second effort as I understood it, had to do with separating Milosevic from his people and from his friends and allies and resources by causing them pain and causing them losses so they would say hey, cut it out. The third thing is, which you did not talk about, there is an undertone every place that what we are doing there is not achieving anything. I disagree. Milosevic takes the position that he is going to be a stalwart (?) and is going to stand up to the world and keep his attacks going on. We are hurting him, we are hurting him badly, I don't know how badly, I am not there. But the fact that he suddenly released three Americans proves that to me. He is a man who is second maybe only to Saddam Hussein. Incidentally, when we talk about public opinion, and this gets to the casualty issue. When we talk about public opinion everybody in this room probably knows in the Gulf War that Bush, Colin Powell and Schwartzkopf would have loved another few more days to attack Hussein's Republican Guard, but world opinion prevented it because the mandate of the UN was that we couldn't go past, that we should liberate Kuwait. So these are political realities.

Mark Danner: Let me try to answer your question. Now, first as to the goals that were set forward. The idea that the point of the Era (?) operation was to prevent, since Milosevic was not willing to make peace to destroy his capacity to make war, this was the position taken about two weeks after this operation began. In fact, the first goal set forward was what I said, which was it was supposed to both protect the people on the ground in Kosovo and to act to protect the vital interests of the United States by keeping Milosevic from keeping an iron grip on Kosovo. Now when I said that the means, or the ends that were suggested or at least set forward by President Clinton were far away from the means that were being employed, I was very specific. It had to do with the bombing from high altitudes and not using any forces or any military systems that could respond to the actual attacks on the ground that were not only killing a great many people, but were emptying Kosovo of its population, so the idea of actually hurting Milosevic and doing it over a long period of time and the fact that he released three Americans and this proves that we are hurting him is to me utterly unconvincing, I don't see that…

Man: I say it's one factor.

Mark Danner: Well, it may be one factor, it doesn't say that to me. But as I say I was trying to make a specific point about what indeed the United States military and NATO military has been doing there, and what the goals set forward were. To me, they don't match, they don't even, and the fact that we've now had a six week bombing campaign which nobody in NATO anticipated, I mean not even close — I mean they were thinking two weeks, or one week or no time at all, is rather a fiasco, I mean this is not what they planned for, this is not what they thought would happen. They certainly didn't think that the entire population of Kosovo would be forced out of Kosovo and into Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania. They basically have achieved strategically what they wanted to avoid by the bombing, so I guess we just have to agree to disagree on these things.

Man: I mean that's a point that is well-made but I just wanted to say that if he capitulated tomorrow, would you eat your words?

Mark Danner: No, I wouldn't. There are a lot of very dead people, you know. I wouldn't eat my words. I would be glad if he capitulated tomorrow but the fact is that Montenegro is on the verge of losing its government, Macedonia has been destabilized completely, Albania is in terrible shape. I mean things have happened. You can't behave as if your actions don't have effects. You know, things happen day by day and if he capitulates tomorrow it is not as if, we won, you won. I mean things are going on in the world in the region that will have implications regardless. Just the way you talk about Saddam Hussein, he is still in office, George Bush is in retirement, Saddam Hussein still sits there, the Republican Guard was hardly touched and the point you make about they would have been glad to continue but public opinion and the UN stopped them, is a very debatable one. Rick Atkinson of the Washington Post did a wonderful book about the Gulf War that perhaps you would like to read because it certainly has a very opposite account of what happened in the last days of the war.

Man: I didn't say……..

Bruce Pickering (moderator): We are out of time and we have one more person.

Woman: One question or one issue that I see, that I haven't seen really addressed, is how is the cycle of violence going to be stopped in the Balkan area, the cycle of aggression? I don't feel that I have enough of a picture of all of the history, all of the different sides and all the anger and animosity to formulate any kind of sense of that. The only thing I can fall back on is what happened in Japan and Germany after World War II where after very nationalistic fervor and the activities that went along with that, they were then roundly defeated, other countries came in and were in charge of the infrastructure for awhile and things turned around, people felt bad and were kind of like gosh, that wasn't such a good thing after all. And, what I do remember reading a few years back is that in Serbia they have a special museum to take the children through, the Serbian children and show them the atrocities that they have suffered at the hands of the other peoples of Yugoslavia to teach them to hate. And I do not see how a diplomatic solution, leaving kind of the status quo the little bit of shifting of peoples and dynamics a little bit, how that will change the education of the children and the cycle of violence.

Mark Danner: Well, it's a very good question and a profound one I think and perhaps a very good one to end on. Unfortunately, as with so many questions that are good and profound it doesn't have an easy answer. I think the question of history and hatred tied to history has been a politically inflammatory one during the last decade when it comes to ethnic conflict and particularly when it comes to the Balkans. Very often other countries use the argument of ancient hatred, that is the code word, ancient hatreds to argue that in fact because this has been "going on" for centuries nothing can be done. Generally when you look more closely at the history of the Balkans or other places as well, but certainly when you look at the history of the Balkans, things become a lot more complicated. And the last decade, although history plays a powerful role, no question about it, what also was completely necessary was an ambitious clever, nationalist leader, or an ambitious clever leader, put it that way and ruthless leader who had at his command modern technology, modern communications technology and was able to use, in a situation of great fear because of economic collapse - which the West has some responsibility for, by the way, calling in loans much too quickly - and a situation of rapid democratization so with a fearful population and a ruthless leader using nationalism to gain power, you had enormous instability and the enormous possibility to create hatred.

So I think what I am trying to say is that there is a difference between saying fatalistically that this hatred resides in the breasts of the people and must somehow be rooted out, because if you say that, the implication is that what is needed here is an occupation of the sort which took place in Japan and Germany after World War II. It is almost a desperate analysis, because I don't think that sort of occupation is going to take place or would now. I think you have to look at and say this was a combination of historical fears that indeed did lurk just below the surface. But also a country where Tito was able to create to some degree a nationalism based on the Yugoslav idea. I mean if you looked in Bosnia for example, the most mixed of the republics, when they took a poll not long before the war began and said are you Croat, are you Serb, are you Yugoslav, the largest number of respondents said Yugoslav, we're Yugoslav. Well, there aren't any Yugoslavs anymore, so I don't think historical fatalism is really proper here. On the other hand, how do we end the cycle of violence. First of all, the West has to be in some way willing to take some responsibility for what happens there and the idea that 10,000 Kosovo lives is still not worth one American life which is the implication behind the current tactic militarily, does not give one a lot of confidence about the real determination of the West in doing something effectively in Yugoslavia or the Balkans.

Bruce Pickering (moderator): Well, thank you very much. On behalf of the World Affairs Council I would like to thank Mark Danner and indeed the audience…

Mark Danner: Thank you, thanks very much for coming.

Mark Danner speaks at the World Affairs Council of Northern California, San Francisco

Return to the Speaking Page

© 2021 Mark Danner