Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Protecting Kosovo at the Expense of New York

By Dimitri Simes

President Bill Clinton lost control of not only his temper during his interview with FOX News’ Chris Wallace, but also some facts about American national security.

The former President was right to criticize the Bush Administration for paying considerable attention to Iraq at the expense of Afghanistan and the war against al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist groups. Yet, Mr. Clinton was wrong to claim that he gave the struggle against al Qaeda and the Taliban sufficient priority during his own tenure.

One of Mr. Clinton’s most striking claims was only indirectly related to the war on terror, in his comment contrasting his years in the White House with his current role. Discussing the differences, he argued that as the president he could “simultaneously be trying to stop a genocide in Kosovo and, you know, make peace in the Middle East, pass a budget.” As far as the Middle East is concerned, Mr. Clinton indeed made a valiant, if unsuccessful, effort to reach a major Israeli-Palestinian accord. But that was about diplomacy, of course, not waging a war. And in dealing with the Taliban and al Qaeda, it is now clear that Kosovo proved to be a serious and perhaps a fatal distraction.

But first, Mr. Clinton should not try to rewrite history. There was no genocide in Kosovo at the time that his administration orchestrated the NATO attack against Yugoslavia. There was a rebellion by Kosovar Albanians, who were clearly inspired by NATO’s intervention in Bosnia against the Serbs. On the ground, the Kosovo Liberation Army regularly attacked Yugoslav police units and civilian officials. Unsurprisingly, the Milosevic regime responded with particular ruthlessness, often not hesitating in launching indiscriminate attacks on villages where KLA elements were hiding and had considerable support.

There was much to criticize in Milosevic’s answer to the Albanian uprising in Kosovo. But if it was genocide, then the Israelis in Lebanon—and, conceivably, U.S. troops in Iraq—could be vulnerable to similar charges. Yugoslav forces began their “ethnic cleansing” only after NATO decided to attack Yugoslavia. Thus, Mr. Clinton notwithstanding, there was no moral imperative for the United States to go to war when even some masterminds of the operation, including Richard Holbrooke, later acknowledged that it was a technical violation of international law. Kosovo was clearly a war of choice, and even more so than Iraq because Yugoslavia was not an enemy of the United States, had not been accused of harboring international terrorists, and was not suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction.

Yet, just like the Bush Administration’s preoccupation with Iraq, the Clinton Administration decision to focus on Yugoslavia had a heavy price for U.S. national security.

In his interview with Chris Wallace, Mr. Clinton excused his administration’s inability to mount major operations against al Qaeda and the Taliban by saying that the United States “needed basing rights in Uzbekistan, which we got after 9/11.” This implies that it would not have been possible to obtain access to bases before the September 11 attacks rallied global sympathy for the U.S. and opened new doors. But America had a real chance to get bases in Uzbekistan, or at least a military presence, much earlier.

As I have written in The National Interest, then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin proposed U.S.-Russian cooperation against the Taliban and al Qaeda in 1999. Frustrated with Moscow’s opposition to the NATO attack on Yugoslavia earlier that year—and, more generally, increasingly concerned by Russia’s newly assertive foreign policy—the Clinton Administration dismissed Mr. Putin’s overtures out of fear that cooperation with the Kremlin would legitimize Russia’s own presence in Central Asia. So, even after the al Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, the Clinton team’s focus was on containing Russia, not on working with Moscow against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Even the 2000 al Qaeda bombing of the U.S.S. Cole did not persuade Mr. Clinton or his advisors that working with Russia in defeating the common threat was more important than curbing Russian influence in Central Asia. By that time, Russia was explicitly suggesting using its links to the Northern Alliance in order to defeat the Taliban. Later, President Putin acknowledged in an interview with Barbara Walters that he did not “know whether it would have been possible to prevent these strikes on the United States by the terrorists,” but added that “at that time, we certainly were counting on more active cooperation in combating international terrorism.” Both U.S. and Russian sources confirm that Russian approaches to the United States on joint counter-terrorism action in Afghanistan were largely ignored by the Clinton Administration.

Cooperation with China was also a casualty of the U.S.-led attack against Yugoslavia. Milosevic led the last self-proclaimed socialist regime in Europe and the Chinese leadership could not be expected to approve an attack on Yugoslavia any more than the United States would have been expected to endorse a Chinese attack on some democratic state, even one that had committed human rights violations in the course of a civil war. The accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade did not help either, since Beijing took the view that even if it was accidental, it occurred during a bombing campaign that was both bad policy and, because it had not been approved by the United Nations Security Council, in violation of international law. China was another key player in central and south Asia and had considerable influence over Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan.

If Russia and China were in America’s corner in 1999 and 2000, the U.S. could have taken action against the Taliban and either driven them from power or at least severed their links to al Qaeda. This would have made the September 11 attacks much more difficult to organize.

From: The National Interest

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