WASHINGTON -- History, which lurches along its zigzag path by fits and starts, has had a particularly twitchy period since the bombing in the former Yugoslavia began March 24. The world is different now, but not as different as some summations suggest.
NATO, formally defined as a defensive alliance for the protection of the territorial integrity of its members, has waged a war for, effectively, the dismemberment of a nonmember state that had not attacked or threatened a NATO member. NATO has waged war to affirm certain values, and the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, acting in the name of those values, has indicted, for attacking citizens in his nation, a serving, elected president of a non-NATO nation.It is emphatically not true that what has been affirmed is the principle that "the international community" will "not tolerate" barbarism. The Sudan may be counterexample A, but there are many other counterexamples, too.
Rather, what has been established is that the North Atlantic community -- which, unlike the "international community," is not a fiction -- has again proved itself to be more than a geographical expression. It has shared values, political institutions for expressing them, military institutions for defending them, and the will to do so -- with two huge limits on its will.
One limit is that it believes the defense of these values is important enough to kill for, but not important enough to be killed for. Some say the defining characteristic of this war was that it was not a war of national interests, as traditionally defined in terms of territorial security or aggrandizement. That is indeed an important characteristic: The generally liberal-to-left governments now in power in most NATO nations could only be comfortable with war waged for reasons untainted by calculations of merely national interests.
The war was, in a way, symbolized by the 24 Apache helicopters that were deployed with much fanfare but never saw action because the battlefield environment was deemed too hazardous. The war was waged for 11 weeks without a single NATO combat casualty. To achieve this, tactics were adopted that obviously increased the perils of Kosovars under the hammer of Serbian forces, and of civilians in the downward paths of NATO's ordnance. Those tactics included purchasing alliance unity by a pledge not to use ground forces and relying exclusively on air power operating from high altitudes.
The second limitation on NATO's will is that it will act in defense of its values only in its own back yard. There is a pleasant irony in this.
The "progressive" elements in America who finally found, in Kosovo's sufferings, a cause worth waging war for, are often the same elements who decry "Eurocentrism" in the teaching of history and literature, and in the interpretation of what it means to be an American. But this was not just a war in Europe. It was a war also about Europe -- about what Europe means at the end of the century. Hence it was a war also about America's identity.
Washington Post Writers Group