Bill Clinton Justifies Kosovo Intervention | 24 March 1999
On March 24, 1999, President Bill Clinton faced the nation once again to address the atrocities committed by Serbian President, Slobodan Milošević. While the word “peace” flowed through Clinton’s first broadcast in 1995 regarding the successful negotiations to end the Bosnian War, no such optimism was heard four years later. Instead, the President looked to the camera with resolve as he unveiled the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) plan “to defuse a powder keg at the heart of Europe” through airstrikes. Noting the Serbian impingement upon Western values, such as democracy and the proximity of Kosovo to Italy, Clinton aimed to convince Americans of the “moral imperative” to intervene. In addition to stressing the threat to America’s European friends, President Clinton made an emotional appeal – describing the torching of Kosovar houses, the shelling of civilians, and the cold blooded massacres. Like other post-Cold War conflicts in the 1990s, Kosovo presented a case of ethnic cleansing and a familiar call for humanitarian intervention. However, Kosovo stood out. Not only did Americans finally witness President Clinton refuse to stand aside as thousands died – thus overcoming past hesitancy during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and Bosnian War – but the international community saw for the first time the Western alliance violate United Nations (U.N.) authority in order to advance “the cause for peace.”
Located in southeastern Serbia, Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians (Kosovars) were the last population to fight for independence from the collapsed state of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. Although Kosovo had maintained provincial autonomy within Yugoslavia since 1974, the increasing power of President Milošević resulted in Kosovo’s loss of independence in 1989. Milošević territorial claims were repeatedly contested throughout the 1990s as Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina fought for independence. Following the bloody Bosnian War (1992-1995), Kosovo erupted into conflict in March 1998. In order to preserve Serbian dominance, Milošević’s forces fought the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and waged ethnic cleansing against the local Albanians. Milošević’s crackdown is estimated to have caused 5,000 deaths and 1.5 million Kosovars being expelled from their homes by May 1999. Although horrific, these statistics could have been much higher had the international community not intervened. NATO rose to the occasion when failed U.N. missions and mounting American pressure proved that the call for intervention could no longer be ignored. Through Operation Allied Force, NATO enacted a successful bombing campaign that lasted seventy-seven days from March 23rd to June 10th, 1999 – resulting in the withdrawal of Serbian forces and the first steps to a political solution.
By 1999, the international community was exhausted with over a decade of simmering and occasionally explosive conflict. Although the disintegration of the Soviet Union offered renewed hope of global peace, the 1990s witnessed horrific unrest, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. From the failed military intervention in Somalia that brought back American memories of the Vietnam War to the Rwandan genocide in which countries were too hesitant to act, the United Nations (U.N.) continually faltered and proved incapable of securing peace. Despite relative success in ending the Bosnian War in 1995, the U.N.’s heavy reliance on NATO airstrikes and American negotiators further proved that the post-Cold War dream of a strong U.N. was very distant. Due to these repeated setbacks, Western countries were forced to consider alternative solutions to stopping mass atrocities – seeking answers that would receive public support, limit a military’s exposure to threat, and bring peace to a war-torn area. As President Clinton stated in his 1999 Oval Office address, “We learned that in the Balkans, inaction in the face of brutality, simply invites brutality. But firmness can stop armies and save lives.”
President Clinton’s address is important as it revealed the strength of NATO and, for the first time, publicly signaled a post-Cold War shift in U.S. foreign policy to privileging regional action. In the late 1990s, NATO seemingly found the answer to the tricky balance between protecting soldiers from undue harm and strongly upholding international law: airstrikes. General Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO, recalled in the fall of 1998, “We had halted ethnic conflict [in Bosnia], given diplomacy a chance, and proved that NATO had an important role to play in the post-Cold War world.” In Kosovo, the Western alliance found the stage to showcase this newfound role and supersede U.N. authority for the first time in alliance history. While neither handcuffed by internal divisions nor hindered by a Soviet threat, NATO acted more decisively than ever before by first introducing a phased air campaign with limited air operations (known as ACTORD) before commencing airstrikes on March 24th. Despite initially acting in accordance with the U.N., the weak Security Council resolutions coupled with Milošević’s increased killing of Kosovars only frustrated the Western allies and forced them to take action.
NATO’s Operation Allied Force often is referred to as “precedent-setting.”
In his address, President Clinton explained to the American people why. “[B]y acting now, we are upholding our values, protecting our interests, and advancing the cause of peace.” Clinton’s direct appeal was necessary as NATO never before had launched such aggressive air strikes nor superseded international authority. The intervention in Kosovo was truly unique. However, it should not be surprising. Looking at the longue durée of U.N.-NATO history reveals that the repeated favoring of superpower interests and refusal to define the U.N.’s relationship to regional organizations in Chapter VIII of the U.N. Charter, set the international organization on a course for failure. With a Security Council veto that enables inaction and the lack of a military arm, the foundational shortcomings of the U.N. provided the opportunity for NATO to answer Kosovo’s call. Operation Allied Force was not only a successfully impressive and crucial response to Milošević’s atrocities, but it also provided the solution to a decade consumed by ethnic conflict. NATO’s airstrikes thus symbolized an important, post-Cold War shift in power from the United Nations to a regional alliance.
Clark, Wesley. A Time to Lead: For Duty, Honor and Country. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007.
Kaplan, Lawrence S. NATO and the UN: A Peculiar Relationship. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2010.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “Press Statement by Dr. Javier Solana, Secretary General of NATO.” Press Release (1999)040. March 23, 1999. Digital Version
Phillips, David L. Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and U.S. Intervention. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012.
Power, Samantha. A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. New York: Basic Books, 2002.