Iraq and Kosovo: A Meditation on American Power
Madeleine Albright was US secretary of state during the second term of the Clinton administration. She spoke with NPQ in August.
NPQ | As a way of examining the limits and extent of American power, let’s look at two interventions: Iraq and Kosovo.
First, Iraq. Three years after the United States invasion, a new constitution is being put forward with aspects of illiberal democracy, especially if the Shari’a supplants the secular civil code with respect to women, and a loose federal structure for the Shia in the south that will bring King Abdullah’s fear of a destabilizing “Shiite crescent” stretching to Tehran closer to reality.
Surely, such a state of affairs is not what the Bush neoconservatives imagined when they thought they could reshape the Middle East in America’s image through military might.
Madeleine Albright | From what we see now, Iraq is clearly not going in the direction the Bush administration thought it would. And that is true across the board. No weapons of mass destruction were found. We weren’t greeted as liberators. The oil isn’t flowing.
The insurgency has intensified. Relations with Iran are cozier than the US wants. Yes, I worry about the rights of women being set back. I worry that the Shari’a will become “the” source of Iraqi law, not “a” source. I worry that the territorial integrity of Iraq will break up. In short, nothing is as promised it would be as a result of military intervention.
Yet, I hate to just give up. Even though I have said this was a war of choice, not of necessity, getting it right now is a necessity, not a choice, for the US and for the whole region. We can’t yet declare this whole effort as dead on arrival.
Rather than a final constitution, it seems what we are really looking at in Iraq is a sort of “compact”—an agreement between parties that will allow Iraq to take shape over time. Also, this document has to be voted on in a referendum, and then there has to be an election. After that, the new Iraqi polity is not a finished product; it is still in process.
NPQ | Three years on, Bush’s war has gone awry. What about “Madeleine’s war” in Kosovo? Almost five years after the NATO bombing of Serbia, where do things stand in Kosovo, which you just visited?
Albright | In many ways, the glass if half-full, half-empty. It was “our” war in the sense that both President Clinton and I believed strongly we should use American power to stop ethnic cleansing and make sure Muslim Kosovar refugees could return home. That was accomplished.
What hasn’t been accomplished is a final determination of Kosovo’s status either as a part of Serbia or as an independent state. Unfortunately, we were not in office long enough to see this through. A Gore administration certainly would have. In the end, both the US and the international community put Kosovo on a back burner to other issues.
The formula for resolving the Kosovo conflict was “standards before status.” This meant, for example, that Serbs would have to be guaranteed tolerance and freedom of movement in a Muslim-majority Kosovo before any discussion of independence, which the restive Kosovar Albanians want, or other legal status could take place.
Unfortunately, these assurances of ethnic diversity in Kosovo are still not satisfactory and in fact have deteriorated. I gave a very tough speech to the parliament there a few weeks ago, insisting that Kosovo must be a multi-ethnic state.
The lesson here, like Iraq, is that things don’t happen as planned. We Americans, who have never been a colonial power, always want things to be settled quickly so we can get out and move on. But political processes are organic; they have many twists and turns, ups and downs.
The other lesson is that there needs to be sustained attention to get the job done. In that sense, the international community let Kosovo down.
NPQ | The US objective in both Iraq and Kosovo has been to try to enforce a multi-ethnic, multi-religious state through military might. It looks like that is very difficult to do.
Albright | The US objectives in Iraq and Kosovo were very different. The stated objective of President Bush has changed often. First it was to topple Saddam and remove WMD. Then it was to create democracy in the Middle East and advance women’s rights and so on. Now it appears to be only to quell the insurgency and seek whatever minimal stability it can.
In Kosovo, our objective was manifestly clear and consistent: We were trying to save people from being ethnically cleansed. Military might can, and did, accomplish that. But it can’t make people have the right constitution or liberal political structures. That takes time and effort.
NPQ | Former CIA Director John Deutsche has criticized the “humanitarian hawks” of both the Clinton and Bush administrations, arguing that America should retreat to a realist policy of protecting the national interest and stop trying to socially engineer other societies. Can you accept that?
Albright | I disagree with him. There is a difference between the Bush policy of preemption and the “duty to protect” or the “responsibility to prevent” that I advocate. What we did in Kosovo was a humanitarian duty. And I wish we had done more to prevent the ethnic cleansing that took place there and in Bosnia.
We were not trying to create multi-ethnic societies. These were multi-ethnic societies already that we were trying to stop from breaking apart in bloodshed.
NPQ | Whatever the shortfalls of American interventions, in both Iraq and Kosovo, the result has been to empower Muslims. Why, then, is there such antipathy to the US among Muslim societies?
Albright | As true as that may be in the Arab world, it is certainly not true in Kosovo. They love us there. I was there on the Fourth of July this summer at a big rock concert. They’ve named streets after Bill Clinton. And, I’m flattered if not somewhat embarrassed to say, many young girls have been named Madeleine. That is not happening in Iraq.
I’m not sure why the US help for Muslims hasn’t been understood globally. Perhaps it is because the protection of Muslims in Europe which we so vigorously pursued doesn’t translate elsewhere.
NPQ | Even non-Muslim opinion elites don’t seem to appreciate the US “duty” on behalf of Muslims in the former Yugoslavia. Mikhail Gorbachev, for example, has said Kosovo was just “a power grab” by the US to seek advantage over a weakened Russia.
Albright | That is simply not true. In fact, it was the opposite. The Russians wanted some kind of Slav solidarity. For us, the last piece of completing the project of a “whole and free Europe” in the wake of the Cold War was ensuring multi-ethnic democracy in the Balkans. Our whole effort was to try to put an end to the ethnic conflict that had so ravaged Europe in the 20th century. And deploying a US-led NATO for this purpose was totally appropriate.
The truth of the matter is that the US is not there today. We are not occupying the former Yugoslavia and never had any interest or intention to do so. We constantly encouraged all the ethnic groups in the Balkans to look toward Brussels when thinking of their future.
I can understand why people look back with suspicion on Kosovo because of Iraq. They are confused about US motives. Though we made it crystal clear what our objective was in Kosovo—to stop ethnic cleansing and not occupy—the Bush administration has done anything but make it clear what the rationale for the US presence is in Iraq. It changes its story regularly, giving full rein to people’s suspicions, ranging from occupation to control of oil.
NPQ | What lessons do you draw about the limits and possibilities of American power, looking back at the consequences of intervention in Kosovo and now Iraq?
Albright | There can be no black-and-white rule that America should never use force. I strongly believe American military might should be used to help those threatened by ethnic cleansing. I oppose the idea that America should always use force as a first resort to resolve conflicts or deflect threats.
Indeed, one of the chief problems of the Bush policy is not that it is unilateral, but that it is unidimensional. Everything is seen through the prism of military power and linked to 9/11 as if there was nothing else going on in the world—not least finishing the job in places like Kosovo.
NPQ | Isn’t there also the issue of sustaining the political will of the American public to stick with the long-term follow-up after military intervention?
Albright | Here I agree with George Bush: This is hard work. Americans are a proactive people. We like to make lists and check things off. But things don’t happen that quickly. They take care and attention long after the drama is over.
But hard work is required. Here I disagree with the arguments of people like John Deutsche that we should just not be involved. That understates the importance of America’s role in the world. America is an exceptional country endowed with great power to do good things. And we should act when necessary because no one else can do so with the same impact.
When I said once that America is the “indispensable” power, I meant it in this sense. But I was not boasting to the rest of the world about American preeminence. I was reminding Americans themselves of our unique responsibility in the world.