How do you critique interventionism in a country that is for it?

What do you tell people from countries in which American interventionism could be considered a success, or who were personally helped by American military action?

The Kosovo intervention

I recently had the pleasure to visit Kosovo for the first time. The country’s natural landscape is phenomenal, but the infrastructure is scarred as a result of years of Yugoslavian socialism, followed by a brutal war in the 90s. The people are as hospitable as you could possibly imagine, and the level of spoken English is very good, particularly compared to other countries in the Balkan region. This is strongly correlated to demographics: 70% of the population is under the age of 35.

In some countries, people get tired of repetitive talking points. I’d imagine that not everyone in the U.S is very keen to talk about the Midterm election, and they can’t be blamed. In Kosovo however, nobody is too tired to talk about the war and the conflict with neighbouring Serbia. This is much less for the sake of personal interest than it is a question of its impact: the people’s daily lives are shaped by this war and the consequences it had.

The history of the war is complicated and would require three history lessons on its own, including fist fights with Serbian, Albanian, and Kosovan historians over the accuracy of every word. In short, you need to know this: in the Balkans, and therefore in Kosovo as well, ethnicity trumps political systems. In the 20th century, a power struggle between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians (the boundaries between the nationality of a Kosovan and an Albanian is clearer today than it was back then) lead to continuous fights over control of the region. During WWII, Kosovo Albanians expelled tens of thousands of Serbs and Montenegrins from the region and did not allow them to return after the war. In return, tens of thousands of settlers were allowed to come from Albania, which swayed the majority greatly in favour of the Albanian ethnic group.

From that point on, the two ethnic group–Serbs and Albanians–were in direct territorial conflict with each other. Kosovo Albanians wanted to become an autonomous republic within Yugoslavia, because belonging to Albania, then a Stalinist dictatorship even poorer than Yugoslavia, was not considered to be a good idea.

With the breakup of Yugoslavia, the power struggles became open and very hostile, leading to the Kosovo War in 1998, in which the United States decided to pick sides. President Clinton decided that the Serbian forces had been cruel and unjust, and that the U.S could not witness the displacement of civilians, as orchestrated by the Serbian and Yugoslav armies. With UN and NATO mandates, the U.S intervened with air strikes, but did not put boots on the ground.

Glorification of the Clintons

The U.S intervention came as a relief to those displaced and terrorised by the conditions of  war. Thousands of Kosovo Albanians were subsequently saved by the air strikes of both American and NATO forces. The result is unsurprising: while strolling through the streets of Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo, you’ll encounter a more than life-sized statue of President Bill Clinton. Nearby  is a (non-ironic) Hillary Clinton clothing store, specialising in the pantsuits favored by the former Senator. The locals confirm as well: Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, or George Bush (the two latter adored for their push for the recognition of Kosovo as an independent country), are actual first names given to children. Large apartment buildings have pictures of a smiling Bill and Hillary Clinton. It’s downright creepy. But then again, given the context of gratitude of Kosovans towards the U.S intervention and those who instigated it, these reactions are understandable. After all, hanging a picture of the person who saved your life is not an unnatural response.

This has subsequently lead to Kosovo being the greatest ally of the U.S. in the Balkans. American presidents are immensely popular in the country, and each intervention, be it Iraq or Syria, is also supported.

So how do you actually oppose interventionism in a country where its impact is popular?

The problems of independence, and an unhealthy relationship

With most of Kosovo’s population being very young, a majority of the population was not involved in the war, the reasons that led to it, or participated in it in any significant way. However, it is those young people who are suffering the consequences of the Kosovo War.

The European Union does not unanimously recognise the country, since countries such as Italy or Spain oppose its independence (not because they care so much for the Balkans, but rather because they seek to avoid giving hope to their own independence movements). As a result, the European Union has been reluctant to allow Kosovans to travel freely within the EU. Negotiations have been conducted to liberalise this visa policy, but certain countries keep opposing it, for fear that visas would be overstayed.

According to Radio Free Europe: “Sources say both France (itself dealing with independence movements) and the Netherlands have been reluctant to commit to visa liberalisation for Kosovo before elections to the European Parliament in May 2019.”

This situation is further complicated by the problematic relationship with neighbouring Serbia, which does not recognise the rebel region. Serbia is backed by Russia in the Security Council, making  recognition through the United Nations unlikely. For Kosovans, travelling both within the Balkans and Europe is a very bureaucratic and expensive process. Visa applications can take several months, and travelling through Serbia, a large country,  is seldomly authorised.

Kosovo’s overly pro-American position also doesn’t do the country any favours from a business perspective. Two years ago, the BBC reported on the lobbying of former U.S ambassador to Kosovo, Christopher Dell, for the construction of a “Patriotic Highway” connecting Kosovo with Albania. The project was completed by an American company named Bechtel, based in San Francisco, which secured the bid  in 2010. The project was considered by many to be of very limited use; nevertheless, it was completed in 2013 for a total cost of $1.3 billion, or a quarter of Kosovo’s GDP. Foreign policy writes:

“The road stretches through one of the poorest pockets of southeastern Europe. About one in three Kosovars live in poverty (on less than $2.18 per day), and the most basic infrastructure is weak or absent; in 2012, for instance, 58 percent of household subscribers reported daily cutoffs in water supplies.”

Accusations of corruption run rampant, particularly since Dell ended up working for Bechtel. It’s cronyism as its finest, and Kosovans bought it because the United States cannot be questioned by those compelled to feel grateful towards it.

Almost two decades after the war, Kosovo is still experiencing significant difficulties in recovering from the devastation caused. Nobody is saying that belonging to Serbia would have made much of a difference, but independence is not magical road to success, either. There is no way of making an easy case against U.S interventionism in a country like Kosovo. But much like Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Vietnam or Libya, there are real consequences to American bombs or intelligence operations, and many people can testify to that reality.

One thing remains certain: military interventionism can speed up the process of winning a war, but it won’t do the work of organically building peace and free trade and travel within a region. One could argue that it may actually end up making it harder.

This article was first published by Values4Europe.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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