Kosovo: a myth on the road to Iraq

The new edition of Prospect magazine (issue 115, October 2005) publishes a letter from me about Robin Cook’s role in the genesis of NATO’s bomb and rocket attack on Serbia over Kosovo in 1999.  My letter was prompted by a passage in an article in the September issue of Prospect by Michael Williams:

When Milosevic looked set to repeat in Kosovo the horrors of Bosnia, Robin moved swiftly in concert with Hubert Vedrine, the French foreign minister, to convene the Rambouillet conference in January 1999, an ill-fated but determined attempt to avoid war. When the conference failed, Robin reluctantly came to see Nato intervention as inevitable, despite the absence of a UN security council mandate. Not only did the Kosovo con-flict prevent another Bosnia, it led within 18 months to the ousting of Milosevic…

My reply to this, as published in Prospect, said:

Not Cook’s finest hour
30th August 2005

In his tribute to Robin "Cook of the Balkans" (September), Michael Williams describes the 1999 Rambouillet conference as "a determined attempt to avoid war." Nothing could be further from the truth. The then US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, and Robin Cook, as Britain’s foreign secretary, were determined to fashion at Rambouillet an ultimatum on Kosovo so constructed that the Kosovo Albanians could accept it but the Serbs would be bound to reject it, thus providing a pretext for the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia. Misled by a false analogy between Bosnia and Kosovo, and determined not to repeat what they saw as the west’s mistakes in Bosnia, Albright and Cook, supported by Clinton, Blair and some other Nato leaders, deliberately opened the way for the illegal Nato bombing which did not stop but actually accelerated the ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo; killed thousands of innocent civilians; did immense damage to the economies of Serbia and other Danube countries; and failed utterly to achieve its political objectives. The eventual settlement, negotiated mainly by the Americans, Germans, Russians and Finns behind the backs of Blair and Cook, discarded all the provisions of the Rambouillet ultimatum that had forced the Serbs to reject it, thereby winning Russian and UN backing which in turn forced the Serbs to accept it. Far from the Nato bombing having compelled the Serbs to swallow the Rambouillet demands, an end to the bombing was a prior condition of the very different UN-approved settlement which eventually allowed Kosovo to be placed under international control with the reluctant acquiescence of the Serbs. There is no reason to suppose that a settlement on those lines could not have been negotiated at Rambouillet, had western diplomacy been more flexible, imaginative—and honest. Not, I’m afraid, Robin Cook’s finest hour.

The only significant difference between the published version above and the letter as submitted to Prospect (apart from some minor if regrettable editorial changes) was that my original text ended:

Not, I’m afraid, Robin Cook’s finest hour.  It’s to his undying credit, though, that he couldn’t bring himself to support yet another illegal and unnecessary resort to force by a Blair government four years later when it once again overrode the advice of its experienced FCO legal advisers and joined in the catastrophic attack on Iraq.  

Historians may well discuss to what extent Tony Blair’s fateful decision to join the Americans in the attack on Iraq, four years later, once again without the authority of the UN Security Council, was influenced by the conversion of the illegal, harmful and unsuccessful Kosovo adventure[1] into what the conventional wisdom quickly sanctified as a humane and successful example of humanitarian intervention whose lack of UN approval was justified by “deadlock in the Security Council”, despite the facts that —

  • there was no such deadlock:
  • the NATO demands were so framed as to rule out Russian or UN approval, which accordingly was never even sought:  and
  • the eventual settlement and internationalisation of Kosovo were achieved only when NATO’s demands were radically re-cast so as to qualify for UN authority and participation. 

The conventional wisdom also conveniently ignores the fact that to this day there is still no durable solution to the basic problems that sparked internal conflict in Kosovo[2]:  the need for a framework within which the Kosovo Serbs and the Kosovo Albanians can live together in peace, and for agreement on a long-term constitutional relationship between Kosovo and Serbia.  The ethnic cleansing of the Serbs from most of Kosovo, after the NATO assault and under the umbrella of the international occupation and administration of the province, has made a durable settlement more difficult than ever.  This was no more a model for the future than the calamitous attack on Iraq that followed and in some ways emulated it.

[1]  Chapter and verse for this assessment of the NATO action against Serbia over Kosovo, including the full text of the Rambouillet ultimatum, are here;  see also this and this.    

[2] Additional footnote, 24 Sept 05:  On the absence of, and need for, a permanent constitutional settlement for Kosovo, see this useful if understandably partisan analysis.

22 September 2005

5 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    The ethnic cleansing of the Serbs from most of Kosovo

    Hmmm. I’m mistrustful of arguments which put Albanian Kosovars on a footing with Bosnian Serbs. I’m not going to argue that Albanian Kosovars have been perfect gentlemen since NATO gave them the whiphand. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth stressing that the Albanian Kosovars have constituted 80-90% of the population for the last couple of decades, and that direct rule from Belgrade – introduced by Milosevic, by very dubious means – gave them 0% of political power in the province. Arbitrary rule is arbitrary rule, but the tyranny of the majority is an improvement on the tyranny of the minority, surely.

  2. Brian says:


    I’m not, I think, even implicitly equating the Kosovo Albanians with the Kosovo Serbs, still less the ‘Bosnian Serbs’ whom you mention (a typo perhaps, or am I missing something here?), although I think there’s persuasive evidence that both communities in Kosovo bore differing shares of the responsibility for the violence that preceded the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. Nor can it really be disputed that the effect of the bombing was seriously to accelerate and aggravate the ethnic cleansing already being practised by the Serbs against the Albanians, hitherto not on a scale that was driving Albanian refugees out of Kosovo into neighbouring countries in any significant numbers. Nor was I disputing your valid point about the earlier repression of the Albanian majority by the Serbian minority. As for whether ‘the tyranny of the majority is an improvement on the tyranny of the minority’, of course that’s so in a purely arithmetical sense: but how many innocent people is it worth killing, and how much damage to people’s lives and property and ability to earn their living is it worth inflicting, merely to substitute one form of tyranny for a marginally less objectionable one? And in any case, as I have argued in my Prospect letter above, it wasn’t actually the NATO bombing that caused the substitution of tyranny by the many for tyranny by the few: the bombing caused no political change whatever, only bloodshed, bereavement, misery and destruction. Nous sommes tous des assassins.


  3. Anna says:

    Well…I dispute the so-called “valid point” about the earlier repression of the Albanian majority by the Serbian minority. I also dispute much of the implication here about the Bosnian Serbs. I suggest you read “Fools’ Crusade” by Diana Johnstone before drawing any further conclusions or setting in stone the ones you appear to currently hold. I am very disappointed to find that, although you apparently opposed the bombing by NATO of Serbia, you still don’t seem to have all the facts to hand and appear to be relying to a great extent on the demonization and propaganda disseminated by the West of the Serbs to help you form your views. Read the book, please. There are very few people out there as brave, lucid and objective as Ms. Johnstone.

  1. 11 November, 2008

    […] almost any other UK commentator has written an analysis which closely mirrors my own (also e.g. here and here).   Sir Ivor Roberts was appointed Chargé d’Affaires and Consul-General in […]

  2. 24 April, 2009

    […] website at http://www.barder.com/politics/international/kosovo/. You might also care to glance at http://www.barder.com/ephems/384, about Robin Cook and Rambouillet. I had a lot of time for Robin Cook, but I have never been able […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *