Kosovo: A War of Values and the Values of War

by J. Bryan Hehir

from America 180 (May 15, 1999): 7-12.
1999. Reprinted with permission.


In a New York Times column commenting on religious issues (4/17/99), Peter Steinfels makes a measured criticism of religious leaders and moralists who fail to provide either clear foundations or clear conclusions for their assessments of the war in Kosovo: "What is distressing is how often the moral pronouncements offer only the surface of a position without following that line of thought through to its logical conclusions or its rock-bottom principles." This critique is characteristically precise and deserves a response. What follows is one person's response to it--an effort toward clarity and specificity on Kosovo.

My "rock-bottom principles" are entirely unoriginal. In this case, as in multiple other instances of conflict and war, I find the traditional categories of the just-war ethic (developed with the combined resources of religious conviction and philosophical analysis) still the most adequate instrument of moral analysis. The strength of the ethic lies in its complexity, its multidimensional method of analyzing the use of force. The same complexity often makes it difficult to produce unanimity on conclusions. But Mr. Steinfels is right: Solid principles should yield specific choices, even in the dense web of moral issues that constitutes the puzzle of Kosovo.

Just Cause

Kosovo requires a multidimensional ethic, because morality does not lie in one place in this conflict, which George Will has called "a war of values." The moral challenge for policy arises from the intersection of competing moral demands. The first question of the traditional ethic is determining just cause: Are the values at stake in a particular conflict of such character that the conscious, systematic taking of life (and risking lives) may be required to preserve them? At one level, the story of Kosovo yields a decisive yes to this question: over one million people driven from their homes by brutal methods of killing, rape, burning and looting of their villages. As Mark Danner points out in The New York Review of Books ["Endgame in Kosovo," 6 May 1999], this purge of the Kosovars was not the result of the fog of war, but the product of "planned rationality." In Kosovo, prefigured by the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia, the world (both individual citizens and their states) knows exactly what is happening, and we know who is responsible. If the product of this planned rationality does not constitute just cause, it is difficult to know what the category means.

While that is my first conclusion, it is useful to note that just cause has been a much debated issue in the United States over the last two months. The critics of just cause have relied on at least three arguments.

First is an issue that is at the heart of Kosovo but extends well beyond it: The claims of sovereignty are weighed more heavily at times by some than the horrors of ethnic cleansing. The argument is that Serbian tactics and strategy are reprehensible, but that Kosovo is an internal issue, a struggle for self-determination within a sovereign state, and it is folly to open the road to external actors becoming engaged in the innumerable conflicts of self-determination across the globe. In brief, Kosovo is not Hitler's Germany of 1939 or Hussein's Iraq of 1991. The casus belli must be strictly defined, and "humanitarian intervention" does not qualify as a reason to resort to war. Henry Kissinger exemplifies this position: "'Humanitarian intervention' asserts that moral and humane concerns are so much a part of American life that not only treasure but lives must be risked to vindicate them. No other nation has ever put forward such a set of propositions."

Second, NATO is the wrong agency to respond to Kosovo; it is a defensive alliance never contemplated to be catalyzed into action by internal conflict.

Third, from the perspective of U.S. foreign policy, this kind of war is a diversion from the necessary tasks the "one superpower" of the world should take on. As Charles Krauthammer puts the case: Humanitarian conflicts are for middle-size powers, not for the United States. These are large arguments, each of which I oppose.

The first of these arguments is the most important, because Kosovo, like Somalia, Rwanda and Haiti before it, does challenge a fundamental conviction of realist statecraft, which draws a radical distinction between the external behavior of states and their internal policies. In brief, aggression must be opposed (e.g., the Persian Gulf war), but not repression. My support of Kosovo as just cause is part of a larger argument, which calls for recasting the moral-legal-political calculus of policy in the direction of justifying some interventions for humanitarian reasons. Recasting NATO's purposes, therefore, is for me a subordinate corollary of a prior premise; I believe the number of interventions should be tightly contained (by political and moral criteria), but the offensive/defensive argument is not a conclusive reason to oppose NATO policy in Kosovo. For similar reasons, the Krauthammer arguments about the sole superpower, while decisive in some cases, are not determinative of an entire policy. Again, in my view, just cause is established beyond doubt in Kosovo.

Noncombatant Immunity

The complexity of the just-war ethic builds into moral analysis a continuing tension between just cause and just means; compelling moral causes must be pursued with limited means because not all are implicated in the evils of war, so only some are to be targeted, restrained, captured or killed. In what Raymond Aron called "the century of total war," the issue of what constitutes limited means has been at the heart of the arguments about war and morality. In passing it should be noted that the learning curve on this question shows progress. The article by John Ford, S.J., in Theological Studies in 1944 on "The Morality of Obliteration Bombing" stands as a singular critique of World War II, where the policy was pursued by both sides and opposed by very few. The post-war debates, the nuclear arguments over 30 years and the Persian Gulf war analysis all served to restore the principles of "just means" to a central place in the public policy arguments. Civilians have already been hit in the NATO air campaign, not because they were targeted but in spite of precautions taken to protect them. Unlike the 1940's, war in the 1990's requires both apologies for such actions and extended explanations that the policy is designed to exclude civilian targets. Such arguments were not considered necessary in World War II.

Favorable comparisons with the past are not sufficient, however, to address NATO policy in Kosovo. Maintaining "limited means" faces two different kinds of challenges. The first arises, paradoxically, from the realist voices who at first doubted or opposed the decision to engage NATO in Kosovo. The arguments from Kissinger, Krauthammer and others are that, however mistaken the policy is, the only objective now is "to win." Senator John McCain, whose life experience and strategic judgments give him unique credentials to be heard on questions of war and peace, also makes this argument: "What shall we do now? Win, by all means necessary." In one sense the objective is uncontested; to defend the just cause one must defeat the adversary. The problem with the statement is that it implies that the objectives of just cause might ultimately require that limits be set aside as an encumbrance. Here too lies a realist principle: The realm of war is not hospitable to moral limits; once initiated, the moral objective is to end the war with victory and then return to life within the moral universe where restraints on behavior can be observed.

It is reasonable to infer that because this argument in some form always lurks beneath the surface of any war policy, Pope John Paul II--a participant observer of a war without limits in the 1940's--has consistently placed himself in opposition to initiating the use of force. He has done this in spite of crucial statements where he has defended the just-war ethic. While not pacifist in principle, he has been consistently nonviolent in policy prescription--resisting "just revolution" claims of theologians, the "just war case" made by President Bush for the Persian Gulf war and by word and deed distancing himself from NATO policy in Kosovo. Peter Steinfels understands the logic of the position but questions its adequacy. There is, I believe, good reason to do so. My judgment would be that Pope John Paul II's position is informed not only by the nonviolent convictions that have marked his pontificate, but also by his intellectual and experiential understanding of the Balkans. These are powerful resources in assessing the problem of Kosovo.

But the record of Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990's provides a compelling case to say that there is here a personality and a policy of the kind the just-war ethic was designed to confront. Anyone invoking the systematic taking of life (war) for moral reasons should do so with hesitation. But the logic of the argument from Augustine through Vitoria, Michael Walzer and Paul Ramsey has been the same: Some facts propel hesitant individuals and states to the ultimate means of politics, because failure to use them threatens the very foundations of political community. Mark Danner's article ("Endgame in Kosovo") traces the "planned rationality" of Milosevic's policy in Bosnia and Kosovo through five steps: 1) concentration of the target population; 2) decapitation of its leaders; 3) separation of men and women; 4) evacuation of women, children and elderly; and 5) liquidation of those whom Milosevic opposes.

These are the facts that lead me to a second conclusion, that the Holy See's invocation of the statement of Pius XII, "Nothing is lost with peace. All can be lost with war" does not capture the problem of Kosovo. Milosevic regards peace as time to evacuate and/or liquidate. Neither NATO nor the United States nor the European Union nor the United Nations should allow this explicit strategy to proceed unchallenged.

Then, it would seem, those opposing Milosevic "must win." Yes, but win rightly. A multidimensional ethic is bound by limits that cannot be transgressed, lest "just causes" become crusades. So those who say nonviolent resistance is not sufficient (the position of this article) must oppose the version of realism that is reducible to winning at all costs.

The Air War

How does NATO policy stand up under the just-means tests? There are two broad questions: How has the air war been conducted? Will air power be adequate as a means? Both strategic convictions (Milosevic will fold if hit) and political judgment (NATO publics won't support a ground war) yielded the NATO strategy of exclusive reliance on air power. Accepting that strategy for the moment, how should it be judged? There are three historical reference points (the 1940's, the 1960's and the 1990's) and two criteria (noncombatant immunity and proportionality).

The three prior uses of air power involve World War II, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf war. The aforementioned obliteration bombing of World War II failed every aspect of the moral calculus from Dresden through Tokyo to Hiroshima; moreover, post-war studies of its strategic effectiveness in Germany complemented the moral judgment that it should not be imitated or repeated. Vietnam, in retrospect, is a classic case of the gap between intention and consequences; the Pentagon Papers contain a picture of Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara seeking a policy of force within limits but producing a policy of massive destruction carried out with a logic and rationale that made it both devastating and ineffective. It produced a reaction against restraints that echoes through the Kosovo debate as Senator McCain criticizes Clinton policy as "McNamara-esque" in its restraints.

The Persian Gulf war strategy sought both to silence the moral critics and to provide a free hand for the generals. The result was a policy that could not be fairly indicted as obliteration bombing (because civilians were not targeted) but left gaping questions and documented doubts about the proportionality of depriving a civilian society of water, electricity and minimal health care facilities--while still in the secure control of the dictator who provoked the conflict. In brief, World War II failed the moral test because of its intentions and methods, Vietnam failed because of its consequences, and the Persian Gulf war was defensible in intention but left doubt about both means and effectiveness. The Kosovo campaign is being planned and analyzed in light of these analogies and "lessons"; where does it fit?

As in the Persian Gulf war, there are quite convincing characteristics of the policy that convey a determination not to target or strike civilians purposefully. The primary moral criterion of just means appears to be an intrinsically important guide to policy. This conclusion (my third) can be challenged on at least two grounds. First, civilians have been hit by NATO attacks on at least three occasions: two civilian trains and a convoy of Albanian refugees. All were horrific, none was intentional, and they therefore do not contradict the conclusion drawn above about the policy.

Second, a more complicated assessment: What risks of civilian casualties ("unintended" or "collateral" casualties) is the NATO policy willing to run?

Here one must enter the dense specificity of casuistry; cases need to be distinguished. One example of the dilemma faced by risks to civilians was the cruise missile attack on the Serbian Internal Ministry in the center of Belgrade. The strike successfully demolished the ministry's headquarters (a component element in Milosevic's repressive polices) and did not hit a hospital in the same city block. But was it worth the risk? More precisely, if the target comes up again for a strike (as it could) should the risk be run again? I would acknowledge the first success and vote against another strike as prudentially too risky for civilian casualties. A similar case was the bombing of the Serbian national television studio. Without doubt the Government-controlled media have been an essential element in the Milosevic strategy; there clearly are grounds for considering it a strategic target. But I found the willingness to attack it when staffed by civilian technicians a fateful step in the direction of relaxing crucial restraints on power.

Those restraints will become ever more important (and threatened) if the war continues into the summer. Beyond the specific cases mentioned looms a decisive challenge for those who legitimate this intervention. NATO's announced plan is to expand the bombing strategy to "Phase IV." While the specifics of this step have not been made clear, its theme--the intervention of the air war with relaxation of political controls--has been openly articulated. One example of "Phase IV" is the introduction of B-52's using "dumb bombs" (i.e., not precision guided) in a policy of area bombing. While this is likely to be in Kosovo, not Belgrade, the difference between area bombing and obliteration bombing is always a fragile barrier. If that barrier is crossed, the intervention will immediately begin to lose its normal legitimacy.

In my judgment, NATO strategy thus far has met the just-means test of noncombatant immunity, but it will not sustain that record if the "must win" dictum is pursued without qualification.

Reasonable Hope of Success

The second, more complicated challenge to limited means arises from within the ethic itself. One criterion of the doctrine is "reasonable hope of success"; in other words, war should not be undertaken if there is no reasonable hope of achieving one's objectives. The norm seeks to connect ends and means in something more than a purely mechanistic or utilitarian fashion. There should be some moral fit between objectives and contemplated strategies; war should not be initiated or continued if the use of force seems without definable purpose. Policy can fail the moral test either because it exceeds moral limits or because it is ineffective in achieving legitimate objectives.


The tension inherent in this norm lies between the possibility of success and proportionality. If strategic advocates propose that success can be attained only by violating noncombatant immunity, the moral judgment is simple: There is no justifiable war that is pursued by murderous conduct. A more complex decision arises when the proposal is that standards of proportionality must be loosened to achieve success. The nature of the proportionality criterion is that it is inherently open to revision; a claim that it is too tightly drawn and should be revised in the name of a competing norm cannot be instantly rejected. But continuous, incremental relaxation of standards of proportionality can yield simply another version of "must win." NATO air strategy in Phase IV is steadily being escalated in the face of Serbian atrocities and resistance; and, at some point, sooner rather than later, those who support the basic strategy must be willing to resist proposals for continual escalation. Senator McCain, for example, has been quoted as advocating dropping the bridges around Belgrade and turning out the lights. Both the Vietnam and Persian Gulf war images play into this recommendation. The Senator's deep frustration with Vietnam yields opposition to incrementalist strategies that fail to take the war to its perpetrators; the Persian Gulf war legacy of strategies that turn off lights, water and sanitation on civilians is a reason to pause. I would drop some bridges (those carrying military supplies) at night and not turn off the lights.

This casuistry of the air war strategy inevitably raises the question whether air power alone can ever promise reasonable hope of success. The public debate is often about the politics of using ground troops, but the question is pertinent to the moral calculus of Kosovo. It can be argued that continual reliance on air power alone will not stop the ethnic cleansing (it has not yet done so) and will systematically increase the risk to civilians, precisely because of the tensions between success and the risks to proportionality that will be run by incessant escalation of bombing in or near Belgrade. The use of ground troops will directly confront Milosevic's scorched-earth policy, it will certainly mean combatant casualties, and it may reduce the drive to bring ever increasing pressure on the population of Belgrade. To some degree (and only to a degree) the focus of the war would shift to Yugoslav troops in Kosovo. How then should the decision about ground troops be evaluated? Fred Kaplan, a seasoned military analyst and journalist, echoes the dominant strategic view outside the NATO policy process when he says there is no record of an embattled state changing its objectives or policy solely because of air attacks upon it.

On both strategic and moral grounds, therefore, it is necessary to conclude that ground troops should not be ruled out absolutely from a strategy seeking to be efficient and ethically acceptable. Ground troops will inevitably widen the war (for NATO, the U.S. and Serbia) and will bring new issues of proportionality to the forefront of the policy and public debate. I would not rule out ground troops (my fourth conclusion), but I would acknowledge that proportionality is a category that must be used before one acts, continuously reviewed during a war and assessed retrospectively after a war. Hence, if ground troops are used and the war widens, the debate between possibility of success and the cost of proportionality has to continue. In Vietnam a point was reached where neither success nor the limits of proportionality were being realized.

That memory must weigh in assessing the decision to make Kosovo an "air-land battle." The complexity of this decision is highlighted in William Pfaff's proposal (New York Review of Books, 5/6) advocating a ground assault on Yugoslav forces in Kosovo. He makes a convincing case that a quick assault from North and South could put NATO in control of Kosovo. His argument that the Kosovo Liberation Army could then successfully dispose of Serbian forces in the mountains is less convincing, and his prediction that Kosovo could be sustained independently without NATO forces is not persuasive at all.

In my judgment a ground war will widen the conflict, will change the factors involved in assessing the proportionality of the conflict and will ultimately make the success of the policy more likely. Ultimately is a wiggle-word because it envisions the possibility of a long and bitter conflict. Peter Steinfels wants clarity from religious-moral voices on how many casualties are too many and how many months are too long for this war. I have argued that proportionality is a judgment that must be made over time, and I do not think it reduces to the specific numbers he seeks, at least in an a priori judgment. In part, proportionality will depend on the objectives sought and the skill by which it is pursued. This brings me to a final set of comments on the NATO strategy.

NATO Strategy

To affirm that NATO has a just cause is not necessarily to be enthusiastic about the policy that has been pursued. I noted above that support for the specific decision to engage Kosovo is part of a broader argument that seeks to revise accepted norms about humanitarian intervention. In other places I have argued that the status of sovereignty should be relativized and a broader range of justifications for intervention should be legitimized (see Johnathan Moore, ed., Hard Choices, Rowman and Littlefield, 1999). In the face of multiple internal conflicts, the phenomenon of failed states and the human rights obligations incumbent on sovereign states, the virtually absolute status given to the nonintervention principles in law and U.N. practice does not serve individuals in the international community well. Both the status of sovereignty and nonintervention should be relativized. Hence, the NATO decision to intervene was and is, in my judgment, a justifiable and necessary action.

Like all military interventions, this one should be subordinate to a broader political purpose pursued by diplomacy. Because NATO is now at war, diplomacy should be intensified, not set aside. It should have two purposes. First, Kosovo in humanitarian terms is a major question; in terms of global politics it is a minor issue. Hence, one function of diplomacy is to attend to the U.S.-Russian relationship, which is vital to world order and is under severe stress because of the war. Second, military power in Kosovo is a means to an end; the end should be a political settlement, which restores and protects the ethnic Albanians. Since the end must be political, it should be pursued diplomatically even now.

The original definition of objectives of NATO policy has been surpassed by events. The idea of restoring the autonomy of Kosovo within Serbia might have been possible before the purge of the Kosovars, but is hardly feasible now. On this point Henry Kissinger and others are correct in calling now for the objective of an independent Kosovo removed from any Serbian control. This goal will require an international force in place for some time to deter irredentist inclinations of Serbs, who have shown us they do not forget defeat easily. While a non-U.S. or non-NATO force may make reaching a diplomatic agreement easier, there should be no illusions about the fact that such a force must implicitly be understood to be supported by NATO politically and militarily. Equally important in planning for the post-war security status of Kosovo should be planning for the reconstruction of both Kosovo and a post-Milosevic Serbia. The latter may not coincide with the end of the war, but NATO policy should sustain the argument that this war has not been fought against Serbs as such, but against a policy of Serbia in the 1990's that, to use the traditional terms, violated the conscience of humanity.

Hope for Diplomacy

To return to the Steinfels questions: The "bed-rock principles" used here have been traditionally applied to inter-state warfare. Intervention is a harder case, but for this student of the ethic they do provide some clarity. To summarize: The cause is just; force is necessary; it must be kept limited; it is desirable but not likely that a ground war be avoided; it is crucial to win but only within limits; the future in Serbia and Kosovo will not be a return to the past. The design for the future will ultimately pass to the diplomats, for war is not an end in itself; but Kosovo is a case where war must play its role so diplomacy can follow.


The Rev. J. Bryan Hehir is Professor of the Practice in Religion and Society at the Divinity School and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

First published in America vol. 180 (May 15, 1999): 7-12. Reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc. 1999 All Rights Reserved. For subscription information, call 1-800-627-9533 or visit www.americapress.org.
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