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Thinking beyond an ambiguous victory

Common wisdom, at least in the United States, in reaction to the peace agreement in Yugoslavia seems to be that the West -- meaning NATO -- won the war in the Balkans.

It was at best an odd war, with the opposing sides not really facing each other in battle. NATO went unchallenged in the skies, raining bombs across Yugoslavia in a frenzy of destruction that presumably will take years to rebuild.

Serb forces, on the other hand, were virtually unopposed on the ground, apparently massacring at will and indiscriminately displacing hundreds of thousands from their homes.

The key issue, meanwhile, remains stubbornly unresolved: What’s the future of Kosovo? Milosevic says it must remain part of Serbia, while many of the province’s Albanians -- radicalized by the war -- seem unlikely to settle for anything less than independence. While the Rambouillet plan would have required a referendum, the question is now left hanging. Future conflict seems a safe bet.

Viewed from the clearer sight lines of historical distance, the air campaign against the forces of Slobodan Milosevic is likely to be seen more as another example of flailing about by the United States in a post-Cold War world rather than a decisive military victory.

Little consensus exists about much of anything dealing with foreign policy today except that we are in changed circumstances. We all know at least that, if little else about what it means to be here.

If the recent military activity in Yugoslavia serves up part of the definition of who we’ve become after the Cold War, then the United States has made embarrassingly little progress in its evolution as a superpower.

Perhaps it is time to begin listening to such voices as appear in the stories beginning on page 14. Perhaps it is time to work harder to upend the societal presumption that peace as a norm is somehow beyond our imagining.

The events in Yugoslavia cannot be viewed in isolation. This is the second time in this decade that we have faced off with a bully, made the decision to go to war and come away with questionable results.

As more than one person points out in the piece by John Allen, the bombing not only failed to stop the ethnic cleansing and slaughter of Muslim Kosovars, it most likely exacerbated the butchery.

In Iraq, nearly a decade of bombing and the grinding, comprehensive sanctions have failed to win either the peace or the downfall of Saddam Hussein. At this point, the United States and United Nations are, through the sanctions, killing children and disassembling a culture.

The full consequences of these wars will not be known for a long time, and among the unknowns is the damage done to the United Nations and NATO. The two have been altered in fundamental ways. In Iraq, the United Nations has taken on, through the sanctions, the unfamiliar role of the punisher, while simultaneously trying to maintain its role as humanitarian agency seeking to blunt the effects of the punishment.

In the Balkans, NATO has moved from a defensive treaty alliance to an aggressor, and no one knows what that change in roles will portend for the future.

Meanwhile, the United States should be cautious in its wishes. Should Milosevic ever be brought to trial for war crimes, could our leaders withstand the kind of scrutiny he might face? Could the United States, for example, tolerate the scrutiny of the rest of the world having unimpeded access to all of the secret documents outlining its recent role in Guatemala or El Salvador? Would its relationships with other less-than-noble dictators withstand the harsh light of judicial proceedings?

How would a world court view the relentless agony of the civilian population of Iraq caused by the sanctions? It’s worth noting that the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, which holds jurisdiction under the Dayton Peace Accords for any violation of international law committed on Yugoslav territory, was at one point rumored to be considering indictments against NATO leaders for bombing civilian targets. How might the United States be expected to react?

We are so far from winning the peace, much less a war, that the alternative voices and imaginations should be given a greater hearing.

We should hear those who know that violence, regardless of good intentions, produces a ripple effect far beyond our line of vision. What may seem like a solution is often more a symptom of a society gone astray.

Those voices are reminders, too, that the quest for nonviolent solutions goes far deeper than political strategies. A true commitment to nonviolence can only grow from deep individual passion and commitment. Nonviolence is more than avoiding violence and war; it must also be an affirmation of life. The two are inseparable. To refrain from violent action while ignoring the needs of those who suffer, including all of creation, is to forget the demands of biblical love.

To put the two together means placing our commitment at the service of political action. That just could mean, in the words of Eileen Egan, telling public officials at some point in the future that "they can’t count on us when they resort to violence."

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1999