Kosovo and Cautionary Tales

22 Feb

As a fellow member of the humanitarian hawk club, I think Dylan Matthews (née Minipundit) is too hard on this Matt Yglesias piece on Kosovo’s independence and the rise of liberal hawkishness. Yglesias’s point isn’t that similar interventions would be unwarranted, or that the NATO campaign against Serbia was a mistake, but simply as a caution on the limits of even successful interventions:

But many hawks looked at Kosovo and saw not a boundary case for when the use of force might be legitimate, but a new baseline against which future interventions should be judged…In reality, Kosovo, though much less disastrous than Iraq, has, like Iraq, turned out to be more problematic than enthusiasts advertised and should, like Iraq, mostly inspire humility about what we can expect to achieve through force.

There are two good reasons for this note of caution, which also represent limits on the “substantive competence” which Dylan advocates :

1) Nation building is a legitimately costly and difficult enterprise that takes varying levels of cooperation and competency which the military doesn’t possess–at least not at the level of development needed. There are some positive signs that the military is waking up to these new challenges, but there’s also the problem of international coordination and who will supply the troops and pay the costs. Kosovo has been kept together in a part of the world close to EU and NATO allies where other countries have a greater stake–and thus, greater competency–and were willing to aid in the diplomatic and financial burdens. Other, more politically volatile (and less Western friendly) theaters (e.g., the Middles East, Africa) will be harder to manage from a resource and competence standpoint.  We lack a detailed enough understanding of the players on the ground, the local social structures, and often–as we saw in Iraq–don’t have enough people on hand who speak the language.

2) Kosovo represents an upper limit of political cooperation and military logistics, at least in the near term. Even a case like Rwanda, which is widely regarded as the example of morally necessary intervention par excellence (on which I agree), would have faced very real logistical constraints, constraints that need to be taken into account when weighing a possible intervention. Alan Kuperman’s The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention lays out the problems the U.S. military would have faced, problems that might have limited the number of Tutsi saved to 125,000; still a victory of moral significance, but also a sobering figure for those that support intervention.

I’ll defer to Jacob Levey’s assessment that Kosovo should be independent¹, while noting his caveat that “sometimes there may be a legitimate place for deference to the views of a local great power, even if those views themselves are illegitimate.”

¹ Which, I’m assuming, is a moral and political rationale based on his multiculturalism of fear.

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