Collision Course: NATO, Russia, and Kosovo
By John Norris
Praeger, 2005, 334 pp.
Course: NATO, Russia, and Kosovo gives an unprecedented inside view
of the planning and conduct of NATO's 1999 bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.
Written by John Norris, the former communications director for Deputy Secretary
of State Strobe Talbott, this recently released work traces the chronology of
decisions and events made by all of the key political players involved. With
his enviable access to the communications and meetings held among U.S., European,
Serbian, and Russian diplomats, Norris is able to weave a riveting narrative
that provides access to the minds and motives of those who crafted the war.
As such, the author helpfully expands the existing literature on Kosovo. For
the first time, we get comprehensive explanations for decisions (mostly, those
of Washington and Moscow) that have always been murkily known. However, unless
one is a committed interventionist who unhesitatingly accepts the status quo
on all of America's foreign policy, this book will also frequently prove hard
to digest. I suspect that this dichotomy (exclusive inside sources and blatant
state propaganda) will make reading Collision
Course a necessary, if somewhat irritating, experience for most of our
It's important to note from the outset that Collision
Course is an establishment work, and its author and key sources were
and are cheerleaders for an intervention and occupation that have led to humanitarian
horrors, local mafia consolidation of power, and the imminent betrayal of UN
Resolution 1244, which guaranteed that Kosovo would remain a part of Yugoslavia.
Despite the analytical critiques Norris makes of poor decision-making and infighting
among Clinton officials, the rationale for intervention itself is never seriously
questioned, except when it is referred to in order to cast doubting allies (and
especially Russia) in a bad light.
Further, the author is currently special adviser to the president of the International
Crisis Group, an utterly
loathsome think-tank and graveyard of retired, failed, and ambitiously aspiring
Western diplomats. Nevertheless, the ICG retains considerable clout among the
"international community," considering that it is funded by the same
governments and institutions whose views it parrots with regularity. In short,
it is the civilian version of private military contractors like MPRI
that are staffed by retired military men. The difference is that the ICG concentrates
on political murders rather than corporeal ones.
Now the ICG has always been especially aggressive when it comes to the Balkans.
It is no accident that several of the participants on the winning side of the
Kosovo conflict now sit on its board. In addition to author and advisor Norris,
names like General Wesley Clark and former Finnish president (and special negotiator
during the war) Martti Ahtisaari jump
out. The ICG has been foremost in the lobbying
war for Kosovo's independence – an eventual scenario that was obvious from
the onset of NATO's bombing, yet one that Norris inexplicably excludes from
the minds of those executing the war, as if they had never expected their actions
would lead to logical conclusions at variance with the peace they dictated in
A Manifesto, Not a Foreword
Before the book even starts, there is a foreword
by former Deputy Secretary of State Talbott – not unreasonable, considering
that he is one of the book's main protagonists. Talbott's brief text is dripping
with a retrospective neoconservatism that remarkably manages to valorize the
1999 bombing while also taking jabs at the Bush administration's handling of
Iraq. The goal is to slyly posit Kosovo – a Clintonian "achievement"
– as an example for the current administration to follow elsewhere.
Among the other carved-in-stone truths we meet here include statements like,
"to the extent that there is such a thing as an international community,
it owes much to NATO" (p. ix), and "the sovereignty of states is not
absolute" (p. x). He attempts to trace the lineage of the American humanitarian
crusade as far back as the 1994 intervention meant to prop up Aristide in Haiti,
stating the need to overthrow the military junta as "thousands of Haitians
sought asylum in the United States by taking to the sea in rickety boats"
(p. xi). Could the threat of such an unwanted intrusion of refugees, perhaps,
actually have had more to do with the intervention than with safeguarding human
rights and democracy?
Predictably enough, for Talbott, the Bush administration failed in Iraq and
Afghanistan because of its "reluctance to cast its own policies in terms
of continuity with its predecessors, especially its previous predecessor, the
Clinton administration" (p. xi). Imagine that.
Nevertheless, all's well that ends well, because Bush has performed a total
about-face on the nation-building angle, with the helpful result that "Kosovo
looks more like a model for what they may end up putting in place in those other
states that American-led armies liberated from heinous regimes" (p. xi).
According to the former diplomat's checklist of criteria on war and peace, "[Kosovo]
was far from perfect, but overall, it gets a passing grade" (p. xii). According
to whom? As I've argued
before, Kosovo should not be held up as a model for anything but disaster.
A Startling Revelation
Following this rather hackneyed attempt to justify
intervention as a policy, author Norris begins the book with a contention so
surprising that one suspects some retrospective contextualization has been performed
here as well for political benefit. How else can one explain the following statement
and its conclusion?
"[N]ATO's large membership and consensus style may cause endless headaches
for military planners, but it is also why joining NATO is appealing to nations
across Central and Eastern Europe. Nations from Albania to Ukraine want in the
Western club. The gravitational pull of the community of Western democracies
highlights why Milosevic's Yugoslavia had become such an anachronism. As nations
throughout the region strove to reform their economies, mitigate ethnic tensions,
and broaden civil society, Belgrade seemed to delight in continually moving
in the opposite direction. It is small wonder that NATO and Yugoslavia ended
up on a collision course.
"It was Yugoslavia's resistance to the broader trends of political
and economic reform – not the plight of Kosovo Albanians – that best explains
NATO's war." (pp. xxii-xxiii)
This astonishing paragraph clearly seeks to contextualize Clinton's war as
a necessary predecessor to the Bush administration's multicolored revolutions
in Georgia, Ukraine, and who knows where next. Sadly, it might even be true.
The "liberals" of American politics are often contrasted with the
belated liberals of the neocon camp, the ones most often identified with permanent
revolution for the sake of spreading democracy, but it's clear that despite
the occasional softball criticism of the Bush administration's interventions,
it's more like a family squabble than some deeper alienation. The Democrats
prefer allied lynch mobs, whereas the Republicans are more willing to intervene
without outside help. The difference is basically the same.
At the end of the day, both Democrats and Republicans remain committed to the
same "values" of forcing political change on foreign regimes. Norris'
explanation seems to replace one deception (that of the humanitarian intervention)
with another (the democracy-building intervention), somehow by rolling them
into one. Considering that the ultimate justification for NATO's war has always
been cited as being primarily the protection of the Kosovo Albanians, I would
be feeling pretty insulted right now if I were one of the latter.
Room for Self-Criticism?
That said, the author at least notes several contemporary
criticisms of the unfolding war. Starting from the second chapter, he recites
a litany of abuses leveled at the Clinton administration from the press, former
officials, and the Republican opposition. Perhaps because of his former position,
Norris is most acutely aware of the antagonisms leveled at the State Department
by the Pentagon, CIA, and others over the former's failure to foresee a refugee
crisis once bombing got underway and over their naïve view that Milosevic
would immediately capitulate. Henry Kissinger is cited as saying the administration
wasn't hawkish enough, while the "fiercely conservative" Richard Perle
charged that Clinton's was "the worst foreign policy team since the Second
World War" (p. 26).
However, when Norris alleges that the Clinton administration "was caught
off-balance by the refugee crisis," while at the same alleging that "few
understood raw politics better than Bill Clinton," (p. 27) one has to question
his sincerity. This contradiction cuts to the central dilemma of the book: whether
we can take the testimony of the author at face value or we have to understand
him as an apologist. After all, many less gifted and less privy to sensitive
information than the president were arguing at the time that such a bombardment
would in fact cause such a crisis; how then can the sagacious Clinton have failed
to see it? Unless, of course, he had hoped for it to occur for his own propaganda
purposes; but this possibility is preempted by Norris, who merely says that
Milosevic's evil intent "helped" justify the president's decision.
Notably, he refers only to "images" of refugees as being pivotal
in firming alliance support for war – images of refugees being the key weapon
for developing the "human interest" angle of the story and taking
attention away from the bombing's destructiveness. And though it is well known
that the Albanian KLA at least in some cases forced people to become refugees
to cynically generate world sympathy, and shot other Albanians believed to be
Serb "collaborators," this scenario is dismissed by the author as
nothing more than Russian-Yugoslav propaganda (pp. 13, 20).
Essentially, the question is one of believability: could the Western leadership
really have been so naïve about so much? For instance, the American negotiating
principle from the beginning was to secure the rights of Kosovo's Albanians
with the introduction of peacekeepers, while still somehow keeping Kosovo a
part of the Yugoslav state. Anyone with sense could have seen that this was
not a possibility once the Serb forces were expelled. Should we believe, then,
that the Americans were sincere in their "official" platform, and/or
that the author is being sincere vouching for their sincerity in his retelling?
This is one of the book's great mysteries.
Aside from its problematic intrinsic nature, however,
Course has plenty to offer on the informative level. The portrayals
of interactions among the biggest world diplomats offer much insight into the
negotiating process. Norris reveals how our leaders (and theirs) really think
and presents the kind of seemingly minor details that contribute to their relationships.
For example, to a senior NATO official is attributed the observation that because
"winters are bad for Yeltsin," negotiations with the Russian president,
as well as the intervention itself, were best held off: "he starts to pay
attention and always gets better in March and April (p. 4)." Incredibly,
Clinton and Yeltsin had only spoken twice about Kosovo in the six months between
October 1998 and March 1999 – with the latter slamming the phone down on both
occasions – a fact that serves Norris' thesis that the Russians were intransigent,
bellicose, and slow to engage with the negotiating process.
Yet while there may indeed be some truth to stereotypes, it becomes tiresome
after a while to hear the Russian negotiators constantly mocked for the great
crimes of smoking and drinking, while the fresh-faced Western diplomats are
described with generally positive adjectives ("lean," "affable,"
"good-natured," "scrappy," etc.) as they sanctimoniously
interface with their laptops and policy papers. The subtle implication of Norris'
opposing descriptions of the Russians and Westerners is that the former were
unwilling to negotiate and an impediment to the peace process – even as the
facts the author recounts lead to a precisely opposite interpretation.
In the end, the picture painted of American diplomacy is actually quite unflattering.
It is the Russians who throughout proved most pragmatic and eager to engage
all parties in negotiations, and the Americans (as well as Tony Blair and Jacques
Chirac) who come off as obdurate, unyielding bullies – a position they could
well afford, since they were the ones dropping the bombs. As Collision
Course abundantly reveals, the entire tenor of American negotiation
throughout the conflict was in the form of ultimatum, and the primary considerations
of those involved were not empathy for refugees or democracy, but merely to
further their own individual and collective reputations and prestige.
That said, it is important to note that all the parties involved acted according
to their own political considerations first. Russian President Boris Yeltsin's
frantic calls to stop the bombing were fueled by his own looming impeachment
hearings, and the helpful effect that the war was having for his Communist opposition.
For his part, U.S. Vice President Gore was weighing the consequences any high-profile
diplomatic role might have for his upcoming presidential campaign. Finnish president
and special negotiator Martti Ahtisaari worried about what shaking hands with
the Hague-indicted Milosevic would mean for his image among EU leaders.
Course gives extended coverage of the constant argument then going on
within NATO and within the U.S. administration over the desirability of a ground
war. In retrospect, it seems incredible that in spring 1999 some high officials
feared that the war might drag on for another year. The reader is made to appreciate
that given the immense logistical challenges of posing a ground invasion of
Kosovo, plans had to be made well in advance (June 1 was the deadline given
by Gen. Clark, but in the end it wasn't necessary).
The chief advocates for ground invasion were, Clark, Tony Blair, and Madeleine
Albright, as well as more minor characters such as Undersecretary for Foreign
Affairs Tom Pickering and Special Adviser on Balkan Affairs James Dobbins. The
animosity between the Pentagon and Clark was fueled largely by this debate,
with the trigger-happy Clark reasoning that a fast and massive invasion would
end the war faster, and the Pentagon balking at the risks of either crossing
the Albania-Kosovo mountains or sweeping down the Hungarian plain, and then
being forced to take Belgrade itself. Again and again, political decision-making
is held up against the fear of public reaction; the majority of NATO countries
apparently had no stomach for a messy ground war. In the end, NATO got itself
off the hook by bombing enough civilian targets and threatening to level Belgrade
itself, thus forcing a capitulation from Milosevic. In this light, the whole
furor over the necessity of a ground invasion in a certain sense seems to lack
Undoubtedly the most exciting chapters of Collision
Course are the penultimate ones (9 and 10) that describe the high-stakes
brinkmanship between NATO and Russia over troop deployment into Kosovo. This
section describes in detail the secret planning that went into Russia's surprise
entrance into Kosovo via Bosnia, and the diplomatic maelstrom this move caused.
As the author notes, though tensions were deflated and the Russian occupation
of Slatina Airfield quickly descended into farce, no one knew at the time how
the situation would play out. Had Wesley Clark had his way, the situation could
well have boiled over into a shoot-out – which memorably led British subordinate
Gen. Michael Jackson to indignantly tell Clark, "I'm not starting World
War III for you" (p. 278).
Norris details how the mutual mistrust over Russia's role in the future peacekeeping
force – it had asked for, but was denied, a sector of its own – led Yeltsin
to force the situation by sending in his peacekeepers stationed in Bosnia. NATO
feared that a new Cold War scenario might play out, in which Kosovo would be
more or less partitioned, with Russia occupying the Serb-inhabited north of
the province and NATO the rest. However, as the author explains, these worries
were premature because the Russians had not planned through to the end and did
not send a large enough force to stake out anything more than a symbolic presence.
This was ultimately the result of Moscow's failure to win overflight clearance
from Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, and Bulgaria, thus preventing them from being
able to drop thousands of paratroopers into Kosovo. The author portrays this
result triumphantly as an indicator of Eastern Europe's turn to the West.
Drawbacks: Unconnected Events and the Media's Role
However, the author's bad faith is shown in two
ways: one, the complete avoidance of government-media organized deception; and
two, the almost surreal lack of proper context for events. We are thus expected
to believe that Milosevic's mid-war indictment by the Hague – a political move
that effectively removed him from the negotiating process and made any Western
politician associated with him stigmatized – caught the Clinton administration
by surprise. The "irony" of the fact that CNN correspondent Christiane
Amanpour (who "broke" the story) was married to State Department Spokesman
James Rubin is attributed to unnamed U.S. diplomats almost as an afterthought,
and with no consideration of the fact that the news network and U.S. government
were officially, if
clandestinely, cooperating to spin the war. At many points, the reader is
left to imagine that events happened by themselves, detached from one another,
as if by accident.
A major shortcoming, considering that the author was tasked with dealing with
the media, is the total omission of how the U.S. and NATO worked hand-in-glove
with a complicit, self-serving Western press to spin a web of deception in newspapers
and TV screens back home, casting the war in an honorable light while demonizing
the Serbs. The effect of the media as an echo chamber for NATO propaganda was
tremendous, and to not even mention it shows that, at the end of the day, Norris'
apparent intent to provide a comprehensive account falls short. In fact, the
media is only mentioned when unfavorable stories or reporter swarms catch Western
diplomats off-guard or otherwise irritate them – the implication being that
the media is a hostile and alien force out to attack rather than serve the government.
Since the author obviously knows better, the failure to at least allude to some
of the bigger lies (like "100,000
Albanians dead") is further evidence of an attempted whitewash.
Course tends to glorify the West for its diplomatic acumen, martial
prowess, and (apparently) more glowing health than the Russians, it is no surprise
that the book's conclusions also tend to sugarcoat the war. There are no mentions
of depleted uranium, and not too many of civilian casualties. There is no mention
of the fact that the Russians proved correct in most of their predictions regarding
"reverse" ethnic cleansing of Serbs and destruction of Serbian cultural
monuments once NATO swept into Kosovo. The author has little sympathy in this
regard, yet constantly points out the humanitarian valor displayed by NATO in
defense of the Albanians as being a prime justification for the war – failing
to delve very deeply into the real campaign of terror and intimidation that
Albanian extremists had been waging for years against Serbian civilians. Milosevic
may have indeed been guilty of many evils, but nothing happens in a vacuum,
Other conclusions seem to have been jury-rigged for contemporary requirements.
Thus the constant portrayals of "reckless" Russian diplomacy (as if
they were the ones bombing people!) also dovetail quite nicely into the
author's current criticism of Vladimir Putin, something that is decidedly in
vogue in the West today. And while not directly calling for the immediate independence
of Kosovo (as his
very own ICG is loudly doing), the author closes the book by stating that
"hard choices still need to be made, and they need to be made sooner rather
than later" (p. 322). So at some level Collision
Course can be said to be a well-timed manifesto aiming to both justify
NATO's bombing and whitewash its leaders' crimes, while also stigmatizing Russia.
In this way, the book attempts to set a precedent, or at least a preferred context,
for today's apparently irreversible trend toward Kosovo independence. The victors
are still keen to write the history.
However, none of these things make up the most compelling aspect of Collision
Course. For what seems most striking in a book written about "how
diplomacy is really practiced," as one reviewer put it, is the utter barrenness
of American diplomacy today. The narration of events paints the same unflattering
picture of American diplomacy as nothing more than the unyielding projection
of ultimatums backed up by military force. That America rarely compromises is
not, of course, the author's fault. Yet when the deck is stacked to the extent
that it is in today's unipolar world, not even the most compelling storyline
can sustain real excitement and suspense when the end result is so often a foregone