International crises are not always resolved on the battlefield or at the negotiating table. Sometimes breakthroughs come around a table at a restaurant that is continents away. Or they fall in place because of a thoughtful gesture made by an important player at a cemetery years before.
This is one of the lessons of “Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and U.S. Intervention,” a new book by David L. Phillips, a onetime senior adviser to both the United Nations and the United States State Department who is now director of Columbia University’s Program on Peace-Building and Human Rights.
To read this account of how Kosovo, once a Serb province made up mostly of ethnic Albanians, managed to tear itself free of Serb domination and earn widespread international recognition as an independent nation, is to realize that high-level diplomacy can in many ways resemble a social-media campaign. Rather than make a viral video, post on Facebook or beg for “likes,” a UN official hoping to start international negotiations on Kosovo’s future had lobbied for international support by wooing a group of diplomats over dinner at Nora’s Restaurant in Washington’s trendy Dupont Circle neighborhood.
Need to raise money for a clandestine rebel army? New Yorkers know that Bruno Ristorante is a popular northern Italian spot in Midtown Manhattan. But its roots are actually Albanian, and Albanian Americans put $1.6 million in cash on the table there when they were invited to help create the Kosovo Liberation Army one night in 1999.
Phillips’s book is meant to be an exploration of Kosovo’s liberation and the American role in the struggle. But it is very much a how-to book. How to win over US and European politicians? Albanian Kosovars are Muslims, and insular American lawmakers might have been put off by their religion. Jim Xhema, a prominent Albanian American, said he learned to wine and dine senators and their staff members at the Monocle, a steak place right down the street from the Dirksen Senate Office Building, where he would “drink like a fish just to prove that Albanians were not Muslim fundamentalists,” Xhema told Phillips.
Similarly, Ibrahim Rugova, Kosovo’s first president, prohibited Muslim rituals at his 2006 funeral because he feared the many Europeans attending the service might be put off, Xhema added. Years before his death, Rugova, a Muslim, had taken Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat and a Jew, to a Jewish cemetery near his home in Pristina, now the capital of Kosovo, where he laid ceremonial stones from the city atop grave sites in Jewish tradition. Long afterward, Engel, one of the strongest supporters of Albanian causes in Washington, showed his appreciation for Rugova by laying stones from Kosovo on his grave.
American politicians hunting for campaign cash also knew to go to Bruno’s, where they could hit up the Albanian-American community. The quid pro quo was their support for a strong US role in the independence campaign.
Among Kosovo’s strongest supporters, along with Representative Engel, were Senator Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican, and Rep. Joseph DioGuardi, a New York Republican, all of whom benefited from Albanian-American infusions of electoral contributions. What goes around comes around.
Engel introduced Albanian-American leaders to Bill Clinton in 1992 when he was running for president; and in March 1999, Clinton personally stopped by a Washington meeting of those leaders to offer tips on how to win NATO backing for their fight. Kosovo was left on the sidelines when a NATO bombing campaign forced Bosnian Serbs and Croats to end their assault on Bosnian Muslims after the breakup of the Yugoslav Republic.
The resulting peace deal, reached in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995, failed to address the question of Kosovo’s fate. It took another war — and another NATO assault — in 1998-99 to end the next war in the region, between Kosovo Albanians seeking independence and the anti-independence forces led by the Serb president, Slobodan Milosevic.
Ten-thousand people were killed in that war and nearly a million Kosovar Albanians driven from their homes in fighting punctuated by ethnic slaughter and other atrocity crimes. But it took literally years to lure the international community to intervene on Kosovo’s behalf. Even then, the intervention fell to NATO after it became clear that the UN would not act; Russia, a historical Serb ally, made clear it would veto any Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force. After the fighting ended, the UN granted Kosovo substantial autonomy under an international administration. The idea was to eventually proceed to independence, but the Serbs and Moscow continued to oppose such a step even as many officials in Washington and Europe pushed for it.
In a “how-not-to” moment, Phillips recounts the sad tale of a 2006 effort by Condoleezza Rice, then the US secretary of state, to persuade the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, to quietly consent to Kosovo’s independence even as he publicly backed Serbia’s claim of sovereignty there. Alas, the Financial Times soon ran a story indicating that Russia and China would not block independence. The leak forced Russia to bolster its support for Serb sovereignty. Even in February 2008, when a frustrated Washington finally gave Kosovo a green light to unilaterally declare its independence, Moscow and Beijing held out, and to this day have refused to recognize its new status.
In another notable how-not-to moment, George W. Bush, who showed no passion during his presidency for the Kosovo cause, named Alphonso Jackson, his secretary for housing and urban development, to lead the US delegation to Kosovo for President Rugova’s funeral.
“Jackson was an odd choice,” Phillips writes. “He had no experience or knowledge of Kosovo. He could not even pronounce Rugova’s name correctly during his eulogy.” While nearly a hundred nations have recognized Kosovo’s independence since 2008, just about as many have not, and Serbia still claims the territory as its own. So Kosovo is no example of a perfect international intervention.
Phillips nonetheless draws three lessons for Washington from the crisis and its handling by other international parties. “First, the United States cannot intervene everywhere, but that does not mean it cannot intervene anywhere,” he writes. Second, early intervention can prevent a crisis from spiraling out of control. “It is more efficient to prevent conflicts before they occur than to get involved later, when the costs of intervention are far greater,” he says. Finally, the US must work to maintain credibility by knowing how to use power and how to properly harness the tools available for peacekeeping, peace enforcement and peace-building.
On Kosovo, endless international negotiations “represented both a diplomatic failure and moral defeat,” Phillips writes. But then President Clinton concluded that “the business of diplomacy is saving lives” and brought in NATO intervention. “When the United States finally acted in Kosovo, it used power applied with purpose.”
“Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and U.S. Intervention,” by David L. Phillips; 978-0-262-01844-9
Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.