'Good War' Rationale in Kosovo Questioned in New Book

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the American-backed NATO intervention in Kosovo, the conventional wisdom has always been that the interdiction saved countless lives and averted a humanitarian catastrophe.

Newly emerging evidence suggests otherwise, according to a University of Arizona historian.

"The traditional view of the 1999 war was that human rights concerns motivated the NATO air strikes," said David N. Gibbs, an associate professor of history and political science at the UA. "Specifically, it is believed that NATO sought to protect the Albanian inhabitants in Kosovo from attacks by Serb security forces."

The 1999 Kosovo war is often remembered as the "good" war, which shows that American power can be used in a morally positive way and can alleviate humanitarian emergencies.

Gibbs challenges this notion in a new book, "First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia." The book is due to be published in June by Vanderbilt University Press.

Gibbs argues that political considerations were the more likely motive for the Balkans conflict. He also shows that the Kosovo war had many features in common with then-President George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Based on newly available information from the Milosevic war crimes trial, government documents and other primary materials, Gibbs shows that the NATO air strikes failed to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo.

Instead the strikes worsened the atrocities and heightened the scale of human suffering. He also offers an extended critique of Samantha Power's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide." Gibbs said Power, now a member of the National Security Council in the Obama administration, has long taken a benign view of the Kosovo intervention.

Gibbs writes that the NATO states could have achieved a negotiated settlement of the Kosovo problem and resolved the humanitarian crisis – without war. Instead, the Clinton administration blocked a negotiated settlement. Gibbs argues that the United States sought to use the Kosovo war as a means to reaffirm NATO's function in the post-Cold War era.

"It was this NATO factor – rather than human rights – that was the main reason for the war," Gibbs said.