Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Olmert and Kosovo Lessons

There are indeed strange words coming out of Jerusalem these days.

In a German interview of the weekend, Prime Minister Olmert has said that the Europeans have no ground to lecture Israel on how to treat civilians in war, and uses Kosovo as an example of this.

Olmert said that "European countries attacked Kosovo and killed ten thousand civilians. Ten thousand! And none of these countries had to suffer a single rocket [attack] beforehand."

Well, I was not among the keenest supporters of the Kosovo war, but Olmert is wide off the mark in practically every respect.

It's probably the case that the Kosovo war killed app 10 000 people, and it's certainly true that the overwhelming majority of those were killed after the beginning of NATO airstrikes.

But more realistic assessments talk about the NATO airstrikes directly killing in the order of 500 civilians during the 78 days of bombing. Bad, indeed very bad, but less than 10 000.

What Olmert should learn from the Kosovo war are two things.

The first - which he might have learnt already - is that you can never rely on air power alone.

The NATO generals thought that a number of strikes during a couple of days would do, but had to engage in nearly three months of intense bombing, at the end of which the Serb forces left Kosovo in good order and with more of armoured vehicles than NATO had been aware of them having at the beginning of the conflict.

The second is that if you are seen as the one inflicting harm on the civilian population, you will be the one that loses the conflict.

Milosevic's big mistake was to answer the NATO air strikes with a massive increase in ethnic cleansing, which drove 800 000 people across the borders into other countries. NATO's awful mistakes paled in comparison, and the court of world public opinion condemned the former rather than the later.

There are lessons to be learnt from every conflict.

But if Olmert things that the lesson from Kosovo is that you can keep bombing until there are 10 000 civilian casualities - since that is what he believed was the case in Kosovo - then it will spell tragedy for Israel.

And there is a third lesson from Kosovo.

After NATO was starting to run out of military options, one had to enter into a political deal with Milosevic. The alternative had been to assemble an army for a ground invasion, which would have taken months.

And that deal - that stopped the carnage and made it possible for the refugees to return - handed the issue over to the UN awaiting a political settlement later on.