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Comment No. 19, July 1, 1999

               "The Clinton-Milosevich Chess Match"

                                          by Immanuel Wallerstein

     The whole world has been watching the Clinton-Milosevich
chess match since the beginning of 1999. In early June, most
commentators seemed to believe that Clinton has won, and hand-
somely. Clinton proclaimed victory. So did his NATO allies. So
did a large percentage of the world left, which is highly im-
pressed with the demonstration of U.S. military power. Milosevich
said that he won, but most people, including most people in
Serbia, seem to think this is simply silly.
     I believe assessment should be far more prudent. For one
thing, the game is not over until it is over, and we are still
in the middle of it. In the second place, assessment of chess
moves should always be made in terms of alternatives. So let us
look at the alternatives, as of the time of the Rambouillet
meetings. The Rambouillet meetings were convened by the NATO
powers in order to impose a "settlement" on the Kosovo crisis.
These days, there is endless reference to the Rambouillet agree-
ments, even in United Nations resolutions, but in fact there were
no such agreements. There were basically three participants at
Rambouillet: the Yugoslav government, an Albanian delegation
(comprising both the KLA and Rugova), and certain NATO governments
(who behaved as a relatively cohesive group at the meeting).
     What happened at the meeting was that the NATO powers
drafted a set of terms and asked the Yugoslavs and the Kosovars
to agree to them. What is now forgotten is that there was not one
set of terms but two successive sets. The first set was accepted
by the Yugoslavs and rejected by the Albanians. The second set
(the set now referred to as the "Rambouillet agreements") was
accepted by the Albanians and rejected by the Yugoslavs. Neither
set was accepted by both parties. It is after the second failed
agreement that the NATO powers gave their ultimatum to Belgrade,
and then invaded.
     Let us look in more detail at what these terms were. The
first set provided for withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from Kosovo,
and the entry of a NATO force into Kosovo. These terms Milosevich
accepted, or at least swallowed. The Albanian delegation
demurred. They told Mrs. Albright that the terms had to include
a referendum on independence. She added this clause, providing
for one in three years. The NATO powers then added as well a
secret annex (secret to the rest of us, but of course not to the
Yugoslavs) providing the NATO troops with the right to enter at
will the rest of Yugoslavia other than Kosovo. This Milosevich
was not prepared to swallow.

     So, we had a war. What happened in the war? Yugoslavia was
badly bombed. We learn now after the event that the bombing did
far less damage to Yugoslav military capacity than NATO had
hoped. The bombing did damage severely Yugoslavia's economic
infrastructure, and current expectations are that GDP will go
down 40% in the coming year. During the war, the Serbs engaged
in ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, and current estimates are that
some 10,000 persons were killed, and the homes of many more
destroyed. No doubt there had been contingency plans to do this,
but the fact is that before the war started, the amount of
killing and destruction of homes had been relatively minor. It
was the war that permitted, even encouraged, implementing this
     Now to the war itself. Clinton clearly did not want to
engage ground troops. He knew that politically this would be a
real loser at home. Nonetheless, Yugoslav resistance and the
endless stream of Kosovo refugees was pushing him into a corner
where he would have had to engage land troops, and suffer the
political losses this would incur. So, somewhat desperately, he
enrolled the Russians as mediators. The Russians were happy to
     NATO claims that they got unconditional surrender on the
part of the Yugoslavs. Did they? Let us compare what NATO got
with what the Yugoslavs were ready to give them at Rambouillet.
They got the withdrawal of Serbian troops and the entry of NATO
forces into Kosovo. They did not get version two of the agreements:
the referendum on Kosovo independence, or the right for
NATO troops to enter freely the rest of Yugoslavia. Furthermore,
they got two things they had tried hard to avoid at Rambouillet.
The final agreement required a U.N. resolution, and hence the
right of the U.N. to have a say in the future. And they got the
entry of Russian troops into Kosovo.
     So let us add this up. Had Clinton stuck to the original
terms of Rambouillet, the U.S. would have gotten a better deal
in Kosovo from its own point of view than what they got after a
war. In addition, they got ethnic cleansing. To be sure, the
ethnic cleansers were Serbs. But the fact is that these Serbs,
however malignant, would not have been able to engage in the
ethnic cleansing had Clinton stuck to his own original terms at
Rambouillet. In the world of moral responsibility, Clinton has
to share the blame. And in the world of practical politics, it
does not add up to a stunning victory.
     The entry of the Russians into Kosovo is not to be under-
estimated. They have reasserted, and this for the next fifty
years at least, their inescapable role as a power in the Balkans,
exactly what the U.S. had wished to avoid. Incidentally, it is
a piquant detail that the key Russian move, the occupation of the
Pristina airport, was made possible by Mrs. Albright. Gen. Sir
Michael Jackson had wanted to send British and French troops into
Kosovo on June 11. Mrs. Albright flew to Macedonia to persuade
him to put off entry one day, so that the U.S. Marines, who
weren't yet "ready" (I thought the Marines were always ready)
could go in at the same time. This delay of one day was exactly

what made it possible for the Russians to occupy the Pristina
airport, and therefore obtain a de facto Russian zone (even if
we don't call it that). In the annals of diplomacy, Mrs. Albright
will surely occupy a special place for this brilliant tactical
     Where then are we now in the chess game? Milosevich seems
to have survived at home. Yugoslav politics are infinitely more
open than Iraqi politics, and there is real opposition to him in
both Serbia and Montenegro. But I would give him odds on
remaining in power until the end of his term, which is 2002.
Clinton has avoided the worst (sending in ground troops). At
home, he comes out neither ahead nor behind. But, if conditions
deteriorate in Kosovo, if (in particular) the Kosovo Liberation
Army decides in the month or two to come that it doesn't really
intend to disarm and starts shooting not at the absent Serbs but
at the present NATO troops, Clinton (and Gore) could pay a heavy
political price at home. In chess terms, the end game promises
to be very tricky.
     So, why did Clinton throw away a good Rambouillet deal
(which he himself proposed) in favor of one that he was unable
to enforce? I come back to what I argued in a previous comment
(No. 13, April 1, 1999, see <>),
that the real objective of Clinton had, nothing to do with ethnic
cleansing, or the strategic importance of U.S. troops in the Balkans,
or any of the other ostensible reasons. The real objective was
to lock the Europeans into a renewed NATO and prevent the
emergence of a European army outside of NATO. Has he
succeeded at least in this objective? For the
moment, he seems slightly stronger on this front than he was in
1998. But the rumblings are there all over Europe, even on the
European right, about the importance of rethinking their military
preparations. It is by no means sure that the U.S. has won in
this regard more than a momentary respite.

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Prof. Immanuel Wallerstein
Fernand Braudel Center
Binghamton University
Binghamton, NY 13902-6000