About this blog: NATO’s air war in Libya certainly isn’t the first time Western nations have intervened in the interests of battling dictators and savings lives. A look back at the 1999 NATO operations in Kosovo provides some instructive history – and a series of warnings. David N. Gibbs, author of “First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia,” published by Vanderbilt University Press, has explored the unintended consequences in Kosovo of what at first appeared simply a moral action by NATO.  Here, Gibbs, an associate professor of history and political science at the University of Arizona, considers the lessons of the earlier intervention for today’s emergency response in Libya.  


When intervening against Muammar Kaddafi, Western officials take comfort in recalling the 1999 NATO air war against the Serbian occupation of Kosovo, which is viewed as a “successful” humanitarian intervention. It is widely believed that intervention protected the Kosovar people from Serb aggression, and thus alleviated the humanitarian emergency.

One hopes that the recent U.S. and European air strikes will have a similarly positive impact on Libya.

In reality, the “success” of the Kosovo intervention is predicated on a series of myths.

The first myth is that the conflict was a morally simple one, between villainous Serbs and persecuted Kosovar Albanians; and that NATO, in backing the Albanian-led Kosovo Liberation Army was establishing the moral high ground. In reality, both sides in this war committed war crimes, on a systematic basis.

While the crimes of the Serbs are better known, those of the KLA are also disturbing. This point was clearly recognized by Tony Blair, who believed in early 1999 that “the KLA ... were not much better than the Serbs,” according to the memoirs of Blair’s press aide, Alastair Campbell.

More recently, a Council of Europe report implicates the KLA leadership in illegal trafficking of human organs harvested from murdered Serbs, as well as numerous other criminal activities. 

Despite this record, the NATO powers backed the KLA. And after Milosevic capitulated to NATO and the bombing ended, NATO forces effectively put the KLA in charge of the province.

Once in power, the KLA forced out almost a quarter million Serbs and Roma.

This record of NATO complicity in KLA war crimes and ethnic cleansing is highly relevant for the intervention now taking place in Libya. Once again, Western states will be seeking local allies among the Libyan opposition to Kaddafi. Naturally, we hope that the intervening powers will be more careful in choosing allies to oppose Kaddafi, and will avoid thugs like the KLA.

However, the Kosovo case gives us little confidence that this will actually happen.

With regard to Kosovo, another myth is that Western intervention improved human rights conditions. In reality, intervention made the situation worse. Before NATO bombing, the total number of persons killed on all sides was 2,000. After the bombing began however, there was a huge spike in Serb-perpetrated atrocities, which caused almost 10,000 deaths. Furious at the NATO air raids, Serb soldiers took out their frustrations in revenge attacks against Albanian villagers, triggering a dramatic rise in killings.

Intervention in Libya could generate similar results. The notoriously unstable Kaddafi could lash out against his own people, possibly using even more violence than Milosevic did in Kosovo; or he may use terrorism against American and European citizens, as he has done in the past. 

This reconsideration of the Kosovo war should remind us that interventions run the risk of making the problem worse than it was before. And perhaps we should recall the basic medical rule: First, do no harm. Before we try to “solve” humanitarian emergencies like the one in Libya, let us hope we do not make things worse.