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Letters from Readers

July 29, 1999

Jim Bullington did an excellent job [“American Interests, American Values, and War in the Balkans” in the present issue] summarizing all the standard arguments of why NATO should not have intervened militarily in Kosovo and Bosnia before it. I am surprised, however, that such an “old pro” did not provide American Diplomacy subscribers with suggestions for alternative courses of action to deal with ethnic strife in ex-Yugoslavia. I was left with the impression that he advocated doing nothing.

Richard Matheron,
US Ambassador (retired)
Escondido, CA

The writer completed a thirty year career in the US foreign service in 1986. He served as an election monitor in Bosnia in 1997 and recounted his experiences there for American Diplomacy readers in the Spring 1998 issue.



August 4, 1999

Dick Matheron’s impression that I “advocated doing nothing” to deal with ethnic strife in ex-Yugoslavia is not too far off the mark. Over the years, tempered by a good deal of disappointment in places such as Burundi, Burma, and Vietnam, I’ve come to believe that the injunction “First, do no harm” is as applicable to diplomacy as it is to medicine. As I said in the speech/article, there are some problems in this world that we just can’t solve. Sometimes, inaction is the wisest course of action.

So yes, I would advocate doing nothing in Kosovo over the alternative of military intervention. This war, in addition to the “collateral damage,” in fact did a lot of harm to those whose protection was its proclaimed (and only reasonable) objective.

My reluctance to suggest specific alternative courses of action is rooted in my lack of expertise in the Balkans. However, with Dick’s polite prodding I will venture the observation that the choices were surely not limited to standing idly by or going to war. First of all, we could have continued the negotiations. It may be true that further negotiations were unlikely to produce a fully satisfactory solution, but I’m reminded of Churchill’s dictum about “jaw, jaw” being better than “war, war.” This would seem to be especially the case when our own interests were not seriously threatened, and the only war we could muster the political will to wage was of a sort that could not possibly protect those in whose name it was fought.

[Continued above, Column 2]

Other alternatives (not mutually exclusive) might have included greatly increased support for the democratic opposition in Serbia, strengthening the OSCE observers in Kosovo rather than with-drawing them, getting the UN and the Russians more involved, providing security assistance to neighboring countries, and perhaps even arming the Kosovars if the ethnic cleansing accelerated beyond the relatively modest pre-bombing level.

All of these alternatives have their own risks and costs, and no one can know if they would have produced an acceptable outcome. But at worst, they would have done less harm than fighting a feckless war that served no one’s interest and left us with responsibility for a problem we didn’t create and can’t solve.

Ambassador (ret.) J. R. Bullington
Norfolk, VA
Email: jbulling@odu.edu



August 5, 1999

I still do not agree with you overall but appreciate your thoughtful commentary. One problem I have is that your points remind me so much of those of the America Firsters prior to our entry into World War II. Churchill did believe in “jaw, jaw” but when that didn’t work (god knows Chamberlain tried) he resorted to “war, war.”

One of my best academic friends out here is the nephew and biographer of William R. Castle Jr., Assistant Secretary, Ambassador to Japan and finally Under Secretary of State during the Hoover administration (1931-33). Castle was a founding father of the America First Committee and a bitter foe of everything FDR stood for at home as well as abroad. One can still make an intellectual argument for having followed Castle, Lindbergh, et al’s line of argument for nonintervention. I still think going to war with Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo was the better course of action.

I acknowledge that my reaction may be visceral based on my four trips to Bosnia where I got to know many Bosnian Serbs and Muslims and a few Croats. I believe strongly that we and THEY do need to go back to the drawing boards and redo Dayton, but in the meantime they are not killing each other thanks to NATO intervention.

Richard Matheron,
US Ambassador (retired)
Escondido, CA

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