American troop deployments in Kosovo were the subject of a debate in the House of Representatives on March 11. A resolution authorizing President Clinton to contribute U.S. ground troops to a NATO peacekeeping mission in the troubled province was supported by 219 members, just one more than a majority. While the vote cut across party lines, the White House and most Democrats opposed holding the vote in the midst of negotiations, but the Republican leadership brought the resolution to the floor any-way. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) voted for it, while Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX) and Majority Whip Tom Delay opposed it.

Even more troubling than the possibility of sending American soldiers into an ethno-religious civil war was the misuse of historical argument and analogy used to justify it.

During eight hours of debate, the importance of Kosovo to the Serbian identity was never mentioned. Kosovo was part of the original heartland of Serbia. In 1389, the Muslim Ottoman Turks defeated the Orthodox Serbs’ greatest hero. Prince Lazar, at the Field of the Blackbirds on St. Vitus’ Day. A number of Serbian nobles had accepted Turkish vassalage, but the prince is revered because he died in battle rather than suffer the dishonor of surrender.

Serbia would not regain its formal independence from the Turks until 1882, but it won autonomy within the Ottoman Empire in 1817 after a series of bloody rebellions. The Turks were driven back in a series of wars culminating in World War I, and Serbia regained control of Kosovo by war in 1912.

Imagine that a San Antonio Liberation Front were to champion—by armed violence—Mexican-American rights north of the border, demand autonomy for the Texas city that is home to the Alamo, and plan for the eventual return of the area to Mexico. Would U.S. authorities have the right to oppose such a movement? Would Texans be indifferent if the Alamo, the symbol of their independence from Mexico, were returned to Mexico? Would the Organization of American States be justified in sending a peacekeeping force of Latin American troops, openly supportive of Mexican claims, into Texas? Would Americans welcome or resist such a foreign intervention?

This obvious historical analogy was never mentioned in the House debate. Instead, attention focused mainly on World War I, proving the old adage that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Thus Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO): “First, we should understand those pages of history that point out that World War I started in the Balkans and if NATO in its role in keeping peace in Europe can be fulfilled, it will be necessary for NATO to do a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo.” Of course, NATO was formed to defend its member states from attack, not to keep the peace in other parts of Europe. Beyond this new (and largely unexamined) definition of the alliance floated the specter of Kosovo as the breeding ground of a new world war.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) made this explicit: “I am sick and tired of my colleagues saying this is in Europe, let the Europeans deal with it. Sarajevo was in Europe. That was the genesis of the First World War. Czechoslovakia was in Europe. That was the genesis of the Second World War. These people who never learn, who are uneducable cannot carry the day today.” Yet the Europe of 1999 is not the Europe of 1914 or 1938. In 1914, Europe was divided into two heavily armed coalitions: the Triple Entente and the Central Powers. When a Serbian nationalist assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne, the spark fell on a mountain of gunpowder that had already been amassed.

These once-great powers are not looking for an excuse to settle their differences on the field of battle today. Indeed, without American prompting, they would probably ignore Kosovo, except for humanitarian aid and pious speechmaking from a safe distance.

In 1938, the most powerful state in Europe was on the march, and Czechoslovakia was in its path. While many have attempted to cast Serbia in the role of a “fascist aggressor” in the Balkans and to conjure up the image of the Nazis, the geopolitical differences are profound and fundamental. Serbia has neither the resources nor the ambition to conquer new lands; in fact, the opposite has happened as Yugoslavia has disintegrated. Serbia has been fighting on the defensive, trying to maintain as large a homeland for its people as possible. The struggle in Bosnia was about protecting the right of Bosnian Serbs to associate with their ethnic brothers in Serbia and to be freed from living under the heel of their ancient enemies, the Bosnian Muslims.

Though supposedly on a peacekeeping mission to end the civil war in Bosnia, U.S. and NATO troops remain there, four years after the Dayton peace agreement, in order to force the Muslims, Croats, and Serbs into a “single Bosnian state” ruled from the Muslim stronghold of Sarajevo. That the Serbs are to be denied self-determination was explicitly acknowledged by Assistant Secretary of State John Kornblum just before the 1996 Bosnian elections. Referring to the Republika Srpska (the Serbian zone in Bosnia), he stated, “There simply is no real future for that little jagged piece of territory if it is not integrated into Bosnia.” The Clinton administration has sought to cripple Srpska. Besides trying to disarm the Serbs while arming the Muslims, NATO has seized Srpska government offices and newspapers and deployed high-tech aircraft to jam Serbian radio broadcasts.

Is it any wonder that Serbia resisted the installation of another NATO army on its national territory, this one to “defend” the Kosovo Albanian Muslims? Rather than containing a rising major power, the United States and NATO are carving up a small country in decline. Rep. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) argued, “If we are the leaders of the free world, if we are still that brave nation that stood against darkness in World War II, now is the time to stand together to help the people of Kosovo.” But why is it just to detach a piece of Serbia because the leaders of its Albanian majority desire it, while not allowing the Serbian majority in the Republika Srpska to withdraw from Bosnia?

The Serbs have been characterized as “bullies” due to the “ethnic cleansing” that accompanied their actions in the Bosnian civil war. During the March debate, Rep. Tom Bliley (R-VA) declared, “Remember, we hesitated and did not go into Bosnia right away. We were treated every night to the atrocities on CNN.” One can only wonder how many of our scarce Army divisions would be scattered across Africa if CNN camera crews felt as comfortable operating in Rwanda, the Congo, or along the Ethiopian-Eritrean border as they do in the Balkans. (The same day Congress was debating Kosovo, the Ethiopian military assaulted the Eritrean enclave at Baduma with armored and air forces; without media coverage, however, the battle’s perceived impact on the outside world was no greater than its actual impact.)

Throughout the debate, House members seemed uncertain whether to brand the Serbs as fascists or communists. Shifting from the world wars to the Cold War, Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-CT) argued for unlimited intervention as an extension of NATO’s traditional role. “[F]or all the talk of an end game, if we had had the discussion when we put NATO forces in Europe to stop Communist expansion, and said, how long are you going to be there, are you going to be out of there in two years, out in a year, we would have lost Europe.” Will the “loss” of Kosovo today mean the loss of Europe tomorrow? And, if so, to whom?

In one of the strangest presentations of the day. Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) seemed unsure whom we were opposing during the Cold War: “[T]he reason Europe is stable today is that we invested after World War II to make sure that it would not come apart; that it would not be taken over by fascists. We did that through the Marshall Plan.” Talk about seeing no enemies to the left!

Moran then employed the domino theory. “If we do not do the right thing in Kosovo today, tomorrow it will be some place else because other bullies around the world will be empowered by Milosevic’s success in Kosovo.” But when the issue was the 1991 House resolution authorizing American troops to drive Iraq out of Kuwait, reversing a true act of aggression, Moran voted “no” after attending an anti-war rally.

Alexander Hamilton argued against trusting the House to conduct foreign policy, writing that “accurate and comprehensive knowledge of foreign politics; a steady and systematic adherence to the same views, a nice and uniform sensibility to national character . . . are incompatible with the genius of a body so variable and numerous.” However, before the debate over Kosovo is cited as proof of the superiority of Hamilton’s preference for executive supremacy in international affairs, it should be remembered that the abuses of history chronicled above were committed in support of a policy formulated by the White House on the same suspect principles.