The U.S.-led NATO war against Yugoslavia has caused much confusion on
the left. Many, moved by the evident suffering of the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, have
supported -- with varying degrees of reluctance or enthusiasm -- the NATO assault. A few, moved by the outrage of NATO's attack, have chosen to defend
Milosevic. Both of these approaches are deeply flawed, politically and morally.
I. U.S. Motivations
Two million refugees! 2,200 villages destroyed! At least 2,000 civilians slaughtered by government-backed killers!
In the face of these abominations, the United States government decided to act, with the help of its NATO allies. U.S. fighter-bombers and helicopters and U.S. and NATO small arms, tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery were all brought to bear on the situation. But these weapons of war were not used to attack the perpetrator of the atrocities. Instead, these armaments were provided, often free or at bargain-basement prices, to the killers for them to use in carrying out their atrocities.
The killers I am referring to, of course, are the security forces and deaths squads of the Turkish government that have been waging a scorched-earth campaign against the country's Kurdish minority for years, and the numbers above come from a 1995 report by Human Rights Watch, which also notes that weaponry from the United States has made up 80 percent of Turkey's foreign-source arms and has been directly implicated in attacks on civilian villages, extrajudicial executions, torture, and indiscriminate fire.
This horror story, showing the total lack of humanitarian concern on the part of U.S. policymakers, can be repeated many times over. Sometimes the United States has simply ignored mass murder. In Rwanda in 1994, for example, the extermination of more than half a million people did not induce Washington to employ even modest diplomatic means to restrain the slaughter. In other cases, the United States has not just been oblivious to large-scale killings, but has been directly complicit. During the anti-communist massacres in Indonesia in 1965, for example, Washington provided, weapons, diplomatic support, and even lists of names of people to liquidate. When Pakistani troops went on a rampage of murder and rape in 1971, sending millions into exile, U.S. policy was (in Henry Kissinger's words) to "tilt in favor of Pakistan." In Guatemala during the 1980s, 200,000 people were killed by government forces, backed by Washington. And this year, Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid (after Israel and Egypt), as its counter-insurgency war has displaced over a million people. Despite Colombia's appalling human rights record, "a U.S. Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency team worked with Colombian military officers on the 1991 intelligence reorganization that resulted in the creation of killer networks that identified and killed civilians suspected of supporting guerrillas" (Human Rights Watch, Colombia's Killer Networks, 1996).
And in some cases, the United States doesn't just support killers, but does the killing itself, as in the current sanctions regime imposed on Iraq, that, coupled with the wartime targeting of civilian infrastructure, has led to perhaps more than a million excess deaths.
So the claim by Clinton and company that they have been moved to action over Kosovo because of their humanitarian concern has not the slightest shred of credibility.
Before the bombing began,
- estimates of the civilian death toll in Kosovo were in the range of 2,000 and the
- number of displaced (all of them still within Kosovo) somewhat over 300,000.
These are terrible numbers and they are an indictment of Milosevic's brutality. But they are hardly different from -- and in some cases they hardly compare with -- atrocities around the world that have elicited not a peep of humanitarian concern from Washington. It is important to make clear that the argument is not being made here that because the United States failed to act humanely in some or in many cases, it should therefore never act humanely. Rather, the argument is that U.S. policy in the face of other humanitarian crises tells us something about U.S. motives, and U.S. motives are relevant for our understanding of how the United States will act in this case, what ends it will seek, and what precedents will be established.
Some on the left who support the U..S./NATO intervention in Kosovo have put forward their view of the particular way the intervention ought to be carried out so as to achieve humanitarian ends. Thus, Bogdan Denitch has backed the intervention while opposing the bombing of Belgrade and other Serbian cities and urging that ground troops rather than bombing be employed since the only way to stop the ethnic cleansing is on the ground. But when the left lends support to U.S. intervention, the White House doesn't then turn over command of the operation to the left.Rotten governments pursuing policies for their own reasons and interests, rather than for humanitarian reasons, will carry out those policies in a manner designed to serve their interests, not those of the left or of humanitarianism.
To use an analogy suggested by Gar Lipow,if a terrorist is holding people hostage in the living room of a house and the police charge in wildly, they will be putting those hostages at risk. Even more reckless would to charge into another room of the house (because it's safer: there's no terrorist there) and start destroying things of value to the terrorist. Such a strategy would seem ideally designed to put the hostages in the greatest possible danger. No one concerned about the well-being of the hostages would behave in this way, but it is exactly the strategy followed by NATO.
A cynic might suggest that Washington in fact didn't mind giving Milosevic time to destroy the KLA (Kosova Liberation Army) before forcing him to back down (armed Albanians can be a destabilizing force). But even if (as is likely) this interpretation goes too far, it is clear that Clinton has not acted as someone who places the welfare of Albanian Kosovars very high on his list of concerns.And everything we know about Clinton and U.S. foreign policy should have left us in no doubt about this. If you don't care about Kurds or Timorese or Palestinians or Iraqis on humanitarian grounds, you probably are not going to care very much about the Kosovars.
A ground invasion of Kosovo, it should be noted, while not as obviously oblivious to the Albanian's plight, would hardly have served them much better. The Yugoslav army is no push-over and NATO forces could not possibly have occupied Kosovo before the ethnic cleansing that we've witnessed in the past weeks.Milosevic clearly wouldn't want a disloyal Albanian population behind his lines, and refugee flows would disrupt any NATO offensive. In addition, there would be horrific "collateral damage" to Kosovar civilians from NATO attacks. (The U.S. record in conquering territory containing "friendly" civilians has not been inspiring. In the battle of Manila in February 1945, for example, as many as 100,000 non-combatants died -- from rampaging Japanese troops, but also from U.S. artillery fire.)
Many of the left interventionists insist that they have been outspoken critics of U.S. policies in Turkey and Timor. They want humanitarian policies followed in all these cases, they declare, but in Kosovo too. We can take them at their word, but the moral consistency or motives of the left interventionists are not what is at issue. Rather it's the moral consistency and motives of those running the intervention.
The motives for this war have nothing to do with humanitarianism and everything to do with asserting U.S. power, with maintaining U.S. and NATO credibility, with creating a military instrument that Washington can use in Europe and beyond, free from any UN restraint.(Despite the end of the Cold War, the NATO military alliance has recently been expanded at U.S. urging.) And these motives, not those of the left, determine how the United States has acted and will act regarding Kosovo. As long as Milosevic could oppress the Albanian minority without creating large refugee flows that might destabilize the region, Washington was uninterested in the Kosovo issue. (Thus in 1995, the United States excluded the Kosovo issue and Ibrahim Rugova, the Albanian Kosovar leader and advocate of non-violence, from the Dayton negotiations; with Rugova's approach bearing no fruit, the KLA soon emerged.) Once significant fighting began in 1998, the Kosovo question became a test of wills between NATO and Milosevic. At Rambouillet, Milosevic was told "sign or be bombed" -- a demand ideally suited to flexing U.S. muscle, far less to reaching some kind of agreement. The diplomatic route might strengthen the UN and international law and make Russia a player, all of which would interfere with U.S. freedom of action. Bombing, on the other hand, leads with the U.S. strong suit and enhances the U.S. reputation for toughness. ("That the US may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a part of the national persona we project to all adversaries," declared a 1995 Pentagon planning document.) Once threats are made, of course, they must be carried out if the credibility of future threats is to be maintained. ("What good is this marvelous military force," Albright asked Gen. Colin Powell a few years back, "if we can never use it?") And, likewise, threats carried out but not yielding total victory need to be escalated until the adversary is crushed. (And, thus, diplomatic proposals and cease-fire offers are dismissed out of hand.)
There are other motives, as well, for the bombing.There is the boost it provides to military spending -- not so much because of the ordinance expended, but because attacks on Yugoslavia (and Iraq) "draw attention to the sad fact that peace on earth is not here," in the words of one Wall Street analyst (NYT, April 11, 1999). Higher military budgets mean higher profits for defense contractors and, as important, government-funded research and development which benefits all the high-tech sectors of the economy. And getting NATO members to appreciate their need for more weapons will provide an added bonanza for U.S. arms companies.
The consequences of the NATO bombing have been horrendous, first and most tragically for the Kosovo Albanians.
Serbian security forces were not benign before March 1999, but the bombing unleashed a barbaric outburst of ethnic cleansing on a large scale. At this writing a million Kosovars have been uprooted and the level of killing -- although unknown -- surely exceeds the 2,000 of the past year and we can only hope it is not many times higher. Responsibility for the atrocities rests clearly on the Serbian military and paramilitary forces and those who lead them.But NATO actions have contributed to the catastrophe in four ways.
-First, the bombing required the removal of the international observers and relief workers whose presence provided some restraint. ("The Serbs were spring-loaded to go when the last observer left Kosovo," said a NATO intelligence official quoted in the Washington Post, April 11, 1999.)
-Second, the bombing incensed many even in Serbia's democratic movement, so one can only imagine how it must have affected Serbian security forces in Kosovo; unable to retaliate against NATO missiles and warplanes, they could be expected to lash out at those most vulnerable.
-Third, mass expulsions would benefit the Serbian military, who hoped a flood of refugees would "overwhelm and distract NATO forces stationed on the other side of the border" (WP, April 11, 1999, citing Western officials).
-And fourth, if NATO was going to try to force a settlement militarily, there was considerable incentive for Milosevic to make sure he was in the strongest possible bargaining position when the fighting ended: i.e., to try to totally wipe out the KLA, uproot its mass base, and remove Albanians from as much territory as possible in preparation for any partition.
Whether Milosevic has also calculated that many military-aged males can be neutralized before they become potential KLA fighters, and intellectuals eliminated before they can provide their skills to the Albanian cause remains unknown amid the wartime propaganda.
What were U.S. officials thinking? There are two possibilities. Either they were stupid for failing to realize that Milosevic was not going to fold up after the first few bombs fell or else they anticipated events and yet followed a course that they knew would cause an immense humanitarian crisis, for which they had not even prepared adequate relief supplies.
To have expected a brief bombing to get Milosevic to reverse course was a total misreading of Balkan history.Milosevic had come to power in Serbia precisely by exploiting the issue of Kosovo -- he had declared himself the champion of the Kosovo Serb minority oppressed by the Albanians -- and thus he was far more likely to hang tough over Kosovo than he had been over Bosnia. Rather than acknowledge this incredible misjudgment, many officials have been rushing to the media to explain that this is all exactly what they anticipated. "I can't say I'm surprised by any of this," stated NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Wesley Clark. "The military authorities fully anticipated the vicious approach that Milosevic would adopt, as well as the terrible efficiency with which he would carry it out" (Newsweek, April 12, 1999). It is measure of the current moral climate that policymakers are more worried about appearing stupid than immoral.
The Albanian Kosovars have not been the only victims of the U.S. bombing. Serbian democracy has been set back substantially. Milosevic has been able to use the war as an excuse for further clamping down on the independent media. More depressingly, however, many who were in the streets two years ago in pro-democracy demonstrations have rallied to the flag.As Zoran Djindjic, the leader of Serbia's Democratic Party and an co-organizer of pro-democracy demonstrations in 1996-97 put it, the "bombs have marginalized any dissenters here." Washington, he said bitterly, has spent more on one day's bombs than it ever spent helping the democracy movement in Yugoslavia (NYT, March 29, 1999). In addition, Montenegro, the smaller of the two Yugoslav republics, had previously passed a resolution questioning Milosevic's Kosovo policy, but the bombing has muted its criticisms as well.
Left supporters of the bombing argue that the opposition in Serbia had not been very outspoken on their government's oppressive policies in Kosovo. There is considerable truth in this claim, as in their observation that "Serbia cannot have democracy and Kosovo" (Denitch and Ian Williams, Nation, April 26, 1999). But cruise missiles and bombs hardly inspire the Serbian population to thoughts of John Stuart Mill. I support a Palestinian state. Most Israelis -- whether Labor or Likud -- oppose meaningful Palestinian self-determination.Does anyone think that NATO surgical strikes on Tel Aviv would improve the prospects for Israeli democracy or reduce the influence of anti-democratic forces in Israeli life? Would NATO bombardment of downtown Jakarta over the issue of freedom for East Timor strengthen the hand of Indonesian democrats?
NATO "has not deliberately targeted Serbian civilians," insists Branka Magas, another left interventionist (http://www.bosnia.org.uk). But these sorts of wars, particularly those fought by governments who rank their credibility above all else, follow a deadly dynamic. The first bombs hit military targets outside the cities. But when there is no surrender, it becomes necessary to up the ante, and then military sites in Belgrade are struck.Three days into the attacks, Anthony Lewis wrote in the March 27 New York Times that the "scale of the operation so far has been nowhere near large enough to make Mr. Milosevic believe we mean business." And when this doesn't yield the desired results, targeting restrictions are increasingly relaxed. "We have to drop the bridges and turn out the lights -- there should be no more outdoor rock concerts in downtown Belgrade," Sen. John McCain declared (Newsweek, April 12, 1999). "Twelve days of surgical bombing was never going to turn Serbia around," wrote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on April 6. "Let's see what 12 weeks of less than surgical bombing does. Give war a chance."
Smart bombs are technologically remarkable, but still often miss their targets.So far the bombing has caused several hundred civilian deaths, a toll that will surely go up, perhaps exponentially as U.S. frustration with Milosevic grows, but this isn't the main catastrophe that threatens. That will come after the war when the wartime targeting of the civilian infrastructure -- the power plants, the fuel supplies, the bridges -- leaves the civilian population without adequate means to sustain decent lives amid a ruined environment. And this will have the same disastrous impact on democratic prospects in Serbia as U.S. policy has had on Iraq, where a ruthless leader has been able to turn the devastating economic assault on the populace to strengthen his position.
A letter-writer to the New York Times (March 31, 1999) wrote:
...just as the Holocaust could not have taken place without the acquiescence of the German public, the Serbian people clearly bear responsibility for the actions taken by their Government. Consequently, NATO should cease what appears to be its policy of avoiding all but highly targeted attacks on Serbia. Concurring,Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times (April 23):
Like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation (the Serbs certainly think so), and the stakes have to be very clear: Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverizing you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too. What is needed, says Friedman, is a "merciless" air war, targeting "every power grid, water pipe, bridge, [and] road...." This indeed seems to have become U.S. policy, and it is the moral logic of Milosevic.
In the view of the Yugoslav leader
(1) the KLA has committed terrorist acts,
(2) much of Kosovo's Albanian population has acquiesced in those acts and supports the KLA and thus bears responsibility for the terrorism, and therefore
(3) military actions against the KLA need not worry about harm to civilians; dual use facilities -- things of benefit both to the KLA and the civilian population, such as villages -- are thus fair game.
The other major consequence of the NATO attackis that the fragile structures of international law have been seriously weakened and the precedent that U.S. and NATO military power may be deployed -- not where international law or the United Nations dictate -- but wherever Washington chooses.
Left interventionists reject this argument,claiming instead that the precedent is being established that ethnic cleansing is impermissible and that the international community will stop it when it occurs. But this is another place where moral consistency and motives matter. Had the United States acted to stop atrocities in Turkey and Pakistan and El Salvador and many other countries (where, of course, no military intervention was required -- it would have been enough to end U.S. support for the butchers) and then acted to stop atrocities in Kosovo as well, the precedent might well have been established that severe human rights abuses will not be tolerated. But it is a very different precedent that follows from a United States which ignores some atrocities, participates in others, and intervenes against only those where some other U.S. interest is at stake.
What lesson do we think Turkey's leaders are learning from the attack on Kosovo?Surely not: "This shows what happens to all who commit atrocities against ethnic minorities." Isn't it more likely that their conclusion is going to be -- as will that of anyone who considers cases like Turkey, Timor, Palestine, and Iraq pre-1990 (when Saddam Hussein was a U.S. ally and murdered Kurds) on the one hand, and cases like Iraq post-1990 and Kosovo on the other -- that serving U.S. interests allows you to do whatever you want with your ethnic minorities and opposing U.S. interests will get you attacked, regardless of your human rights record?
The real precedent of the NATO assault on Yugoslavia isthat a U.S.-dominated military alliance may arrogate to itself the right to attack another country, bypassing international law and the United Nations.