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New Series no.17/18 July - September 2000

More Agitprop than reasoned argument
by Ian Williams

In his introduction to ‘Masters of the Universe? NATO’s Balkan Crusade,’ editor Tariq Ali states that wars are ‘rarely, if ever, actually waged for humanitarian reasons.’ He is, of course, quite right: at least to the extent they are not fought exclusively for such reasons. Nor one might add, are wars always opposed for humanitarian reasons. A cynic might point out that many Americans opposed the Vietnam war more because of what the Viet Cong were doing to American conscripts than because of what the conscripts were doing to the Vietnamese.

Opposition to a war can unite the strangest people. In the USA, opposition to NATO’s intervention in Kosova united on the same platforms isolationist Republican conservatives, pacifists, Serb nationalists, Stalinists and Trotskyists who both thought that Miloševic was the last living socialist, and a lot of people who thought that anything that the US did was wrong. In the course of the war, supporters of the IRA declared the KLA to be terrorists, and developed a regard for Serb sovereignty in Kosova which sat badly with their thoughts on British sovereignty in Northern Ireland. Most of them showed a chilling disregard for what Belgrade had been doing to the Kosovars and had already done to the Bosnians.

There were, it has to be said, some honourable exceptions, who realized that Belgrade’s treatment of the Kosovars was insupportable, but felt that the cure was worse than the ailment. Some thought that the KLA should be helped in their war of liberation, but that there should be no foreign intervention. Indeed, even many vociferous supporters of intervention were worried about the international legal implications of taking action without UN approval, and also about the form of the intervention. High-level bombing increased risks of civilian casualties in order to save politically inconvenient military casualties for the US, and the refusal until the final stages to consider ground troops, almost certainly prolonged the war and allowed Belgrade to go ahead with its atrocities.

Tariq Ali’s compilation does eschew the wilder excesses of the American Left. Most of the contributors - though not all - at least admit that Miloševic’s regime was guilty of atrocities in Kosova, and a few even remember that he is a recidivist war criminal, even if they do not seem as incensed about his actions as they are about NATO’s. While one cannot blame an editor for the failure of indexers, it is noticeable that while ‘Oil – Caspian Sea’ makes it into the index, Srebrenica does not.

In my various debates with opponents of the war, one sticks in my mind, when a young American Marxist announced that he knew very little about the Balkans, but ‘this was the line’. And the line that often appeared from crude Marxists was the hypothetical oil pipeline that somehow wends its way from the Caspian Sea, across the Black Sea, and through the Balkans, inevitably passing through Kosova before hitting the Adriatic. Where it went from there, the deponents did not say; but it was obviously a very topologically versatile one so it is now doubtless heading to wherever it could be used to explain any other Western actions. It may be on its way to Sierra Leone by now.

In fact the real ‘line’ here, of course, was that everything a capitalist government like that of the US does must be motivated by crude economic interest – and should be opposed. There are representatives of this in the collection, but mostly the contributors tend to a superficially more sophisticated analysis, which tries to look for globally strategic reasons for the NATO action. However, the problem with the various forms of historical determinism is that they tend to overlook the chaos factor which is always present, even more so when short-termism rules in the political field.

In their eagerness to connect the war with alleged American hegemonic plots, all too many contributors disconnect from history, even recent history. While many of the essays record that the UN did not formally approve the action, which is of course true, none mention that every Russian attempt to condemn NATO was overwhelmingly defeated in every UN forum – including the Security Council. It is of course true that the US has abused and continues to abuse its veto power in the UN. But does that make it any more moral for Moscow to thwart the wishes of the majority of member states?

Miloševic’s regime is under UN sanctions and has been the subject of over 50 UN Security Council Resolutions and innumerable statements. The Council unanimously set up an International Tribunal to try the perpetrators of what they agreed had been egregious war crimes. Only months before the bombing, the Security Council endorsed Miloševic’s agreement to reduce troop numbers in Kosova – and to stop killing and expelling Kosovars. He broke the agreement and the UN resolution. None of this appears in the book, except for an occasional mention that Miloševic was not the nicest person in the neighbourhood. And of course, those who tut-tutted over the lack of a UN resolution on NATO action must be presumed to have wholeheartedly supported the UN–endorsed Desert Storm Operation.

I cannot say that none of these contributors, but I feel sure that only very few of them, ever wrote or raised their voices against the sieges of Vukovar, Sarajevo or Srebrenica. Indeed, the sound of silence over Miloševic’s decade-long war on his neighbours is almost deafening. The only contribution that really goes in depth into this is Susan Woodward, who tends to exonerate Belgrade by putting its behaviour on the same level as the other combatants. There are indeed few candidates for canonization in these events, but certainly the Serb candidates for demonization are more outstanding than the others.

However, once you have decided that the intervention is wrong, then you tend to demonize all who support it and canonize all who oppose. Thus, ‘the only television networks that showed both Western and Serb footage and encouraged an independent view were those of Russia, China and India’, claims Ali. Well, up to a point, Tariq! Only if you accept that ‘independent’ meant not showing what was happening to the Kosovars, or if they did blaming NATO for it. In fact, contrary to this somewhat paranoid view, Western TV showed quite a lot of footage from the Serbian side. I myself watched Serbian protestors standing on a bridge over the Danube with targets on their chests. I remember it well, because I had distinctly uncharitable thoughts about the likely fate of any Bosnian suicidal enough to show a face on a bridge in Sarajevo – with or without a target T-shirt.

It was not ‘propaganda’ to show the Serbs as behaving genocidally – because that’s precisely how they were behaving. Ali in this book claims casualties of Kosovars were ‘in the hundreds rather than the thousands’ at the time he wrote. This ghoulish form of casualty revisionism has continued since then. By this spring Ali at a meeting in New York was referring to 2,000 casualties – when the ICTY investigators had made it plain that this was the number of bodies counted in one third of the graves excavated, and that there was extensive evidence in many sites that, as after Srebrenica, bodies had been exhumed and disposed of. And of course there is the little matter of almost every last Albanian driven out of their homes and over the border or into the hills. Some contributors imply that NATO ‘forced’ Miloševic to do this: doubtless in the same way that the British declaration of war ‘forced’ Hitler to destroy Lidice.

Some of his essayists are unabashed Serbophiles. The Serbs can do no wrong, since as Régis Debray says they did not contribute forces to the SS in France, and Yevtushenko says the Yugoslav partisans were wonderful in World War II. Yes, and by the same token, the US forces and British forces in World War II did quite a good job for the world, so why not support them now? Of course this is an apology, not a reason. No one is suggesting collective guilt for the Serbs. It is the Serb nationalists who declared and treated Albanians, ‘Turks’ and other as collectively less worthy of human rights than Serbs.

There are some important and valid points raised by contributors like Gilbert Achcar, There is no doubt that American diplomacy has become almost an oxymoron under Clinton, and that Washington has consistently ridden roughshod over Russian sensibilities. There is little doubt that NATO expansion was in part motivated by attempts to pander to various domestic East European ethnic lobbies in the US, enthusiastically supported by the weapons makers there. But since the process began, the most potent recruiting sergeant for NATO has been Russian behaviour towards Chechnya and its neighbours.

Indeed, no one who has seen the process of US foreign policy formulation over the last two terms can seriously believe that this process, let alone the war in Kosova, is part of a sophisticated plot for world domination, as some of these essays seek to portray it. According to Peter Gowan’s essay, written in leaden prose that would have qualified him as Brezhnev’s ghost-writer, the ‘US drove, over 14 months, for a war that it knew was in tension with US interests in the Balkans but was needed for the credibility of the US in being able to swing its NATO allies into war.’ This is at once doublethink and duckspeak of a rare vintage!

It is clear that the US was dragged unwillingly and half-heartedly into the Balkans, and that on this occasion it was European leaders who dragged it in. It is also true that if the US had made a credible threat of action at any time almost from the shelling of Vukovar onwards, let alone in Kosova, it would have stopped Miloševic in his tracks. Indeed the US position has consistently been the very reverse of Teddy Roosevelt’s: it has been to shout loudly and to carry a light-weight olive branch rather than a big stick. The strident Madeleine Albright cries ‘wolf’ again and again abroad, while Clinton and the Congress at home worry about the political costs of a single casualty.

Gowan trots out one of the most consistent canards, that the clauses in the Rambouillet agreement giving privileges to NATO troops in Yugoslavia were a cunning ploy to force the Serbs to reject the agreement. In fact the Serbian delegation never raised, or tried to modify, what was pretty much of a boiler-plate ‘status of forces’ agreement. The clauses were only publicized retrospectively by opponents of NATO action, when trying to squeeze a ‘humanitarian action’ into their conspiratorial paradigms.

Some contributors, correctly, accuse Clinton and other Western leaders of hypocrisy. ‘Where were they in Rwanda, in Turkish Kurdistan, in East Timor?’, they want to know. I want to know what they think should be done when war criminals carry out ethnic cleansing? Should they be allowed to carry on because Russia wants the freedom to commit mayhem in Chechnya, protected by its veto? Should the American use of the veto to protect Israel exonerate Russia and inhibit anybody else from ever attempting to intervene?

Miloševic and the Serb nationalists claimed to be the bastions of Western Civilization against the Islamic hordes. They were judged by a jury of their peers - every country in NATO - and found guilty even one might remember by the German Greens. Even Oskar Lafontaine’s speech, included in this collection, is far from an outright condemnation of NATO. Belgrade was judged again and again by the United Nations, and put under sanctions. The intervention was indeed carried out ineptly. The diplomacy beforehand was totally inadequate. The US is indeed a very bad global citizen. All this is true. But war criminals should not be allowed impunity.

Even those contributors who recognize Miloševic’s crimes do not suggest what should have been done. No one who has looked at UNPROFOR’s record, which includes all the Kosovars, could take seriously the suggestion that the UN should have handled the problem on its own. No one who has studied Miloševic’s record would seriously have believed that diplomacy or negotiations, without the credible threat of force, would have produced a satisfactory result.

In the end these contributors collectively deny to the Kosovars what most of them once enthusiastically supported for the Blacks in South Africa: a voice in their own future. Formerly the most oppressed people in Europe, the Kosovars are happy with the NATO action. But the contributors to this book ignore their views on this, just as they ignored their complaints under a decade of Belgrade-enforced Apartheid. The kindest explanation is ignorance. Another is rank hypocrisy, of the kind with which they (accurately) charge the leaders of the intervention.

The real problem with the NATO action is that it came ten years too late to save hundreds of thousands of former Yugoslav citizens who have died to further Slobodan Miloševic’s cynical power lust. And among the most prominent casualties are the Serbs of Croatia, Bosnia and Kosova who have been dispossessed because of the wars ‘their’ leader fought.

Verso would have done better publishing a genuine debate, which could have touched upon the real problems with intervention and pointed out possible solutions for the future, than this collection which, despite some thoughtful and informative essays, is overall more agitprop than reasoned argument.

Review of Masters of the Universe? NATO's Balkan Crusade, edited by Tariq Ali, Verso, London 2000, 429 pp., £15
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