Did no good come of intervention?
by Noel Malcolm
Radio 4's Today programme recently ran an interview with the former defence secretary (now Nato Secretary-General) George Robertson about Kosovo. The interviewer, John Humphrys, began with a gloomy little introduction to the subject, suggesting that nothing had been achieved there and that one unpleasant Balkan Tweedledee had simply given way to another unpleasant Balkan Tweedledum.
Ridiculing Lord Robertson's claim that the Nato intervention had actually achieved some good, Mr Humphrys exclaimed: `What about the 200,000 Serbs who have been driven out since?' Lord Robertson patiently explained that Mr Humphrys's statistics were wrong, and that the majority of those Serbs who had left had not been `driven out' by Albanians. Mr Humphrys snorted at him, and continued to use the same figure. When Lord Robertson said that the murder rate had gone down significantly in recent months, Mr Humphrys crowed: `Of course it's gone down, because so many Serbs have been murdered that the Serbs have left their homes - hence the 200,000 who have left Kosovo!'
We are all used to politicians who ignore the questions and stick dogmatically to the inadequate briefing notes fed to them by their advisers; yet such dogmatism on the part of an interviewer still has - or should have - the power to surprise us. Mr Humphrys merely typifies, however, the growing number of journalists and pundits who seem to have turned against the Nato involvement in Kosovo. By now, exactly one year after the bombing began, we have all but convinced ourselves that it was just a terrible mistake.
The psychology of this does need looking into; but so do the facts, which must come first. One year ago, there were approximately 200,000 Serbs living in Kosovo. Last autumn, a Nato survey recorded 97,100; since then, the local Serb leaders have cited figures of up to 120,000. Some Serbs, indeed, have come back to Kosovo in recent months - which, given the dismal treatment they have received inside Serbia, is not surprising. So it seems fair to say that at least half the original population of Kosovo Serbs are in Kosovo today.
Of those who fled, some did so during the bombing; many left ahead of the returning Albanians in June of last year; and a much smaller number have indeed been driven out since then by threats or violence. These acts of hostility by the Albanians include personal revenge attacks on the one hand, and the activities of criminal gangs on the other. Both are evil; but it is still false to describe what has happened as an organized campaign of `ethnic cleansing' on a par with last spring's mass murder and mass expulsion of the Albanians by the Serbian state authoÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
What about all the murders that have taken place under the noses of the Nato forces? Well, the statistics for the first eight months of the Nato occupation of Kosovo are as follows: 457 people were killed, of whom 176 were Albanians, 157 were Serbs, and 124 were `others' (or unidentified). There is quite a contrast here with the number of people murdered by Serb forces up until early June last year. Careful analysis of eye-witness reports of those killings has come up with 11,334 victims - a figure which is likely to be an under-estimate, as it does not include people led away by the Serb forces and never seen again.
Ah, say the revisionists, but none of those killings would have happened if Nato had not started bombing: those deaths, too, were caused by Nato's action. Leaving aside the elementary question of moral responsibility here (as if Milosevic, who directed the forces that carried out those murders, could shuffle off his responsibility on to external `causes'), it is necessary to look at what was happening in Kosovo before 24 March 1999.
In the previous 12 months, Serb forces had driven more than 300,000 Albanians out of their homes - homes which, in many cases, they then looted and burnt. Roughly 2,000 people had been killed, some of them in massacres such as the one at Racak where 45 civilians were murdered. In early 1999, there were clear signs of preparation for an intensification of this campaign: a build-up of Serb forces, the introduction of paramilitaries to the region, and a new integration of police and military units, designed specifically for operations against the civilian population. The new wave of expulsions which started after 24 March was well organized and systematic.
What happened after the bombing began, therefore, was probably a speeded-up version of what would have happened anyway. Of course, the `what if' questions of history can never be answered with certainty; but one thing here is quite clear: if Nato had not intervened, and if hundreds of thousands of Albanians had been driven out of Kosovo in the spring and summer of 1999, those refugees would still be in exile today. The fact that they have gone home is a success for them, for Nato and for the republic of Macedonia, which might never have coped with such a sudden and permanent change to its delicate ethnic balance.
Why, then, the urge to depict the whole campaign as a failure? The answer may lie partly in the psychology of journalism: when there is or has been general support for something, the easiest way for a journalist to make a splash is to argue against it.
But there is also a political aspect to this - a resentment on the Right of anything that looks like a foreign policy success for Mr Blair, just as blind and knee-jerking as the resentment of the Left against Margaret Thatcher's war in the Falklands.
The Blair-Cook rhetoric about an `ethical' foreign policy does indeed make a tempting target. But the Kosovo campaign was based not only on ethics, but also on calculations of realpolitik - about the stability of Macedonia, and the security of the Balkan region, which lies in Nato's own backyard. What really sticks in the craws of the critics, perhaps, is that, for once, we got those calculations right.
This article appeared in The Daily Telegraph (London), 24 March 2000