bosnia report
New Series No: 23/24/25 June - October 2001
Chomsky and Kosova - book review
by Adrian Hastings

Not a book about Kosovo

Adrian Hastings

Noam Chomsky, The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo, Common Courage Press, Monroe ME, 1999

Chomsky’s scathing indictment of NATO intervention in Kosovo is packed with information and diatribe relating to numerous episodes of American foreign policy in the twentieth century and, indeed, still earlier. It is precise, bitterly sarcastic and merciless in analysis. Could it really be the case, he asks, that a government with so criminal a record, one which has for years undermined the United Nations and refused to sign almost any significant agreement to strengthen international law, should suddenly in the late 1990s start to behave differently, using military power in a new, humanitarian way for the benefit of the world at large rather than ruthlessly pursue its own selfish agenda? Essentially this book is not about Kosovo. It is an attack by an American intellectual on American state policy as also on American commentators who have written idealistically about the war in Kosovo as constituting ‘a landmark in international relations’. The European and the Balkanist can hardly not feel that he is overhearing another round in an over-heated debate for which Kosovo is little more than an excuse.

Two-pronged attack

Chomsky’s attack on the justification of NATO’s action has two main prongs. One is a comparison with other situations, most notably that of the Kurds whose oppression in south-east Turkey is at least as bad as was that of the Albanians in Kosovo. Again and again he returns to American backing for their suppression, the provision of huge quantities of weaponry, and a painful lack of coverage in the West of what had been happening. But Vietnam, Palestine, Colombia, Central America, Indonesia are all flung into the argument to demonstrate how uniformly immoral and destructive of non-Western societies American policy has been and still is.

A second prong is the attempt to suggest that the Kosovan situation was not as bad as made out until the bombing started, that the Western powers acted in bad faith at the Rambouillet negotiations, and that Kosovo was effectively devastated not by the forces of Milosevic but by those of NATO. The pretence that NATO was reacting to a vast flood of refugees hid the truth that the flood was produced by the action of NATO and this could easily have been anticipated.

The present reviewer finds himself in substantial agreement with the author in regard to the general character of modern American foreign policy, which he agrees is largely abhorrent. The question is whether the action taken over Kosovo must necessarily be evaluated in line with policies undertaken elsewhere. How far can it ever be safe to argue in history from the general to the particular? The discussion is befogged from the start by the way Chomsky chooses his antagonists, various odd quotes from somewhat naive commentators who have applauded Kosovo as proof of some sort of moral revolution at the heart of Washington. The basic issue is, however, not one of the moral intentions of politicians nor of a necessary coherence throughout American foreign policy, which certainly cannot be presumed; it is simply one of what was happening in and around Kosovo and of whether, in terms of Kosovo not of Washington, this was objectively a reasonable, justified and even successful venture.

No Sarajevo, no Vukovar

What is most striking to a Balkanist about this book is what is left out. There is no discussion of the character, aims and methods of Milosevic, no attempt whatever to place the war in Kosovo in the context of a decade of wars - in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia - and very little attempt even to portray what had actually happened in Kosovo in the twenty years before 1999. If anyone suffers from the disease of seeing the world as so centred in Washington that nothing else really matters, that person is Chomsky. It is a little surprising to find that the names of Sarajevo, Vukovar and the like never appear. Where he does refer to previous events in ex-Yugoslavia he often gets them wrong, uncritically accepting Serbian propaganda or using any conceivable quote to hammer the West.

Thus the statement that the ‘violent expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Serbs from Krajina’ is ‘acknowledged to be the most extreme single case of ethnic cleansing in the horrendous wars of secession in Yugoslavia’ (p. 26) is certainly untrue. The ethnic cleansing of Muslims in eastern Bosnia in and after April 1992 was far worse in every way; furthermore, in the case of Krajina, the Croats there had already been ‘ethnically cleansed’ by the Serbs. The latter were not themselves ‘violently expelled’; they fled en masse, many of them before the Croats even attacked, in probably justified fear of what would happen to them if they did not - a very different thing in the circumstances from the ethnic cleansings throughout Bosnia in all Serb-controlled areas. Chomsky just has not entered deeply into what he is talking about and he is not greatly interested in anything except digging out material for anti-American invective.

The book offers no plausible response to the question what alternative there was to a NATO intervention, an intervention for which it all the same remained very difficult to obtain approval. Doubtless without intervention there would not have been hundreds of thousands of Kosovars fleeing the country within weeks, but there were already - as Chomsky admits - several hundred thousand internal refugees and an extensive policy of torching Albanian homes. There is no reason to think that this would not have continued and grown worse. The refugees were bound to abandon the country in ever-increasing numbers with no likelihood of return and the permanent destabilisation of neighbouring states. A Kosovo left in the hands of Miloševiƒ would have continued in a state of bitter conflict unless it became one in which over a number of months the majority of Albanians were ethnically cleansed. The growing flow of Albanian refugees all across Europe would have been as big a problem as that of Bosnians had been a few years earlier. Chomsky repeatedly claims that the bombing ‘failed’ in that it greatly escalated the refugee flow; but its failure in that regard was only temporary. It in fact ensured the rapid return of the refugees, undoubtedly to miserable conditions but not to worse conditions than they had experienced in the months before the bombing, and essentially to a situation which would improve rather than indefinitely deteriorate.

Bizarre explanation

Even in regard to the question, why did NATO decide to act, Chomsky is not convincing. For years Milosevic had remained NATO’s chosen instrument for maintaining peace of a sort in ex-Yugoslavia. To the disgust of many of us, that remained the case at Dayton in 1995. On a Chomsky-style account of Machiavellian American policy, coupled with supine European acquiescence in whatever Washington wanted, there is no reason why the attitude of the West should have changed. It was easy enough to go on portraying the KLA as ‘terrorists’ who had rightly to be crushed - and some in Washington long remained attracted to that position. Chomsky’s attempted explanation in terms of Serbia being ‘an annoyance, an unwelcome impediment to Washington’s efforts to complete its substantial take-over of Europe . . . as long as Serbia is not incorporated within US-dominated domains, it makes sense to punish it for failure to conform’ (p. 137) strikes one as bizarre. Why was this ‘impediment’ only discovered in 1999 and not in 1992 or 1995? The explanation of why NATO decided uncharacteristically to act in 1999 may be found not in terms of some starry-eyed new humanism (though even this was a genuine element within it, as we shall see), nor of this simply being the latest instance of the worst sort of American realpolitik, but within the recent context of Balkan and European history. The decisive underlying factor was the war in Bosnia and belated contrition in the West for its own appalling record in that regard.

It is almost incredible that Chomsky makes so little reference to this. If the war in Bosnia with all its atrocities, directed and funded throughout by Milosevic, had not happened and gone on for over three years, it is almost inconceivable that NATO would have exerted itself to stop something similar from happening in Kosovo. It was the sense of guilt over the long agonies of the siege of Sarajevo, together with the speedy ending of the war once the West did intervene, which so powerfully fuelled the resolve to stop its repetition. It is absurd to pontificate about why there was intervention in Kosovo in 1999 while saying nothing about Vukovar in 1991, Sarajevo, Tuzla, Bihaƒ and Srebrenica in the following years.

The second crucial factor was the coming to power of Labour in Britain in 1997. Chomsky delights to show his contempt for Britain as a mere poodle of Washington, but he is wrong. Many of us in Britain would like to see a still more independent foreign policy; nevertheless it is unquestionably the case that British foreign policy changed significantly when Labour replaced the Conservatives. Up to that point British policy, controlled by Hurd and Rifkind, had been steadily anti-interventionist. If this had not been so, it is likely that there would have been a military intervention in Bosnia, or at least a raising of the arms embargo, long before the summer of 1995. No one can doubt that Tony Blair was the leading interventionist in regard to Kosovo. British influence on American policy had been directly reversed. Blair was even making preparations to commit 50,000 British soldiers to a land invasion, which would probably have gone ahead if Milosevic had not capitulated. Whether Blair was right, naive or whatever, he certainly made a big difference and few would doubt the sincerity or the vigour of his role.

European dimension

A third factor distinguishing the case of Kosovo from that of the Kurds in Turkey is that one is in Europe and the other is not. Chomsky stresses the opposite point: that Turkey is inside NATO, Yugoslavia is not. But in European consciousness, the borders of NATO matter a good deal less than the borders of Europe. It is highly regrettable that there has been so little response in the West to the oppression of the Kurds, but it seems remote and there is very little journalistic coverage, though that could change. Moreover, it is very much a matter of an American-Turkish relationship, involving Britain and other European countries relatively little. It was the pressure of a morally-inspired public opinion inside Europe, harnessed by the Bosnian war and stimulated by massive media coverage, which induced NATO to regard intervention in Kosovo as a practicable option in a way that, at least at present, it would not be in regard to Turkey. It is the complete ignoring by Chomsky of the democratic and public pressures on Western governments to act or not to act which makes his account so one-dimensional.

The title of the powerful film Two Hours from London, produced by Michael Foot and Jill Craigie, helps to demonstrate the way that for public-minded people in Europe what happens in Bosnia or Kosovo simply cannot be equated with what happens in some other parts of the world. There is a sense of regional responsibility. It is arguable whether a weighted concern for one’s own area is a morally defensible approach. But just as one feels instinctively more morally outraged by, and more responsible for, injustice in one’s own town or country, so is that the case for one’s own continent, especially at a time when Europe is stressing its unity. Very considerable progress has in fact been made both in eliminating dictatorial regimes within its borders and in regaining a sense that the Balkans are integral to Europe. For Chomsky it is clear that nothing Europe thinks or does matters anyway: only Washington is worth consideration. But for most of us that is a huge oversimplification, and the moral justification for selecting Kosovo among a number of hard cases was a profoundly European one. If very wide European support for it had not existed, including that of France - not within NATO - it is hard to conceive that America would have acted or to find a convincing reason why it should have wanted to do so.

Did intervention succeed?

Next comes the question whether the intervention was a ‘success’. For Chomsky it ‘failed’ and its results were disastrous: the flow of refugees quickly grew, while ‘the undermining of the democratic opposition’ in Serbia was a further consequence (p. 35). He can even quote with approval the absurd remark that ‘thanks to NATO, Serbia has overnight become a totalitarian state’ (p.133). Of course, quite the opposite was the case, as we can now see, if partly with hindsight. But it had long been clear that the democratic opposition in Serbia was fragmented and ineffective, too much of it fuelled by nationalist bitterness at Milosevic’s lack ofsuccess. Whatever its leaders claimed at the time of the war, it was not damaged but immeasurably strengthened. If Milosevic had in any way succeeded in re-Serbianising Kosovo, his popularity would have been enormously enhanced and there would have been no likelihood of his overthrow. His failure there, brought about by NATO, has led on to his overthrow in Belgrade and Serbs in their hearts may already be starting to feel grateful for what happened.

As regards Kosovo itself, the immediate effect of intervention was fearful, though for most people there the damage done by Serb paramilitaries mattered a great deal more. But in the long term there can be no doubt of the basically beneficial consequences. Nothing can be built on a totally undemocratic basis. For years Milosevic had refused to return power to the huge Albanian majority and nothing less could have been acceptable to the Kosovars. It would be absurd not to expect grave tensions to remain between the two communities, caused not by NATO intervention but by the years of Serb harassment of the Albanians. The policies of Milosevic were overwhelmingly supported by the Serbs in Kosovo, where indeed he first learned the advantage of being a nationalist.

Finally, is there no truth at all in the claim for a new ‘moral internationalism’, even a ‘military humanism’ about which Chomsky is so scornful? That there has been no transformative moral revolution in places where deeply entrenched policies remain in place is clear enough, especially in regard to parts of the world where Washington feels little interested in the sentiments of its European allies. Nevertheless Kosovo is not the only indicator of a change of mood, of the sort of moral interventionist internationalism which has come to be associated particularly with Tony Blair. Thus East Timor is one of the case studies thrown in by Chomsky to illustrate the charge of mass slaughters ‘thanks to the support of the US and the UK’; but in fact, after a quarter of a century of doing nothing, the ‘international community’ in precisely the same year as Kosovo did engineer the independence of East Timor. There was certainly some sort of ‘new’ interventionist policy at work here. It involved the US relatively little and was mainly led by Australia, though British support was considerable. Again, ‘military humanism’, essentially British, has brought a degree of effective intervention in Sierra Leone, which may well have saved the country from total ruin and is certainly backed by most of its citizens. Throw in the massive European support for the democratic transition in South Africa, and the intensely committed efforts of the Blair government to resolve the running sore of Northern Ireland through implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and a picture of an at least partially new and morally positive internationalist mood becomes unmistakable, of which the intervention in Kosovo is simply the most striking example. It would be absurd to suggest that Washington’s policies have undergone a sea change on every coast, and it would be foolish to think that if this new humanism remains located primarily in Europe, even in Whitehall, it can affect more than a fairly limited number of situations. Nevertheless it, and the ever-growing body of international public opinion demanding global justice, are contagious. Once it is seen to work in some places, the impact spreads and it becomes more difficult for any power to act in a wholly contrary manner. In the longer run even the Kurds may benefit.


This review was written for the forthcoming issue of Human Rights Review


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