The Progressive Comment, © 1999 The Progressive Inc.
THE GREAT HISTORIAN Gabriel Kolko, in his book Century of War,
writes: "War, in essence, has always been an adventure intrinsically
beset with surprises and false expectations, its total outcome
unpredictable to all those who have engaged in it."
Bill Clinton is finding this out the hard way. His ill-conceived
decision to prod NATO into bombing Yugoslavia in March has wreaked
havoc. The hundreds of thousands of refugees, the civilians killed by
NATO bombs, the U.S. soldiers captured, the solidification of domestic
support for Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, the dangerous chill in
U.S.-Russian relations--all these have come to pass since Clinton made
his fateful decision.
Granted, the decision was not an easy one. Milosevic is a brutal leader.
His troops in Bosnia committed acts of genocide, and, as he has
demonstrated since the bombing, his ferocity in Kosovo knows few bounds.
The international community must find a way to prevent or resolve human
rights crises like this one. The Rwandan example, where more than
500,000 people died in a matter of weeks in 1994, demonstrates the need
for some kind of action.
But launching a NATO air war against Milosevic was the triumph of threat
over thought. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had blustered so
much about bombing that when Milosevic refused to budge, she and the
United States and NATO were left with the option of losing face or
carrying out the threat--even though the consequences of carrying out
that threat had not yet been calculated.
That was just one in a series of blunders and blusters that led to this
fiasco. First, at the Dayton Accords in 1995, the United States kept
Kosovo off the table and whisked the problem under the rug. But the
problem did not go away.
After the settlement, NATO troops should have arrested the butchers of
Bosnia, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, and tried them for crimes
against humanity. They've been under indictment by the world court at
the Hague, but for years have been living in Bosnia, which is under the
protection of NATO troops. What signal did this send to Milosevic or
other thugs under his command?
For almost ten years, Kosovo had one of the most active nonviolent
resistance movements since Gandhi's time. But the United States and NATO
did not do enough to support this effort. Only when some Kosovars took
up arms did Washington pay serious attention. Albright could barely
exert influence over the Kosovo Liberation Army, and she used every bit
of leverage to get the KLA to sign the agreement at Rambouillet. She did
so not to assure a peace agreement (Milosevic was already on record
rejecting Rambouillet), but to justify war. She needed the KLA's
signature as the start-your-engines sign for NATO bombers. Within days,
NATO ordered its unarmed observers to leave Kosovo. And as soon as they
left, the Serbs marched in.
It would have been far better, instead, to have flooded Kosovo with
international peacekeepers--from the United Nations, from countries like
India, Ireland, Sweden, and Finland, which had no stake in the
battle--to buy time and act as a buffer between Milosevic's forces and
the Kosovars. It may even have been better to let Russian troops join in
the peacekeeping; that way Milosevic would have had to overrun his
friends to get to the Kosovars, and the international community would
have united against him.
But instead of trying a myriad of peaceful options, Clinton, Albright,
and NATO reached for the old, unreliable one: Send in the bombers. They
didn't bother themselves with international law. They flouted it.
International law clearly states that one country can attack another one
only when it is itself under attack, about to be attacked, or when the
U.N. Security Council grants permission. Belgrade was not attacking the
United States or any of the NATO countries involved in the bombings. And
the United States intentionally avoided the Security Council because
Russia and China were likely to veto any military action.
Nor, for that matter, was the bombing in accordance with U.S. law:
Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the sole
power to declare war, and there was no formal declaration of war in this
case. Congress shirked its responsibilities by approving a measure that
fell short of a war declaration but supported the President's decision
to send in the bombers.
And liberals vanished. Only four Democrats in all of Congress bothered
to protest. In the House, there was only one, Barbara Lee of California
(see Ruth Conniff's profile on page 10). In the Senate, just three: Russ
Feingold of Wisconsin, Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, and Jeff
Bingaman of New Mexico.
BILL CLINTON'S JUSTIFICATIONS for the bombing were filled with
distortions and omissions. In his March 24 speech to the nation on the
subject, he said that World War I started in the Balkans, which is true,
but it became a global war only after the biggest powers foolishly
entered it. Somehow, he neglected to mention that fine point.
Clinton talked about the "moral imperative" the United States has to
prevent gross human rights abuses. He neglected to mention that current
U.S. allies are carrying out some of those same abuses. Turkey, a
leading recipient of U.S. aid and a NATO member, has been waging a war
against the Kurds over the last fifteen years. That war has cost 35,000
lives and left three million as refugees. Clinton said Serbia won't let
the Kosovars "speak their language, run their schools, shape their daily
lives." Neither will Turkey allow the Kurds such freedoms.
So why isn't NATO bombing Ankara?
Clinton didn't mention that the leading recipient of U.S. aid in Latin
America, Colombia, has been waging a brutal civil war against leftwing
guerrillas there. The Colombian army and its affiliated paramilitary
squads have killed thousands of peasants, unionists, politicians, and
human rights activists.
So why isn't Washington bombing Bogota?
Clinton also said that the conflict in Kosovo was "important to
America's national interests." But that is hardly the case. The most
vital national security interest the United States has is to stay on
friendly terms with Russia. Moscow has 7,000 nuclear warheads that can
hit the United States. Belgrade has none. But U.S. policy in the Clinton
Administration has consistently offended Russia, first with the
expansion of NATO, then with the decision to fund Star Wars, and now
with the bombing of Yugoslavia. As a result, the Russians are unlikely
to sign Start II, which would have cut their nuclear arsenal in half.
They are backing off negotiations to "de-alert" nuclear weapons. And now
they are sending warships to the Mediterranean.
This NATO war is another boost for the nationalists in Russia, where all
the ingredients of a revanchist regime are in place: a lost empire, a
ruined economy, a humiliated leadership. Clinton's chief accomplishment
in office may turn out to be that he laid the groundwork for a new Cold
THE BOMBING was intended to justify the continued existence of NATO.
More than seven years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union
(NATO's ostensible reason for being), Clinton and his European
allies--along with Boeing and Lockheed--are trying to improvise an
afterlife. Milosevic came in handy. Twice in Clinton's speech to the
nation, he brought up the alliance. "Our mission is clear: to
demonstrate the seriousness of NATO's purpose," he said. Failing to act,
he added, "would discredit NATO, the cornerstone on which our security
has rested for fifty years now."
This is what historian Kolko calls a "credibility fixation." Because
Clinton and Albright threatened NATO attacks and Milosevic did not back
down, they felt they had to go to war, no matter the costs. "Perhaps the
single most recurrent justification that leaders of major powers have
evoked for risking wars evolved from their belief that their
credibility, which allegedly created fear among potential enemies and
thereby constrained their actions, depended on their readiness to use
force even when the short-term rationality for violence was very much in
doubt," Kolko writes.
The short-term rationality was dubious from the outset. Bombing has
almost never brought a foe to his knees. Hitler tried to bring the
British down with a blitz and failed. The allies firebombed Dresden,
Hamburg, and Tokyo without achieving their ends. The United States
repeatedly bombed Hanoi during the Vietnam War and managed only to kill
a lot of innocent people. And Clinton's bombing of Baghdad has not made
Saddam Hussein capitulate. Only the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki hastened a surrender. Surely, that's not a route worth
traveling again. Washington and NATO should have anticipated that the
bombing would serve not to dislodge Milosevic but to strengthen his base
of support. Even former opponents of Milosevic were won over to his side
once the bombs began to fall.
Faced with hundreds of thousands of refugees, an entrenched Milosevic,
and Serbian troops on the rampage, U.S. generals quickly began a
two-step, denying that the NATO offensive was ever designed to prevent
the Serbs from engaging in "ethnic cleansing."
"Bombing cannot stop the killing of civilians," General Wesley Clark,
Supreme NATO Commander, said on Good Morning America. "It was never the
mission, never the expectation that action from the air alone can halt
ethnic cleansing. It cannot be done." This is a bait-and-switch. A week
earlier, Clinton had told the nation: "Right now our firmness is the
only hope the people of Kosovo have to be able to live in their own
country without having to fear for their own lives."
WAR HAS A DYNAMIC of its own. A few miscalculations here and there, and
a little war can easily become a big one, with casualties mounting
higher than ever anticipated. That is why it is crucial to do everything
to prevent wars from starting--and to stamp them out once they start.
The United States and NATO dismissed out of hand Russian Prime Minister
Yevgeny Primakov's first diplomatic initiative. This was unwise. The
allies could have used it as an opening for negotiations before spilling
more blood. Instead, NATO, under heavy pressure from Washington, decided
to up the ante and start bombing Belgrade. The logic of this was
astounding: Bombing isn't working, so we're going to bomb even more.
Bombing is not the answer. And ground troops are not the answer. The
answer is to stop the war, negotiate a settlement, and dedicate our
energy and our Pentagon treasury to finding peaceful ways to settle
conflicts instead of resorting to war.
But, at some point, a brutal leader may not stop at the peace signs.
We believe there are times when humanitarian military interventions are
justified. But they must be used only as a last resort, after every
effort at peacemaking has been exhausted. That did not happen here.
And they must be carried out in accordance with international law. That
did not happen here.
And they must be applied in some consistent manner around the globe.
That did not happen here.
The United Nations is the only proper forum for addressing and resolving
the difficult issue of humanitarian interventions. These are global
problems; they are not the province of the lone superpower or of the
alliance it dominates.
Only when the United Nations exercises its responsibility and expands
its power will it be able to intervene with enough force to prevent
humanitarian catastrophes. But to endow it with that power, the United
States must recognize its own limitations. It needs to shed its
delusions about being a global cop, clean up its own act, and work
seriously with the rest of the world for peace.
Copyright © 1999 by The Progressive, Madison, WI - All Rights