Back to issue 7
| PDF Version of this article
International Socialist Review Issue 7, Spring 1999
The War for NATO's Credibility
As this special issue of International Socialist Review goes to press, the U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies reached the third week of a war in the Balkans. The White House and the Pentagon have said the bombing could go on for another five months! U.S. television screens show horrible pictures of refugees in Kosovo, a place that probably few Americans had heard of until a few weeks ago.
As the NATO campaign rolls on, calls from every side of the political spectrum have urged the politicians leading this war to prepare to send NATO ground troops into battle. In the U.S., figures like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Secretary of State Alexander Haig urged the U.S. to prepare for a ground invasion. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leading Green in Germany and a former 1968 student radical, also called for ground troops.
The U.S. has portrayed the war as a humanitarian effort meant to stop ethnic cleansing and to help Kosovar Albanians win some kind of autonomy from Serbia. Polls showing increased support for NATO action suggests that this kind of "humanitarian" appeal has paid off, at least to this point. But as a number of articles in this special issue show, the government's stated aims for the war differ from its real aims.
This is not only because the bombing of Serbia has made the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo worse, creating two catastrophes out of one. It is that the U.S. record as a violator of human rights around the world is second to none. It is enough to mention that the U.S. blockade against Iraq has murdered over a million Iraqis--most of them children--to know that "humanitarianism" serves as an ideological pretext rather than a real basis of U.S. foreign policy. To believe that a government that slaughters Iraqi children, obliterated Vietnam, and has backed some of the world's most brutal dictators over the years can suddenly become a good samaritan is a dangerous illusion. It is like calling on Al Capone for protection against a local street hood--the solution is worse than the problem.
So why is the U.S. raising a hue and cry over Kosovo?
The short answer is that this is a war to preserve the credibility of the NATO alliance. The U.S. and its European allies launched NATO in 1949 as a military alliance against the former USSR and its Stalinist satellites in Eastern Europe. For the next 40 years, U.S. politicians portrayed NATO as a bulwark of "democratic capitalism" and "the West" against "communist totalitarianism" and "the East." Yet, for the U.S., the NATO alliance also served other purposes that were just as important. As a British general famously put it, NATO kept the U.S. in Europe, kept the Russians out of Europe and kept Germany "tied down." NATO's rationale as an alliance against "communism" collapsed with the Berlin Wall. But this made NATO's other main function--as the main entry point for the U.S. into European affairs--even more important.
A 1992 Pentagon strategy document spelled out the U.S. view of a post-Cold War world. It argued that the U.S. should prevent "the emergence of European-only security arrangements which would undermine NATO" to convince "potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests." The U.S. strategy would be to "establish and protect a new order" that accounts "sufficiently for the interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership" while "deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role."
Since the collapse of the old Eastern bloc 10 years ago, the U.S. has been determined to show that it is the only superpower. Its strategic aim is to exercise "hegemony" throughout the world to get its way in any disagreement with other states, big or small. But other big states are not always willing to go along with its schemes. There have, for instance, been repeated disputes over trade with the West European countries, such as the current "banana wars," and Japan.
The U.S. has attempted to pull these states into line by showing that it alone has the military power to act as world policeman, imposing the common requirements of the big states on any smaller "rogue" state that steps out of line. From its own twisted point of view, this strategy succeeded in the 1991 war with Iraq. It made sure the Middle East's oil supplies remained in Western hands. It also persuaded Japan, the European powers and Saudi Arabia to pay most of its war costs.
This is where the issue of U.S. interests in promoting "stability" in the Balkans comes in. The German government had ignited the Yugoslav powder keg by recognizing Croatia and Slovenia as independent countries in 1991. At that time, Germany threatened to increase its political influence in Europe at U.S., British and French expense. But once igniting the powder keg, Germany couldn't smother the flames. A wider Balkan war--with different NATO allies lining up behind different breakaway states--became a threat.
To preserve NATO--and to reassert its role in European politics--the U.S. intervened. At a 1994 National Security Council meeting, the Clinton administration decided, in the words of one official quoted in the New York Times that "NATO is more important than Bosnia." So the U.S. used its overwhelming military might to corral what it thought would be a comprehensive solution to the crisis over Bosnia. Only the U.S. was able to bring order to the breakaway states--training the Croat army, arming the Bosnian Muslims, bombing the Serbs and finally helping the Croats "ethnically cleanse" most of the Serbs in Croatia.
The U.S. then brokered the 1995 Dayton Accord, which brought "peace" to Bosnia under a NATO occupation. "[I]t took some time to realize that we are still part of the balance of power in Europe. We are needed now to bring stability to the vast land mass from the eastern German border to the western Russian border," Richard Holbrooke, Clinton's chief Balkan envoy, said at the time. Flush with its "success" at Dayton, the administration issued a comprehensive manifesto of its foreign policy goals in 1996. The manifesto noted that
NATO's mission is evolving, and the Alliance will continue to adapt to the many changes brought about in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. Today, NATO plays a crucial role helping to manage ethnic and national conflict in Europe. With U.S. leadership, NATO has provided the muscle behind efforts to bring about a peaceful settlement in the former Yugoslavia.
Since then the U.S. has set out to further cement its influence over Europe by expanding NATO to include three former Russian allies: Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. Now the crisis in Kosovo has given the U.S. another chance to show that it alone is capable of calling the shots in the European Union's backyard. It reckons that European governments which rely on its military hardware against Yugoslavia will be much less likely to complain over its polices on trade, debt, Middle East oil or anything else. This is why U.S. officials consistently say that NATO's "credibility" is at stake in the war over Kosovo. U.S. officials may have miscalculated that Milosevic would agree to some kind of settlement in Kosovo under the threat of bombing. But once the war began, the NATO alliance could not afford to back down. "The costs of failure are infinitely greater than the price of victory," wrote leading Kosovo hawk McCain in the April 12 issue of Time magazine. "Can anyone contemplate the prospect of taking our leave of this century with the greatest defensive alliance in history in tatters after losing a war in Europe?"
If the U.S. can't fail, then it must do "whatever is necessary" to win. And the logic of this position leads to the introduction of ground troops. Even if NATO decides only to carve out and occupy a piece of Kosovo, it will have to put troops on the ground to carry this out. Suddenly, a war which few thought would happen is now confronting Americans with a choice: Will they be willing to send U.S. troops to die in the Balkans to defend "NATO's credibility"?
Ground troops would escalate the disaster into a catastrophe. We would see two modern armies fighting over every inch of the area, razing much of it to the ground, with horrific casualties on all sides. It would make it impossible for the refugees to return to their country. Such a conflict could last for years, a replay of the war in Bosnia which saw ethnic cleansing and massacres taking place on all sides.
A ground war could well provoke other groups to fight, like Serbs in Macedonia. This could inflame the entire Balkan region when there is already political turmoil in Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania as a result of the air strikes. If the ground troops entered via Macedonia it could pull Greece and Turkey into the war.
If the U.S. succeeds in imposing "stability" on the Balkans, it will be no victory for the world's oppressed. It will have gone a long way to overcoming the "Vietnam Syndrome" that has prevented the U.S. from dispatching troops into prolonged battles over the last 25 years. The U.S. is attempting to restore its position before the defeat in Vietnam--as undisputed world policeman. It wants to be able to intervene anywhere at will to maintain an imperialist peace--to enforce an American-dominated status quo. Moreover, it will have succeeded in giving its imperial adventures a humanitarian cover. If the U.S. succeeds in the Balkans, what's to stop it from intervening to "stop ethnic conflict" in Indonesia--and to put some other Suharto-type dictator in power there?
There is only one alternative, and that is to stop the bombing now. Those who oppose this war need to organize. A left-wing antiwar movement can win over those who reluctantly go along with the bombing today. As individuals, working people are powerless. Together we can halt this war and provide an alternative to the capitalist system that breeds such conflicts in every corner of the globe.
The liberals' war: How Liberals Learned to Love the Bombers
Once upon a time, Bill Clinton protested against the U.S. war in Vietnam. Then, he resisted the draft, but worried about how his decision would affect his future "political viability." He's still worrying about his political viability, except now he's Co'mander in Chief of the U.S. military.
When the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens ousted Germany's conservatives last November, the business press fretted about Green Joschka Fischer's appointment as foreign minister. How could Germany trust its foreign policy to a man who once campaigned for unilateral disarmament and the dissolution of NATO? Now Fischer is sending the Luftwaffe on its first bombing missions in Europe since Hitler ruled Germany.
Javier Solana, the Spanish front man for NATO, spent the early 1980s as a minister in Spain's Socialist Party government. Then he opposed his country's entry into NATO. British Foreign Minister Robin Cook used to endorse the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament's calls for unilateral disarmament.
Down the line, the people leading the war in Kosovo represent the liberal or social democratic parties of their countries. The traditional right-wing "warmongers" like Bush, Reagan, Thatcher and Kohl are in retirement--with Clinton, Britain's Tony Blair, Germany's Gerhard Schroeder and France's Lionel Jospin filling their shoes. The war in Kosovo is the liberals' war to win or lose.
For them, leading NATO's war represents their final step from the left side of the political spectrum to the "center" of capitalist politics. They have built their careers on playing to the aspirations of ordinary people, while working hard to convince big business that they are respectable custodians of the status quo. Blair and Clinton have shown business that they're willing to cut social welfare programs. Now all of the liberal warmakers are trying to show the military establishment that they can win a major war.
If they succeed in Kosovo, they will have helped imperialism to rehabilitate itself after the Vietnam debacle discredited it. For years, the U.S. has tried to regain its ability to intervene at will around the world. Invasions of Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Haiti and Somalia aimed to overcome the public's unwillingness to dispatch U.S. troops abroad. If Clinton and his allies can win public support for a major invasion and occupation of Kosovo, they will have buried the "Vietnam Syndrome."
In times like these, the liberal wing of imperialism earns it stripes from the ruling class. No member of the international fan club for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet--like Margaret Thatcher or Henry Kissinger--could generate support for the war on grounds of humanitarian concern for the rights of oppressed people. But Clinton, Blair and Schroeder, who act as if they "feel the pain" of Kosovar refugees, get the benefit of the doubt when they contend that this is a just war.
Even worse are the political hangers-on who periodically criticize the government and march in demonstrations to maintain their "street cred" with activists. Appearing on MSNBC's "Equal Time," Jesse Jackson solemnly intoned that Martin Luther King would have supported NATO action to save Kosovars. German Green politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the leader of the May 1968 student movement in France, called for a "humanitarian" ground invasion of Kosovo. "Danny the Red" (as he was known in 1968) has given new meaning to the slogan of 1968's French radicals: "Be 'realistic,' demand the impossible."
If this was simply a case of politicians promoting their careers, it would hardly merit comment. But when liberal or activist figures line up behind a war, it sows confusion and doubt among large numbers who would otherwise oppose the war. The April 26 Nation magazine ran two major articles on the war--Bogdan Denitch's and Ian Williams' brief for the war and Kai Bird's essay opposing the war. The Nation commented that "American progressives are of many minds on where to go from here." No wonder.
Amid the pro-war chorus, there are some opposition voices that stand out. Noam Chomsky and Edward Said, for example, have posted statements condemning the bombing on Z-Magazine's antiwar website. Antiwar activists can use these voices to help build antiwar sentiment--through teach-ins and speakouts on campuses and towns across the country.
As the Kosovo quagmire deepens, the liberal warmongers will face trouble from two sources. First, hopes for a quick and decisive victory over Serbia could be dashed. Those who want to lead the Democratic Party back to its "glory days" as the party of the First and Second World Wars may find instead that they've led the U.S. into another Vietnam.
Second, the longer the war lasts--and especially if ground troops are introduced--the liberals won't be able to hold the initial support for the war they've managed to build. Like the liberals who led the Vietnam War, today's mad bombers will find it increasingly difficult to convince ordinary people why they should sacrifice their lives in Kosovo. And a new left which emerges from an antiwar movement will relearn the lesson its 1960s predecessors learned--a genuine left opposes imperialist wars, while the liberals carry them out.
The Refugee Crisis: Nowhere to Go
The massive refugee crisis sparked by the war over Kosovo has created misery on a massive scale. At the time of this writing, more than 600,000 Kosovar Albanians had fled Kosovo--mostly into Albania and Macedonia but also into the Yugolsav republic of Montenegro. The suffering of the refugees, beamed around the world on television, pressured the NATO governments into offering to take in 100,000 of them.
Once refugees began pouring over the Albanian and Macedonian border, Western powers could not simply claim to be acting on their behalf without appearing to do something to help them materially.
Public pressure, for example, forced French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to reverse himself and offer to accept Kosovars--albeit "temporarily" and only a "certain number." Turkey took in 4,000 to 5,000 refugees by early April--but some went there in a manner that a reporter from Reuters described "more like a forced deportation than a mercy flight." For its part, the U.S. agreed to take in 20,000 Kosovars--but said it would send them to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The base most recently served as a concentration camp for Haitian refugees, who protested overcrowding and poor conditions before being sent back home. And since Guantanamo isn't officially on U.S. soil, the Kosovars won't be eligible to apply for asylum. The U.S. then did an about-face and announced it would set up refugee camps inside Albania.
This reluctance to take in refugees highlights the hypocrisy of the NATO bombing campaign. While purporting to help the Kosovars, the NATO attacks have only made Serbia's ethnic cleansing of Kosovo worse. Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Wesley Clark admitted as much when he said: "It was always understood from the outset that there was no way we were going to stop these paramilitary forces from going into these villages and attacking." What's more, there is a massive disproportion in the money NATO countries spent on aid to refugees compared to the billions spent on the military campaign. The U.S. promised an initial $50 million for refugee relief--the cost of just one F-117 Stealth fighter. They later raised the figure to $150 million--still paltry compared to the $1.8 billion spent on a B-2 bomber. Though NATO did make a show of using troops previously stationed in Macedonia to aid the refugees, they did nothing to prevent 30,000 Kosovar refugees from disappearing from a Macedonia camp literally overnight--reportedly forced to go to Albania by Macedonian authorities.
The refugee camps lack fresh water, basic sanitary facilities and food. But NATO--which can move millions of tons of military equipment within hours--didn't rush food, shelter and water to the area. Instead, NATO prioritized its bombing runs over refugee flights and moved artillery batteries into northern Albania--even though return fire from Yugoslav forces could hit refugee camps. So much for Western leaders' denunciation of Milosevic for using "human shields" at military targets. NATO spokesperson Jamie Shea gave away the game when he told the Financial Times, "NATO is a Good Samaritan but not a refugee organization."
The contempt of NATO governments for Kosovars is not new. A German court ruled in 1994 that Kosovar Albanians do not face "group persecution," clearing the way for the government to reject 97.5 percent of all Kosovar requests for asylum in 1997, according to Amnesty International. In the first six months of 1998, German authorities considered 18,310 Kosovar applications for asylum and approved 277--or 1.5 percent. As of September 1998, Germany--ignoring an appeal by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees--had deported 12,000 Albanians back to Kosovo.
Now Western authorities say they want to limit the intake of refugees for their own good. "We should not cooperate in any way with ethnic cleansing" by airlifting Kosovars. Yet the fact is that NATO governments are themselves deeply involved in ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.
The last round of Western military intervention in the region shows this all too clearly. Operating under the cover of a private "consulting" company, retired U.S. generals and CIA operatives "cooperated" with Croatian Army officials to plan Operation Storm in 1995, which drove more than 150,000 Serb civilians out of their historic homeland in Croatia's Krajina region. Once NATO troops moved into Bosnia, the U.S. recruited Blijana Plavsic--once an underling of Serbian butcher Radovan Karadsic and a notorious propagandist for ethnic cleansing--as an acceptable face of the so-called Serb Republic in Bosnia.
Now the Western governments and media once again demonize Serbs as ethnic cleansers. But nearly half a million Serbs have been ethnically cleansed themselves as a result of the Balkan wars, in no small measure because of the Western backing of their rivals. Indeed, the 1995 Dayton "peace accord" in Bosnia merely ratified the status quo created by ethnic cleansing--the West hasn't provided the resources necessary to encourage the return of Croat, Serb and Muslim refugees on any serious scale.
However, Kosovar Albanians weren't included in the 1995 deal--the U.S. was happy to let them remain under the boot of Serbian authorities. Now the Serbs have unleashed a new round of ethnic cleansing and refugees on a mass scale--and NATO's war will only make matters worse.
The plight of the refugees is being cynically used to justify military intervention. If the U.S. and other Western powers were really concerned about the the refugees, then they would throw open their borders with no restrictions.