Robin Blackburn & Chris Harman

After NATO’s War

Imperialism, war and resistance

(July 1999)

From Socialist Review, No.232, July/August 1999.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Increased instability and more bloody and brutal wars will be the result of Nato’s assault in Kosovo. At a recent anti-militarism conference in London, Robin Blackburn from New Left Review and Chris Harman from Socialist Worker discussed the reasons behind the latest Balkan war and why opposition was so important

Robin Blackburn

Ready for another 'humanitarian' interventionOne argument of those who supported the war is that many terrible things happened in the air war, but if only there had been a ground assault at the beginning we would have been spared the tragedy of the ejection of the Kosovan Albanians and the thousands who have been directly bombed in the air war. This is a deeply phoney argument. The air war became extraordinarily prolonged and incorporated some truly grotesque features. However, if there had been a ground assault the losses – at least as far as Kosovo was concerned – would have probably been greater. It was, after all, on behalf of the Kosovans that the war was engaged. The generals would not have gone in without a preliminary bombardment. That would probably have triggered a mass exodus of Kosovan Albanians. As the troops went in, a large number of civilians would have been caught in the crossfire. The Nato generals are right on that point against the advocates of a so called clean, quick war. It wouldn’t have been clean and it wouldn’t have been quick.

Because of the tremendous pressure that Milosevic was under at the beginning, and because of the fact that deep down he craves acceptance in the world order, a deal was always possible. The west put in its demands for a deal, at the very end of the Rambouillet process, something which Milosevic couldn’t swallow and which above all Russia was unlikely to swallow. This gave Milosevic every incentive to resist. That element in the Rambouillet agreement was that the occupation force should have Nato at its core or should be Nato led. Is this really in the interests of the Kosovans, or is it in Nato’s strategic interest? This explanation was given by Bill Clinton in the New York Times at the end of May: only a Nato-led – and one must read this as US-led – operation can firstly ensure the return of the refugees and secondly be undertaken in a disciplined manner and not get corrupted. That flies in the face of two very recent examples of US led operations. The first is in Bosnia, where very large numbers of refugees have not returned and corruption is sadly rife. Secondly, the Somalian operation began as an entirely US operation, then became nominally UN, but actually was under total US control. That was a fiasco, including cases of the most atrocious abuse towards Somalians and cases of corruption.

If this peace process does produce a Nato protectorate it is likely to repeat many of the vices of previous operations. Above all, it is unlikely to lead to a process of self determination for the people of Kosovo. The fact that they’ve been dispersed is going to make it difficult. It would have been far easier had a deal been possible or had pressure from the Kosovans led to the evacuation and overthrow of the Serbian regime in Kosovo. That’s why even a compromise would have been more acceptable. What we have now is a bad compromise from the point of view of the Kosovans. It is unlikely to lead to any speedy self determination but more likely to lead to a very undemocratic regime in Kosovo. If there had been a deal in February or March, if Nato hadn’t insisted on a Nato led operation, there would have been a UN deal with Russia in there in quite a big way. That would have been more acceptable to Milosevic. The left ought to have supported such a compromise even if it didn’t immediately give full self determination to the Kosovans so long as it did include withdrawal of the great bulk of the Serbian repressive apparatus, and so long as there was a commitment as there was at Rambouillet for a referendum at some point to determine the future status of Kosovo.

The key element here was Nato’s insistence that the whole operation be Nato-led. Journals of the left, like New Left Review and Socialist Review, have been talking about the problem in Kosovo for a very long time. Nato had many opportunities to do something about it at the time Yugoslavia broke up or at the time of the Dayton agreement. It didn’t do anything. So there’s an element of total humbug about this claim. What there does seem to be is a lust to acquire a strategic base in the former Yugoslavia. There seems to be a continuing mistrust of Russia, which is not any longer seen as a rival social system, but is certainly seen as a rival and a potentially dangerous power – it does have 300 nuclear missiles, and military capacities amassed by no power other than the US. There is a hawk right current in the US, in the Pentagon and the State Department, which seized the opportunity in this crisis to impose its political wish, which was this air war They saw an opportunity to let loose with US military power as they have done recently in Sudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. So this is building up into a pattern of unilateral use of power by ‘the bully of the free world’, as one of the critics of this policy called it in the recent issue of Foreign Affairs, the US establishment journal for debating these things. There are some factions in the US establishment who think it is dangerous in the long run for the US. So this is not a plot on behalf of the entirely united US ruling class. The hawks are led by the Pentagon and by Madeleine Albright and theorised perhaps by Brzezinski, the old national security adviser and the mentor of Madeleine Albright. It was Brzezinski who helped to sell Nato expansion to Clinton before the last election on the grounds that it would be good at winning the Polish-American and Czech-American vote.

So there are a mixture of motives. We know about the oil countries and their plans. Jonathan Freedland tried to pooh-pooh that in the Guardian, but he hasn’t come up with any explanations of his own of what is going on. This warmaking, devastating policy is subject to great debate and attacks in the US, but apparently in the Labour cabinet and in the Guardian and the Observer it is not. These pro-New Labour papers say that the war is a great triumph, but they have not looked at the interests behind the war. Jesse Helms, the ultra-right leader of the Republican Party, actually praised Blair and said that he was the leader of the west in this. There has been a fusion of New Labour and currents of that sort with this hawkish, perilous faction in the US. This has not actually been reflected in public opinion, which is one of the reasons why there have been problems in the decision for a deal. Our government probably wanted to fight this thing through to an even bloodier finish.

The deal was the first approach to Milosevic made jointly by Nato and Russia. As soon as he was faced by that joint approach, Milosevic decided the game was done. It does suggest that had the Russians been brought in earlier it would have been harder for Milosevic to go it alone. That policy was not pursued in the beginning because of the Russophobia of the hawk faction and because of the ‘innocence’ of Robin Cook and Tony Blair, with their ethical policies pursuing what has been a very bloody war.

We have got to expect more from the stable that produced this war. The time has come for a new type of peace movement to alert public opinion to the dangers that are being stored up for the future. What will happen if next time it is Russia or China? There are really serious straws in the wind, and that is the real antagonism that the hawks have in their sights.

Chris Harman

At the beginning of this year the US saw an opportunity to gain strategic advantages internationally by exploiting the problems that existed in Kosovo, and it took advantage of that to assert itself as the global policeman. Actually, they found it a bit more difficult – it has taken them ten weeks. They may not be quite as keen to do so next time, because all sorts of problems have arisen. But, nevertheless, they’ve had some sort of victory.

Imperialist wars in the 20th century have taken two forms. One is the very crude oppression of people in the colonial and ex-colonial countries by the native imperialist powers. In these wars, social democratic or Labour parties often have a rotten attitude. Remember the alleged atrocities by the Mau Mau justifying the Labour Party effectively going along with the bombing of Kenya and the establishment of the concentration camps in the 1950s, or the huge rows which broke out when some spokespeople on the left of the Labour Party dared to criticise the British army operations in Cyprus for torturing people.

But the more people investigated, the more they found that people fighting back against colonial oppression stood for progressive and humanist values, and used left wing language. So the best sections of the French left did not merely support the right of Algeria to self determination during the French war with Algeria but identified with the FLN. Similarly, those involved in the campaign against the Vietnam War recognised that they represented something better than what the US offered in terms of the peasants and workers of Vietnam.

There are other sorts of imperialist wars – the inter-imperialist wars, or ones in which your ruling class’s enemy is just as bad as your ruling class. It’s worth remembering that the First World War was fought as a humanitarian war on all sides. ‘Poor little Serbia’ was the cry in Russia. ‘Poor little Belgium’ was the British cry. The genuine oppression and destruction of people’s rights in Alsace-Lorraine was the cry of the French ruling class. Germany could point to a Russian army in German territory in East Prussia in late 1914, and could argue that this was the imposition of the reactionary methods that had threatened Germany throughout the 19th century. So the angst about humanitarian war was there in the inter-imperialist war. Arguing against it was in some ways more difficult than against direct colonial oppression. People had to say that we understand the other side are murderers and oppressors of a third of the world’s population, but nevertheless our ruling class is just as bad – and because they’re our ruling class, they’re our main enemy. The Karl Liebknecht slogan, ‘The main enemy is at home’, or in a different context, Lenin’s slogan, ‘Any revolutionary has to wish for the defeat of their own ruling class in such a war’, was psychologically important. It wasn’t a question of saying we support the other side in this war – it was a question of saying you can’t fight against the war by being even-handed. You cannot talk about some patched up formula – you have to talk about what we can do to take on our ruling class.

Most of the direct struggles against colonial oppression won some sort of victory or half victory by the 1980s. The last such victory was the end of apartheid in 1994. We saw the end of those direct struggles against colonial oppression, but we didn’t see the end of imperialist wars. What we entered was a new phase of imperialist wars which people have designated as wars between the greater imperialisms and the sub-imperialisms.

Because of this, a section of the left is completely disorientated, because it looks at the trainee bullies and their horrible counter revolutionary regimes. In 1990-91 in the war between the US and Iraq, all sorts of people traditionally on the left said we have to support the US because Saddam Hussein is so horrible. They had not understood the tradition of opposition to imperialist war. This is the pattern in the 1990s. The US picks upon someone it has trained, demonises them, and then moves in. It is not the rulers themselves who are hit hard, it’s the people who live under them. The invasion of Panama led to somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people being killed. Then we have the bombing of Libya, the sending of troops to Somalia, the bombing of the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, the bombing of Afghanistan.

The left has to reach back to the traditions of 1914, rather than just to the traditions of the struggle against the Vietnam War. We have to remember who our main enemy is. The mistake of much of the left in the first Gulf War, the second Gulf War and now this Balkan War was not to have this understanding. This means that of course you are against the oppression by the other side. We don’t support the Serbian government, which has taken its population into a war in order to defend its right to control a population who don’t want to live under it. It is a crime against humanity which you couldn’t defend. At the same time we also have to understand that the power which wanted to crush the Serbian government is a much greater evil. The US breeds and controls dictators just like Saddam Hussein, just like Milosevic, right across the world, and the war was part of the process by which it gives a message to them, which is the next time you want to oppress people, phone the White House first.

The clarity of the left on the war is very important. In France there should have been a bigger anti-war movement than in Britain. There is a bigger left and a massive revival of left wing forces with the great public sector strikes and demonstrations of three and a half years ago. And yet despite this the anti-war movement had one demonstration at the beginning of the war. This results from a mixture of opportunism on the part of the Communist Party – it wants to appear on the left but it doesn’t want to disturb its relationship with the Jospin government – and absolute intellectual confusion on the far left, which does not understand that the main enemy is at home. The same has to be said in Spain. In Barcelona, a city which had huge demonstrations against Nato 15 years ago, the demonstrations were only 3,500 strong, because the left didn’t have the confidence in its ideas to go out and to argue. Many anti-war platforms in Britain had people from the Green Party on them. But Joschka Fisher, the man who I’m told was handing out sticks to break windows at the end of Green demonstrations in Germany 20 years ago, now plays a key part in fronting the war effort. That is condemnable. This all comes back to the question of intellectual clarity.

I don’t believe this will be the last war we see. There will he an escalation. We’ve had more wars in two years of Blair than we had in 18 years of the Tories. There is a slight danger in talking about a unipolar world – of course there’s one great big bully, but the US is not the only economic power in the world, and it’s not the only military power. Russia may spend very little on defence but it has an enormous amount of accumulated hardware that’s still capable of hitting New York. China is probably capable of hitting San Francisco. It is now thought possible that India could hit Peking and China could hit Delhi. We are talking about a system getting out of control.

The important thing is not just to maintain knowledge about the war – it has to be translated into organisation on the ground which takes ideas and discussion seriously. The campaign has been good, with the Labour left MPs and people like Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn who have spoken at many meetings. But it has also been important that at the core of the campaign there have been people who have Marxist ideas. Unless you have a view of the total system, you can’t understand how economic competition leads to military competition, military competition leads to war and war leads to sudden eruptions and breaks in the whole plan of people’s lives.

Last updated on 21 December 2009