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International Socialism, Summer 2000


Mark Krantz

Humanitarian intentions on the road to hell


From International Socialism 2:87, Summer 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Noam Chomsky
The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo
Pluto Press 1999, £9.99

NATO’s bombing of the Balkans was supported by many who had opposed previous wars, from Vietnam to the Gulf. Events in Kosovo, it was argued, required a ‘new’ type of war fought for ‘humanitarian’ reasons. This was the central ideological justification for 77 days of bombing Serbia and Kosovo. Noam Chomsky takes these claims head on. He produces a wealth of evidence and research to expose the arguments of the ‘B-52 liberals’ who backed this war while maintaining they were in general opposed to wars. Chomsky holds up a mirror to the US ruling class and exposes their hypocrisy, double standards and complicity in supporting regimes which deny the very human rights and freedom they claimed to be defending in Kosovo.

Chomsky is at his sharpest when he exposes the warmongers using their own words. ‘Apache’ and ‘Comanche’ are names given to US attack helicopters sent to the Balkans. Originally they were Native American peoples ethnically cleansed from their lands and subjected to genocide. Could the US military, with its record of genocide, ethnic cleansing and support for regimes of terror, really be part of a humanitarian force? Bill Clinton and Tony Blair believed so. Clinton claimed cruise missiles and bombings were necessary to ‘stop ethnic cleansing and bring stability to Eastern Europe’. Blair, in an article headed A New Generation Draws The Line, advocated new ‘values ... for a new internationalism where the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated’. German foreign minister Joschka Fischer became an advocate of what one German intellectual has called ‘NATO’s new military humanism’. [1]

Chomsky acknowledges that ill treatment and atrocities occurred in Kosovo before the bombing, carried out mainly by Yugoslav police and military forces against the ethnic Albanians. NATO sources indicate that before the war about 2,000 people were killed in Kosovo and several hundred thousand were made internal refugees. However, the huge air war made matters worse: ‘The refugee evictions began at a new level,’ and the bombing ‘led to a rapid and vast escalation of evictions and other atrocities’. NATO leaders claimed that no one could have predicted this outcome. Except, that is, US-NATO commanding general Wesley Clark, for whom it was ‘entirely predictable’ that Serb terror and violence would escalate: ‘The military authorities fully anticipated the vicious approach that Milosevic would adopt, as well as the terrible efficiency with which he would carry it out.’ Indeed, Clark believed that the NATO operation planned by the political leadership ‘was not designed as a means of blocking Serb ethnic cleansing ... there was never the intent to do that. That was not the idea.’ [2]

The real idea behind the new humanism was, according to national security adviser Anthony Lake, for the US ‘to use its monopoly of power to intervene in other countries to promote democracy’. He claimed that while ‘throughout the Cold War [the US] contained a global threat to market democracies’, now it could move on to ‘consolidate the victory of democracy and open markets’. This policy has been called the Clinton Doctrine. [3]

The secret of the Rambouillet agreement

Opening new markets and demonstrating US military power were not the official reasons given for the war. ‘Humanitarian intent’ remains the key ideological justification used by NATO leaders and their apologists for starting the air campaign.

To gain support for their bombing campaign NATO leaders had to present the Serbian leadership as an obstruction to peace and intent on war. Bombing, we were told, could be avoided if only Serbia accepted the terms of the of the Rambouillet agreement. Yet this key document of the ‘new humanism’ was never published in the mainstream media. Its Appendix B is reprinted by Chomsky:

NATO personnel shall enjoy, together with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft, and equipment, free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) including associated airspace and territorial water. This shall include, but not be limited to, the right of bivouac, manoeuvre, billet and utilisation of any area or facilities as required for support, training and operations.

It reads like a plan for a military takeover and US diplomats knew Milosevic could not accept these conditions. This was their pretext for war.

US policy towards Kosovo required further change if an all out bombing campaign was to be justified. Consistently, Western leaders had opposed demands for greater autonomy for the Kosovans. At one London conference called to discuss the Balkans crisis the entire Kosovan new political elite turned up, only to be relegated to a side room where they had to be content with watching the proceedings on a TV monitor. In 1995, at the Dayton accords for Bosnia, the US excluded the Kosovan Albanian delegates and ‘avoided discussion of the Kosovo problem’. As a result, those proposing a non-violent strategy lost credibility, leading to the rise of the guerrilla KLA and the expansion of popular support for an armed independent struggle. As late as February 1998 special US envoy Robert Gelbard announced in Pristina that the KLA was ‘without any question a terrorist group’, and that the US ‘condemns very strongly terrorist activities in Kosovo’. The Serbian leadership understood this to be a green light for attacks on the KLA in Kosovo, just as they had previously been given the green light for Serb attacks on Srebrenica. [4]

Racak – a defining massacre?

The massacre at Racak in Kosovo on 15 January 1999, where some 45 civilians were killed, was held to have been the event that impelled Washington and its allies, horrified by the atrocity, to initiate preparations for war. US diplomat William Walker, leader of the OSCE war crimes verification team, went to Racak, where he found evidence of a ‘massacre’ for which Serb authorities were responsible. [5] This was the ‘defining massacre’ which set ‘the wheels in motion’ for war. [6]

It also provided justification for a US policy shift of embracing the KLA. By May 1999 the KLA had virtually become the ground forces for NATO military operations, at times drawing Serb troops into the open so that B-52s could kill them with cluster bombs. Despite their professed horror at ethnic cleansing, NATO leaders had no problem working with KLA leader Agim Ceku, the architect of the Krajina expulsions where thousands of Serbs were driven out of Croatia.

Assessing humanitarian intent

Chomsky tests the argument that the NATO bombings were undertaken with humanitarian intent by asking how the enlightened states have behaved elsewhere. Rather than trawl through the long and bloody past of the US and its allies [7], Chomsky sharpens his critique by focusing on events from the late 1990s, the date from which the new humanism supposedly operates.

In East Timor in April 1999 alone, over 100 people were reported to have been massacred, more than twice the number in Racak. Thousands of others were herded into concentration camps, perhaps as many as 10,000 in one camp on the outskirts of Liquica. Robin Cook, British foreign secretary, made a commitment ‘not to permit the sale of arms to regimes that might use them for repression or aggression’. But ‘he acknowledged that British equipment was being used against demonstrators’ from Indonesia’s democracy movement. The new humanists have exerted no pressure on Indonesia apart from critical words in private and a few taps on the wrist. [8]

Similar events occurred in Colombia where a huge refugee crisis has led to well over a million people being displaced. The only independent Colombian political party was virtually eliminated by the assassination of thousands of its elected officials, candidates and activists. The primary victims have been peasants, particularly those who dared to raise their heads against the regime of brutal repression. Chomsky is clear who is responsible. The blood is on Washington’s hands. Colombia, the leading western hemisphere recipient of US arms and training throughout the ‘1990s, followed guidelines on the implementation of state terror drawn up under the Kennedy administration’. [9]

Turkish repression of the Kurds has been savage, extending as far as the criminalisation of the use of the Kurdish language or reference to Kurdish identity. Atrocities rapidly increased through the early 1990s. Reports reveal the use of torture, the destruction of some 3,500 villages, bombing with napalm, and casualties generally estimated in tens of thousands. As many as 2.5 million to 3 million Kurds have been internally displaced. In addition to the usual methods of torture, assassination and ethnic cleansing, the records reveal such actions as ‘throwing people from helicopters and burning civilians alive while bound tied with electric cables’. [10] The US response? Turkey was rewarded by becoming ‘the biggest single importer of American military hardware and thus the world’s largest arms purchaser. Its arsenal, 80 percent American, included M-60 tanks, F-16 fighter bombers, Cobra gunships and Blackhawk helicopters, all of which were eventually used against the Kurds.’ Washington claimed that it was unable to investigate atrocities in south east Turkey because ‘of Turkish bans on travel to the region’! Chomsky quotes Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who put it well, claiming:

… there should be no indulging in illusions about [NATO] aiming at defending the Kosovars ... if the protection of the oppressed was their real concern they could have defended ... the miserable Kurds, who have been torn by different countries for 40 or 50 years. NATO tolerates Turkey’s ethnic cleansing because it is their ‘paying ally’. [11]

Every year in Northern Laos on the Plains of Jars thousands of people, mostly children and poor farmers, are killed by ‘bombies’. These tiny anti-personnel devices are packed together in cluster bombs, designed to kill or maim people rather than buildings. The plain is saturated with millions of these devices, dropped by the US as part of its war against Vietnam in South East Asia. Casualties today are reaching up to 20,000 a year, more than half of them deaths. Although the British-based Mine Advisory Group has been trying to remove these lethal objects, the US refuses to supply ‘render harmless procedures’, claiming these are to remain a state secret. This may be understandable in light of the fact that US planes dropped cluster bombs extensively in Kosovo, turning parts of the province into a no man’s land. [12]

The new humanists have not ignored all moral issues when they arise. In Iraq, where about 4,000 children are killed each month due to US-imposed sanctions, Madeleine Albright justified US policy claiming it was a ‘price worth paying’.

It might be argued that this sample is unfair, omitting cases put forward as the prize examples of the new humanism: Somalia and Haiti. Chomsky reveals how in Somalia Washington played a leading role in creating the tragedy of the early 1990s. CIA officials privately concede that the US military may have killed 7,000 to 10,000 Somalis, while losing 34 soldiers. Marine Lieutenant-General Anthony Zinni, who commanded the operation, informed the press, ‘I’m not counting bodies ... I’m not interested.’ In Haiti the democratically elected government of Bertrand Aristide was sabotaged, with the US backing the murderous military regime which overthrew it and economic policies of dumping cheap food in order to destroy the local economy. Aristide was later reinstated – but without the reform programme on which he was elected. [13]

This historical record, spelt out in detail by Chomsky, strips away the arguments used by the prophets of the new humanism. If not humanitarian intent, then was the real reason behind the bombings the credibility of NATO? Chomsky explains:

When Clinton, Blair and others speak of the ‘credibility of NATO’ they are not expressing their concern about the credibility of Italy or Norway: rather of the reigning superpower and its attack dog. The meaning of credibility can be explained by any Mafia don. When a storekeeper does not pay protection money, the goons who are dispatched do not simply take the money; they leave him a broken neck so that others will get the message. Global Mafia dons reason the same way. It is not, of course, that the don needs the storekeeper’s money. [14]

An example to others is what is needed. ‘To walk away now would destroy NATO’s credibility,’ was how Blair put it. [15]

Many readers of this journal would agree with Chomsky’s judgement that the new intervention, under close examination, looks much like the old intervention. By sustaining an air war, the ‘US chose a course of action that as anticipated would escalate atrocities and violence ... undermine democratic developments within Yugoslavia and set back the prospects for disarmament ... and some control of nuclear weapons’. [16] Chomsky also provides evidence to show that appeals for peace through respect for international law and the resolutions of the United Nations, though desirable, are likely to be ignored by those seeking to demonstrate military power. The ‘powerful ... extend international law to ... serve their special interests’. [17]

This book provides ammunition for those seeking to expose the claims that the Balkan War was fought for humanitarian reasons, and it will strengthen the struggle to build resistance to any future wars fought by our so called enlightened leaders. [18]


1. N. Chomsky, The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo (London 1999), p. 4.

2. Ibid., p. 21.

3. Ibid., p. 14.

4. Ibid., p. 31.

5. Chomsky reveals that Walker knows a thing or two about massacres. As US ambassador to El Salvador he administered US support for extreme terror and brutality, including the murder of Salvadorian dissidents and Archbishop Romero. The US supervised a decade of US atrocities. In El Salvador Walker was quick to respond to a massacre of Jesuit priests who advocated help for the poor. He supervised the intimidation of the key witnesses by a US-trained brigade despite the fact that El Salvadorian generals admitted their troops were responsible for the killings.

6. N. Chomsky, op. cit., p. 32.

7. See, for example, N Chomsky, Fateful Triangle (Boston 1983, extended 1999).

8. N. Chomsky, The New Military Humanism, op. cit., p. 43.

9. Ibid., p. 49.

10. Ibid., p. 55.

11. Ibid., p. 9.

12. Ibid., p. 63.

13. Ibid., p. 68.

14. Ibid., p. 135.

15. Ibid., p. 134.

16. Ibid., p. 155.

17. Ibid., p. 152. For discussion on the role of international law see K. Coates, Benign Imperialism Versus United Nations, and J. Baxter, Is the UN an Alternative to Humanitarian Imperialism?, both in International Socialism 85 (Autumn 1999).

18. See M. Haynes, Theses on the Balkan War, International Socialism 83 (Summer 1999).

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