MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 7

International Socialist Review, Spring 1999

Notes of the Quarter

The War for NATO’s Credibility

From International Socialist Review, Issue 7, Spring 1999.
Downloaded with thanks as a PDF from the ISR Archive.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

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 anti-war 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.

Top of page

ISR (ISO) Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 30 August 2021