MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 8

International Socialist Review, Summer 1999

Notes of the Quarter

New Masters of the Balkans

From International Socialist Review, Issue 8, Summer 1999.
Downloaded with thanks as a PDF from the ISR Archive.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

As this journal goes to press, NATO countries and Russia were hammering out a deal for the military occupation of Kosovo by NATO and Russian troops. The State Department mouthpiece, the New York Times, was elated by the successful “sustained bombing” that represents a “victory for the principles of democracy and human rights.”

It is a victory – not for human rights, but for NATO’s “credibility.” That is, the Western Great Powers proved that might makes right by raining death and destruction on a small, poor country to advance their own interests. But the war has made the world a far more dangerous place. It has revived Cold War-type tensions between East and West, and greatly destabilized the Balkans region.

So much for the post-Cold War “new world order” of peace and prosperity. Instead we face the prospect of renewed confrontation between rival imperial powers as well as an arms race by smaller countries determined not to meet Yugoslavia’s (and Iraq’s) fate at the hands of the Great Powers. All for a peace deal that is little different than the one Yugoslavia offered to accept in order to prevent the bombing. What none of the slavishly pro-NATO reporters have bothered to point out over the 11 weeks of NATO slaughter is that the Serbian parliament had already voted, before the bombing began, to agree to an international peacekeeping force in Kosovo on the condition that it be under UN command. There was clearly room for negotiation. But Western negotiators, led by the “mad bomber,” U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, imposed conditions in the Rambouillet Agreement that would be intolerable for any sovereign nation. According to the document’s Appendix B, NATO would have “free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia)...This shall include, but not be limited to, the right of bivouac, maneuver, billet and utilization of any areas or facilities as required for support, training and operations.” One senior State Department official reportedly boasted at Rambouillet that the U.S. “had intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply,” and that “they need some bombing, and that’s what they’re going to get.” As journalist Alexander Cockburn put bluntly on June 5, “the sole purpose of the bombing was to demonstrate to Serbia and the world NATO’s capacity to bomb.”

More than two months later, 1,200 Serb civilians were blown to bits by NATO bombs, hundreds of Kosovar Albanians killed by NATO warplanes, and 800,000 Kosovar Albanians driven from their homes by the Serbian military and fear of NATO bombs.

NATO leaders justified this by claiming it would help bring the refugees back into Kosovo. “Incredibly,” writes Robert Fisk of the British Independent, “we have allowed our leaders to bend the historical record, to twist the truth out of all recognition so that NATO’s ‘victory’ will be the return of an army of refugees who were not even refugees when we began this wretched war.” There were about 45,000 refugees when the war began. By its end, there were 800,000. NATO countries’ policy toward the refugees speaks volumes about their alleged humanitarian concern for them. Less than 10 percent of the total war expenditure was spent on refugees – the rest – about $4 billion – on bombing Yugoslavia. Though they wanted to leave, only some thousands of refugees were accepted into NATO countries: Germany only took in 13,000; the U.S. a pathetic 5,000. Now refugees will be asked to return to a wasteland – created in large part courtesy of NATO bombs. The paltry sums spent on refugees so far are a likely indicator of the pittance NATO countries will spend to rebuild the country they have helped to destroy.

And Kosovar Albanians who believed that NATO’s war would free them will have those illusion crushed. Before the bombing, U.S. official Richard Gelbard branded the KLA “terrorists,” giving Milosevic what many regarded as the green light to attack them. The U.S. pre-bombing strategy was to use each side as a stick against the other to weaken both sides. U.S. officials have always been clear that they want Kosovo to remain part of Serbia. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott again reconfirmed this position in June when he told National Public Radio, “independence [for Kosovo] is not on the agenda.” More than that – the current deal drops the Rambouillet Agreement’s stipulation that after three years, Kosovo’s relation to Serbia would be reassessed. In short, Kosovar Albanians have been used as pawns in a war that had absolutely nothing to do with their aspirations.

If NATO leaders could nevertheless still sell this slaughter as a “humanitarian” venture, it was because it was conducted by those who had opposed wars in the past – liberal Democrats in the U.S. and social democrats in Europe. Whole sections of the left fell behind their respective governments, providing political cover for NATO’s atrocities committed in Yugoslavia in the name of humanitarianism. This blunted anti-war opposition in several countries. In the U.S., for example, right-wing Republicans like Ariana Huffington and presidential candidate Pat Buchanan opposed what they called “Clinton’s war.” In Germany, the military brass used Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Green Party Minister Joschka Fischer as front men for the rehabilitation of their war machine. The NATO generals were happy to have the television images of desperate Kosovar Albanian refugees to excuse their mass murder of civilians – on bridges, buses and trains; in hospitals, apartment buildings, television stations and factories. But the liberal and extremely pro-war British Guardian gave the game away when it commented early on in the bombing campaign that “NATO needs to be tested in its new guise and this conflict will do the job as well as any other.”

Fareed Zakaria, writing in Newsweek, frankly spelled out NATO’s new reason to exist: “NATO is now the next in a long succession of outside powers – the [Austrian] Hapsburgs, the [Turkish] Ottomans – to impose order on the southern Balkans. Having taken on a colonial mission, NATO will come up against the limits of nation-building in an age (and area) of spirited nationalisms and dysfunctional politics. It already rules one protectorate in Bosnia. It will take on another in Kosovo and have some responsibility for the stability of Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. The debate over NATO’s post-Cold-War role is now irrelevant. Whatever the rhetoric, in reality it will be a Balkan reconstruction and policing organization.”

But the Kosovo protectorate has been achieved at great cost – even to the victors themselves. To be sure, the main NATO countries had a common interest in going to war. They all wanted to prevent the Kosovo conflict from spiraling into a disastrous wider war that risked drawing in NATO allies Greece and Turkey in on opposite sides. But their agendas were never identical. The U.S. was out to prove that it was the dominant power in Europe in a post-Cold War world. Germany needed to rehabilitate its right to wage war. France, outside the formal military structure of NATO, needed to prove itself capable of waging war within the alliance. Britain needed to show that it was still “relevant,” so Prime Minister Tony Blair strutted around the world like a would-be Winston Churchill. In Italy, Prime Minister Massimo D’Allema of the former Communist party, the PDS, needed to prove to the Italian ruling class that he was capable of doing the dirty work of a party of government.

Yet as the war dragged on, the underlying divisions among the NATO countries emerged. Having legitimized war, German and Italian leaders didn’t want to risk a backlash over a ground war. The U.S., having shown it was boss, wanted to maintain Germany – the dominant economic power in Europe – as a “strategic partner” within the alliance. And German leaders don’t want to overly antagonize Russia, in which they have far more direct economic and political stake than the U.S. That led to a public split between Germany and Britain over a ground war, with the U.S. trying to dodge the question. Clinton was able to fudge the issue by announcing a big troop buildup – and by using U.S. warplanes to back a Kosovo Liberation Army offensive to give Milosevic a taste of a ground war.

But such maneuvers can’t fully overcome the tensions within NATO. In the German newspaper Die Zeit, Helmut Schmidt, the Social Democratic German chancellor from 1974 to 1982, wrote an article with the headline “NATO does not belong to America.” He accused the American government of attempting to ensure with their new NATO “that the Europeans are also dominated by Washington in the new century.” This expectation, according to Schmidt, “has only a limited probability of realization. For the ruthlessness, largely dictated by domestic political pressures, with which Washington imposes its current interests and domination, will increasingly antagonize many Europeans.” The U.S., writes Schmidt, has “no long-term strategy.” The only thing that is clear is their “conception of their own future political and military world role.” He concludes that the partnership between North America and Europe remains desirable – “however, the European Union should not become a strategic satellite of Washington.”

Indeed, the tensions between the U.S. and Europe threatened to re-emerge even after Yugoslavia agreed to deal based on a proposal by the Group of Eight (the seven industrial powers plus Russia). The Greek government refused to allow the initial contingent of U.S. marines to land in the port of Thessaloniki on June 7. The Germans also pressed for a deal based closely the G-8 agreement, which provided for a settlement under the auspices of the U.N. Security Council. The prospect of new splits in NATO forced the U.S. to bow to Russian, Chinese and Yugoslav demands for a UN Security Council vote on a resolution ending the war before a full Yugoslav army pullout from Kosovo. It also granted Russian troops the right to operate in Kosovo outside NATO command. In the end, Clinton was unwilling to risk a split within NATO – and opposition in the U.S. – by sending ground troops to impose the original terms of Rambouillet.

Yet a UN Security Council resolution ratifying the war settlement is no real step towards “peace.” Many individuals and organizations that opposed the bombing called for the occupation of Kosovo by forces by “international” bodies other than NATO. But a look at the UN’s continued imposition of murderous sanctions in Iraq shows that the UN’s “neutral” role in international affairs is a fiction. Never once did the UN take a position critical of NATO’s attack. On the contrary, the War Crimes Tribunal, a creature of the UN Security Council, indicted Milosevic on Clinton and Blair’s behalf. And it should be clear from the settlement that the UN will be little more than a rubber stamp for the G-8 peace agreement. Its role in Kosovo will be essentially identical to its role in Bosnia – to rule an undemocratic protectorate baked up by the guns of NATO troops.

But NATO’s short-term solutions have only given rise to long-term problems. Tensions between the Great Powers won’t stop at the borders of the Balkans countries. Even while the U.S. and Europe were allies a hot war, they were in opposing sides in a trade war. Meanwhile, hardliners in both Russia and China will campaign for a more aggressive military posture – and are exploring the possibility of aligning against the West. U.S. nuclear arms treaties with Russia are likely to be scrapped – and Russia’s National Security Council voted April 30 to modernize the country’s nuclear missile capability. The U.S. right, already in a frenzy of China-bashing over a spy scandal, will demand a more aggressive stance toward Russia as well. Indeed, the Pentagon has already used the war to stampede both the White House and the Congress into ratcheting up an arms budget that was already moving towards Cold War levels.

And just as the Kosovo agreement was beginning to take shape, the European Union announced its intention to create a European-wide military force within NATO to be less dependent on U.S. control. The NATO war against Yugoslavia has thus set the stage for further conflicts – both in the Balkans and elsewhere in the world. With half the world in the grip of economic crisis, political crisis – witness the revolutionary upheaval in Indonesia – is bound to follow. The “humanitarian” justification for the war in Yugoslavia is just a step away from calling on the military to re-establish “stability” in countries where workers rebel against their exploitation and oppression.

Yet no one should draw the conclusion that this new imperialism cannot be challenged. Substantial minorities were uneasy about the war – if not outright opposed to it – in most of the main NATO countries. If that potential opposition went untapped, it’s because (a) pro-war liberals and social democrats undermined anti-war sentiment and (b) the short duration of the war and NATO leaders reluctance to use ground troops kept matters from coming to a head. While there is no telling exactly how events would have played out if the war continued, the widespread activity pointed to enormous potential for an anti-war movement.

But if such a movement is to be built, it must begin by rejecting the liberals who have traded off anti-war activities of their youth in the 1960s to sell cluster bomb attacks on civilians in the 1990s.

Firm opposition to war has to be based on political principles. That means opposition to imperialism – the military and economic domination of the world by a handful of rich, heavily armed Great Powers. For NATO’s bloody war against Yugoslavia is not an aberration. It’s the inevitable product of a world based on the exploitation of the vast majority by a parasitical minority. That’s why its urgent that we react to NATO’s war not just with outrage, but an urgent effort to build an opposition that can stop such slaughters in the future.

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