Why NATO has failed

Print edition : April 24, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

Kosovo represents yet another tragedy of a world out of balance and without order. Only a worldwide, militant anti-imperialist movement can change this state of affairs.

BILL CLINTON may well declare one day yet another 'achievement' in the Balkans, as he did in 1995 after the Dayton Accord. In fact, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's intervention and its sequel underline the abject failure of American and European policy. The developments expose their pretensions to power as being devoid of the will to wield power, and their claims to a moral motivation as being hollow.

Success entails the attainment of defined objectives. NATO's objectives in starting the raids were two-fold. One was to induce President Slobodan Milosevic to accept the Rambouillet Plan, the minimalist agenda of which was to restore Kosovo's autonomy abrogated by Milosevic in 1989. The other objective was to save the civilians of Kosovo from imminent 'ethnic cleansing', a recently-coined euphemism for genocide. NATO has failed to achieve these stated objectives.

Within days of the beginning of the air strikes, Milosevic had rendered Rambouillet a dead letter, and escalated his campaign of slaughter and expulsion. Entire villages and towns were destroyed or emptied of their inhabitants. As of April 10, half a million Kosovars had been expelled from their homes and had taken refuge in resource-poor Albania and Macedonia. The exit of 700,000 more refugees was blocked by the Serb military. These hapless people were starting to die of cold and starvation. Reports said that Kosovo's capital Pristina had been "cleansed" of its inhabitants. Because the superpower and its cherished alliance are locked in the tragedy, newspapers and television screens are filled with horrid images of the carnage.

Euro-American leaders acknowledge rather coyly that the plan promoted from Rambouillet is past its prime. As for the assault on the Kosovars, the NATO spokesman, Jamie Shea, says that "even we have been shocked by the sheer enormity of what is going on in Kosovo..." His words betray the extent to which NATO's leaders had miscalculated Belgrade's will to escalate atrocities. The Clinton White House speaks of "genocide" and "abhorrent, criminal action on a massive scale." By the end of a week's time NATO had extended its bombing target beyond Kosovo to Serbia including Belgrade.

"Political will is building," General Wesley K. Clark, NATO's top Commander, told reporters wistfully. But it was not really happening. "On the seventh day, Serb resilience (sic) gives NATO leaders pause," reported The New York Times. "They are struggling to figure out what to do next if the bombing does not work." Two weeks after the air strikes began, they still had not figured out.

Even the air strikes lack the seriousness of purpose that was so extravagantly on display during the Gulf War of 1991. "Belgrade is not Baghdad," a NATO spokesman says bluntly. Tactical aircraft were not used to inhibit the Serb forces which were doing the ethnic cleansing. When approval was granted - two weeks later, after half of Kosovo's people were pushed out and thousands killed - for deploying two dozen Apache helicopters, the Pentagon said that it will take a month to get them ready. These failures were predictable and revealed once again the vulnerability of the contemporary international system to manipulation, aggression and genocide. One may draw certain conclusions from the tragedy of the Kosovars.

"Humanitarian intervention" often signals diplomatic negligence and a feeble structure of keeping the peace. Kosovo offers a textbook case of this. Slobodan Milosevic, by any definition a fascist demagogue, began his climb to power by starting his ethnic hate campaign in Kosovo. He suspended Kosovo's autonomous status in 1989, imposed a harsh discriminatory regime upon the ethnic Albanians who constitute 90 per cent of Kosovo's inhabitants, and laid the foundations of the current carnage. For a decade, diplomats, experts and observers had been pointing at this international powder keg and urging a vigorous effort to prevent the catastrophe that was waiting to happen. But the United States and its allies in Europe, which control the reins of world power and the working mechanisms of the United Nations, were too busy promoting globalisation, encircling Russia, controlling world resources, and expanding the reach of NATO, to be able to attend meaningfully to the crisis in Kosovo. In order to maintain NATO's monopoly over peacemaking in Europe, the U.N. was discouraged from taking any initiative on Kosovo. Yet NATO and the U.S. attended to the simmering crisis too late in the day to be able to avert the worst.

Kosovar refugees at a border post in Albania.-BUU-QUIDU / GAMMA

Bombs cannot compensate for the absence of seriousness and resolve. Since the end of the Cold War, the "sole superpower" has tended to monopolise the role of the world's Field Marshal. Fair enough, it is in the nature of power to seek dominance and a leadership role. But these entail costs which the U.S. and the alliance it leads are unwilling to incur. During the three months that they contemplated launching the air strikes, most analysts had pointed out that historically air raids have not significantly changed enemy behaviour or capabilities unless an air force was aiding ground forces. As Eliot Cohen, a strategic affairs expert, put it, "Air war, like modern courtship, appears to court gratification without commitment."

If NATO was unwilling to send ground forces to Kosovo, where 90 per cent of the people could be presumed to be friendly, then Serbia may not give in and will certainly escalate its inhumane ethnic agenda. Among others, Mary Kaldor, an influential British expert, had warned that unless troops were placed in Kosovo, bombings will "lead to ethnic cleansing on a large scale." Instead, on March 23 the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) withdrew from Kosovo, leaving its people, as Kaldor wrote in The Guardian, "without even the fig-leaf of international protection." NATO wants war without death, play policeman without risking injury which, to paraphrase Lenin, is like seeking to make omelettes without breaking eggs.

When a required decision is evaded, the problem compounds. The one period in recent memory when air strikes might have been effective in discouraging genocide and also prevented Milosevic's current outrage started in April 1992 and lasted for three and half years. Kamal Kurspahic, then the Editor of the daily Oslobodenje, recalls how the Serb artillery on the hills surrounding the city destroyed Sarajevo bit by systematic bit, killing 10,600 inhabitants including 1,800 children. The Serb artillery emplacements were visible targets, easy to silence from the air. Yet the big powers looked on year after year. George Bush, then the U.S. President and Commander-in-Chief, who gave us Desert Storm, would pretend not to understand. Every other day or so he would ask Brent Scowcroft, his National Security Adviser, "Tell me again what this is all about."

Appeasement nourishes evil ambition. Bill Clinton came to the White House promising to "lift and strike", that is, he would lift the arms embargo on Bosnia and launch air strikes on Serbia's artillery emplacements. He dithered, as months after tragic months added up to years. It was twelve hundred and sixty days, a quarter million lives and unaccounted sufferings later - after a U.N. safe haven was run over, the blue helmets were chained to their armour, and thousands of people were massacred in Srebrenica - that NATO intervened, and the U.S. claimed kudos for forging the Dayton Accord.

It legitimised ethnic cleansing by partitioning Bosnia along unstable ethnic boundaries. This dubious 'achievement' required an excessive appeasement of Slobodan Milosevic who deserved then, as he does now, to be tried as a war criminal. Instead, he remained an indulged partner in 'peacemaking', and like Nemesis, has returned to haunt his benefactors.

Evidence of "good faith" is essential to the credible exercise of humanitarian intervention. In a New York Times article, Josef Joffe, a German international relations expert popular in the American foreign policy establishment, asserts that this is "a war of conscience, not of interest". He adds: "The attack on Yugoslavia is aimed at saving lives, and for purely moral reasons." Why it took the West's much vaunted conscience so long to be aroused, he does not explain. After all, Milosevic suspended Kosovo's autonomy, which NATO is belatedly attempting to restore, in 1989, then proceeded to wage war with Croatia and commit crimes against humanity in Bosnia. Joffe's is just the kind of unsubstantiated assertion that dailies like The New York Times favour and such 'un-publishable' intellectuals as Noam Chomsky demolish, in obscure publications like the Z-Magazine.

In a recent article Chomsky discusses NATO's intervention in Kosovo with the unsparing logic and empiricism that is his hallmark. He notes a tension between "two pillars of world order": the United Nations Charter prohibits the forcible violation of state sovereignty while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the individual's rights against state oppression. The notion of 'humanitarian intervention' arises out of this tension. Legal scholars differ over when such intervention is permissible or necessary. A common and reasonable conclusion is that its determination rests on the "good faith" of those who intervene. "Good faith" is determined not on one's rhetoric but on one's record of adherence to international law. Thereupon follows Chomsky's devastating and totally accurate listing of the United States' violations of international law and the U.N. Charter. The evidence of 'good faith', he demonstrates conclusively, is entirely absent in this case. The wolf has appointed itself to guard the chicken coop.

As Noam Chomsky recognises, his indictment "leaves un-answered" the question of "what to do in Kosovo". Outside of the U.N. framework, the legality of NATO's intervention is dubious. The air strikes have provided an excuse for the Serb nationalists to augment the enormous suffering of the Kosovars. Yet, it promises the victim population at least "some protection from a predatory state." So how does one react to the event? One answer, readily offered by the Left during the Second World War, is that when history forces a choice between fascism and imperialism, often a choice between oppression and annihilation, one has to support imperialism's war against fascism. But then one expects such a battle to be fought seriously, with clarity of purpose.

The dilemma that such events pose cannot be resolved by mere affirmations and negations, for and against great power interventions. Kosovo represents yet another tragedy of a world out of balance and without order, a world system so rigged in favour of the rich and powerful that even such international laws as the Convention on Genocide cannot be enforced unless the enforcement serves the interests of a decisive power or group of powers.

In effect the big powers, especially the U.S., obstruct the emergence of a framework of world order. Thus the U.S. has defied the rulings of the International Court of Justice, NATO has not seriously cooperated with the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (established in 1993), and Washington continues to oppose the treaty to establish an International Criminal Court in Rome. It will take a worldwide, militant, and visionary anti-imperialist movement to change this inhumane state of affairs.

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