During a recent conversation with an old friend – once an anti-war activist, now a congressional staffer – I suggested that the decision to bomb the former Yugoslavia had more to do with NATO’s credibility and US influence in Europe than protecting Kosovo Albanians or defense of human rights. Be that as it may, he responded, "Milosevic is a brutal dictator and something had to be done to stop genocide. I’m not a pacifist."
Such arguments among progressives have been common since late March, with both sides marshaling "facts" to support their positions. Opponents of the war note that NATO and the US didn’t negotiate in good faith, or take steps to deal with the refugee flow that would inevitably follow military action – though they probably expected it. Supporters point to the mass removal of Albanians before the bombing, Milosevic’s past betrayals and crimes, and evidence of atrocities since March. To this extent, both sides are right. But equating opposition to bombing with pacifism, along with the argument that military action was justified by the charge of genocide, betrays the myopic thinking of those who support "diplomacy backed by force."
The issue isn’t choosing between doing nothing and "something" – that is, going to war. It’s whether bombing, or even a ground war, will solve the problem. As is obvious, NATO’s battle plan has murderously misfired. The results already include an accelerated flow of refugees, increased ethnic hatred, destruction of Yugoslavia’s infrastructure and democratic opposition, and growing internal support for Milosevic. Even if a diplomatic solution is found and the UN assumes its appropriate role, international law will have been weakened, higher US defense spending assured, and the notion that the US and NATO should act as "humanitarian" globocops considerably advanced.
For some progressives, the genocide argument is especially persuasive. But ethnic cleansing isn’t genocide, and equating them trivializes the latter. In any case, only a few months ago, Germany’s Foreign Office argued that neither ethnic cleansing nor genocide were occurring. A January intelligence report stated, "Even in Kosovo an explicit political persecution linked to Albanian ethnicity is not verifiable. The East of Kosovo is still not involved in armed conflict. Public life in cities like Pristina, Urosevac, Gnjilan, etc. has, in the entire conflict period, continued on a relatively normal basis." The "actions of the security forces [were] not directed against the Kosovo-Albanians as an ethnically defined group, but against the military opponent and its actual or alleged supporters."
Lacking that rationale, some argue that the mission is "just" in any case. The fact that the US has failed to act in the past, many times even supporting murderous regimes, doesn’t mean we can’t do the right thing this time. So goes the thinking. But the current campaign has done nothing to help the victims, while hurting other civilians, visiting untold damage on the environment throughout Serbia and Kosovo, and endangering relations with China. If Milosevic was a mugger and the Kosovars his victims, NATO would be the macho bystander who decides to "help" by wildly firing a shotgun.
There’s no doubt that crimes against humanity have been committed. But when the smoke clears, more than one defendant may face charges. According to UN Human Rights Commission Chair May Robinson, an international war crimes tribunal could investigate all sides. "The actions of individuals belonging to Serb forces, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), or NATO may therefore come under scrutiny, if it appears that serious violations of international humanitarian law have occurred," she announced in early May.
Those who argue that "it was better than doing nothing" also ignore the fact that other options were available. In fact, when a diplomatic solution is ultimately reached – assuming the war doesn’t escalate much further – it will likely involve a UN-designed peacekeeping force. Milosevic was open to that idea even before the war began. Why weren’t other avenues pursued? Perhaps because the main goal wasn’t to protect Kosovo Albanians, but rather to prevent ethnic conflict from affecting other parts of Europe – a main reason why independence for Kosovo isn’t on the negotiating table – while advancing the role of NATO as enforcer of what it calls "collective security."
The collapse of the Soviet Union made NATO’s original mandate obsolete. The new agenda, as advocated by the US, involves a more assertive stance, including operations to stop ethnic violence and counter weapons of mass destruction inside and beyond the alliance’s borders. According to NATO’s founding documents, however, it’s obligated not to use force in any manner inconsistent with the UN Charter, essentially leaving that decision to the Security Council. But the US now argues that the alliance should have the right to act if UN approval can’t be obtained. Or, apparently, if it doesn’t bother to ask. The current war makes this official policy.
In response to the charge that NATO’s war violated Yugoslavia’s sovereignty, some progressives say that sovereignty is a dubious right that should have limits. In the abstract, it’s hard to disagree. But at the moment, such thinking essentially puts the strong -usually the North – in the position of punishing the weak whenever they see fit. No doubt the same argument wouldn’t fly if Turkey (a NATO member) was bombed for its treatment of the Kurds.
And the final fallback for pro-bombing progressives? Despite questionable NATO and US motives, they argue, if military might stops Milosevic, it was worth it. But given the consequences – more deaths, a destroyed environment, the undermining of international law, and so on – this may be the most cynical argument of all.