Lessons from Kosovo

Noam Chomsky

Excerpted from The New Military Humanism, 1999

The crisis in Kosovo has excited passion and visionary exaltation of a kind rarely witnessed. The events have been portrayed as "a landmark in international relations," opening the gates to a stage of world history with no precedent, a new epoch of moral rectitude under the guiding hand of an "idealistic New World bent on ending inhumanity." This New Humanism, timed fortuitously with a new millennium, will displace the crass and narrow interest politics of a mean-spirited past. Novel conceptions of world order are being forged, interlaced with inspirational lessons about human affairs and global society.

If the picture is true, if it has even a particle of truth, then remarkable prospects lie before us. Material and intellectual resources surely are at hand to overcome terrible tragedies at little cost, with only a modicum of goodwill. It takes little imagination or knowledge to compile a wish list of tasks to be undertaken that should confer enormous benefits on suffering people. In particular, crimes of the nature and scale of Kosovo are all too easily found, and many could be overcome, at least significantly alleviated, with a fraction of the effort and zeal expended in the cause that has consumed the Western powers and their intellectual cultures in early 1999.

If the high-minded spirit of the liberation of Kosovo has even shreds of authenticity, if at last leaders are acting "in the name of principles and values" that are truly humane, as Vaclav Havel confidently proclaimed, then there will be exciting opportunities to place critically important issues on the agenda of practical and immediate action. And even if reality turns out to fall short of the flattering self-portrait, the effort still has the merit of directing attention to what should be undertaken by those who regard the fine words as something more than cynical opportunism.

On March 24, U.S.-led NATO forces launched cruise missiles and bombs at targets throughout the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY)., "plunging America into a military conflict that President Clinton said was necessary to stop ethnic cleansing and bring stability to Eastern Europe," lead stories in the press reported. By bombing the FRY, Clinton informed the nation, "we are upholding our values, protecting our interests and advancing the cause of peace." We cannot respond to such tragedies everywhere," he said, "but when ethnic conflict turns into ethnic cleansing where we con make a difference, we must try, and that is clearly the case in Kosovo." "Had we faltered" in what the heading of his speech calls "A Just and Necessary War," "the result would have been a moral and strategic disaster. The Albanian Kosovars would have become a people without a homeland, living in difficult conditions in some of the poorest countries in Europe," a fate that the United States cannot tolerate for suffering people.

Clinton’s European allies agreed. Under the heading "A New Generation Draws the Line," British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that this is a new kind of war in which we are fighting "for values," for "a new internationalism where the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated," "for a world where those responsible for such crimes have nowhere to hide."

"The New Interventionism" was hailed by intellectual opinion and legal scholars who proclaimed a new era in world affairs in which the "enlightened states" will at last be able to use force where they "believe it to be just," discarding the "restrictive old rules" and obeying "modem notions of justice" that they fashion. "The crisis in Kosovo illustrates … America’s new willingness to do what it thinks is right\emdash international law not withstanding," wrote University of California law professor Michael Glennon in Foreign Affairs. Now freed from the shackles of the Cold War and old-fashioned constraints of world order, the enlightened states can dedicate themselves with full vigor to the mission of upholding human rights and bringing justice and freedom to suffering people everywhere, by force if necessary.

The enlightened states are the United States and its British associate, perhaps also others who enlist in their crusades for justice and human rights. Their mission is resisted, Glennon notes, only by "the defiant, the indolent, and the miscreant," the "disorderly" elements of the world. The rank of enlightenment is apparently conferred by definition. One will search in vain for credible attempts to provide evidence or argument for the critical distinction between enlightened and disorderly, surely not from history. The history is in any event deemed irrelevant by the familiar doctrine of "change of course," which holds that, yes, in the past we have erred out of naivet\’8e or faulty information, but now we are returning to the traditional path of righteousness. There is, accordingly, no purpose in asking what might be learned from old, musty stories about the past, even though the decision-making structure and its institutional base remain intact and unchanged.

On June 3, NATO and Serbia reached a peace accord. The United States triumphantly declared victory, though not yet peace: The iron fist remains poised until the victors determine that their interpretation of the peace accord has been imposed. A broad consensus was articulated by New York Times global analyst Thomas Friedman: "

From the start the Kosovo problem has been about how we should react when bad things happen in unimportant places." The enlightened states have opened a new millennium by providing an answer to this critical question of the modem era, pursuing the moral principle that, in Friedman’s words, "once the refugee evictions began, ignoring Kosovo would be wrong … and therefore using a huge air war for a limited objective was the only thing that made sense."

While Friedman’s own (and conventional) answer to his rhetorical question is untenable, a credible answer appears in the same journal on the same day, though only obliquely. Reporting from Ankara, correspondent Stephen Kinzer writes that "Turkey’s best-known human rights advocate [Akin Birdal] entered prison "to serve his sentence for having "urged the state to reach a peaceful settlement with Kurdish rebels." Looking beyond the sporadic and generally uninformative or misleading news reports and commentary, we discover that the sentencing of the courageous president of the Human Rights Association of Turkey is only one episode of a campaign of intimidation and harassment of human rights advocates who are investigating and reporting horrendous atrocities and calling for peaceful resolution of a conflict that has been marked by one of the most savage campaigns of ethnic cleansing and state terror of the ’90s. The campaign has proceeded with mounting fury thanks to the active participation of the United States, "upholding our values, protecting our interests, and advancing the cause of peace" (in the president’s words), in a way that is all too familiar to those who do not prefer intentional ignorance.

These events, continuing right now and taking place within NATO and under European jurisdiction, provide a rather striking illustration – far from the only one – of the answer given by the enlightened states to the question of "how we should react when bad things happen in unimportant places": We should react by helping to escalate the atrocities, a mission accomplished in Kosovo as well. Such elements of the real world of today raise some rather serious questions about the New Humanism.

In the Balkans war of 1999, these questions remain out of sight\emdash within the "enlightened states," at least. Elsewhere, they are readily perceived, over a broad spectrum. To select several remote points for illustration, Amos Gilboa, a prominent Israeli commentator on military and strategic affairs, sees the enlightened states as "a danger to the world." He describes their new rules of the game as a reversion to the colonial era, with the resort to force "cloaked in moralistic righteousness" as the rich and powerful do "what seems to them to be justified." At a very different point on the spectrum, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Western idol when he is saying the right things, offers a succinct definition of the New Humanism: "The aggressors have kicked aside the U.N., opening a new era where might is right." They and many others like them throughout the world might agree with an observation by the prominent and influential – though little celebrated – radical pacifist A.J. Muste:

‘The problem after a war is with the victor. He thinks he has just proved that war and violence pay. Who will now teach him a lesson?’

The larger issues highlighted by the most recent of the wars of Yugoslav secession came into focus with the fading of the Cold War. Central among these is the claimed right of intervention on the part of states or alliances on humanitarian grounds, which extends the scope of legitimated use of force. There is general agreement on the timing, but the conclusions about "humanitarian intervention" are phrased in different ways, reflecting the evaluation of the intent and likely consequences of the emerging norms of justified intervention.

The enlarged options are of two kinds: those carried out under U.N. auspices and in conformity with the U.N. charter, which is agreed to be the foundation of international law in the post-World War 11 period; and those carried out unilaterally, with no Security Council authorization, by states or alliances (the United States and NATO, for example, or the Warsaw Pact in earlier years). If sufficiently powerful, arrogant and internally well-disciplined, such alliances may designate themselves "the international community."

Questions arise about the first category, but that is not our topic here. Rather, we are concerned with the states or alliances that do not seek or are not granted authorization from the international community, but use force because "they believe it to be just." In practice, that reduces to "America’s new willingness to do what it thinks is right," apart from operations in "unimportant countries" of no concern to the reigning global superpower (for example, peacekeeping interventions of the West African states, which received retroactive authorization from the United Nations).

From one perspective, the extended scope of intervention has always been legitimate, indeed meritorious, but was obstructed during the Cold War because "the defiant, the indolent, and the miscreant" who resist the mission were then able to rely for support on the Communist powers, dedicated to subversion and insurrection as they sought to conquer the world. With the Cold War over, the "disorderly" can no longer impede the good works of the enlightened states, and the New Humanism can therefore flourish under their wise and just leadership.

From a contrasting perspective, "the new interventionism" is replaying an old record. It is an updated variant of traditional practices that were impeded in a bipolar world system that allowed some space for non-alignment – a concept that effectively vanishes when one of the two poles disappears. The Soviet Union, and to some extent China, set limits on the actions of the Western powers in their traditional domains – not only by virtue of the military deterrent, but also because of their occasional willingness, however opportunistic, to lend support to targets of Western subversion and aggression. With the Soviet deterrent in decline, the Cold War victors are more free to exercise their will under the cloak of good intentions but in pursuit of interests that have a very familiar ring outside the realm of enlightenment.

The self-described bearers of enlightenment happen to be the rich and powerful, the inheritors of the colonial and neocolonial systems of global dominion: they are the North, the First World. The disorderly miscreants who defy them have been at the other end of the stick: they are the South, the Third World. The division is not sharp and clear; nothing is in the dominion of human affairs. But the tendencies are hard to miss, and they suggest some of the reasons for the difference of perspective in interpretation of the emerging norms of justified intervention.

The conflict of interpretation is difficult to resolve if history is declared irrelevant and the present scene is glimpsed only through the filters established by the enlightened states, which transmit the evil deeds of official enemies while blocking unwanted images. To take the most obvious current illustration, images of atrocities pass through unhindered, even magnified, if they are attributable to Belgrade, but not if they trace back to Ankara and Washington.

If we hope to understand anything about the world, we should ask why decisions on forceful intervention are made one way or another by the states with the power to exercise their judgment and will. At the 1993 American Academy Conference on Emerging Norms, one of the most distinguished figures in the academic discipline of international relations, Ernest Haas, raised a simple and cogent question, which has since received a clear and instructive answer. He observed that NATO was then intervening in Iraq and Bosnia to protect Kurds and Muslims, and asked: "Will NATO take the same interventionist view if and when Turkey begins to lean more heavily on its Kurdish insurgents ?" The question poses a clear test of the New Humanism: Is it guided by power interests, or by humanitarian concern? Is the resort to force undertaken "in the name of principles and values," as professed? Or are we witnessing something more crass and familiar?

The test was a good one, and the answer was not long in coming. As Haas raised the question, Turkey was leaning much more heavily on the Kurdish population of the Southeast while rejecting offers of peaceful settlement that would permit cultural and linguistic rights. Very shortly the operation escalated to extremes of ethnic cleansing and state terror. NATO took a very definite "interventionist view," in particular NATO’s leader, which intervened decisively to escalate the atrocities.

The implications concerning the larger issues seem rather clear, particularly when we compare this "interventionist view" to the one adopted for the Kosovo crisis, a lesser one on moral grounds, not only for reasons of scale (crucially and dramatically, prior to the decision to bomb the FRY) but also because it is outside the bounds and jurisdiction of the NATO powers and their institutions, unlike Turkey, which is squarely within. The two cases differ sharply in a different dimension, however: Serbia is one of those disorderly miscreants that impede the institution of the U.S.-dominated global system, while Turkey is a loyal client state that contributes substantially to this project. Again, the factors that drive policy do not seem hard to discern, and the North-South divisions over the larger issues and their interpretation seem to fall into place as well.

Even a cursory examination shows that the proclamations of the New Humanism are at best highly dubious. The narrowest focus, on the NATO intervention in Kosovo alone, suffices to undermine the lofty pronouncements. A broader look at the contemporary world powerfully reinforces the conclusion, and brings forth with stark clarity "the values" that are actually being upheld. If we deviate further from the marching orders that issue from Washington and London and allow the past to enter the discussion, we quickly discover that the new generation is the old generation, and that the "new internationalism" replays old and unpleasant records. The actions of distinguished forebears, as well as the justifications offered and their merits, should also give us pause.

Let us begin by keeping to the rules and focusing attention on the designated case: Serb atrocities in Kosovo, which are quite real and often ghastly. We immediately discover that the bombing was not undertaken in "response" to ethnic cleansing and to "reverse" it, as leaders alleged. With full awareness of the likely consequences, Clinton and Blair decided in favor of a war that led to a radical escalation of ethnic cleansing along with other deleterious effects.

In the year before the bombing, according to NATO sources, about 2,000 people had been killed in Kosovo and several hundred thousand had become internal refugees. The humanitarian catastrophe was overwhelmingly attributable to Yugoslavian police and military forces, the main victims being ethnic Albanians, commonly assumed to constitute about 90 percent of the population.

Prior to the bombing, and for two days following its onset, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported no data on refugees, though many Kosovars – Albanian and Serb – had been leaving the province for years, and entering as well, sometimes as a consequence of the Balkan wars, sometimes for economic and other reasons. After three days of bombing, UNHCR reported on March 27 that 4,000 had fled Kosovo to Albania and Macedonia, the two neighboring countries. By April 5, the New York Times reported that "more than 350,000 have left Kosovo since March 24," relying on UNHCR figures, while unknown numbers of Serbs fled north to Serbia to escape the increased violence from the air and on the ground.

After the war, it was reported that half the Serb population had "moved out when the NATO bombing began." There have been varying estimates of the number of refugees within Kosovo before that NATO bombing. Cambridge University Law Professor Marc Weller, legal adviser to the Kosovar Albanian delegation at the Rambouillet Conference, reports that after the withdrawal of the international monitors on March 19, "within a few days the number of displaced had again risen to over 200,000." House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss gave the estimate of 250,000 internally displaced.

By the time of the peace accord on June 3, the UNHCR reported 671,500 refugees beyond the borders of the FRY, in addition to 70,000 in Montenegro and 75,000 who went to other countries. To these we may add the unknown numbers displaced within Kosovo, perhaps as many as 300,000 in the year before the bombing, far more afterwards, with varying estimates; and according to the Yugoslavian Red Cross, more than a million displaced within Serbia after the bombing, along with many who left Serbia.

The numbers reported from Kosovo are, unfortunately, all too familiar. To mention only two cases that are prime illustrations of "our values" in the ’90s, the refugee total prior to the NATO bombing is similar to the State Department estimate for Colombia in the same year; and the UNHCR totals at the war’s end are about the same as the number of Palestinians who fled or were expelled in 1948, another policy issue that is very much alive today. In that case, refugees numbered about 750,000, 85 percent of the population, with more than 400 villages leveled, and ample violence. The comparison was not overlooked in the Israeli press, where Gideon Levi of Ha’aret: described Kosovo as Palestine 1948 with TV cameras. Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon warned that if "NATO’s aggression" is "legitimized " the next step might be a call for autonomy and links to the Palestinian Authority for Galilee. Elsewhere, lan Williams, a fervent supporter of the NATO bombing, commented, "The Serbs could almost have studied Israeli tactics in 1948 in their village destruction campaign,. except of course the Palestinians had no NATO to back them up."

The distinction between worthy and unworthy victims is traditional, as is its basis, remote from any moral principle apart from the rights demanded by power and privilege. Washington simultaneously rejects the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (for unworthy victims, Palestinians and many others) and passionately upholds them (for worthy victims, now Kosovar Albanians). Though readily understood in terms of power interests, the distinctions, when noticed at all, are portrayed as "double standards" or "mistakes" in respectable commentary. Attention to the facts reveals that there is a single standard, the one that great powers typically observe, and that although plans may go awry (aggressors have been defeated, etc.), the "mistakes" are overwhelmingly tactical.

Continuing with Kosovo, refugees reported that immediately after the bombing began, the terror reached the capital city of Pristina, mostly spared before, and provided credible accounts of large-scale destruction of villages, brutal atrocities and a radical increase in the generation of refugees, perhaps an effort to expel the Albanian population. Similar reports, generally quite credible, were prominently featured throughout the media, in extensive and horrifying detail, the usual practice in the case of worthy victims under attack by official enemies.

One index of the effects of "the huge air war" was offered by Robert Hayden, director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh: "The casualties among Serb civilians in the first three weeks of the war are higher than all of the casualties on both sides in Kosovo in the three months that led up to this war, and yet those three months were supposed to be a humanitarian catastrophe." Admittedly, casualties among Serb civilians amount to little in the context of the jingoist hysteria that was whipped up for a war against the Serbs. But the toll from the bombing among Albanians in the first three weeks, estimated at the time in the hundreds though presumably much higher, was surely far beyond that of the preceding three months and probably the preceding years.

On March 27, U.S.-NATO Commanding General Wesley Clark announced that it was "entirely predictable" that Serb terror and violence would intensify after the bombing. On the same day, State Department spokesman James Rubin said, "The United States is extremely alarmed by reports of an escalating pattern of Serbian attacks on Kosovar Albanian civilians," now attributed in large part to paramilitary forces. Shortly after, Clark reported again that he was not surprised by the sharp escalation of Serb terror after the bombing: "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."

Clark’s phrase "entirely predictable" is an overstatement. Nothing in human affairs is "entirely predictable," surely not the effects of extreme violence. But what happened at once was highly likely. "Enemies often react when shot at," observed Cames Lord, a former Bush administration national security adviser. "Though Western officials continue to deny it, there can be little doubt that the bombing campaign has provided both motive and opportunity for a wider and more savage Serbian operation than what was first envisioned."

The outcome was not unanticipated in Washington. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Goss informed the media, "Our intelligence community warned us months and days before [the bombing] that we would have a virtual explosion of refugees, … that the Serb resolve would increase, that the conflict would spread, and that there would be ethnic cleansing." As far back as 1992, European monitors in Macedonia had "predicted a sudden, massive influx of ethnic Albanian refugees if hostilities spread into Kosovo."

The reasons for these expectations are clear enough. People "react when shot at" not by garlanding the attacker with flowers, and not where the attacker is strong – but where they are strong: in this case, on the ground, not by sending jet planes to bomb Washington and London. It takes no particular genius to reach these conclusions, nor access to secret intelligence. The overt NATO threat of direct invasion made the brutal reaction even more likely, again for reasons that could hardly have escaped Clinton and Blair.

The threat of bombing presumably had already led to an increase in atrocities, though evidence is slight. The withdrawal of international monitors on March 19 in preparation for the bombing presumably had the same consequence, again predictably. "The monitors were widely seen as the only remaining brake on Yugoslav troops," the Washington Post observed in a retrospective account; and releasing the brake, it must have been assumed, would lead to disaster. Other accounts agree. A subsequent detailed retrospective in the New York Times concluded, "The Serbs began attacking the Kosovo Liberation Army strongholds on March 19, but their attack kicked into high gear on March 24, the night NATO began bombing in Yugoslavia." It would take a heavy dose of intentional ignorance to interpret the facts as mere coincidence.

Serbia officially opposed the withdrawal of the monitors. That resolution in the National Assembly was not reported by the mainstream media, which also did not publish the terms of the Rambouillet Agreement, though the latter was identified throughout the war as right and just. It was "the peace process," emphasis on the, a term used reflexively to refer to Washington’s stand whatever it may be (often efforts to undermine diplomacy), a practice that has been particularly instructive with regard to the Middle East and Central America.

The bombing was undertaken five days after the withdrawal of the monitors with the rational expectation that "the result" would be atrocities and ethnic cleansing, and a "sudden, massive" flight and expulsion of Albanians. That indeed happened, even if the scale may have come as a surprise to some, though the commanding general apparently expected nothing less.