The 1999 NATO-led bombing against Serbia was a humanitarian intervention, not a U.S. and European power grab
By Paul Hockenos
June 25, 2008
Stuart Anderson’s “The Kosovo Dilemma” (5/14/08) is badly in need of correction.
As I have argued before in these pages, the 1999 NATO-led bombing campaign against Serbia was a legitimate humanitarian intervention designed to halt the persecution of Kosovar Albanians in Kosovo. In 1998 during the first phase of the 1998-1999 war, the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), acting against an unarmed civilian population, forced 300,000 ethnic Albanians from their homes. Serb reprisals continued through winter 1998-1999 and the offensive resumed in early 1999. By April 1999 a combination of Serb ethnic cleansing and NATO air strikes had forced 850,000 (overwhelmingly Albanians) from their homes. The very same actors — JNA, irregular paramilitaries, local police — that perpetrated ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, including the Srebrenica massacre, were on the ground and active in Kosovo.
The January 15,1999 massacre at Racak was just one example. As in Bosnia, the Serbs objective was to create an ethnically homogenous territory. The Western powers watched on as the Serbs perpetrated genocide in Bosnia; they intervened in Kosovo not because they were spoiling for war but because of the pressure of public opinion to act. (During the Bosnia war President Clinton’s response to Serb ethnic cleansing was not moral outrage but concern about the opinion polls. “I’m getting creamed on this,” he exclaimed to advisers.)
It is positively ludicrous to attribute an economic motive to the Kosovo intervention. What could the countries of Western Europe and North America possibly gain in terms of trade or treasure from the campaign against Serbia or even an independent Kosovo? Certainly the intervention spared Western Europe another protracted refugee crisis like those during the Bosnia and Croatia wars. The millions of displaced peoples cost the Europeans billions and disrupted regional trade for over four years, which had hugely negative repercussions — particularly for neighboring countries like Bulgaria, Romania, and Macedonia.
Kosovo is a poor, underdeveloped, landlocked patch of mostly arid, mountainous terrain. Its most profitable sectors are cement and gravel production. Regardless of what Clinton said while rallying support for intervention, Kosovo neither had nor has any economic value to the United States.
As for international law, while it is true that the campaign happened without UN Security Council approval, it was waged in the name of universal human rights, which is also part of international law. Three years of UN inaction and half-hearted measures in Bosnia served as a fig leaf for Western powers that wanted no part of that war — and it resulted in disaster. Finally, by 1999, the major western countries stopped making excuses and responded to Slobodan Milosevic with the only language he would listen to, namely the force of arms, and with the only multilateral force at the West’s disposal, NATO.
As wars do, this one took innocent lives and caused environmental damage. I would rather it had been waged without cluster bombs and the targeting of infrastructure, to say nothing about the loss of innocent lives. But the wars in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo had already taken over 150,000 lives by spring 1999. Everybody — and the environment too — would have been better off had the West acted sooner to stop Milosevic.
Certainly, the war did contribute to the rationale for NATO’s continued existence, something that NATO military planners and many Western leaders wanted. But the air strikes in early 1999 were not waged exclusively or even primarily to justify NATO’s post-Cold War existence. The fact is that there was no other multinational force capable of such an intervention, something the EU is in the process of changing.
Anderson goes astray on many important facts, a result of dubious sources one can dredge up by trolling the Internet.
David Binder, for example, is a longtime Serb apologist who falls over himself in the most right-wing Serbian diaspora publications and government Web sites praising Serbia’s World War II monarchists and Serbdom in general. His contention that Kosovo Albanians “raped” Kosovo Serbs during the 1980s is a piece of Serbian nationalist propaganda that has long been discredited, as have most of Binder’s other claims. Anderson’s contention of “ethnic Albanian violence against Serbs, Roma and other non-Albanians” in the 1990s is preposterous. Throughout the 1990s, the Kosovo Albanians conducted a strategy of nonviolent resistance in Kosovo, the centerpiece of which was a “parallel state” that had neither police, army, nor an operational paramilitary force. All of the usual means of violence in Kosovo were in Serbian hands, which they used liberally against the ethnic Albanians, a fact substantiated by nearly every independent monitoring agency or eyewitness on the ground at the time.
Likewise, his numbers on the Serb exodus after the 1999 war are way off: European Stability Initiative, a think tank, estimates there were 129,475 Serbs in postwar Kosovo; 65,000 of nearly 200,000 pre-war Serbs had fled. Even Kosovo’s Serbian National Council claims there are at least 100,000 Serbs still in Kosovo, a far cry from Anderson’s 20,000.
The completely unsubstantiated claim that Kosovo is a “mafia state” or “mafia society” is also straight from the pages of Serb propaganda, which has long tried to defame the Albanians as crooks, gangsters, pimps, and traffickers. The corruption in Kosovo isn’t any worse than that in Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania, and nobody calls them “mafia states.” But Anderson’s biggest howler last: MPRI is not “Multiphoton Resonance Ionization,” but Military Professional Resources Incorporated.
In the post-Balkan War distribution of territory in 1912, Kosovo was awarded to Serbia. Over nearly a century in different state forms, Serbia proper never treated Kosovo as a multiethnic territory, one whose diverse inhabitants are equal citizens with full political rights. Serbia coveted Kosovo strictly in terms of its territory, not its inhabitants, and through one policy or another attempted to shift the demographic balance in favor of the Serbs. Serbia has forfeited the right to Kosovo. Independence for Kosovo – and the inclusion of both Kosovo and Serbia in the EU — is the only way to lay the groundwork for long-term peace and stability in the western Balkans.
Paul Hockenos has written for In These Times from Eastern Europe since 1989. He is the author, most recently, of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany (Oxford University Press).