NATO's Humanitarian Trigger

by Diana Johnstone

From James Rubin to Christiane Amanpour (CNN), the broad range of government and media opinion is totally united in demanding that NATO bomb Serbia. This is necessary, we are told, in order to "avert a humanitarian catastrophe", and because, "the only language Milosevic understands is force"... which happens to be the language the U.S. wants to speak.

Kosovo is presented as the problem, and NATO as the solution.

In reality, NATO is the problem, and Kosovo is the solution.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO needed a new excuse for pumping resources into the military-industrial complex. Thanks to Kosovo, NATO can celebrate its 50th anniversary next month by consacration of its new global mission: to intervene anywhere in the world on humanitarian grounds. The recipe is easy: arm a group of radical secessionists to shoot policemen, describe the inevitable police retaliation as "ethnic cleansing", promise the rebels that NATO will bomb their enemy if the fighting goes on, and then interpret the resulting mayhem as a challenge to NATO's "resolve" which must be met by military action.

Thanks to Kosovo, national sovereignty will be a thing of the past -- not of course for Great Powers like the U.S. and China, but for weaker States that really need it. National boundaries will be no obstacle to NATO intervention.

Thanks to Kosovo, the U.S. can control eventual Caspian oil pipeline routes between the Black Sea and the Adriatic, and extend the European influence of favored ally Turkey.

Last February 23, James Hooper, executive director of the Balkan Action Council, one of the many think tanks that have sprung up to justify the ongoing transformation of former Yugoslavia into NATO protectorates, gave a speech at the Holocaust Museum in Washington at the invitation of its "Committee of Conscience". The first item on his list of "things to do next" was this: "Accept that the Balkans are a region of strategic interest for the United States, the new Berlin if you will, the testing ground for NATO's resolve and US leadership. [...] The administration should level with the American people and tell them that we are likely to be in the Balkans militarily indefinitely, at least until there is a democratic government in Belgrade."

In the Middle Ages, the Crusaders launched their conquests from the Church pulpits. Today, NATO does so in the Holocaust Museum. War must be sacred.

This sacralization has been largely facilitated by a post-communist left which has taken refuge in moralism and identity politics to the exclusion of any analysis of the economic and geopolitical factors that continue to determine the macropolicies shaping the world.

Jean-Christophe Rufin, former vice president of "Doctors Without Borders" recently pointed to the responsibility of humanitarian non-governmental organizations in justifying military intervention. "They were the first to deplore the passivity of the political response to dramatic events in the Balkans or Africa. Now they have got what they wanted, or so it seems. For in practice, rubbing elbows with NATO could turn out to be extremely dangerous."

Already the call for United Nations soldiers to intervene on humanitarian missions raised suspicions in the Third World that "the humanitarians could be the Trojan horse of a new armed imperialism", Rufin wrote in "Le Monde". But NATO is something else.

"With NATO, everything has changed. Here we are dealing with a purely military, operational alliance, designed to respond to a threat, that is to an enemy", wrote Rufin. "NATO defines an enemy, threatens it, then eventually strikes and destroys it.

"Setting such a machine in motion requires a detonator. Today it is no longer military. Nor is it political. The evidence is before us: NATO's trigger, today, is... humanitarian. It takes blood, a masssacre, something that will outrage public opinion so that it will welcome a violent reaction."

The consequence, he concluded, is that "the civilian populations have never been so potentially threatened as in Kosovo today. Why? Because those potential victims are the key to international reaction. Let's be clear: the West wants dead bodies. [...] We are waiting for them in Kosovo. We'll get them." Who will kill them is a mystery but previous incidents suggest that "the threat comes from all sides."

In the middle of conflict as in Kosovo, massacres can easily be perpetrated... or "arranged". There are always television crews looking precisely for that "top story".

Recently, Croatian officers have admitted that in 1993 they themselves staged a "Serbian bombing" of the Croatian coastal city of Sibenik for the benefit of Croatian television crews. The former Commander of the 113th Croatian brigade headquarters, Davo Skugor, reacted indignantly. "Why so much fuss?" he complained. "There is no city in Croatia in which such tactical tricks were not used. After all, they are an integral part of strategic planning. That's only one in a series of stratagems we've resorted to during the war."

The fact remains that there really is a very serious Kosovo problem. It has existed for well over a century, habitually exacerbated by outside powers (the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Empire, the Axis powers during World War II). The Serbs are essentially a modernized peasant people, who having liberated themselves from arbitrary Turkish Ottoman oppression in the 19th century, are attached to modern state institutions. In contrast, the Albanians in the northern mountains of Albania and Kosovo have never really accepted any law, political or religious, over their own unwritten "Kanun" based on patriarchal obedience to vows, family honor, elaborate obligations, all of which are enforced not by any government but by male family and clan chiefs protecting their honor, eventually in the practice of blood feuds and revenge.

The basic problem of Kosovo is the difficult coexistence on one territory of ethnic communities radically separated by customs, language and historical self-identification. From a humanistic viewpoint, this problem is more fundamental than the problem of State boundaries.

Mutual hatred and fear is the fundamental human catastrophe in Kosovo. It has been going on for a long time. It has got much worse in recent years. Why?

Two factors stand out as paradoxically responsible for this worsening -- paradoxically, because presented to the world as factors which should have improved the situation.

1 - The first is the establishment in the autonomous Kosovo of the 1970s and 1980s of separate Albanian cultural institutions, notably the Albanian language faculties in Pristina University. This cultural autonomy, demanded by ethnic Albanian leaders, turned out to be a step not to reconciliation between communities but to their total separation. Drawing on a relatively modest store of past scholarship, largely originating in Austria, Germany or Enver Hoxha's Albania, studies in Albanian history and literature amounted above all to glorifications of Albanian identity. Rather than developing the critical spririt, they developed narrow ethnocentricy. Graduates in these fields were prepared above all for the career of nationalist political leader, and it is striking the number of literati among Kosovo Albanian secessionist leaders. Extreme cultural autonomy has created two populations with no common language.

In retrospect, what should have been done was to combine Serbian and Albanian studies, requiring both languages, and developing original comparative studies of history and literature. This would have subjected both Serbian and Albanian national myths to the scrutiny of the other, and worked to correct the nationalist bias in both. Bilingual comparative studies could and should have been a way toward mutual understanding as well as an enrichment of universal culture. Instead, culture in the service of identity politics leads to mutual ignorance and contempt.

The lesson of this grave error should be a warning elsewhere, starting in Macedonia, where Albanian nationalists are clamoring to repeat the Pristina experience in Tetova. Other countries with mixed ethnic populations should take note.

2. The second factor has been the support from foreign powers, especially the United States, to the Albanian nationalist cause in Kosovo. By uncritically accepting the version of the tangled Kosovo situation presented by the Albanian lobby, American politicians have greatly exacerbated the conflict by encouraging the armed Albanian rebels and pushing the Serbian authorities into extreme efforts to wipe them out.

The "Kosovo Liberation Army" (UCK) has nothing to lose by provoking deadly clashes, once it is clear that the number of dead and the number of refugees will add to the balance of the "humanitarian catastrophe" that can bring NATO and U.S. air power into the conflict on the Albanian side.

The Serbs have nothing to gain by restraint, once it is clear that they will be blamed anyway for whatever happens.

By identifying the Albanians as "victims" per se, and the Serbs as the villains, the United States and its allies have made any fair and reasonable political situation virtually impossible. The Clinton administration in particular builds its policy on the assumption that what the Kosovar Albanians -- including the UCK -- really want is "democracy", American style. In fact, what they want is power over a particular territory, and among the Albanian nationalists, there is a bitter power struggle going on over who will exercise that power.

Thus an American myth of "U.S.-style democracy and free market economy will solve everything" is added to the Serbian and Albanian myths to form a fictional screen making reality almost impossible to discern, much less improve. Underlying the American myth are Brzezinski-style geostrategic designs on potential pipeline routes to Caspian oil and methodology for expanding NATO as an instrument to ensure U.S. hegemony over the Eurasian land mass.

Supposing by some miracle the world suddenly turned upside down, and there were outside powers who really cared about the fate of Kosovo and its inhabitants, one could suggest the following:

1 - stop one-sided demonization of the Serbs, recognize the genuine qualities, faults and fears on all sides, and work to promote understanding rather than hatred;

2 - stop arming and encouraging rebel groups;

3 - allow genuine mediation by parties with no geostrategic or political interests at stake in the region.



Diana Johnstone was the European editor of In these Times from 1979 to 1990, and press officer of the Green group in the European Parliament from 1990 to 1996. She is currently working on a book on the former Yugoslavia. She is the author of: The Politics of Euromissiles: Europe's Role in America's World (Schocken Books, 1985)


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