by  Philip Hammond


Nato’s Kosovo war was both shocking and predictable. It was shocking in its ferocity: for two and a half months, the Nato allies killed hundreds of civilians and made thousands more homeless (including the ethnic Albanians it supposedly wanted to ‘save’), as well as causing widespread environmental damage, the effects of which will be felt for years to come. It was all too predictable because the 1999 Nato attack followed the pattern of the West’s earlier destructive interference in the region since 1991. In 1995 and 1999 the destruction took a directly military form; but the diplomatic, political and ‘humanitarian’ interventions of Western powers have, throughout, fanned the flames of conflict and hastened the violent break-up of Yugoslavia. Western policy has been unfailingly cynical and self-serving, careless of the violence it has unleashed.

Yet despite all this, the general perception – certainly in Britain – is that Western policy in the Balkans is well-intentioned. Some may complain that it has been inconsistent, short-term or ill-conceived. But there is a widespread consensus that, potentially, the West is a force for good in the region, and for years before the Kosovo war, liberal opinion complained that the West was not doing enough to help. The outcome of such apparent criticism was that in 1999 Nato successfully presented its wanton destruction of Yugoslavia as ‘humanitarian’ and ‘ethical’: driven by moral imperatives rather than national self-interest.

The media have played a key role in sustaining the idea of a ‘humanitarian’ foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Complex conflicts have been simplified into epic battles between Good and Evil; enemies have been demonised; and the Western powers have been lionised as heroic saviours of the world. The first instance of this was at the end of the 1990-91 Gulf War when – despite having witnessed the Western allies drive Iraq back to the Stone Age – many urged the West to intervene further, in order to save Kurds persecuted by Iraq’s regime. The fact that Turkey was invited to celebrate Nato’s fiftieth birthday in Washington, even as it was killing Kurdish people within its own borders and in the ‘safe havens’ in Iraq, gives some indication of what it is like to be saved by the West.

In Yugoslavia we have witnessed a long-running media campaign to demonise the Serbs, who have been portrayed as the new Nazis, running concentration camps and committing genocide. Many journalists have openly taken sides in Yugoslavia’s civil wars, abandoning even a rhetorical commitment to objectivity. Media coverage of Yugoslavia has been all comment and no context: it is this which has allowed a series of bloody civil conflicts to be portrayed as one-sided aggression. Like Western politicians, reporters have taken a moralistic stance, vilifying the Serbs and calling tougher military action against them. When that military action came, in Kosovo in 1999, in place of reporting we had propaganda.


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