At the height of the Clinton impeachment "crisis," both defenders and critics of the embattled president often referred to what they liked to called "those stubborn facts," basically bits of information the other side preferred not to acknowledge. Mass media seized any opportunity to exploit such disputes, offering themselves as even-handed defenders of fairness and truth.
But just a few months later, facts became irrelevant as the US and NATO geared up for a war in Yugoslavia, and the same media outlets redefined their role as unofficial government spokespersons.
In order to convince an initially skeptical public that air strikes, and possibly even a ground war, were justified, several arguments were offered. For instance, officials claimed that the government of Slobodan Milosevic had refused to negotiate on Kosovo, and was engaged in a brutal campaign of "ethnic cleansing" that bordered on genocide. NATO, on the other hand, was intervening to prevent a "humanitarian catastrophe," and sought only to alleviate human suffering and defend the rights of Kosovo's Muslim Albanians. Unfortunately, another series of "stubborn facts," all but censored once the bombing began, contradicted those comforting assertions.
First, there were the pre-war negotiations. In February, 1999, when peace talks began in France, Yugoslavia was given an ultimatum: Grant Kosovo autonomy and let NATO station 30,000 troops there for the next three years -- or face the consequences. Contrary to reports, only the stationing of troops was rejected, on the grounds that it violated Yugoslavia's sovereignty. If anyone was refusing to negotiate, it appeared to be the US and NATO.
But the relentless use of buzzwords like ethnic cleansing and genocide, plus the redefinition of Milosevic as the world's new “Hitler," quickly gave this unyielding stance the veneer of humanitarian concern. Usually omitted was the inconvenient reality that the violence in Kosovo was a part of an ongoing struggle between the government and separatists, who had been actively waging civil war for at least two years. Beginning in October, 1998, the well-armed Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), an extremist group with connections to Osama Bin Laden and drug smuggling, staged more than 200 attacks on government facilities and local leaders hostile to independence. The following February, the New York Times announced that KLA fighters would be brought to the US for training. You didn't have to be an apologist for Milosevic to recognize that such developments contributed greatly to his government's overreaction.
Another stubborn fact was the US role in setting the stage for conflict, while turning a blind eye to inconvenient catastrophes. The breakdown of Yugoslavia, which began with the death of President Tito in 1980, was largely ignored outside Europe until it ignited regional war in the 1990s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union no serious effort was made by Europe, the UN or the US, to safeguard the growth of democracy or political tolerance. Instead, US policy was preoccupied with finding a quick fix that would protect strategic and economic interests in Europe. After advocating Yugoslavian unity for too long, subsequent US mistakes included isolating the Serbs, prematurely recognizing Croatia, and imposing one-sided sanctions. According to Pentagon thinking, the desirable US strategy was to use the threat of military intervention to restore the status quo. In 1992, sanctions and diplomatic isolation destroyed efforts to build a new political structure in what was left of the country.
The biggest single act of "ethnic cleansing" in the region was the 1995 forced removal of 600,000 Serbs from the Krajina region of Croatia (a former Yugoslav republic) by the US-trained and armed Croatian military. Some of the 55,000 Serbs resettled afterward in Kosovo were among the refugees we subsequently saw on TV during the 1999 war. In the past, US policy had sanctioned the removal of Kurdish people in Turkey, as well as Palestinians, East Timorese, Guatemalan indigenous people, and many more.
So, why intervene, and why against the Serbs? Contrary to official spin, the apparent US/NATO agenda was to break Yugoslavia into smaller pieces. The Balkans is a strategic region, a crossroads between Western Europe and the oil-rich Middle East and Caspian Basin. In addition to land routes, the Danube may someday carry gas from the ex-Soviet Caucasus to West Europe via the Rhine. In the 1990s, the Western powers had gained effective control over the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia, as well as Hungary and Albania. The only hold out was the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In short, it stood in the path of the New World Order.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO needed fresh and powerful reasons to stay in business. Thanks to Kosovo, it was able to celebrate its 50th anniversary by consecrating a new global mission: intervention anywhere in the world on humanitarian grounds. The recipe was deceptively simple: Arm a group of radical secessionists to ambush policemen and define the inevitable government retaliation as "ethnic cleansing." Next, promise the rebels that NATO will bomb their enemy if the fighting persists, and call the resulting mayhem a challenge to NATO's "resolve" that must be answered by military force. In the case of Yugoslavia, the KLA had nothing to lose it; refugees and casualties would help to prove a "humanitarian catastrophe" was underway, ultimately bringing NATO and the US into the conflict on its side. For the Serbs, restraint seemed pointless. Clearly, they would be blamed for whatever happened.
Waiting for the Body Count
On February 23, 1999, James Hooper, director of the Balkan Action Council, gave a revealing speech at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, at the invitation of its "Committee of Conscience." The Council was one of several think tanks that sprang up to justify the transformation of the former Yugoslavia into a NATO protectorate. The first item on Hooper's to-do list was to "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."
Writing about NATO in the French daily Le Monde early in the war, Jean-Christophe Rufin, former vice president of Doctors Without Borders, described it as "a purely military, operational alliance, designed to respond to a threat, that is, to an enemy. 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 massacre, something that will outrage public opinion so that it will welcome a violent reaction."
Civilians were targets in Kosovo largely because victims were the key to international outrage and reaction. "Let's be clear: the West wants dead bodies," Rufin advised. "We are waiting for them in Kosovo. We'll get them." In the middle of such a conflict, massacres can easily occur. And if not, they can be "arranged." There is almost always a camera at hand.
In 1993, for example, Croatian officers staged a "Serbian bombing" of the Croatian coastal city of Sibenik for Croatian TV crews. When the scheme was exposed six years later, the former Commander of the 113th Croatian brigade headquarters became indignant. "Why so much fuss?" Davo Skugor 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."
Ignoring those and other "stubborn facts" during the attack on Yugoslavia, most of the media's talking heads instead assumed the role of cheerleader for the Western military and KLA, often repeating stories that turned out to be false. The fabrications began even before the bombing with the report of a "massacre" at Racak, the event that triggered the doomed "peace talks." In this case, the source was US State Department veteran William Walker, a former US ambassador to El Salvador and Nicaragua and player in the covert 1980s campaign to supply the Contras.
Walker was US ambassador to Yugoslavia at the time. His version of Racak was soon challenged by documentary film footage. But the disinformation continued, complete with inflated casualty and refugee figures, silence about KLA attacks and atrocities, and the claim (later proven false) that Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova had been assassinated. That actually may have been a case of wishful thinking, much like the premature announcement that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a thorn for US oil companies, had been overthrown in April 2002; Chavez was back in his office within two days of an attempted coup. In Rugova’s case, the US/NATO concern was that he had condemned the attack and seemed more willing to negotiate with Milosevic than those claiming to defend Albanian interests.
What really happened in Rajak? According to a team of Finnish pathologists sent in to investigate, Serbian police entered the village, a KLA stronghold, on January 15, 1999. Observers from an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Verification Mission and an Associated Press video team tagged along. In the ensuing fire fight, Serb police bested their attackers. The next day, however, KLA combatants led international media and Walker, who also headed the OSCE mission, to a gully at the edge of town littered with corpses.
After the KLA showed the group the bodies of about 40 people, Walker immediately cried "massacre," accusing Serbia's security forces of killing "unarmed civilians." The story went global. Describing the incident as "a deliberate and arbitrary act of murder," President Clinton issued a harsh condemnation. The German foreign ministry agreed, warning those responsible that "the international community is not prepared to accept the brutal persecution and murder of civilians in Kosovo."
The Yugoslav government denied the accusation, accusing the KLA of gathering the corpses of its own fighters and arranging them to resemble a mass execution. But hardly anyone was buying. What soon became known as the "Racak massacre" had made NATO intervention a virtual certainty. The Washington Post later reported that Rajak "transformed the West's Balkan policy as singular events seldom do." Soon after January 15, NATO held an emergency meeting, during which US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recommended bombing Yugoslavia as "punishment." But before the punishment could be administered, Washington had to go through the charade of "peace talks" in Rambouillet. The strategy here was apparently to issue demands that the Yugoslav regime could not accept.
In February, forensic experts arrived from Belarus and Finland. The Belarus team said there was no massacre, but the Finnish spokesperson issued a vague report that allowed Walker's charges to stand. A year later, the same team was no longer so sure. According to a May 2000 CBC Radio News report, a Finnish pathologist's autopsies revealed no evidence that the 40 bodies were intentionally mutilated. Only one of them showed signs of murder at close range. The most plausible explanation turned out to be that KLA fighters were killed in a fire fight. But the truth had been suppressed long enough to help shape public opinion.
By identifying Albanians as "victims" and Serbs as villains from the outset, the US and its allies were able to effectively short-circuit any meaningful debate. The Clinton administration also insisted that the Kosovar Albanians only wanted US-style democracy (their actual goal was control over territory), and that democracy, combined with a free market economy, would ultimately solve their problems. But NATO/US intervention was meanwhile making a bad situation worse, in effect creating the humanitarian catastrophe it was supposed to avert.
Behind the scenes, a Brzezinski-style geostrategy was being played out: successful prosecution of the war would help to secure potential pipeline routes to Caspian oil, while expanding NATO's role as an tool of Western hegemony over Eurasia. The result was a convenient fiction that made reality virtually impossible to detect.
As the war escalated, both backers and opponents became adamant, and marshaled more "facts" to support their positions. Critics of bombing noted that NATO and the US had not negotiated in good faith, or taken steps to deal with the refugee flow that predictably followed, even though they probably expected it. Supporters pointed to the mass removal of Albanians before the bombing, Milosevic's past betrayals and crimes, and evidence of atrocities. To some extent, both sides were right.
During a conversation with an old friend -- once an anti-war activist, now a government staffer -- I suggested that the decision to bomb had more to do with NATO's credibility and US influence in Europe than protecting Kosovo Albanians or defense of human rights. He responded, "Milosevic is a brutal dictator and something had to be done to stop genocide. I'm not a pacifist." But equating opposition to bombing with pacifism, along with the argument that military action was justified by the mere charge of genocide, betrayed the myopic thinking of many supporting "diplomacy backed by force."
The real issue was not choosing between doing nothing and "something" -- that is, going to war. It was whether bombing, or even a ground war, would solve the problem. As it turned out, NATO's battle plan murderously misfired. The results included an accelerated flow of refugees, increased ethnic hatred, and destruction of Yugoslavia's infrastructure and democratic opposition. Despite eventual "success," international law was weakened, higher US defense spending was justified, and the notion that the US and NATO should act as "humanitarian" globocops was considerably advanced.
For many people, the genocide argument was especially persuasive. But ethnic cleansing is not genocide, and equating them trivializes the latter. Only a few months before the bombing began, Germany's Foreign Office had argued that neither ethnic cleansing nor genocide were occurring. A January, 1999 intelligence report stated that, "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 insisted the mission was "just" in any case. The fact that the US had failed to act in the past, many times even supporting murderous regimes, did not mean it couldn't do the right thing this time. So went the thinking at least. But the campaign did little to help the victims, while hurting many civilians and visiting untold damage on the environment throughout Serbia and Kosovo.
Three years after extensive bombing, the UN found widespread low-level contamination due to the use of depleted uranium. Although UN scientists insisted that the levels did not pose a direct threat to human health, they did express concern about a potential risk of contaminated water sources due to the ammunition tips made out of depleted uranium. In other words, people were safe unless they drank the water. Expressing surprise that depleted uranium dust was still in the air, the researchers urged authorities to fence off and monitor affected sites.
So, if Milosevic was a mugger and the Kosovars his victim, NATO might be called the macho bystander who decided to "help" by wildly firing a shotgun.
There is no doubt that crimes against humanity were committed. But more than one defendant might have been charges. According to UN Human Rights Commission Chair Mary Robinson, an international war crimes tribunal could have investigated 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 May, 1999. As it happened, however, only Milosevic and some Serb accomplices were indicted and tried.
Those who said that bombing "was better than doing nothing" also ignored the fact that other options were available. Why weren't they pursued? Mainly because the main objective was not to protect Kosovo Albanians, but rather to prevent ethnic conflict from affecting other parts of Europe (a central reason why independence for Kosovo wasn't on the negotiating table), while advancing the role of NATO as enforcer of what it called "collective security."
The Soviet Union's break up had made NATO's original mandate obsolete. The new agenda, as advocated by the US, involved 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 was obligated not to use force in any manner inconsistent with the UN Charter, essentially leaving that decision to the Security Council. The US nevertheless argued that the alliance should have the right to act if UN approval could not be obtained. Or, apparently, if it didn't bother to ask. The Yugoslavia war made this official policy.
In response to the charge that NATO's intervention violated Yugoslavia's sovereignty, some experts suggested that sovereignty is a dubious right that should have limits. In the abstract, it is difficult to disagree. But that thinking essentially puts the strong, usually the US or another northern industrial state, 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? Despite questionable NATO and US motives, supporters argued that the military's success in stopping Milosevic made it all worthwhile. But given the actual consequences -- more deaths, a damaged environment, the undermining of international law, and so on - this could be the most cynical argument of all.