Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Lessons From Kosovo




Serbia was not always the pariah it is in the West today. In fact, as journalist Tim Judah points out in his history of the recent conflict, Kosovo: War and Revenge, "gallant little Serbia" was once the darling of the World War I Allies. And even the enmity between Serbs and Albanians was not always considered immutable: After World War II there was talk of Yugoslavia and Albania merging. But Kosovo has wiped out such memories.


In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic tried to stem the decline of Kosovo's ethnic Serbian population by orchestrating an end to the province's autonomous status within the Republic of Serbia, of which he had recently become president. Albanians responded by seeking status as a separate Republic of Yugoslavia.


But the end to autonomy meant an end to state-sponsored Albanian language institutions. Albanians f now the vast majority f responded with their own education and health care systems. Referenda overwhelmingly backed independence. Ibrahim Rugova was declared president of a shadow state in an election that was illegal but was, nevertheless, conducted with relatively little interference from Yugoslavia. From then on, autonomy was off the agenda.


In 1996, Judah writes, the newly formed Kosovo Liberation Army "issued a death threat to any Albanian leader who signed an autonomy agreement with Serbia." Meanwhile, "U.S. intelligence ? was warning that the KLA 'intended to draw NATO into its fight for independence by provoking Serb forces into further atrocities.'"


The Serb forces readily complied. "By Aug. 3 [1998], the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was estimating that 200,000 Kosovars had been displaced by the fighting." The following year, Yugoslavia allowed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to station 2,000 monitors in Kosovo. But as fighting continued to escalate, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization withdrew them and began a 78-day bombing campaign. As NATO bombs and missiles fell, the Yugoslav Army proceeded to evict the remainder of the Albanian population: "In the end, almost 850,000 were either deported or fled Kosovo and hundreds of thousands were displaced inside."


This, in Judah's view, was where Milosevic lost the war. Before the massive nature of the evacuation became clear, the story was all about the bombing of Serbia. "If this situation had continued for much longer, there is little doubt that uproar would have ensued. The question would have been asked, 'How can we bomb a small country f whatever we think of its government f because it refuses to sign an agreement about the future of part of its own territory?'"


Why did it all happen? Judah thinks "they all just got it wrong" f both sides assumed the other would back down. For now, he offers little more by way of hope than the musing of a Belgrade journalist that things would be better if only "Serbia found its Adenauer and Kosovo its Mandela." In other words, it's going to take a miracle.


The New Humanism?


It has become something of a truism that truth is the first casualty of war f except, of course, when war actually breaks out and people seem to assume the maxim applies only to the other side. Likewise, as Noam Chomsky puts it, "every state is an aggressive promoter of human rights f elsewhere."


Chomsky first achieved note for revolutionizing linguistic theory. Subsequently, he has also specialized in the rhetoric of governments. However, despite a steady flow of books and articles and speeches that draw standing-room-only crowds, Chomsky is largely ignored by mainstream news and opinion centers. The reason for this lack of attention? Presumably his relentless criticism of the news media for their continual failure to document the disparities between government word and deed.


In The New Military Humanism: Lessons From Kosovo, Chomsky challenges both the rationale of the "new military humanism," and its appropriateness in the specific case of Kosovo. The Yugoslav government's abuse of its ethnic Albanian Kosovar population is not questioned: He calls the war crimes charges filed against Milosevic "long overdue." But he asks why Serbia was bombed when Turkey's similar treatment of its Kurdish population is not considered an issue at all. The simple answer, of course, is that Turkey is a NATO member, and for most of the Western press, this fact seems to render further discussion of the question pointless.


Chomsky also asks whether the Rambouillet agreement that was supposed to find a way out of the Kosovo conflict was not actually drawn up so as to ensure that Yugoslavia would reject it, thereby justifying the bombing campaign. Not until the bombing was over would The New York Times report that under the proposed agreement, "a purely NATO force was to be given full permission to go anywhere it wanted in Yugoslavia, immune from any legal process." (Judah never mentions it.) Chomsky considers it "hard to imagine that any country would consider such terms except in the form of unconditional surrender." And after the bombing, NATO troops have, in fact, been confined to Kosovo. He notes that Yugoslavia's opposition to the withdrawal of the OSCE monitors was also unreported in the Western media (including in Judah's book).


Chomsky is one of few to note the degree to which the Serb people, and not just their government, were reviled f and threatened, as in New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's warning, "We are at war with the Serbian nation and anyone hanging around Belgrade needs to understand that." Chomsky considers the jingoism "a phenomenon I have not seen in my lifetime since the hysteria whipped up about 'the Japs' during World WarII."


Ultimately, Chomsky thinks that bombing prevailed over other options in order to preserve NATO's credibility, citing the report of the NATO defense ministers' meeting in which U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen "challenged his colleagues to embrace a new role for the alliance. If NATO could not muster a threat to Milosevic under these circumstances, he asked, what was the point of the alliance?"


Double Standards


Michael Ignatieff is literally a child of the system that Chomsky castigates f his father was a diplomat, at one point stationed in Belgrade. And at times his Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond reads like a case study of the ideology that Chomsky critiques. Rambouillet was, for example, "not a negotiation intended to fail" f end of discussion, no need to examine the particulars.


Ignatieff refers several times to Yugoslavia's "Operation Horseshoe." The discovery of this pre-existing plan to expel the Albanian population has been cited as proof that the evacuation was not a reaction to the bombing. The problem is that retired German Brigadier General Heinz Loquasi has subsequently stated that there was no such plan, just a vague Bulgarian intelligence report on Yugoslavia's plans to rout the KLA, which the German Defense Ministry dubbed "Horseshoe" and used to counter domestic opposition. No mention of that in this book.


For Ignatieff, "NATO defeat ? would leave the two global civilizations, Europe and America, without a credible defense alliance." And he engages in some interesting logic in defense of the "global civilizations." They presumably allow freedom of the press out of moral principles. But when Milosevic allows "CNN and BBC to continue broadcasting from inside [war-torn] Serbia," Ignatieff says he was just "manipulating modern real-time news to his own advantage. He gambled his regime on the tenderness of Western hearts."


"Virtual War" does, however, provide telling bits of information. Although Russia was clearly upset at seeing NATO expand beyond its Cold War raison d'etre f and at the expense of its historic ally, Serbia f it did not do the one thing that might have made a difference. "The air war was essentially a duel between '70s Soviet air defense technology and state-of-the-art American precison guidance systems," writes Ignatieff, adding that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott "has confirmed that the U.S. 'repeatedly and explicitly,' and successfully warned Russia" not to give Yugoslavia their latest technology.


Ignatieff reports that Milosevic's indictment by the tribunal established for the crimes of the wars of the former Yugoslavia required the assistance of the U.S. intelligence community following "labor intensive" negotiations with the State Department. However, such help was not forthcoming for the tribunal's postwar investigation of NATO's actions, in which it concluded that none of them had been directed against civilians. (And while the Tribunal did confirm that NATO used cluster bombs, as well as weapons containing depleted uranium, neither of these is currently illegal under international law.)


But what of the bombing of the Belgrade television station that killed 18 and has been deemed a war crime by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch? The Tribunal acknowledged that in this case, NATO refused to answer its specific questions and its investigation was limited to considering only NATO and Yugoslav public statements. So apparently NATO's claim that Yugoslavia was also using the television station's transmitters as military relays sufficed to clear it in the eyes of the Tribunal.


But it turns out that this position was controversial even within NATO. Ignatieff cites an anonymous source attached to the Royal Air Force saying the British "believed that the bombing of the Serbian TV and the power grid constituted potential violations of the Geneva Conventions," and therefore did not take part. "Similarly, the French government refused to take part in strikes against Belgrade bridges and managed to dissuade other allies from taking them all down."


The Cost of 'Victory'


But, we might ask, official prevarications aside, what was to be done? After all, it was quite true that atrocities were occurring and escalating in Kosovo; the preponderance were directed by the Yugoslavian government against the ethnic Albanian population; and the example of Srebrenica, where the Bosnian Serb army had massacred 8,000 to 10,000 Bosnian Moslims, did appear to show that Yugoslavia was capable of creating an even worse situation. And certainly Ignatieff is right enough to argue that "the requirement that 'he who casts the first stone should be without sin' is a guarantee of inaction."


Well, with the clearer vision of hindsight, we can see that not only did the bombing campaign not stop ethnic cleansing, but it triggered Yugoslavia to take it to a level beyond anyone's anticipation. It also seems clear that if large Srebrenica-type massacres had in fact been planned, bombing could not have prevented them.


On the other hand, the bombing did ultimately allow the return of 800,000 Albanians, those expelled both during and before the war. However, 250,000 Serbs and Gypsies have now left because they do not feel safe in a province where security rests in the hands of the Kosovo Protection Corps, commanded by Agim Ceku. (Before serving as chief of staff of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Ceku served as one of the five commanders of the Croatian Army's 1995 Operation Storm, which drove 170,000 Serbs out of the Krajina region of Kosovo, the largest act of ethnic cleansing of the Yugoslav wars prior to the Kosovo war.)


If success means simply instituting majority control, then we may consider the NATO campaign a success. But if it is supposed to include minority rights, then it has been a failure, at least so far. When "doing something" amounts to adding to the death and destruction of a situation, it really ought to be a last resort, and it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that, at the least, the situation would have turned out no worse if talks had continued longer, no matter how frustrating and futile they may have seemed at the time.


"Kosovo: War and Revenge," by Tim Judah. 288pp. Yale. $40.00


"The New Military Humanism: Lessons From Kosovo," by Noam Chomsky. 199pp. Common Courage Press. $15.95


"Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond," by Michael Ignatieff. 249pp. Henry Holt. $23.00


Tom Gallagher is a political writer based in San Francisco.