NATO's Humanitarian Trigger
by Diana Johnstone
From James Rubin to Christiane Amanpour, 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
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
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
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
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
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.
The Politics of Euromissiles: Europe's Role in America's World (Schocken Books, 1985)