Wednesday, March 23, 2011

1999: "Peace" in Kosovo

The persistent belief that Kosovo was a "good war" seems to have informed a lot of thinking about the possibility of intervening in Libya. My good friend David Gibbs has addressed this paradigm, in book-length, article-length and op-ed formats. I think the entire episode is worth revisiting in detail, with an eye to challenging one's own assumptions, wherever one stood at the time.

As this issue hits the streets, NATO troops are hitting the ground in Kosovo, having finally ended their massive bombardment of Yugoslavia. The President and much of the corporate media will no doubt be portraying this as a wonderful victory for our side. But it comes at a terrible price, and as with our much longer war against Vietnam, the terms agreed to at the end are not much different from what we could have got in the first place.

According to the text of the plan, both sides have compromised. What Yugoslavia has given up was the insistence on an unarmed peacekeeping force (though they had actually given that up some weeks ago), and more importantly, its refusal to allow occupying troops from the NATO countries carrying out the bombing.

What the NATO allies have given up is the refusal to countenance a UN peacekeeping force as opposed to a NATO force, though in reality, despite the participation of Russian troops, it will probably be a de facto NATO force under "UN command." That's almost as much of a laugh as the provision for the demilitarization of the KLA, which I'll believe when I see it.

However, NATO has given up more that that, based on the "non-negotiable" demands presented at Rambouillet (about which more below). We are no longer insisting that we be allowed to occupy all of Yugoslavia; that we can use all roads, airports, seaports, and broadcasting facilities at Yugoslav expense; that our forces be immune from prosecution; and, crucially, we no longer insist that Kosovo be governed by a NATO commander under a so-called "free market" economy. There is, however, a vague provision regarding "economic development of the crisis region."

Notably, the other glaring difference from Rambouillet is that we have dropped the language which persuaded the KLA to sign on and allow us to begin the bombing, namely that Kosovo could transition to independence after three years. Now we speak only of "autonomy" for Kosovo, which Yugoslavia agreed to at Rambouillet, and note our respect for the "sovereignty" and "territorial integrity" of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and "other states in the region." This has been our ostensible policy all along, though we had to speak out of the other side of the mouth in order to get the KLA to sign on the dotted line.

This is not likely to go over well with the Albanian hardliners, but then, I don't expect it to hold. We are now committed to "demilitarizing" the same extremist forces that we armed and trained, and now we will not only be their air force but their ground forces as well. A more likely scenario is a replay of the October 1998 ceasefire, which required both sides to withdraw. The Serbs did so, and the KLA, not averse to ethnic cleansing of Serbs (or even non-Muslim Albanians) then occupied two-thirds of Kosovo. It was the Serb reaction to this which justified our "peacemaking" efforts in the first place.

Obligated as I am to consider worst-case scenarios, I can foresee an "incident" which could spark an eventual ground war anyway, with the fortuitous factor of our troops having first been allowed into a "permissive environment." Word is that Congresscritters from both sides of the aisle who have met with Clinton say he is determined to stop at nothing short of Milosevic's ouster. Luckily, most of the rest of the world will try to prevent such adventurism.

We have mainly the Russians to thank for this, and their presence on the ground will be a powerful deterrent, or so one hopes. This is somewhat extraordinary, given how rudely they were shoved aside when this began. It seems that only Bill Clinton could succeed in making Yeltsin's diplomats more credible than our own, a truly remarkable achievement. Such thanks, of course, assume that the peace will hold. But even if it does, a dangerous precedent has been established. NATO forces are now free to intervene once again on "humanitarian" grounds, perhaps to help soothe currently festering ethnic conflicts in say, Georgia or Azerbaijan. And we can do so without any authorization from the UN, a formality we required before crushing Iraq.

Note also that while the World Court declined to order a bombing halt, they did somewhat wimpishly pronounce themselves "troubled" by our lack of legal standing, on which they will rule sometime in the next millennium. Similar concerns have been murmured by Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson, as well as by the War Crimes Tribunal. I wouldn't expect too much movement from the latter, however. While they have indicated a willingness to investigate war crimes committed by the Croatians with our assistance, they depend on us to provide evidence, such as satellite photos. For some reason our willingness to do so in the case of ethnic cleansing by our allies has been slightly less forecoming than in the case of such cleansing by our enemies. Thus I rather doubt we'll be too cooperative in the case of complaints filed against Clinton and Blair.

And make no mistake, war crimes have been committed on all three sides, though in our case, they're always "mistakes" and never atrocities. I say, tell that to the folks in that TV studio, who were there precisely because they had been explicitly assured by NATO that they would not be a target. But then, our target list expanded every week the war dragged on, and there are only so many military facilities you can hit. As of this week, we've killed more than 2000 Yugoslav civilians. While this is considerably fewer than the Panamanian civilians killed by George Bush in just a few days, it is also more than the number killed by both the Serbs and the KLA in the year preceding our intervention. It's also more, by a factor of ten percent, than the number of Yugoslav soldiers we've succeeded in killing.

Partly this is because the FRY army has had fifty years to harden their defenses. Partly it's because even smart bombs are wrong half the time, so you have to drop twice as many just to make sure. But mostly it's because we shifted from targeting strictly military installations to hitting the civilian infrastructure which "supports" them. This is what we've been doing in Iraq for the better part of the past decade, killing one million civilians, and in both cases it's explicitly a war crime, not that that matters. In the case of Yugoslavia, we were quite open about the fact that we hoped to put "pressure" on Yugoslav civilians as a means of influencing their government. Thus we targeted not only power and water supplies (which, I'm sorry, is illegal), but also post offices, printing plants, auto factories, ice cream factories, and the Internet. We can assume that the large number of schools, hospitals and historic sites destroyed were of course simply due to human error.

I'm happy to report that while much of the above is, irrelevantly, illegal, the use of cluster bombs is not. Also, our admitted use of DU shells, which will cause cancer and birth defects for years to come, will not be causing us any future legal difficulties. Whether or not we are ever called to account for those 2000 dead innocents (and I wouldn't bet against us), the inescapable conclusion is that many, if not most of them are dead because our war strategy deemed it more politically expedient to risk their lives rather than those of our own soldiers.

And what have we gained from this? Well, aside from the helpful precedent for future wars mentioned above, not a whole lot that we couldn't have gotten at Rambouillet if we had treated it as a genuine opportunity for negotiation rather than as a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum. And along those lines, I commend to you a media advisory from FAIR, (available through their website, to which you can link from mine). They have two sources to confirm that one of Madame Albright's deputies told the media at Rambouillet, "on deep background," the following: "We intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply. They need some bombing, and that's what they're going to get."

To my mind, a careful reading of this quotation tends to confirm what various wacko conspiracy buffs have said regarding this administration's preference for the use of force. It's also curious that all the media types privy to said information chose to respect the confidentiality demanded by the official and proceeded to report to their readers and viewers that this war was due entirely to Serb intransigence.

And here I believe I'm about all ranted out, because I'm arguing the unknowable when I say we could have done better without all this carnage. And while we will certainly never know what might have happened if we'd trod on the road not taken. we can certainly see the consequences of the path we chose.

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