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Protecting the Kosovars

By Edward Said          


ONCE again, and led by the United States as usual, a war is being conducted -this time in Europe - against an unprincipled and racist dictator who will almost certainly survive the onslaught even though thousands of innocents will pay the actual price. The pretext this time is of course the persecution, ethnic cleansing and continued oppression of Albanians in the province of Kosovo by the Serbian forces of Slobodan Milosevic.

No one at all doubts that horrible things have been done to the Albanians under Serbian domination, but the question is whether US/NATO policy will alleviate things or whether they will in fact be made worse by a bombing campaign whose supposed goal is to make Milosevic give up his policies.

Since, as in most cases, the bombing campaign is not all that it seems to be, a look behind the headlines is worth the effort, especially given the new ferocity and willingness to intervene militarily on the part of US foreign policy decision makers (Clinton, Cohen, Albright, Berger).

One needs to remember that since the US is a world, and not merely a regional, power one calculation that enters each of its foreign policy decisions is how the deployment of its military might will affect the US's image in the eyes of other, especially other competitive countries. Henry Kissinger made that point a central concern of his Indochinese policy when he undertook the secret bombing of Laos: your enemies will learn that there are no limits to what you are prepared to do, even to the point of appearing totally irrational. Thus the exercise of massive destructiveness wholly disproportionate to the goal, say, of stopping an enemy from advancing further, is a principal aim of this policy, as it has been of Israel's policy in southern Lebanon, where massive raids on civilian encampments do absolutely nothing to affect Israel's main enemies, the Hizballah guerillas. Punishment is its own goal, bombing as a display of NATO authority its own satisfaction, especially when there is little chance of retaliation from the enemy.

That is one consideration behind the current bombing of Yugoslavia. Another is the misguided and totally hopeless goal of humbling, and perhaps even destroying Milosevic's regime. This, as has been the case in Iraq, is illusory. No nation, no matter how badly attacked from the air is going to rally to the attackers.

If anything, Milosevic's regime is now strengthened. All Serbs feel that their country is attacked unjustly, and that the cowardly war from the air has made them feel persecuted. Besides, not even the Kosovo Albanians believe that the air campaign is about independence for Kosovo or about saving Albanian lives: that is a total illusion.

What transpired before the bombing was that the US seems to have persuaded the Kosovars that if they went along with the "peace plan" Kosovo would get its independence; this was never said, but only implied, leading the Kosovars to expect NATO help. But, as usual, the US has never stated unequivocally that it is for full self-determination for all the peoples of former Yugoslavia. There should have been a straight-out and clearly stated willingness to accept self-determination for Kosovo as well as a safeguarding of rights for the Serbian minority there. None of this was done. And neither were the consequences thought through, i.e., the certainty that the Serb forces would respond to NATO bombardment by intensifying their attacks against Albanian civilians, more ethnic cleansing, more refugees, more trouble for the future. There is now talk of 200,000 ground troops (mostly American) to enter the battle and expand the war, with the attendant problems of prolonged occupation, guerilla warfare, greater devastation, more refugees, and so on. A lot of this comes from the delusion that the US is the world's policeman. In the meantime, its genocidal policy against Iraq continues, and its sanctions policy against other Islamic or Arab countries also continues.

Nothing of what the US or NATO does now has anything really to do with protecting the Kosovars or bringing them independence: it is rather a display of military might whose long-range effect is disastrous, just as is a similar policy in the Middle East. In 1994 when a US intervention might have averted genocide in Rwanda, there was no action. The stakes were not high enough, and black people not worth the effort.

Therefore it seems to me imperative that the NATO bombing should stop, and a multi-party conference of all the peoples of former Yugoslavia be called to settle differences between them on the basis of self-determination for all, not just for some, nor for some at the expense of others. This is the same principle that has been violated by US-sponsored peace processes elsewhere, notably in the Middle East.

There is nothing about the current policy of bombing Serbian forces that will either guarantee democracy for Serbia or protect the Albanians who are still being treated horribly by Milosevic's forces. In its arrogance and ill-considered military deployment the US has forced NATO to go along with it, whereas it is quite clear that there is increasing disunity within the NATO ranks, not just Greece and Italy and Turkey, but also France and Germany.

The greatest danger of all is that more people will be displaced, more lives lost, and more fragmentation will occur in places like Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. All this for the US to assert its will and to show the world who is boss. The humanitarian concerns expressed are the merest hypocrisy since what really counts is the expression of US power.

What I find most distressing is that destruction is being wrought from the air along with a fastidiousness articulated about the loss of American life that is positively revolting. Clinton knows well that Americans will not tolerate the loss of life for Americans. Yet he can destroy Yugoslavian lives with impunity from the safety of the ultimate in modern technology and airpower, with American pilots and bombers sanitizing their horror with the illusion of safety and distance.

When will the smaller, lesser, weaker peoples realize that this America is to be resisted at all costs, not pandered or given in to naively?


-Copyright Edward W. Said, 1999.