Commentary: Not a Just War, Just a War - NATO's Humanitarian Bombing Mission

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Over the last year, nightly news reports filled our TV screens with cruise missiles surgically targeted on the Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yugoslavia. Zero casualties, "war lite," "immaculate coercion," punish and get out. But NATO's "humanitarian bombing" of Kosovo, a province of Serbia (the dominant republic in Yugoslavia), introduced a new geometry of terror, complete with a resurrected Hitler, Holocaust-like images of a people uprooted, papers stripped and sent to camps, charges of genocide and atrocities - in short, a world Europeans and all people of conscience had hoped to consign to the past. Human rights organizations called for immediate action to prevent ethnic cleansing. And the U.S.-NATO alliance outlined the moral imperative to intervene militarily in a civil war taking place in a sovereign state outside the territory of the alliance to prevent crimes against humanity. Never mind that juridically, the bombing is an act of aggression and unjustifiable under international law. The world should never again stand by and "do nothing" in the face of evil.

Such logic soon began to strain under closer inspection. Slobodan Milosevic's regime has engaged in despicable thuggary, but what sense does it make to destroy a country in order to defend the ethnic rights of one of its minorities, especially since U.S. policy opposed independence for Kosovo? CIA Director George Tenet had warned that the Serbs might respond with a campaign of ethnic cleansing, and sure enough, the NATO bombings of Serbian army and police units accelerated the suffering of the ethnic Albanians (Lippman, 1999). The knowledge that Serbia's Milosevic might unleash a flood of refugees on already teetering neighboring states should have been reason enough to oppose the bombings. Was this misjudgment, incompetence, or the intended effect? Edward Luttwak (1999), a member of the National Security Study Group of the U.S. Department of Defense, argues that NATO started its incremental bombing to help Milosevic in the face of a recalcitrant Serbian opposition prepared to hold onto Kosovo at any cost: the aim was not to hurt Milosevic, but to give him an excuse for capitulating to NATO on Kosovo. (Not mentioned was that it has severely undermined a promising democratic movement in Belgrade, which was the best hope of getting rid of Milosevic.)(1) The endgame was to create the appearance that Milosevic had no alternative but to compromise as he had done at Dayton over Bosnia, but here a negotiated settlement with NATO would involve the partition of Kosovo, with the Serbians hanging on to the resource-rich north, while the south would be an international "protectorate" run by a mixed force of NATO, the Russians and Ukranians, and "nonaligned" countries. But the large-scale expulsion of the ethnic Albanians, like Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, was unanticipated and transformed Milosevic from a deal maker the West could do business with into evil incarnate, a new Hitler, and a genocidal war criminal whose residence now entered the cross-hairs of NATO smart bombs.

Such a scenario is at least as credible as the belief that NATO and the U.S. are suddenly willing to systematically oppose genocide and defend human rights and liberation struggles whenever circumstances arise. None of NATO's military options adopted in Kosovo could have meaningfully averted the humanitarian crisis that unfolded, and the removal of international monitors certainly sealed the Albanian Kosovars' fate. As such, the bombing campaign provides NATO with the sense of effectiveness while actually creating the military and political conditions necessary for the mass expulsions. Moreover, historical evidence weighs in against an ethical imperative. Where was the outrage when more than 300,000 Serbs were evicted by the Croatian government from the Krajina, a Croatian land inhabited by Serbs for centuries? Circumstances were as brutal as the expulsions we are now witnessing, except that some NATO powers quietly encouraged them because they weakened the Serb position in Bosnia (see Roberts, 1999). …


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