Geert Lovink on Sat, 10 Apr 1999 23:48:09 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> (fwd) Immanuel Wallerstein on Kosovo

                        "Bombs Away!"

When I was young, I saw many a war film in which the heroic American
pilot, flying over hostile territory, shouted "bombs away!" The enemy was
destroyed, and peace restored. The good guys won. President Clinton sent
U.S. and NATO pilots on just such a mission against the Yugoslav
government and its leader, whom Clinton compared to Hitler. When a war
breaks out, and this is a war, there are three levels at which to judge
it: juridically, morally, and politically.

Juridically, the bombing is an act of aggression. It is totally
unjustified under international law. The Yugoslav government did nothing
outside its own borders. What has been going on inside its borders is a
low-level civil war into which the U.S. and other powers intruded
themselves as mediators. The mediation took the form of offering both
sides an ultimatum to accept a truce on dictated terms, to be guaranteed
by outside military forces. At first, both sides turned this down, which
upset the U.S. very much. They explained to the Kosovars that they
couldn't bomb the Serbs unless and until the Kosovars accepted the truce
terms. The Kosovars finally did so, and now the U.S./NATO are bombing.

National sovereignty doesn't mean too much in the real world of power
politics. The U.S. is not the first nor will it be the last state to
violate some smaller country's sovereignty. But let us cut the cant. Doing
so is aggression, and illegal under international law.

The juridical situation tells us nothing about the moral situation. The
U.S./NATO have justified their acts by asserting that the Yugoslav
government is violating fundamental human rights, and that they have a
moral duty to intervene (that is, to ignore the juridical constraints). So
let us talk about the moral rights and wrongs.

I have no doubt myself that the Yugoslav government has been guilty of
atrocious behavior in Kosovo, as they has been previously, directly or via
intermediaries, in Bosnia-Herzogovina. To be sure, their opponents, the
Kosovo Liberation Army in this case, and the Croatians and Bosnians in the
previous war, have also been guilty of atrocities. And I for one am not
going to do the arithmetic to figure out who has done more atrocities than
the other. Civil wars bring out the worst in peoples, and the Balkan wars
of the last five years are not unusual in that respect. But it does weaken
the moral justification for intervention when the immoralities are not

Furthermore, if Serb behavior in Kosovo is to be reprimanded, then the
moral authorities who take it upon themselves to enforce moral law must
explain why they have been unwilling to intervene in Sierra Leone or
Liberia, in northern Ireland, in Chile under Pinochet, in Indonesia under
Sukarno, in Chechnya, or even for that matter in the Basque country. No
doubt each situation is different from the other, and perhaps of different
dimensions, but civil wars abound and atrocities abound. And if we are to
take moral enforcers seriously, the least one can ask is that they are
minimally consistent and minimally disinterested.

So, in the end, we are thrown back on a political analysis. Who did what
for what reasons, and how much do particular actions aid in the reasonable
solution of the disputes? Let us start with the local participants in the
conflict. In the geographically and ethnically intertwined and overlapping
zones of the Balkans, the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was
probably the optimal structure to ensure not only internal peace but
maximal economic growth. But it came apart.

This was not inevitable. There were some key turning-points. One was in
1987 when Milosevic decided to build his political future on Serbian
nationalism rather than on Yugoslav nationalism/Communism and moved within
two years to suppress Kosovo autonomy. This gave the excuse for, and
perhaps instigated, the wave of successions: Slovenia, then Croatia, then
Bosnia-Herzogovina, then the attempted secessions within Croatia and
Bosnia by the Serbs, then the Kosovars. No doubt, non-Balkan forces also
played a role, especially Germany in supporting, if not more than that,
the idea of Croatian independence.

Still, Milosevic's initial moves were a grievous long-term political
error. We now find ourselves in one of those nasty, violent struggles in
which everyone is afraid, paranoiac, and unwilling to contemplate any sort
of real political compromise. And the fascist Ustashi in Croatia and
Chetniks in Serbia are once again a serious political force. Nor will it
end soon. The war in Northern Ireland went on for over twenty years before
anything was possible. The war in Israel/Palestine has gone on even
longer. Sometimes a civil war just has to exhaust itself before any one is

But what about the politics of the U.S.? Why has the U.S. government
singled out this civil war for active intervention? In the case of the
Gulf War, there was at least the rationale of the importance of oil (and
the defense of an invaded sovereign state, Kuwait). But in economic terms,
the Balkan zone is marginal. Nor can it be argued that there are immediate
geopolitical concerns, such as shoring up an area politically so that some
other power cannot take it over. This was the rationale, or at least one
rationale, for the U.S. support of South Korea. Behind North Korea, argued
the U.S., lay China or the Soviet Union. The rationale was that of the
Cold War.

But Yugoslavia has no oil, and there is no longer a Cold War with the
Communist world. So why doesn't the U.S. ignore the situation the way it
ignores the Congo (at least these days)? To be sure, the U.S. doesn't
really ignore any country, but it does not intervene militarily in most
situations. A curious argument has been made in the last few months. It
has been said that the U.S. had to bomb the Serbs, or else NATO's
credibility would be undermined. This is a curious argument because it is
circular. If NATO threatens something, and then doesn't do it, of course
its credibility would be undermined. But it didn't have to make the threat
in the first place.

Or maybe it did. Perhaps the political issue for the U.S. is precisely the
need to justify the very existence of NATO, which no longer has an obvious
role as such now that the Russian army seems to be so much weakened. But
why would the U.S. want to have NATO at all? There seem to me to be two
main reasons. One is that its existence in turn justifies the current
military expenditures and indeed build-up in the U.S., which has economic
and internal political advantages for the government. The second is that
NATO is necessary to prevent the west Europeans from straying too far from
U.S. control and above all from establishing an autonomous armed structure
separate from NATO. The Yugoslav imbroglio seems ideal for both purposes.

But will it work? If the Yugoslavs hold fast, and it seems likely they
will, further military action would involve ground forces. Can the U.S.
afford a second Vietnam? It seems doubtful. And will the west Europeans
really continue to play the game? There are rumblings in the NATO ranks
already, and the war is only a week old.

We have all entered the bramble bush. The Yugoslavs will be bombed until
it hurts. The Kosovars will be driven out of their homes. Many will die.
Neighboring countries may be drawn into the armed conflict directly. And
if the war is prolonged, there will be internal social turmoil in the U.S.
and western Europe. "Bombs away" may have been worse than a crime; it may
have been a folly.

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