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Are We Having Fun Yet? Kosovo Reconsidered

03.17.2000 | POLITICS

[Senator John W. Warner] "suggested that the incident may result in the United States insisting in the future that all key positions in the NATO chain of command are filled with American officers."
-- CNN, 9/9/99 (transcript)

A useful point or departure for considering the effects of the Kosovo war is a story that emerged a month after the bombing ceased. It seems that there was a serious problem of command and control in the face of the Russian Army's surprise dash to Pristina airport on June 12, 1999. The NATO force commander, the American four-star General Wesley Clark, is supposed to have ordered the commander of the British contingent, Lieutenant General Sir Mike Jackson, to pre-empt the Russians by sending a force to occupy the airport first. Jackson, however, is said to have replied "I am not going to start WW III for your sake," or words to that effect: with the result that the Russians were allowed to reach the airport first.

Now, this is an exciting story, but after all it is just a war story, and there are many always many exciting war stories. Too many, probably. But what is interesting is to observe the spin put on the story in America.

When the story was first made public, at the end of July, the interpretation put on it by many reporters and opinion-page analysts was that Gen. Clark had overreacted , and had been held back from a rash move by the experienced British field commander. Clark, it was suggested, had as a result been reprimanded by his superiors, and even removed from his post after this potentially disastrous miscalculation.

However, after a few weeks, the story had been absorbed by the American system, and when it resurfaced, while the facts were the same, the interpretation was different. The Washington Post led the charge, calling Jackson's action "insubordination." The matter had now reached the official and public level, and so--according to the iron law of America First--it was interpreted in the correct and inevitable manner as a dangerous example of insubordination , where to general indignation a foreign officer had simply refused to carry out the orders of his American superior; and the important question was clearly how to avoid such breakdowns of authority in the future. The foreigners, it was now suggested, were as usual not to be trusted, and might let America down in her hour of need. And Senator Warner, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, spoke for the nation when he suggested during an official hearing that in the future an all American chain of command would avoid such outrages to the universal moral order.

But what if this all-American chain of command had been in place on this particular occasion? What, that is, if operational and tactical decisions had been made with as little regard for the opinions of foreigners as the large-scale strategic decisions? What, to be precise, if this particular had gone the other way, and Gen. Clark had succeeded in turning the Pristina airport incident into an armed confrontation with the Russian Army? This brilliant move could have started WW III.

Am I alone in thinking that this view of how NATO should function in the future is less than ideal from the European point of view? It is disturbing, indeed, that if we ask ourselves the reason for this considered American reaction, we see that military matters are secondary. The real reason is simple enough. America is always right. America always wins. The whole political discourse is predicated upon this position, which is so fundamental that it never needs to be discussed. Even though there are cases (Vietnam, Somalia) where it looks difficult to sustain, in day-to-day national politics no alternative to this outlook may normally be expressed: for questioning equals disloyalty, and disloyalty equals treason. This convention suits the armaments lobbyists down to the ground, since their products are inherently patriotic ones. Many Americans don't actually think this way--"1, 2, 3, 4, We don't want your racist war!"--but their opinions don't matter much; for in general they cannot compete for attention with the synthetic hand-on-heart nationalism of the network-TV-driven masses: who continue to provide a reliable voting majority.


One of the most significant--and under reported--consequences of the victory in Kosovo was the spread of Kosovo Albanian gangster networks not just through the region, but into Western Europe. One argument that has been used to justify the West's refusal to help the PKK in Turkey is that they deal in heroin--which seems to be true. But we dealt with the KLA, whose business methods are about the same. It is said that the rise of the Sicilian Mafia in New York after the Second World War was the result of the US approaching them for help in invading Sicily in Operation Husky. Lucky Luciano, it is said, asked for immunity from prosecution if he arranged cooperation. The result was an explosion of Mafia activity after the war, as the Sicilians transformed themselves into major players in the national economy. And in 1999, a criminal organization that can call in American Stealth Bomber air strikes and mobilize the British Army against its enemies must command a certain degree of respect in underground circles

In America, there were no real political consequences of the war. No Americans were killed, nothing went wrong, and so no-one paid much attention. In Europe, though, the situation is slightly different. In Greece, 95% of the population was against the bombing, and apart from alleged Orthodox solidarity, there were logical reasons for such opposition. Destabilizing the Balkans effects Greece directly. Sending waves of desperate Albanian, Romany and now Serbian refugees scurrying over the borders of Kosovo means that many of them will end up in or very near Greece. Or take Bulgaria. Still excluded from the EU, Bulgaria considered Yugoslavia and important trading partner--until the triumphant bombing of the Danube bridge suddenly severed this vital economic life-line.

The general pattern is clear enough. The closer people were to the real events, the more they saw that the war would effect them directly, and the more they opposed the air strikes. The less people knew about it, and the more they got their picture of events from pre-digested Natovision bulletins with the nice Jamie Shea, the more they supported the air strikes. So in London, for example, where knowledge of the region is low, it was easy to swing public opinion behind the official line--much as Mrs. Thatcher had been able to frame the Faulklands War as one of Good and Evil.

What about the Russians? Did they understand the Kosovo crisis? In a way, they understood it very well. Crushing a dissenting minority population is meat and potatoes to Russian military policy, and playing both ends against the middle is similarly a mainspring of Russian diplomatic technique. But we can also be more positive. In the Northern Caucasus and elsewhere, Russia had extensive experience of crisis just like this one in the early 1990s. And the technique that seemed the most efficient was at the same time the most cynical one: deciding which side was going to win, and then intervening as a force multiplier to hasten that result, after which a peacekeeping force could be sent in to keep things calm during the transition to peace. The problem with this idea is that it did not work. Instead of a stable resolution, the supposed peacekeepers found themselves barely containing a simmering crisis, where there were now additional problems with refugees and new political tensions--most notably a rise in radical Islam. Given this very relevant experience, Russia could be forgiven for taking a dim view of NATO's adventure in Kosovo simply on technical grounds. There was the additional factor that they held a diplomatic trump card, which they didn't quite know what to do with. They knew that Milosovic needed their support; and, indeed, it was the withdrawal of that support that eventually brought the crisis to an end, though without any immediate benefit to Russia, it must be said.

In any case, it was rather like the Gulf War that pretty soon a 'debate' started about what would happen after the war. Milosovic would be defeated, or course, and then a glorious period of reconstruction would commence, with not just Kosovo, but the entire region being reconstructed by our well known generosity. This despite the fact that these very countries had been left to rot for ten years by the European Union more concerned in preserving its corrupt agricultural cartel than in allowing Eastern Europe a slice of the pie. Many people observed that rather than one-million-dollars-a-copy cruise missiles , it would have been better just to throw the equivalent in Duetschmarks over the Balkans--for the heart of the Kosovo problem, indeed, of nearly all such crises around the world, is simply poverty. But anyway, soon it was all going to be OK because the EU, NATO, the World Bank, the IMF, the US, and everyone else was going to rebuild the Balkans. This being the case, it was clearly all right to flatten it with high explosives first--as a temporary measure.

The money hasn't arrived yet, of course, and hopes for stability in the region remain distant. As a tangible bonus of the bombing, though, we do have the further deligitimisation of the international legal order.

As most people are aware, the UN didn't mandate the bombing, for the simple reason that there is no international consensus that the US should be allowed to bomb small countries whenever it feels like it. There are difficult questions around UN military questions, but nevertheless the UN has an authority that is qualitatively different from that of other bodies. If we want to build a world legal system, the UN must surely be at the center of it; but this was not a consideration in the Kosovo war. The war was self-mandated by NATO, despite the fact that the populations of a number of member states were in open rebellion against the policy. So this was one very serious negative result: dragging the UN system further into disrepute.

The second question is that of precedent. Presumably the White House, State Department and Pentagon have no problem with the precedent that they can bomb people by remote control in order to reinforce their rather approximate foreign policy. Insofar as there is a functioning international legal system at all, it is a system with an element of custom and precedent. Treaties are not legally binding in many cases, and respect for this fragile system is thus doubly important. NATO effectively created a precedent for high-intensity military interventions around the world, and it is thus difficult for the West to stand on anything when criticizing Russia.

The third question is to do with respect for the actual legal prohibitions of the system as it stands. The Geneva conventions, in particular, lay down precise rules for the protection of non-combatants. They may not be attacked or targeted, even if combatants are present. If we are not going to protect these rules, then who is? Natovision showed us the meaning of this respect: civilian casualties were explained away as mistakes or the victims of Serbian reprisals. Civilian casualties, in other words, didn't matter. So a third negative result involves bringing international humanitarian law into disrepute.

On the one hand, we continue to promote legal methods in the Hague, where Bosnian war crimes trials are supposed to be showing that we do care about the rule of law; on the other hand, we act in defiance of our own rules when it suits us.

Is this any way to run the world?

About the Author
Christopher Lord's new book, Parallel Cultures, has just been published by Ashgate.
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