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Of Bombs and Lies

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
03.29.2001 | BOOKS

Degraded Capability:
The Media and the Kosovo Crisis

Edited by Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman
Pluto Press, 2000

Boosters for NATO's 1999 Spring war against Yugoslavia have been using the second anniversary of its commencement as a chance for retrospective justification. Milosevic is now gone, we are told, thanks to the 78-day bombing campaign, while mentions of the worsening mess in Kosovo go conspicuously unmentioned. But it was by no means certain at the time that the war would lead to the ouster of Milosevic, and nor is it certain even today that there is a direct relationship between the two events, separated as they were by 15 months. But even granting a connection, there is the little matter of whether an illegal air war against the civilian infrastructure of a sovereign state is justified simply because NATO said it was the right thing to do. For it is now known that the rationale given for the "humanitarian intervention"--i.e., genocide and ethnic cleansing--never took place. Moreover, NATO and other organizations complicit in spreading the charges knew damn well that they weren't happening in 1999 either. Undocumented allegations of mass graves in Racak and the mines of Trepca, so central to NATO's propaganda efforts in the lead-up to the bombing, were revealed as frauds shortly after the end of the war. Ditto the 'rape camps' that were routinely invoked to prove the barbarism of the Serbs and the morality of the war.

Degraded Capability brings together international journalists and experts in explaining exactly how mainstream media institutions beat the Kosovo war drums against the most basic standards of the profession. How did the experience of covering the Bosnian war affect journalists' views of Serbs? How and why was NATO so successful in turning major outlets like CNN and the BBC into Natovision? What were the domestic political contexts that colored coverage of the war around the world? These questions and others are considered through the lens of those working in the major NATO countries as well as Russia, India and Yugoslavia itself. Unsurprisingly, serious critical coverage of the war is found weakest in the US and UK, where the political and opinion shaping classes were solidly behind both the imaginative cartoon simplification of the Albanian/Serb conflict and the subsequent bombing.

Particularly absent in these two countries was any discussion about the reality of the Rambouillet conference, which caused waves of controversy in most parts of Europe when the details were made public. Far from the Natovision version of Rambouillet as a showcase for NATO's desire for a settlement and Serb recalcitrance, the infamous 'talks' in that French villa were in fact a trap set by the American dominated NATO delegation. As was later admitted by senior State Department officials, the bar was 'set high' to make bombing a fait accompli. American 'negotiators' demanded that any settlement allow for the NATO occupation of all of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, not merely Kosovo. This insertion into the famous Appendix B was an intentional deal-breaker and everyone involved knew it. Also met with silence in the English language media was the Serb desire at Rambouillet to negotiate the make-up of an international force under the auspices of the OSCE or the UN--in essence the deal that was reached after NATO finally made the compromises it refused to make before bombing a country "back a few generations" (in Tom Friedman's happy phrase). A penetrating essay by Jim Naureckas shows how even the NY Times' Steve Erlanger, otherwise one of the more honest western observers, began to misrepresent the Rambouillet talks on the eve of the war.

So if genocide was not in fact taking place in Kosovo, and if the Serbs were seeking a negotiated settlement that allowed for an international presence in Kosovo, why did NATO insist on bombing Yugoslavia, killing hundreds of civilians and ripping apart the fabric of international law in the process? Here one can only speculate, and the contributors to this volume offer a wide range of possible explanations ranging from the desire to establish a bridgehead near the Black Sea and the future route of Caspian Oil, to 'modernize' NATO's mandate and relevancy, to further smash the army (and economy) of a nation perceived as hostile to western political and economic interests, to pull a vulgar power play vis-a-vis the Russians, to demonstrate the technological superiority of US weaponry to the world, or more generally to simply re-assert the United States' authority over where and when to use force in the world, regardless of world opinion or international law. None of the these possibilities are very reassuring, but given what we now know about the propaganda pushed by Washington and Brussels and happily echoed by most of west's media, the story sure as hell ain't as simple as the one Jamie Shea and his friends at CNN tried to dump off on us.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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