Bomb the Bad Guys and Save the Innocents

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Will the US and other Western countries bomb Syria for its government’s alleged chemicals weapons attack on civilians?  It seems likely, despite the compelling case against any such intervention, as set out by Seamus Milne and many others.  At the time of writing, it also appears likely that the US will not even seek the fig-leaf of UN Security Council authorization.  Richard Haas, president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, has said that “The UN Security Council is not the sole or unique custodian about what is legal and what is legitimate, and, as many have pointed out, it was bypassed at the time of Kosovo.”  Indeed, reference to Kosovo is widespread right now with supporters of Western military action arguing that not only was the 1999 Kosovo intervention legal (it clearly was not) but also that it generated positive outcomes.  In 2006, I wrote an article, titled ‘bomb the bad guys and save the innocents’, for Village magazine which sought to explain precisely why NATO’s actions vis-à-vis Kosovo did not constitute a justification for Western countries bombing the rest of the world – that article seems worth reprinting now.


What happened in Kosovo in 1999? This may seem like an obscure question, but it’s an important one, because Kosovo is often cited today to justify “humanitarian interventions” by the West, at a time when Iraq is giving Western military interventions an otherwise bad name. According to the official version of events, NATO attacked Serbia in 1999 to stop Serb forces “ethnically cleansing” Kosovar Albanians. And, so this version goes, it worked – genocide was prevented and a dictator (Milosevic) toppled. We (the West) may have gotten it wrong in Iraq, but we got it right back then in the Balkans and we can do it again elsewhere.

The official version has the status of holy writ – questioning it is tantamount to blasphemy. Noam Chomsky is described as one of the “contortionists of the left”, rejecting intervention even in “situations – such as the Kosovan crisis – which were plainly crying out for assistance”, according to Shane Hegarty of the Irish Times (14 January). RTÉ’s Mark Little, wholly in thrall to the official version, engaged in a Prime Time barracking of Chomsky over his opposition to the 1999 NATO bombardment.

But what really happened in 1999? If the real story is not quite as simple as the official version suggests, and it isn’t, then we should be suspicious when the precedent is invoked to justify Western military adventures today.

In the first place, there is a strong argument that the NATO attack need never have taken place. The Yugoslav government refused to sign the initial Rambouillet peace accord, in part because it contained an annex provision that granted NATO troops free access to all Yugoslav territory, a provision later dropped from the final post-war settlement terms. Other issues and suspicions also impeded the progress of the peace negotiations, including legitimate doubts about the extent to which the Milosevic regime would have accepted, or abided by, any deal. But the bizarre volte face regarding NATO access to Yugoslavia raises the suspicion that the provision was simply an excuse to provoke a conflict and thus assert a role for NATO in the post-Cold War world.

But let us for a moment give NATO the benefit of the doubt and assume its war was not initiated for duplicitous reasons, but rather because of a genuine concern for human rights. How then was the war prosecuted? Certainly not with human rights as a priority. During the bombing campaign, NATO committed a number of war crimes, including the cluster bombing of the city of Nis in May 1999, killing 15 people and destroying a hospital; NATO also bombed a passenger train, an old-folks home, an open-air market, a Serb radio station, and the Chinese embassy. Amnesty International explicitly stated that “NATO forces violated the laws of war leading to cases of unlawful killing of civilians”, and that these actions constituted war crimes. The NATO bombardment killed between 1,200 and 2,000 civilians in total, not counting those subsequently killed by initially unexploded cluster bombs (there were 50 such fatalities in Kosovo alone between the end of the war and March 2000).

After a NATO-led force entered Kosovo, up to 200,000 people fled their homes in the midst of widespread violence against Serbs and other minority communities, including Roma. Many of those, to this day, have been unable to return to their homes. Current negotiations on the future status of Kosovo are hampered by this poisonous legacy.

Even in terms of its own stated objective – the prevention of “ethnic cleansing” of Kosovar Albanians by Serbs – the NATO mission failed. An initially enthusiastic supporter of military intervention, author Mary Kaldor, concluded that “The NATO intervention did not save one Kosovar Albanian. On the contrary, it provided a cover under which the Serbs accelerated ethnic cleansing.” An assessment undertaken by the Independent International Commission on Kosovo arrived at a similar conclusion: “The NATO air campaign did not provoke the attacks on the civilian Kosovar population but the bombing created an environment that made such an operation feasible… the intervention failed to achieve its avowed aim of preventing massive ethnic cleansing”.

Writing in March 2000, the UN Special Investigator for the former Yugoslavia stated, “The bombing hasn’t solved any problems… It only multiplied the existing problems and created new ones.” One of those new problems was that some of the Kosovars trained by NATO forces subsequently went on to massacre Serbs, and then crossed the border to join up with Albanian insurgents destabilising neighbouring Macedonia in 2000 and 2001. Writing on the Macedonian conflict, Marianne Osborn states that the “consequences of the Kosovo conflict in Macedonia were wide-ranging, severe and profoundly destabilising”. (NATO and the EU later claimed credit for stifling the Macedonian conflict, an ironic twist given that they had been instrumental in fomenting it in the first place.) It was the militaristic elements of Kosovar (and later Macedonian) Albanian society that were boosted by the NATO intervention, while the progressive and pacifist Ibrahim Rugova, the recently deceased Kosovo President, was marginalised at the time.

Finally, NATO cannot take responsibility for the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic. His downfall did not occur until 2000, the year after the bombing, and in response not to the Kosovo war but rather to mass domestic opposition when he sought to annul presidential election results. Admittedly, his “loss” of Kosovo was used against him by his political opponents, as was the economic damage arising from the war, but equally he used the pretext of the NATO attack to push through draconian measures against those opponents and thus, albeit temporarily, consolidate his power.

The problem with the rewriting of the history of 1999 is that it pretends to offer an easy answer to difficult questions: bomb the bad guys and save the innocents. In reality, the “cure” turned out to be worse than the disease, even though the official version of events insists that the patient was miraculously rescued and is now in rude good health. Buying into this myth runs the risk of legitimising dangerous and sinister interventions in the future – by NATO itself, by the EU’s new “battle groups”, or by some other Western force. The stakes are too high to permit an official version that is at odds with the facts to pass unchallenged.


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