NATO’s Squalid Police Action

Against the Current, No. 61, March/April 1996

The Editors

HAILING THEMSELVES AS the saviors of the principles of human rights, democracy and a multi-ethnic free Bosnia, the leaders of NATO strut before the cameras, salute each other’s courage and declare that peace is at hand. Bill Clinton, grandstanding at Tuzla with U.S. troops as his cast-of-thousands prop, told them they are making history.  In their statesmanlike self-congratulation, neither Clinton nor any other leader of the Western alliance has time or breath to mention the heroes who have actually fought the war—the men and women soldiers of the Republic of Bosnia.  The omission is not accidental.

According to conventional respectable analysis, Clinton is the most pro-Bosnian of all Western leaders.  Wasn’t it he who crafted the Dayton peace accord when the European states had defaulted on the responsibility to halt genocide in their midst?  Understandably, then, what passes for debate over U.S. intervention boils down to a (generally right-wing) “Bosnia is none of our concern” line, versus ordinary Americans’ pride in the job “our troops” are doing to stop the slaughter.

This simple dichotomy wipes away a despicable historical record.  Far from supporting democratic principle in the Bosnian war, it was always the intent of U.S./NATO strategists that the states emerging from the breakup of Yugoslavia should be relatively weak (Serbia, they anticipated, would be the strongest); the new entities would be ethnically-based, thus having only fragile political legitimacy, and would be conveniently dependent on sponsorship by western powers.

Remember this: Whatever remains of Bosnia after four years of genocide is due to the courage and military skill of the Bosnian fighters and to the tenacity of the population in cities like Sarajevo, Tuzla, Mostar, Gorazde, who for the past four years survived in their bomb shelters, died when their markets were shelled or when snipers picked off civilians lining up for water, yet who kept their hopes and their country alive.

Remember what the overwhelming tide of state propaganda will try to make us forget: that throughout this war, western policy enabled ethnic cleansing and aggression.  That United Nations forces stood by as Serb forces pounded Sarajevo and as Croats besieged Mostar, as ethnic cleansers overran designated “safe areas” and murdered the population of entire villages.  That the western powers persisted throughout in abetting the partition of the country, most favorably to the aggressor Serbs, hoping that the war would burn itself out when the arms embargo would force Bosnia to surrender.

Remember that NATO troops went into Bosnia only after a Bosnian-Croat offensive had brought “Republika Serbska” and the entire Greater Serbia project to the point of collapse-and that Clinton & Co. actually forced that offensive to stop so that the Bosnians would be powerless to restore their country’s integrity.  And even now, NATO forces refuse to facilitate the discovery of mass graves, the evidence of genocide.

We will not repeat here the analysis that “Against the Current” has presented in editorial statements and essays, nor recount the many sordid episodes surrounding the “Dayton peace accords.”  (For detailed accounts and excellent political statements, we can refer interested readers to an essay by Thomas Harrison of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy, “A Cold Peace in Bosnia,” published in the Winter 1996 issue of “New Politics”, and Catherine Samary’s article “Bosnia’s Pax Americana” in “International Viewpoint”, January 1996.)

In this space, we will offer some thoughts on the question of this intervention as it affects the thinking of socialists and the peace movement here at home. For many, horrified by the rape of Bosnia, the intervention may seem a welcome change of policy, perhaps to be criticized for coming so late in the war rather than for being undertaken at all. Others on the left will condemn the intervention, from a position of political indifference to the carveup of Bosnia (“all of the sides are nationalists engaged in ethnic cleansing,” etc.) or even sympathy for the Serbian side.

We sharply disagree.  In the first place, NATO’s intervention is not new-unless an arms embargo that puts people fighting for their lives against genocide at a huge disadvantage against fascistic forces is considered “non- intervention”-but rather a continuation of policy.  By preventing Bosnia from actually winning the war and by a tactic of direct military occupation, Clinton and his fellow imperialists connive now at the same result (although until recently they had probably anticipated that the less risky course of having UN forces observe the slaughter would be sufficient).

Secondly, more important than anything in Bosnia, this intervention has the purpose of extending the shelf life of NATO itself.  NATO’s official mission, to defend western Europe and North America against the real-and-imagined threat from what used to be a rival superpower, is hard to sustain politically and ideologically with the former Soviet Union now defunct.  Yet its real purpose always included a largely unspoken priority of policing western Europe itself, against social insurgency or any possible threat (no matter how remote) of revolution.

Would NATO have stood by if, for example, the capitalist government of Portugal had been toppled by worker-soldier insurgency in 1975, or if post-Franco Spain or Greece after the rule of the generals (1967-74) had taken a serious revolutionary turn, or even if the French strikes of 1968 or Italy’s “hot autumn” proved to be more than those governments could handle?

Besides, for the U.S. ruling class in particular this military alliance remains a critically important institution in maintaining the American role as supreme organizer and chief-of-police of western imperialism.  Politically, without NATO in place it would have been difficult-to- impossible for the United States to assemble the coalition for the 1990-91 Gulf War-a war that U.S. popular sentiment might well have made impossible for Bush to launch unilaterally.

Empire with a Humanitarian Face?

In a post-Cold War environment, despite energetic media efforts to promote the scariness of terrorism, Islamic radicalism and drug trafficking, the necessity of keeping the vast military-political-administrative bureaucracy of NATO in business has been difficult to argue.  “Bringing peace and security to the long-suffering people of Bosnia,” besides conveniently fogging the public’s memory of what caused the suffering, is a mission to confer on NATO a new legitimacy.

For us, then, NATO’s operation in Bosnia is ultimately no different than NATO, or any of its member states, intervening anywhere else: The intervention is a defense of empire, to be opposed and condemned on grounds of democratic and anti-imperialist principle.  There isn’t the slightest contradiction between this position and our ongoing support of the Bosnian people’s fight to save their country.  Indeed, well-intentioned illusions about the meaning of intervention have tended to weaken solidarity with Bosnia’s struggle to arm itself.

As Thomas Harrison argues, absolutely correctly, in the above-cited essay: “For four years, attempts by Bosnia’s supporters to get the U.S. and other Western governments to lift the arms embargo have failed.  One reason is that the climate of pro-Bosnian opinion has been so thoroughly dominated by demands for military intervention…  (M)ost of Bosnia’s friends have remained fixated on the fantasy of a benevolent Western intervention that will finally save democracy and diversity in the Balkans.”  (“New Politics”, Winter 1996, 18)

It is difficult right now to assess what possibilities may remain for extending the influence of a multi-communal Bosnia, as nearly half of the republic falls under the control of the Karadzic-chetnik forces.  One can imagine how much democratic debate these elements intend to permit in the vile little statelet the western powers have cynically handed to them.

Further, the brutal logic of the war and the western powers’ enabling of ethnic cleansing has had its inevitable impact on the republican side. Ethnic nationalism and the desire for revenge has a foothold in the Bosnian muslim population, though it remains a minority force.  The democratic ethos of Bosnia will be additionally eroded, and narrow nationalism strengthened, by whatever success the Clinton administration achieves in bringing the weakened republic under its political and military tutelage.

Yet the victory of the ethnic partitionists is not yet assured.  Already there are tentative reports of political ferment in the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Banja Luka, where the population can see the Karadzic family and various crony networks enriching themselves.  It may not be completely utopian to hope that the argument for a united democratic Bosnia can make inroads in the occupied areas, even while the mass murderers attempt to keep Sarajevo divided.

Back home, it’s striking to note how the Republican and Democratic leadership, even while shutting down government human service operations over their budget squabble, terminated the debate about sending U.S. troops into Bosnia.

Clinton, hardly known for political courage, is taking big electoral risks in sending troops into a potential deadly quagmire.  The Republicans, who will stop at nothing to personally smear Bill and Hillary over any real or fictitious scandal, are carefully taking little if any political advantage over Bosnia.

What accounts for this uncharacteristic behavior on both sides?  Simply, once the issue became not the future of Bosnia but the credibility of NATO, the U.S. ruling class rallied around the intervention-and immediately, Dole and Gingrich gave up their “partisan” opposition to troop deployment.

This piece of political theater only confirms what this police action is centrally about.  As we’ve argued before: Bosnia should be allowed to arm itself; NATO should be abolished.