NATO’s Road to War and Ruin

The Editors

THE CARNAGE IN Kosovo and the United States/NATO air campaign—which, we will argue, is escalating toward either humiliating defeat or a full-scale ground war—pose one of the greatest challenges in a generation to the left’s principles, political courage and moral backbone.  During most of our lifetimes, it’s been unprecedented to confront such a situation of apparent total conflict between competing imperatives: between the need for immediate action to stop the crimes against the population of Kosovo, and the need to oppose and halt imperialist interventions.

In presenting the arguments to be offered here, the editors of Against the Current fully recognize that there will be sharp disagreements among our readers and friends—differences in the analysis of these events and in the conclusions to be drawn.  Such differences are inevitable and legitimate.  What we insist upon is that all those engaged in the debate, as individuals or as organized political tendencies, must honestly confront the consequences of whatever positions they advocate—and we will apply the same rule to ourselves.

While we oppose this war—NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia today, and the ground war and occupation that are inevitably in the planning stage—we must also reject in this instance some of the most common “constructive alternatives” to military intervention that are often employed by the peace movement.  Hiding behind calls for “a negotiated political peace settlement” or “United Nations peacekeeping,” or promoting any pacifist illusions whatsoever about non-violent conflict resolution, are morally unacceptable here: In real life, they could not mean anything but handwringing while Serb forces completed the mass depopulation of Kosovo, after which of course Milosevic would negotiate “peace” at leisure.

The truly agonizing dilemma that faces the peace movement here must be openly confronted, not papered over by fine-sounding phrases which, albeit unintentionally, only provide cover for the ethnic-cleansing-bordering-on-genocide practice of Slobodan Milosevic and the gangsters allied to him.

Fact: To stop state-sponsored mass murder and population removal requires not “conflict resolution,” but the defeat of the perpetrators.  Generally speaking, the time to defeat them is before they have put in place the apparatus for mass murder.  Nowhere is this more true than in the Kosovo case.

The crime against humanity perpetrated in Kosovo would have been prevented, years in advance, by the defeat of the Milosevic regime and allied gangsters during their previous war, in Bosnia.  What was required then, from 1991 on, was not NATO bombings or invasions, but simply allowing the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina to arm itself against the ethnic cleansing that aimed at destroying a small multicommunal state.

The West imposed an arms embargo in the name of “avoiding a wider war,” which left the unarmed Bosnian civilian population subject to destruction by Milosevic’s “Yugoslav National Army” and by Serb and Croat paramilitaries, finally forcing Bosnia into a military alliance with Croatia for physical survival.

Now the imperialists have the very war they tried to “prevent” by their treacherous betrayal of the Bosnians.  NATO’s bombing cannot now stop the depopulation of Kosovo, even if we make the dubious assumption that saving the Kosovars is its intent.

This is a thoroughly reactionary war, in which the rulers of the United States and Western Europe must systematically promote ever-bigger lies to their own populations: lies to exaggerate the “great military success” of the bombings and to hide the destruction of civilian life; lies to disguise the full extent of the escalation and occupation that must be prepared to win this war; lies to rewrite history, to make people forget that throughout the 1990s the West facilitated Milosevic’s butcheries and internal repression by treating him as the key to Balkan “stability.”

The Catastrophe in the Making

There’s one important antiwar argument that we think is valid and important, but somewhat ambiguous: that the onset of NATO’s bombing campaign made the Kosovo crisis worse.  This case is made among others by Edward Said, “Protecting the Kosovars,” available by email on ZNet (  Arguing with his usual clarity and passion, Said states that “Neither were the consequences thought through, i.e. the certainty that the Serb forces would respond to NATO bombardment by intensifying their attacks against Albanian civilians, more ethnic cleansing, more refugees, more trouble for the future.”

It is clearly true that the flow of refugees, the reports of mass depopulations and burning of villages, and the all-too-credible reports of separation of male refugees for summary mass executions, all accelerated when the bombings began.  Yet it is important not to overweight this argument: The Serbian regime’s campaign for the destruction of the Kosovar Albanian population was already underway.

All evidence points to the conclusion that this was no act of blind rage under US/NATO military provocation.  This world-class crime against humanity was, rather, a systematically planned and integrated operation, coordinated among Serb regular military, police and paramilitary forces.  Indeed, the planning and implementation of this operation was enabled and precipitated not by the bombing of Yugoslavia, but by the West’s policies of the previous decade of constant attempts at cynical deal-making with the Milosevic regime.  This point seems to us to be the essential starting point for analyzing the Balkan catastrophe, and we will shortly return to it.

There’s still another anti-war argument that we think cannot be considered the decisive factor in this case, even though it is true: that under the bombing, “If anything, Milosevic’s regime is now strengthened.  All Serbs feel that their country is attacked unjustly, and that the cowardly war from the air has made them feel persecuted.” (Edward Said, ibid.)

Again, this is so. We should remember that the admirable anti-war struggles of the Yugoslav democratic opposition, at its height in the early 1990s, organized anti-war mobilizations of larger size, relative to the population of Serbia, than our biggest U.S. anti-war demonstrations of the Vietnam era. And this brave legacy of civic opposition to Milosevic is the first “collateral damage” of the bombing.

Yet again we must face hard facts: No one could imagine that this opposition today, in its defeated and corrupted state (with some of its leadership now in the Milosevic cabinet), could mount any effective challenge to slaughter and depopulation in Kosovo.

Again, the main international factor that derailed the once-promising democratic challenge to Milosevic was not NATO bombing.  It was, rather, the incessant western policy of copying up to Milosevic, legitimizing his regime, rewarding his adventures in Kosovo (abrogating its regional autonomy in 1989), the war with Croatia, then the ethnic-cleansing rape of Bosnia-Herzegovina, each one more murderous than the previous, culminating in the 1998-99 Kosovo catastrophe.

Throughout this decade, everything the West has done could only make this regime appear permanent and irremovable, even irreplaceable.  That, in fact, was the real lesson of the Dayton accords, which consolidated the dismemberment of Bosnia (after its army had begun to win the war!), and the intent of the ramshackle agreement at Rambouillet, which specifically excluded the Kosovar Albanians’ right of self-determination.

The facts of the immediate impact of NATO bombing on the fate of the Yugoslav democratic forces, and on the acceleration of killing and depopulation in Kosovo, are relevant but not ultimately decisive.  After all, by all accounts the refugees fleeing Kosovo welcome the bombing and would prefer to see it intensified.  As socialists and as revolutionary opponents of imperialism, we have to face the question uppermost in most ordinary people’s minds: Shouldn’t the world stop the genocide?

The Politics of This War Our response must begin by noting numerous genocides and crimes against humanity in which U.S. imperialism itself was the perpetrator or sponsor: Guatemala, Indonesia and East Timor, Indochina, the starvation of the people of Iraq today.  Elsewhere in this issue of Against the Current, in fact, we highlight some aspects of the recent history of Guatemala and East Timor.

Nor should it be forgotten that the United States-organized sadistic torture of the Iraqi population began with the stated goal of liberating Kuwait from the murderous occupation by Saddam Hussein.  This case illustrates one fundamental reason for opposing the current war: Any gateway for imperialist “humanitarian intervention” opens onto the most horrific consequences, unanticipated and uncontrollable by well-meaning folks who may have initially supported the intervention.

It’s true that in the case of Kosovo, the policies of the United States and Western Europe enabled the regime that organized the crime against Kosovo—but did not directly perpetrate or sponsor it. But what flows from the United States and NATO giving themselves license to be the saviors and the guarantors of stability?  Our view is that even worse horrors are the likeliest result.

In our view, the current war is a confrontation between two malignant relics, former Cold War partners now become enemies: NATO, the U.S.-organized alliance organized 50 years ago to ensure Washington’s hegemony in the anti-Communist Cold War crusade; and the rump Yugoslav regime of Slobodan Milosevic, a Stalinist who turned to nationalism, and allied himself to the most vicious elements within Serbia, to advance his own opportunist ambitions.

NATO is not at war with Yugoslovia for humanitarian reasons to save Kosovars.  Nor is this a war over some direct economic interest.  NATO is at war to save itself and its political leaders—because their threats and bluffs failed, and they must now follow through, regardless of whether this means “we have to destroy Kosovo in order to save it.”

An Inevitable Wider War

We oppose NATO’s war in the former Yugoslavia first, because we are opponents of NATO itself—because by its very nature it is not and cannot be anything other than a machine for imperialist dominion.  NATO was created in 1949, at a time when the economic hegemony of the United States was absolutely unchallenged, when it was the political decision-maker for Europe, when its military muscle and nuclear umbrella made Washington the guarantor for the reconstruction of capitalism in Europe and the supervisor of the transformation of the old European colonial empires.

Much has changed in half a century.  The former foe, the Soviet Union, has vanished, and United States capitalism faces serious economic rivals.  Still, through its unique ability to organize a large-scale military intervention, the United States seeks in this war with rump-Yugoslavia to reaffirm its power to call the shots.

The same desire to maintain U.S. hegemony lies behind Washington’s aggressive sponsorship of NATO’s newest members, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, at a time when a nearly-shattered post-Soviet Russia cannot be considered any military threat to them.

Ostensibly, U.S. “leadership” is an indispensable ingredient for preserving “stability.”  Instead, the expansion of NATO humiliates Russia and strengthens right-wing nationalism there, while the bitter example of the Balkans shows U.S. “leadership” morally and politically bankrupt, unable even to foresee let alone prevent systematically-organized ethnic cleansings, dithering and dathering and blithering and blathering while civilian populations were left defenseless and consumed.

Secondly, this war, once having begun, almost inevitably must become nothing less than an all-out occupation and re-drawing of the map of the Balkans.  In this process, the rights of self-determination of all the peoples involved, Kosovars included, will be brutally subordinated to the goals of conquest.

In saying this, we recognize that the Kosovars themselves overwhelmingly support NATO intervention and undoubtedly want it to be expanded.  Our fundamental quarrel is not with the victims who are understandably seeking help from any possible source, but rather with those supporters of this war who fail to face up to the consequences of where it is most likely to lead.

Unlike some apologists for the Belgrade regime, we don’t subscribe to the notion that this war was all plotted in advance by U.S. imperialism as part of a plot to “break up” Yugoslavia.  If anything, the United States was less eager than (for example) Germany to encourage Croatian and Slovenian secession from Yugoslavia—and certainly, Washington showed little objection to Milosevic’s ambitions for a Greater Serbia so long as it seemed attainable without too much “wider instability.”

Far from expecting this war, it appears that NATO and the United were surprised by the failures of their diplomatic schemes and military bluff, and have gone to war without the necessary military or political preparation.

Evidently, the State Department’s Balkan experts failed to recognize what was most obvious: If the Serb regime was determined to hold onto Kosovo, against the wishes of its 90% Albanian population, it would have to kill or expel half or more of the two million Kosovars.

Only the kind of “experts” whose professional assignment was to work out a deal with Milosevic could fail to see the pre-planned escalation from repression to depopulation in Kosovo.  But having failed to secure Milosevic’s agreement at Rambouillet or to deter him with the threat of air strikes, NATO suddenly found itself with a choice between two options, both potentially catastrophic.

It could in essence abandon its stated commitment to the Kosovars—a choice that Clinton and his European social democratic partners Blair, Jospin and Schroeder refused to contemplate, since it would constitute an incredible defeat that would discredit their respective governments and leave in doubt NATO’s unity and possibly its very survival.

Or, NATO could begin the air war—but once the first strikes failed to produce a Serb surrender, as again could be predicted by anyone other than a military expert self-hypnotized by Cruise missile technology, there is no option but to escalate toward an inexorable larger war—or admit defeat.

Day by day, as the scope of the horrors imposed on the Kosovars and the unmanageable extent of the refugee emergency unfolded, the war imposed its own logic on the planners, more than the other way around.  To save NATO—an even greater imperative than saving the Kosovars, obviously—it is necessary now to fight the war and win it.

In the words of the 1980s Reaganaut Lawrence Eagleburger, “We can’t let this pipsqueak nation, Serbia, inflict a defeat on NATO.”  (What are we fighting for?  I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam…)

If the refugees are to be returned, a la NATO’s promise, the Yugoslav military must be absolutely defeated in Kosovo and prevented from returning.  That objective requires the destruction of Serb military power and Serbia’s capacity for rebuilding that power.  Hence not only must Serbia’s existing military infrastructure be wiped out, but its industrial capacity must be bombed back to pre-World War II levels.

Further: A large-scale ground force must be sent into Kosovo, since air power alone cannot drive out the Serb forces, and to create a NATO protectorate in most of Kosovo (a part may be left for the Serb population in Kosovo to flee to).  It’s true that Clinton promises every day not to send ground troops, with the same credibility with which he vowed never having had sexual relations with that woman—but by the time the lie is revealed it will be “too late.”S

At war’s end, new boundaries must be forcibly imposed on Serbia.  Whether or not to join “Republika Serpska” in Bosnia to Serbia; whether or not Montenegro secedes from rump-Yugoslavia; whether to coercively “adjust” the borders of Macedonia to satisfy Albanian ambitions on the one hand or Greek claims on the other—all these are decisions that will be taken by the occupying powers.

It hardly seems likely (though in the world of diplomacy, perhaps a role can be arranged for Russia to play intermediary) that these arrangements can be made with the Milosevic regime and his gangster partners.  Hence, although a military occupation of the Serbian heartland is out of the question, the government of rump-Yugoslavia must probably be somehow removed, or else its people subjected to the protracted horrors now imposed on the people of Iraq for their unforgivable crime of being ruled by Saddam Hussein.

Again, such objectives entail war, and a postwar level of intervention, with casualties and expenses on a scale for which the population of the United States and other NATO powers have been completely unprepared.  No wonder that neither Clinton nor any of his European partners have the political courage to do what democratic principle demands—to state openly where their course leads and to ask their Congress or Parliament to debate a declaration of war.

Anyone on the left who favors NATO’s actions, regardless of the most honorable and sincerest of desires to stop genocide, must face up to these consequences.  The result can only be a more virulent post-Cold War NATO, intervening at will (mainly, U.S. will) wherever its power can reach, i.e. practically anywhere.

Kosovo Yes—NATO No!

Given these realities, it is impossible for socialists to want NATO’s operation to succeed.  Supporting this war, now, can only mean supporting imperialism.  In the real world, we cannot pick-and-choose between ostensibly benevolent military interventions, carried out in the name of humanitarian rescue, and those conducted for naked military-political aggrandizement or profit—because inevitably, inexorably, the former becomes the pretext for the latter.

That is the case even in Kosovo, a war the United States and NATO didn’t “provoke” but actually tried to avoid through a criminal policy of appeasement.  Once having begun, this is inevitably a war for NATO to occupy and re-configure the map of the Balkans—even though the war itself, should it end in yet another “political settlement” with Milosevic or should it produce military debacles and serious casualties for the invaders, may prove to be NATO’s own road to ruin.

We stated at the outset that we would honestly confront the consequences of our own position: For us, the ruin of NATO is the only possible good that can come from this horrific human holocaust.  Our small contribution to NATO’s defeat must be to do all we can to politically expose and discredit it inside our own country.  We have no “constructive alternative” to propose for NATO except its dissolution.

Whatever happens next, the Kosovar and Serb peoples have lost. The Kosovars, if NATO accepts defeat and deals yet again with Milosevic, will be left a landless and homeless people—the Palestinians and the Kurds of the Balkans.  If NATO ultimately overwhelms Serbia and establishes a military protectorate in Kosovo, the refugees may return, but their survival would then depend upon an indefinite occupation with all the consequences that entails for future generations.

For the Serbs, ten years of Milosevic’s Greater Serbia campaign have produced a national catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.  Hundreds of thousands of Serbs who lived for centuries inside Croatia, whose welfare was Milosevic’s pretext for invading Croatia in 1991, were brutally expelled from their homes in the Krajina region when Croatia regained the territory.  Serbs in “Republika Serpska” are ghettoized, Serbs in Kosovo will have no future in a NATO-occupied zone and Serbs in the heartland of Serbia have suffered economic ruin and the destruction of the hope for democracy.

What Can We Do?

We support the Kosovar Albanians’ right of self-determination.  No one with democratic values can deny the legitimacy of their struggle, which is a fight for physical and cultural survival as well as political rights.  Even further, under circumstances of threatened annihilation or mass dispersal of the population, an independent Kosovo is the only real-life solution.

But the Kosovars’ absolutely legitimate struggle is only one element in what has become a much larger and reactionary imperialist war. The United States always regarded the Kosovars as bargaining pawns, never supported Kosovo independence—and even welcomed the defeat of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1998, when the Yugoslav military launched its first assaults.  Yet even aside from that, we do not support “liberating” Kosovo through NATO destruction of Serbia’s cities and people.

In this tragic situation, we believe there are several “wars within the war” where socialists with consistent democratic loyalties can take sides and, in some cases, small practical steps.

  • Obviously, we cannot influence in any way the struggle between the Kosovo Albanians and the Yugoslav Army. But as a matter of principle we uphold the right of the Kosovars to struggle for their survival by any means available to them, whether through the pre-war movement of civic resistance or the struggle of the KLA.

    The KLA itself is no left-wing force: It appears to be politically incoherent at best, and (probably for that reason) vastly overestimated its prospects for military success against Milosevic’s army. But it is fighting a justified war for independence and against a threatened genocide.

  • Given imperialism’s responsibility for this tragedy, we can only demand that all the Kosovar refugees receive immediate asylum wherever they wish to come. For those who choose refuge in the United States, that means the right to come here—with unconditional rights to permanent residency or citizenship or return to their homeland whenever they may choose—not the unspeakable plan to put them in detention in Guam or Guantanamo.
  • Equally important, we must do everything in our power to reach out to the doubly besieged democratic opposition activists in Serbia, who are being bombed from the air by NATO and hunted down by the regime on the ground, in some cases threatened with being drafted into the Serb army or the ethnic-cleansing paramilitaries for duty in Kosovo.

    Both the imperialists and the Milosevic regime will seek to exploit, by blaming each other for, the suffering of the ordinary people of Serbia and the destruction of democratic forces.  Thanks to the internet and to the distribution the international progressive media can provide, dissidents in Serbia have some chance to continue to speak for themselves.  Their uncensored voices must be heard, and all possible material and political solidarity must be extended as they seek to rebuild a democratic opposition that will be neither a tail to Milosevic or a pawn for imperialist occupiers.

  • Finally, in the military conflict that now dominates the ruins of former Yugoslavia, let’s be clear: There is no side to support, neither Milosevic’s genocidal post-stalinism nor NATO imperialism.  Neither side is a lesser evil. Freedom for Kosovo!  Abolish NATO!

ATC 80, May-June 1999