Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
24 - 30 June 1999
Issue No. 435
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The treason of the intellectuals

By Edward Said

Edward Said No one at all can doubt that what has transpired in Kosovo as a result both of Slobodan Milosevic's brutality and the NATO response has made matters a good deal worse than they were before the bombing. The cost in human suffering on all sides has been dreadful, and whether it is in the tragedy of the refugees or the destruction of Yugoslavia, no simple reckoning or remedy will be available for at least a generation, perhaps longer. As any displaced and dispossessed person can testify, there is no such thing as a genuine, uncomplicated return to one's home; nor is restitution (other than simple, naked revenge, which sometimes gives an illusory type of satisfaction) ever commensurate with the loss of one's home, society, or environment. Through a combination whose exact proportions we will never know, despite NATO as well as Serbian propaganda, Kosovo has been purged forever of any hopes that coexistence between different communities is soon going to be possible. A number of honest reporters here and there have admitted that what exactly took place so far as the ethnic cleansing of Albanians by Serbs was concerned is still mostly unknown, since the NATO bombings of Kosovo, the actions of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and the actual brutality of individual or collective Serb actions took place all at once: trying to determine the blame and responsibility in such a chaos, except to score self-justifying debating points, is pretty difficult, if not impossible.

But that the illegal bombing increased and hastened the flight of people out of Kosovo cannot be doubted. How the NATO high command, with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair leading the pack, could ever have assumed that the number of refugees would have decreased as a result of the bombing fairly beggars the imagination. Neither leader, significantly, has ever experienced the horrors of war; neither man fought, neither has any direct knowledge of what it means to search desperately for survival, to protect and feed one's family. For those reasons alone, both leaders deserve the strongest moral condemnation and, given Clinton's appalling record in Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq and the White House corridors, he should be indicted as a war criminal as much as Milosevic. In any event, even according to US law, Clinton violated the constitution by fighting a war without congressional sanction. That he also violated the UN Charter simply adds to the felony.

Morality teaches that, if one wants to intervene to alleviate suffering or injustice (this is the famous idea of humanitarian intervention which so many Western liberals have dragged out as an excuse for the bombing war), then one must make sure first of all that by doing so the situation will not be made worse. That lesson seems to have eluded the NATO leaders, who plunged in ill-prepared, poorly informed and heedless, and therefore cold-bloodedly sealed the fate of hundreds of thousands of Kosovars who, whether they had to bear the brunt of Serbian vengeance on them, or because the sheer volume and density of the bombing (despite ludicrous claims about precision-guided ordinance) made it imperative for them to flee the province, became victims twice over.

There is now the colossal job of trying to restore a million people to their homes with no clear idea of what, once they return, is to be their fate. Self-determination? Autonomy under Serbia? Military occupation under NATO? Partition? Shared sovereignty? According to what sort of timetable? Who is going to pay? These are only some of the questions that remain unanswered, if the agreement brokered by Russia actually works and goes through. What does it mean that (according to the agreement) some Serb police or military personnel will be allowed back in? Who will protect them against Albanian violence, and who will regulate their actions? Who will protect the Serbian Kosovars? Add to that the exorbitant cost of re-building Kosovo and Serbia, and you have a web of problems that simply defies the limited powers of understanding and political sophistication possessed by any or all of the present NATO leaders.

What concerns me most, though, as an American and a citizen, is what the Kosovo crisis portends for the future of the world order. "Safe" or "clean" wars, in which American military personnel and their equipment are almost totally invulnerable to enemy retaliation or attack, are profoundly troubling things to think about. In effect, as the distinguished international jurist Richard Falk has argued, such wars share the same structure as torture, with the investigator-torturer having all the power to choose and then employ whatever method he wishes; the victim, who has none, consequently is left to the whim of his persecutor. America's status in the world today is at its lowest, that of a stupid bully capable of inflicting much more damage than any power in history.

The US military budget is 30 per cent higher than that of the total budget spent by all the other NATO countries combined. Over half the countries of the world today have felt either the threat or the actuality of US economic or trade sanctions. Pariah states like Iraq, North Korea, Sudan, Cuba and Libya (pariahs because the US has labelled them so) bear the brunt of US unilateral anger; one of them, Iraq, is in the process of genocidal dissolution, thanks to US sanctions which go on well past any sensible purpose other than to satisfy the US's feelings of righteous anger. What is all this supposed to accomplish, and what does it say to the world about US power? This is a frightening message bearing no relationship to security, national interest, or well-defined strategic aims. It is all about power for its own sake. And when Clinton takes to the airwaves to inform Serbs or Iraqis that they will get no help from the country that destroyed theirs unless they change their leaders, arrogance simply knows no bounds. The International Tribunal that has branded Milosevic a war criminal cannot in the present circumstances have either viability or credibility unless the same criteria are applied to Clinton, Blair, Albright, Sandy Berger, General Clark and all the others whose murderous purpose completely overrode any notion of decency and the laws of war. In comparison with what Clinton has done to Iraq alone, Milosevic, for all his brutality, is a rank amateur in viciousness. What makes Clinton's crimes worse is the sanctimony and fraudulent concern in which he cloaks himself and, worse, which seem to fool the neo-liberals who now run the Natopolitan world. Better an honest conservative than a deceptive liberal.

Adding to this unhealthy situation, making it worse in fact, is the media, which has played the role not of impartial reporter but of partisan and partial witness to the folly and cruelty of the war. During the 79 days of bombing I must have watched at least 30 days of NATO briefings, and I cannot recall more than five or six reporters' questions that even remotely challenged the bilge put out by Jamie Shea, George Robertson and, worst of all, Javier Solano, the NATO honcho who has simply sold his "socialist" soul to US global hegemony. There was no scepticism in evidence at all from the media, no attempt to do anything more than "clarify" NATO positions, using retired military men (never women) to explicate the niceties of the terror bombing. Similarly liberal columnists and intellectuals, whose war in a sense this was, simply looked away from the destruction of Serbia's infrastructure (estimated at $136 billion) in their enthusiasm for the idea that "we" were doing something to stop ethnic cleansing. Worst of all, the media only half-heartedly (if at all) reported on the war's unpopularity in the US, Italy, Greece, and Germany. No memory of what happened in Rwanda four years ago, or in Bosnia, or the displacement of 350,000 Serbs at the hands of Tudjman, or the continuing Turkish atrocities against the Kurds, the killing of over 560,000 Iraqi civilians, or -- to bring it back to where it all started -- Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestine in l948, which continues, with liberal support, until today. In what essential ways are Barak, Sharon, Netanyahu and Eitan different in their views and practices toward different and "inferior" races from Milosevic and Tudjman?

In the post-Cold War era, the question remains: is the US and its sordid military-economic policy, which knows only profit and opportunism, to rule the world, or can there develop a sufficiently powerful intellectual and moral resistance to its policies? For those of us who live in its sphere or are its citizens, the first duty is to demystify the debased language and images used to justify American practices and hypocrisy, to connect US policies in places like Burma, Indonesia, Iran and Israel with what it is now doing in Europe -- making it safe for US investments and business -- and to show that the policies are basically the same, though they are made to seem different. There can be no resistance without memory and universalism. If ethnic cleansing is evil in Yugoslavia -- as it is, of course -- it is also evil in Turkey, Palestine, Africa, and elsewhere. Crises are not over once CNN stops covering them. There can be no double standards. If war is cruel and deeply wasteful, then it is cruel whether or not American pilots bomb from 30,000 feet and remain unscathed. And if diplomacy is always to be preferred over military means, then diplomacy must be used at all costs.

Finally, if innocent human life is sacred, then it must not cynically be sacrificed if the victims happen not to be white and European. One must always begin one's resistance at home, against power that as a citizen one can influence; but alas, a fluent nationalism masking itself as patriotism and moral concern has taken over the critical consciousness, which then puts loyalty to one's "nation" before everything. At that point there is only the treason of the intellectuals, and complete moral bankruptcy.

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