Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
1 - 7 June 2000
Issue No. 484
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Gunboat diplomacy

By Naom Chomsky *

Naom Chomsky It is a rare achievement for a propaganda system to have its doctrines adopted as the very presuppositions of debate. These are among the "lessons learned" from NATO's bombing campaign in Serbia; to be applied in future exercises cloaked in humanitarian intent.

The absurdity of the principle of retrospective justification is, surely, recognised at some level. Accordingly, many attempts to justify the NATO bombing take a different tack. One typical version is that Serbia assaulted Kosovo to squash a separatist Albanian guerrilla movement, but killed 10,000 civilians and drove 700,000 people into refuge in Macedonia and Albania. NATO then attacked Serbia from the air in the name of protecting the Albanians from ethnic cleansing, but killed hundreds of Serb civilians and provoked an exodus of tens of thousands from cities into the countryside. Assuming this order of events, a rationale for the bombing can be constructed. But uncontroversially, the actual order is the opposite.

The device is common in the media, and scholarship often adopts a similar stance. In a widely praised book on the war, historian David Fromkin asserts without argument that the United States and its allies acted out of "altruism" and "moral fervour" alone, forging "a new kind of approach to the use of power in world politics" as they "reacted to the deportation of more than a million Kosovars from their homeland" by bombing so as to save them "from horrors of suffering, or from death." In fact, Fromkin is referring to those expelled as the anticipated consequence of the bombing campaign.

Opening her legal defence of the war, law professor Ruth Wedgwood assumes without argument that the objective of the NATO bombing was "to stem Belgrade's expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo" -- namely, the expulsion precipitated by the bombing, and an objective unknown to the military commander and forcefully denied by him. International affairs and security specialist Alan Kuperman writes that in East Timor and Kosovo "the threat of economic sanctions or bombing has provoked a tragic backlash," and that "Western intervention arrived too late to prevent the widespread atrocities."

In Kosovo, the bombing did not arrive "too late to prevent the widespread atrocities," but preceded them, and, as anticipated, incited them. In East Timor, no Western action "provoked a tragic backlash." The use of force was not proposed and even the threat of sanctions was delayed until after the consummation of the atrocities. The "intervention" was by a UN peace-keeping force that entered the Portuguese-administered territory, under UN jurisdiction in principle, after the Western powers finally withdrew their direct support for the Indonesian invasion and its massive atrocities and their armies quickly left.

Such revision of the factual record has been standard procedure throughout the Kosovo campaign. In a typical earlier version, New York Times foreign-policy specialist Thomas Friedman wrote at the war's end that "once the refugee evictions began, ignoring Kosovo would be wrong... and therefore using a huge air war for a limited objective was the only thing that made sense." The refugee evictions to which he refers followed the "huge air war." Again, the familiar inversion is understandable: without it, defence of state violence becomes difficult indeed.

One commonly voiced retrospective justification is that the resort to force made it possible for Kosovar Albanians to return to their homes; a significant achievement, if we overlook the fact that almost all were driven from their homes in reaction to the bombing. By this reasoning, a preferable alternative -- grotesque, but less so than the policy pursued -- would have been to wait and see whether the Serbs would carry out the alleged threat, and if they did, to bomb the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) to ensure the return of the Kosovars, who would have suffered far less harm than they did when expelled under NATO's bombs.

An interesting variant appears in Cambridge University law professor Marc Weller's introduction to the volume of documents on Kosovo that he edited. Weller recognises that the NATO bombing, which he strongly supported, is in clear violation of international law and might be justified only on the basis of an alleged "right of humanitarian intervention." That justification in turn rests on the assumption that the FRY refusal "to accept a very detailed settlement of the Kosovo issue [the Rambouillet ultimatum] would constitute a circumstance triggering an overwhelming humanitarian emergency." But events on the ground "relieved NATO of having to answer this point," writes Weller -- namely, "the commencement of a massive and pre-planned campaign of forced deportation of what at one stage seemed to be almost the entire ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo just before the bombing campaign commenced."

There are two problems. First, the documentary record, including the volume he edited, provides no evidence for his crucial factual claim, and indeed refutes it given the absence of evidence despite extensive efforts to unearth it. Second, even if it had been discovered later that the expulsion had commenced before the bombing, that could hardly justify the resort to force, by simple logic. Furthermore, even if the commencement of the expulsion had been known before the bombing (though mysteriously missing from the documentary record), it would have been far preferable to allow the expulsion to proceed and then to initiate the bombing to ensure the refugees' return. But in the light of the evidence available, all of this is academic, merely an indication of the desperation of the efforts to justify the war.

Were less ill-favoured options available in March 1999? The burden of proof, of course, is on those who advocate state violence; it is a heavy burden, which there has been no serious attempt to meet. But let us put that aside and look into the range of options available. An important question, raised by French writer and analyst Eric Rouleau, is whether Serbian atrocities "had reached such proportions as to warrant breaking off the diplomatic process to save the Kosovars from genocide." He observes that "The OSCE's continuing refusal to release the report [on the observations of the KVM monitors from November until their withdrawal] can only strengthen doubts about the truth of that allegation." As noted earlier, the State Department and tribunal indictments provide no meaningful support for the allegation -- not an insignificant fact, since both sought to develop the strongest case.

What about the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) report, released since Rouleau wrote? As noted, the report makes no serious effort to support the allegation. Indeed, it provides little information about the crucial period. Its references, in fact, confirm the testimony of French KVM monitor Jacques Prod'homme, cited by Rouleau, that "in the month leading up to the war, during which he moved freely throughout the Pec region, neither he nor his colleagues observed anything that could be described as systematic persecution, either collective or individual murders, burning of houses or deportations." And the detailed reports of KVM and other observers omitted from the OSCE review undermine the allegation further.

The crucial allegation remains unsupported, though it is the central component of NATO's case, as even the most dedicated advocates recognise -- Weller for example. And once again, it should be stressed that a heavy burden of proof lies on those who put it forth to justify the resort to violence. The discrepancy between what is required and the evidence presented is quite striking; the term "contradiction" would be more apt, particularly when we consider other pertinent evidence, such as the direct testimony of the military commander, General Wesley Clark. Kosovo had been an extremely ugly place in the preceding year.

About 2,000 were killed according to NATO, mostly Albanians, in the course of a bitter struggle that began in February with KLA actions that the United States denounced as "terrorism," and a brutal Serb response. By summer, the KLA had taken over about 40 per cent of the province, eliciting a vicious reaction by Serb security forces and paramilitaries, targeting the civilian population. According to Kosovar Albanian legal adviser Marc Weller, "within a few days [after the withdrawal of the monitors on 20 March], the number of displaced had again risen to over 200,000," figures that conform roughly to US intelligence reports.

Suppose the monitors had not been withdrawn in preparation for the bombing and diplomatic efforts had been pursued. Were such options feasible? Would they have led to an even worse outcome, or perhaps a better one? Since NATO refused to entertain this possibility, we cannot know. But we can at least consider the known facts, and ask what they suggest. Could the KVM monitors have been left in place, preferably strengthened? That seems possible, particularly in the light of the immediate condemnation of the withdrawal by the Serb National Assembly.

No argument has been advanced to suggest that the reported increase in atrocities after their withdrawal would have taken place even had they remained, let alone the vast escalation that was the predicted consequence of the bombing signalled by the withdrawal. NATO also made little effort to pursue other peaceful means; even an oil embargo, the core of any serious sanctions regime, was not considered until after the bombing.

The most important question, however, has to do with the diplomatic options. Two proposals were on the table on the eve of the bombing. One was the Rambouillet Accord, presented to Serbia as an ultimatum. The second was Serbia's position, formulated in its 15 March "Revised Draft Agreement" and the Serb National Assembly Resolution of 23 March. A serious concern for protecting Kosovars might well have brought into consideration other options as well, including, perhaps, something like the 1992-93 proposal of the Serbian president of Yugoslavia, Dobrica Cosic, that Kosovo be partitioned, separating itself from Serbia apart from "a number of Serbian enclaves." At the time, the proposal was rejected by Ibrahim Rugova's Republic of Kosovo, which had declared independence and set up a parallel government; but it might have served as a basis for negotiation in the different circumstances of early 1999.

Let us, however, keep to the two official positions of late March: the Rambouillet ultimatum and the Serb resolution. It is important and revealing that, with marginal exceptions, the essential contents of both positions were kept from the public eye, apart from dissident media that reach few people. The Serb National Assembly Resolution, though reported at once on the wire services, has remained a virtual secret. There has been little indication even of its existence, let alone its contents.

The resolution condemned the withdrawal of the OSCE monitors and called on the UN and OSCE to facilitate a diplomatic settlement through negotiations "toward the reaching of a political agreement on a wide-ranging autonomy for [Kosovo], with the securing of a full equality of all citizens and ethnic communities and with respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Serbia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia." It raised the possibility of an "international presence" of a "size and character" to be determined to carry out the "political accord on the self-rule agreed and accepted by the representatives of all national communities living in [Kosovo]."

FRY agreement "to discuss the scope and character of international presence in [Kosovo] to implement the agreement to be accepted in Rambouillet" had been formally conveyed to the negotiators on 23 February and announced by the FRY at a press conference the same day. Whether these proposals had any substance we cannot know, since they were never considered and remain unknown.

Perhaps even more striking is that the Rambouillet ultimatum -- though universally described as a "peace proposal" -- was also kept from the public, particularly the provisions that were apparently introduced in the final moments of the Paris peace talks in March after Serbia had expressed agreement with the main political proposals, and that virtually guaranteed rejection. Of particular importance are the terms of the implementation appendices that accorded NATO the right of "free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY including associated airspace and territorial waters," without limits or obligations or concern for the laws of the country or the jurisdiction of its authorities, who are, however, required to follow NATO orders "on a priority basis and with all appropriate means."

The annex was kept from journalists covering the Rambouillet and Paris talks, reports British journalist and Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk: "The Serbs say they denounced it at their last Paris press conference -- an ill-attended gathering at the Yugoslav Embassy at 11.00pm on 18 March." Serb dissidents who took part in the negotiations allege that they were given these conditions on the last day of the Paris talks and that the Russians did not know about them. These provisions were not made available to the British House of Commons until 1 April, the first day of the parliamentary recess, a week after the bombing started.

In the negotiations that began after the bombing, NATO abandoned these demands entirely, along with others to which Serbia had been opposed, and there is no mention of them in the final peace agreement. Reasonably, Fisk asks: "What was the real purpose of NATO's last minute demand? Was it a Trojan horse? To save the peace? Or to sabotage it?" Whatever the answer, if the NATO negotiators had been concerned with the fate of the Kosovar Albanians, they would have sought to determine whether diplomacy could succeed if NATO's most provocative, and evidently irrelevant, demands had been withdrawn; the monitoring enhanced, not terminated; and significant sanctions threatened.

When such questions have been raised, leaders of the US and UK negotiating teams have claimed that they were willing to drop the exorbitant demands that they later withdrew, but that the Serbs refused. The claim is hardly credible. There would have been every reason for them to have made such facts public at once. It is interesting that they are not called to account for this startling performance.

An important example is the commentary on Rambouillet by Weller. Weller ridicules the "extravagant claims" about the implementation appendices, which he claims were "published along with the agreement," meaning the draft agreement dated 23 February. Where they were published he does not say, nor does he explain why reporters covering the Rambouillet and Paris talks were unaware of them; or, it appears, the British parliament.

The "famous Appendix B," he states, established "the standard terms of a status of forces agreement for KFOR [the planned NATO occupying forces]." He does not explain why the demand was dropped by NATO after the bombing began, and is evidently not required by the forces that entered Kosovo under NATO command in June, which are far larger than what was contemplated at Rambouillet and therefore should be even more dependent on the status of forces agreement. Also unexplained is the 15 March FRY response to the 23 February draft agreement. The FRY response goes through the draft agreement in close detail, section by section, proposing extensive changes and deletions throughout, but includes no mention at all of the appendices -- the implementation agreements, which, as Weller points out, were by far the most important part and were the subject of the Paris negotiations then under way.

One can only view his account with some scepticism, even apart from his casual attitude toward crucial fact, already noted, and his clear commitments. For the moment, these important matters remain buried in obscurity. Despite official efforts to prevent public awareness of what was happening, the documents were available to any news media that chose to pursue the matter. In the United States, the extreme (and plainly irrelevant) demand for virtual NATO occupation of the FRY received its first mention at a NATO briefing of 26 April, when a question was raised about it, but was quickly dismissed and not pursued.

The facts were reported as soon as the demands had been formally withdrawn and had become irrelevant to democratic choice. Immediately after the announcement of the peace accords of 3 June, the press quoted the crucial passages of the "take it or leave it" Rambouillet ultimatum, noting that they required that "a purely NATO force was to be given full permission to go anywhere it wanted in Yugoslavia, immune from any legal process," and that "NATO-led troops would have had virtually free access across Yugoslavia, not just Kosovo."


Premeditated mass murder
In Retrospect

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