Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 May 2000
Issue No. 481
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In Retrospect

By Naom Chomsky*

Naom ChomskyThe tumult having subsided, it should be possible to undertake a relatively dispassionate review and analysis of NATO's war over Kosovo. One might have expected the theme to have dominated the year-end millennarianism, considering the exuberance the war elicited in Western intellectual circles and the tidal wave of self-adulation by respected voices, lauding the first war in history fought "in the name of principles and values," the first bold step towards a "new era" in which the "enlightened states" will protect the human rights of all under the guiding hand of an "idealistic New World bent on ending inhumanity," now freed from the shackles of archaic concepts of world order. But it received scant mention.

A rare exception was the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), which devoted its lead story on 31 December to an in-depth analysis of what had taken place. The headline reads: "War in Kosovo Was Cruel Bitter, Savage; Genocide It Wasn't." The conclusion contrasts rather sharply with wartime propaganda. A database search of references to "genocide" in Kosovo for the first week of bombing alone was interrupted when it reached its limit of 1000 documents.

As NATO forces entered Kosovo, tremendous efforts were undertaken to discover evidence of war crimes, a "model of speed and efficiency" to ensure that no evidence would be lost or overlooked. The efforts "build on lessons learned from past mistakes." They reflect "a growing international focus on holding war criminals accountable." Furthermore, analysts add, "proving the scale of the crimes is also important to NATO politically, to show why 78 days of airstrikes against Serbian forces and infrastructure were necessary."

The logic, widely accepted, is intriguing. Uncontroversially, the vast crimes took place after the bombing began: they were not a cause but a consequence. It requires considerable audacity, therefore, to take the crimes to provide retrospective justification for the actions that contributed to inciting them.

One "lesson learned," and quickly applied, was the need to avoid a serious inquiry into crimes in East Timor. Here there was no "model of speed and efficiency." Few forensic experts were sent despite the pleas of the UN peace-keeping mission, and those were delayed for four months, well after the rainy season would remove essential evidence. The mission itself was delayed even after the country had been virtually destroyed and most of its population expelled. The distinction is not hard to comprehend.

In East Timor, the crimes were attributable directly to state terrorists who were supported by the West right through the final days of their atrocities. Accordingly, issues of deterrence and accountability can hardly be on the agenda. In Kosovo, in contrast, evidence of terrible crimes can be adduced to provide retrospective justification for the NATO war, on the interesting principle that has been established by the doctrinal system.

Despite the intensive efforts, the results of "the mass-grave obsession," as the WSJ analysts call it, were disappointingly thin. Instead of "the huge killing fields some investigators were led to expect, ...the pattern is of scattered killings," a form of "ethnic cleansing light." "Most killings and burnings [were] in areas where the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army [KLA-UCK] had been active" or could infiltrate, some human-rights researchers reported, an attempt "to clear out areas of KLA support, using selective terror, robberies and sporadic killings." These conclusions gain some support from the detailed OSCE review released in December, which "suggests a kind of military rationale for the expulsions, which were concentrated in areas controlled by the insurgents and along likely invasion routes."

The WSJ analysis concludes that "NATO stepped up its claims about Serb "killing fields" when it "saw a fatigued press corps drifting toward the contrarian story: civilians killed by NATO's bombs." NATO spokesman Jamie Shea presented "information" that can be traced to KLA-UCK sources. Many of the most lurid and prominently-published atrocity reports attributed to refugees and other sources were untrue, the WSJ concludes. Meanwhile, NATO sought to deny its own atrocities, for example, by releasing a falsified videotape "shown at triple its real speed" to make it appear that "the killing of at least 14 civilians aboard a train on a bridge in Serbia last April" was unavoidable because "the train had been traveling too fast for the trajectory of the missiles to have been changed in time."

The WSJ analysts nevertheless conclude that the "heinous" crimes, including the huge campaign of expulsion, "may well be enough to justify" the NATO bombing campaign, on the principle of retrospective justification.

The OSCE study is the third major source concerning Serb crimes. The first is the State Department's case against Milosevic and his associates in May; the second, their formal indictment shortly after by the International Tribunal on War Crimes. The two documents are very similar, presumably because the "remarkably fast indictment" by the Tribunal was based on US-UK "intelligence and other information long denied to [the Tribunal] by Western governments." Few expect that such information would be released for a War Crimes Tribunal on East Timor, in the unlikely event that there is one. The State Department updated its case in December 1999, with what is intended to be the definitive justification for the bombing, adding whatever information could be obtained from refugees and investigations after the war. In the two State Department reports and the Tribunal indictment, the detailed chronologies are restricted, almost entirely, to the period that followed the bombing campaign initiated on 24 March . Thus, the final State Department report of December 1999 refers vaguely to "late March" or "after March," apart from a single reference to refugee reports of an execution on 23 March, the day of NATO's official declaration that the air operations announced on 22 March would begin.[8] The one significant exception is the 15 January Racak massacre of 45 people. But that cannot have been the motive for the bombing, for two sufficient reasons: first, the OSCE monitors and other international observers (including NATO) report this to be an isolated event, with nothing similar in the following months up to the bombing; we return to that record directly. And second, such atrocities are of little concern to the US and its allies. Evidence for the latter conclusion is overwhelming, and it was confirmed once again shortly after the Racak massacre, when Indonesian forces and their paramilitary subordinates brutally murdered 50 or more people who had taken refuge from Indonesian terror in a church in the remote Timorese village of Liquica. Unlike Racak, this was only one of many massacres in East Timor at that time, with a toll well beyond anything attributed to Milosevic in Kosovo: 3-5000 killed from January 1999, credible church sources reported on 6 August, about twice the number killed on all sides in Kosovo in the year prior to the bombing, according to NATO. Historian John Taylor estimates the toll at 5-6000 from January to the 30 August referendum. The US and its allies reacted to the East Timor massacres in the familiar way: by continuing to provide military and other aid to the killers and maintaining other military arrangements, including joint training exercises as late as August, while insisting that security in East Timor "is the responsibility of the Government of Indonesia, and we don't want to take that responsibility away from them."

In summary, the State Department and the Tribunal make no serious effort to justify the bombing campaign or the withdrawal of the OSCE monitors on 20 March in preparation for it. The OSCE inquiry conforms closely to the indictments produced by the State Department and the Tribunal. It records "the pattern of the expulsions and the vast increase in lootings, killings, rape, kidnappings and pillage once the NATO air war began on March 24." "The most visible change in the events was after NATO launched its first airstrikes" on 24 March, the OSCE reports. "On one hand, the situation seemed to have slipped out of the control of any authorities, as lawlessness reigned in the form of killings and the looting of houses. On the other, the massive expulsion of thousands of residents from the city, which mostly took place in the last week of March and in early April, followed a certain pattern and was conceivably organized well in advance."

The word "conceivably" is surely an understatement. Even without documentary evidence, one can scarcely doubt that Serbia had contingency plans for expulsion of the population, and would be likely to put them into effect under NATO bombardment, with the prospect of direct invasion. It is commonly argued that the bombing is justified by the contingency plans that were implemented in response to the bombing. Again, the logic is interesting. Adopting the same principle, terrorist attacks on US targets would be justified if they elicited a nuclear attack, in accord with contingency plans -- which exist -- for first strike, even preemptive strike against non-nuclear states that have signed the non-proliferation treaty. And an Iranian missile attack on Israel with a credible invasion threat would be justified if Israel responded by implementing its detailed contingency plans -- which presumably exist -- for expelling the Palestinian population. The OSCE inquiry reports further that "Once the OSCE-KVM [monitors] left on 20 March 1999 and in particular after the start of the NATO bombing of the FRY on 24 March, Serbian police and/or VJ [army], often accompanied by paramilitaries, went from village to village and, in the towns, from area to area threatening and expelling the Kosovo Albanian population."[13] The departure of the monitors also precipitated an increase in KLA-UCK ambushes of Serbian police officers, "provoking a strong reaction" by police, an escalation from "the prewar atmosphere, when Serbian forces were facing off against the rebels, who were kidnapping Serbian civilians and ambushing police officers and soldiers."


* This is the first of a four-part series

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