by Christopher Caldwell
to a Serbian Orthodox prelate near Pec, by June 27 the Kosovar
Liberation Army's toll of "vengeance" on Serbs had reached 50 murders and
140 kidnappings -- a figure that exceeds the number of pre-invasion murders
with which Slobodan Milosevic is charged in the Hague war-crimes indictment.
(The President and NATO strongman Javier Solana always refer to murders of
Serbs as "vengeance" murders, to distinguish them from murders of human
beings.) As Slobo's assets were being hunted through the banks of
Switzerland and Cyprus, the U.S. Senate brought to the floor a bill that
would award $20 million to support a "Kosova security force" -- the kind of
force that the Democratic Party used to refer to during the Reagan
administration as a "death squad." State Dept. aide Jamie Rubin, after
yukking it up with the KLA head Hashim Thaci in the cafes of Pristina, was
pleased to offer $5 million in tax revenues to anyone who could assist in
kidnapping Milosevic and bringing him to trial.
Michael Dobbs of The Washington Post was sent to Nis to write what his editors obviously hoped would be a piece about Serb denial of war crimes. But the bulk of his report was devoted to two horrifying cluster-bomb attacks NATO made on the town in early May -- in broad daylight, when the number of civilians about their business would be at its peak. It is worth noting that cluster bombs are antipersonnel devices, designed to inflict a maximum amount of death and maiming.
Early reports last week claimed that two British soldiers had been killed by a Serb-planted mine. In fact, they were Gurkhas, and what actually killed them was one of many unexploded NATO cluster bombs that the Gurkhas were clearing out of a school. Meanwhile, three Serbs from the economics faculty at Pristina University were discovered bound and shot in the college basement. The U.S. and its allies will doubtless excuse the killings on the grounds that economics has "military applications." It's kind of like electricity, potable water and residential housing in that respect.
There is something eerie going on in the conscience of Americans. Neither Clinton nor Gore nor Albright nor Cohen has expressed the slightest unease over the civilians killed in this little bout of "sentimental imperialism" (to use the splendid phrase of President Johnson's national security adviser James C. Thompson). No -- more typical has been the exquisitely American response Tony Blair gave early on when NATO killed 75 Kosovar refugees with an errant laser-bomb attack on a convoy. "Of course we regret these things deeply when they happen," Blair said. "But that should not make us flinch from placing responsibility for this conflict squarely on the shoulders of Milosevic." Not my fault!
war with a moral blank check should give us pause, but it's not
likely to. In his bold and judicious new book The Holocaust In American
Life, the Chicago historian Peter Novick makes an apposite point about the
American style of drawing lessons from history: When Americans think about
atrocities, they always think of themselves as potential victims rather than
potential perpetrators. Novick points out that America has many museums
commemorating the Holocaust, which didn't happen here, and none
commemorating the continent-wide slave system that did. Reluctant to admit
our own misdeeds, we're only too happy to live off the moral capital
generated by the sufferings of others. People talk about how contemplating
injustice helps one develop "conscience." It can do that, but only if one
thinks of oneself as sharing in the sinful side of humanity. If one doesn't,
if the lesson one draws is only how awful those other people are, then such
remembrance becomes little more than an occasion for self-congratulation.
This is not to draw comparisons between NATO's actions and those of the totalitarians of the past. Nor is it to endorse the paleo-conservative Thomas Fleming's contention that "we are the Evil Empire." But it's beginning to look as if we could be. There seems to be no moral bridle on American aggression at present, and one can only hope we're not given a real opportunity to put our moral principles -- or lack thereof -- into action anytime soon.
No one seems to care that we continue to wage, albeit in proconsular fashion, a dishonorable war. Dishonorable militarily because we didn't fight -- or, more accurately, we saved the lives of our "brave" soldiers by waging war on noncombatants. Dishonorable diplomatically because our negotiating strategy was willfully dishonest. Now that the NATO occupiers have begun to make their first bomb-damage assessments, it is becoming clear that the Serbians lost only a few dozen tanks, not the hundreds that NATO bragged about with such grandiosity during the raids. The borders were well-mined. And no one in Milosevic's government ever took William Cohen's warnings of a ground invasion as anything more than bluster. So the Serbs could clearly have resisted for months.
Milosevic gave in because he thought the agreement that Russian and Finnish envoys worked out with the Group of Eight industrial nations had secured him a better deal than he would have had at Rambouillet. There was to be no occupation of Yugoslavia, a guarantee of Serb authority over Kosovo, a demilitarization of the KLA and a peacekeeping force under United Nations command, so that Serbia could be assured Russia and China would limit NATO aspirations via the UN Security Council. On paper, at least, it was a clear victory for Serbia, and a vindication of Milosevic's decision to endure the bombing.
But it didn't work out that way, because once the Serbs moved out, NATO simply ignored the treaty and muscled the UN out of the operation. What Milosevic didn't understand is that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan might prove more pliant under NATO bullying than Milosevic himself. Nor did he expect that NATO would achieve its war aims by lying in treaty negotiations and then welshing on a treaty. On the one hand, you can say that Serbia under Milosevic has a well-earned reputation for reneging on its promises, and that a taste of their own medicine is long overdue; on the other hand, Serbia under Milosevic doesn't exactly provide a standard of international conduct that the United States should aspire to. We are going to pay for this deviousness for years to come -- perhaps in the form of an elected nationalist government in Russia.
Last week, Clinton aides were trying to plant the idea, through off-the-record chitchat, that there were some high moral lessons to be learned from the conflict -- a "Clinton doctrine," as they liked to put it. This was spin, of course. And yet, there really is such a thing as a Clinton doctrine. Charles Krauthammer has been most eloquent in exposing its premises: Overturning the age-old American policy of fighting wars for the national interest, we now maintain that national interest would taint the moral purity of those waging the war. The danger is that such a doctrine turns all our wars into holy wars. Once we've established the lack of national interest, we've established our moral purity, and conscience need no longer intrude.
Would we have made a Kosovo-style attack on Rwanda if the massacres were taking place today? Actually not -- because the rhetoric necessary to wage such an operation ("barbarian ... savage ... primitive") is not available to a politically correct American president when he is talking about Africa. But that's just ideology. At the operational level, the Clinton doctrine is merely a decision that, when it comes to military engagements, we should focus on the things we do well, like public relations and political dirty tricks -- and stop doing the things we do poorly, like ground combat and telling right from wrong.
July 5, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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