I wrote the article below in 1999 for the Libertarian Alliance magazine Free Life. On re-reading it I am struck by how the Nato air attack on the rump of Yugoslavia in 1999 inspired the Blair Doctrine which in essence says that the UN or other international body such as Nato can use force within a country to stop a government from doing something which affects no other country. The Nato attack on Kosovo began on 24 March and ran to 11 June. On 22 April Blair enunciated the Blair Doctrine in a speech to the Chicago Club. (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/international/jan-june99/blair_doctrine4-23.html).
Kosovo was a step change from the earlier Nato attacks made on Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 because Kosovo was still legally unequivocally part of Serbia in 1999, while Bosnia Herzegovina was part of a very complex civil war resulting from the collapse of Communist rule in Yugoslavia which ended with international recognition of Bosnia Herzegovina before the Nato action. There was no such international recognition of Kosovo as an independent state before the Nato action in 1999 and even today its status is unclear. A declaration of independence from Serbia was enacted on Sunday, 17 February 2008 by the Assembly of Kosovo, but has not met with general international acceptance.
A victory for Milosevic?
Now that the big boys toys have been put back in the cupboard and Mr Jamie Shea is returning to run his whelk stall in the Mile End Road, we really do need to ask why this bizarre act of aggression by Nato occurred because it has profound implications for Britain. What was it all about?
Well, we all know that, don’t we? To put the Albanians back into Kosovo, stupid! Wrong. The war started because Milosevic would not accept the Nato proposals drawn up at Rambouillet, which was scarcely surprising for they might have been designed to ensure their refusal.
Not only did the Rambouillet Proposals give foreign soldiers the right to enter any part of Yugoslavia, they provided for a referendum on independence for the Kosovan population. Add to that the demand that Serb troops withdraw from Kosovo and the refusal to allow Russian troops to be part of a peacekeeping force, and it is all too easy to see why Milosevic refused them. Moreover, the Rambouillet proposals were not put forward as a basis for negotiation, but as a fait accompli. They then became the subject of a naked ultimatum, issued effectively by the US in the egregious person of Madeleine Albright.
The Rambouillet proposals would have reduced Yugoslavia to the status of a dependent territory, with the virtual guarantee that the land (Kosovo) which had the greatest emotional significance for the majority Serb population would be lost to the hated Albanian minority. Moreover, they had the knowledge that the loss of Kosovo through a referendum would almost certainly result in the expulsion of the two hundred thousand Serbs normally resident in Kosovo, assuming that they had not already left after the withdrawal of Serbian troops. Milosevic was offered the prospect of tremendous humiliation and nothing else. If Nato had wished to ensure a war they could scarcely have done better. As Henry Kissinger remarked in a interview with Boris Johnson of the Daily Telegraph (28/6/99,) Rambouillet was a provocation.
But the Rambouillet proposals were only the immediate cause of the conflict. The war was really about the imposition of Liberal Internationalist ideals. Since 1945, the Liberal Internationalist cause have been growing in strength until it has become the ostensible ideology of the ruling elites throughout the West. During the Cold War the territorial ambitions of the Liberal Internationalists were considerably constrained. Since 1989 those constraints have been removed. The result has been an unhappy sequence of interventions, covered by the fig leaf of UN colours, which have demonstrated the utter impotence of the Liberal Internationalist creed by invariably creating situations the exact opposite of those intended by the interveners: Somalia is a mess of anarchy, Bosnia a UN protectorate with the warring ethnic groups largely segregated and future conflict just waiting to happen. The war against Serbia marked a new stage in Liberal Internationalist ambitions: naked aggression was undertaken without even the indecent cover of the UN fig leaf.
The persistent failure of international intervention has not deterred the Liberal Internationalists because, like all fanatic ideologues, the Liberal Internationalist is incapable of admitting that his creed is plain wrong no matter have often events prove it to be so. For the Liberal Internationalist any failure is simply the result of insufficient resources and time, a spur to behave in an ever more totalitarian manner; from peacekeeping through outright war to de facto colonial occupation. Consequently those with the power in the West continue to intervene ineptly in conflicts inherently irresolvable in liberal Internationalist terms. Their response to failure or the contrary evidence of events is to embark on ever more intervention regardless of the havoc caused or the long term consequences.
What the war was not about was morality, despite Blair and Clinton’s inordinate and deeply risible posturing. (In fact war is never about morality. It is always about territory, aggrandisement, the removal of competitors and the imposition of the victor’s will.) The nations attacking Yugoslavia had stood by during many greater man made horrors such as the massacres in Rwanda. Most pertinently, the West had not merely stood by while hundreds of thousands of Serbs were expelled from Croatia, but in the guise of the UN had actively assisted in that expulsion by providing arms and airpower to support the Croat military. Most tellingly, and most repellently, because it was utterly predictable, Nato has not meaningfully protected the Kosovan Serbs since the end of the war. Nor could they have had any reasonable expectation of doing so, for the size of even the projected peace keeping force (50,000 – which numbers have not been met) was obviously inadequate to mount a general police action against an Albania population of nearly two million in which there were plentiful arms. A cynic might think that Nato’s aims were from the beginning to produce a Kosovo ethnically cleansed of Serbs.
The course of the war laid bare the stupidity, incomprehension, incompetence and amorality of the Nato members’ leaders. The objective facts say that the conflict has greatly worsened a naturally fraught situation. Before the war, the vast majority of the Albanian population of Kosovo was in Kosovo living in their homes. Since the war began the, vast majority have either left the country or remain in Kosovo having been driven from their homes. Thus, just as the Second World War signalled the beginning of the Holocaust, so Nato’s action signalled that of the Kosovan Albanians’ tragedy. Without the war, it is improbable to the point of certainty that the greatest movement of a population in Europe since 1945 would have occurred.
The hypocrisy of the whole business was graphically demonstrated in the Nato members’ attitude towards the refugees. The public posturing on the need to provide for the refugees was all too clearly balanced by the fear that any large scale import of refugees to Nato countries outside the Balkans would arouse considerable dissent in those countries. Amongst many stomach heaving moments, Clare Short’s protestations that Britain did not want to move the refugees away from the Balkans simply because Britain did not wish to unwillingly assist Milosevic rank very high. The double standards, both amongst politicians and the media have continued with the end of the war, as the Liberal Ascendency quietly tolerates ethnic cleansing of the Kosovo Serbs and the gross acts of revenge taken by the Kosovo Albanians.
What if there had been no war? Judged by what had gone before, there would have been continued harassment of Kosovan Albanians by Serb paramilitaries and some action by the regular Serb forces, the latter primarily directed against the KLA. One simple fact alone gives the lie to Nato’s claims that wholesale ethnic cleansing would have occurred regardless of Nato intervention. Prior to the war, Milosevic had ten years to undertake the task and did not attempt it. Fine ideals are not fine at all if they are so out of keeping with reality that they produce evil ends.
Who won the war? Well, let us follow the Dragnet example and just look at the facts. Milosevic remains in control of Yugoslavia minus Kosovo. Two of the prime demands of the Rambouillet proposals – that the Kosovo population be given a referendum on independence within three years and the right of peacekeeping troops to go anywhere in Yugoslavia – have been dropped. There is also to be no referendum and the peacekeeping force will operate only within Kosovo. In addition, Russian troops are involved in the peacekeeping force, a token Serb presence will be allowed in Kosovo and there are signs that the force may eventually come under UN not Nato auspices. Those are very significant political gains for Milosevic.
Let us make the assumptions which most favour Nato. That the agreement which was reached between Milosevic and Nato was not ambiguous. That Milosevic will keep his word. That the peace keeping force will be Nato led under a unified command. That the Russians involved in the peace keeping will not subvert the process on the ground. That money will be forthcoming in sufficient amounts to rebuild Kosovo. That the KLA will allow themselves to be disarmed. A collection of pretty improbable occurrences. But no matter, let us grant them. What then?
Even under such propitious and unlikely circumstances, it is highly improbable that Kosovo will be quickly returned to normality. The destruction of housing and the spoliation of farm land alone make that immensely difficult, but given the will and the money, the material damage might be repaired.
But material renaissance is not the heart of the problem. That lies in the all too simple fact of the existence of two incompatible ethnic groups occupying the same territory, both sides replete with ancestral hatreds and recent hurts. In such circumstances a peaceful multicultural Kosovo is a fantasy.
We have the example of Bosnia before us. Stripped of all cant, it is now a good old fashioned League of Nations Protectorate, a mandated territory. It has the experience of several years of UN control. Yet the vast majority of the displaced populations in Bosnia have not returned to their homes and the various ethnic groups there lead largely segregated lives.
But the post bombing situation in Kosovo is unlikely to be anything like so favourable as I have described. The KLA have shown no more willingness to generally disarm than the IRA. The agreement which was reached is not unambiguous.
Milosevic cannot be relied to keep his part of the bargain. The Russians have shown that they are not willing to accept Nato command unconditionally. Money in the quantities suggested as needed for rebuilding (anything between 15-25 billion pounds) may well prove to be too great a hurdle for politicians to sell to their publics who are being told of the need for cuts in welfare – The USA and Europe are already squabbling over who should bear the cost of rebuilding Kosovo.
Milosevic also has one great general political advantage; he knows that political life amongst the Nato powers is ephemeral. While he may be in power in five years time, the majority of his opponents will not. He can afford to sit and wait until a propitious moment comes to regain all or part of Kosovo. Milosevic’s position is not as strong as that of Saddam Hussain in purely authoritarian terms, but he has a vital quality which Saddam does not, namely his authority does not rely entirely on force.
Before the war started the Nato leaders must have known that a western led occupation of Kosovo would simply replace one form of repression with another. At best they could expect a replica of Bosnia: at worst, an ethnic cleansing of Serbian Kosovans. Since the end of the war, all too predictably the worst has occurred as the western disregard shown for the welfare of ordinary Serbs elsewhere in the Balkans has been repeated. The peacekeeping force has stood ineffectually by whilst Kosovo is cleansed of Serbs by the KLA and their associates.
Perhaps no one has won the war, but that is often the way of wars. The real question is who has suffered the most damage. At the moment it may look like Milosevic, not least because the Nato countries in truth had nothing material to gain and everything to lose from the War. Yet Milosevic has reduced the Rambouillet demands, probably tightened his control on Yugoslav politics and large parts of Kosovo has been ethnically cleansed. The Nato countries have made significant concessions and committed themselves to massive expenditure and the deployment of troops indefinitely. This will both take money from their own electorates and influence their future foreign policies. It is a strange sort of victory if victory it be for Nato.
For Britain there is much about which to be ashamed and worried. We have bombed defenceless targets which plainly were not in any meaningful sense military. This places us in an impossible moral position in dealing with terrorist action. What moral argument could we have against Serb reprisal bombs in Britain? That it is wrong to bomb innocent civilians?
More worryingly Blair has shown himself to be an unashamed warmonger. I would like to believe that Blair’s public words were simply a cynical manipulation of the public to promote his reputation and were made in the certain knowledge that Clinton would not commit troops to a land war. Unfortunately I think that Blair was anything but cynical in his belligerence. The Observer reported on 18 July that Blair had agreed to send 50,000 British troops to take part in an invasion force of 170,000 if Milosevic had not conceded Kosovo to Nato. Incredible as this may seem, (and it was not denied by Downing Street) such recklessness fits in with Blair’s general behaviour. So there you have it, our prime minister would have committed the majority of Britain’s armed forces to a land war in which we have no national interest, regardless of the cost, deaths and injuries. The danger remains that Blair will find another adventure which does result in a land war. Over Kosovo, he behaved like a reckless adolescent and nearly came a fatal political cropper. Yet this government appears to have learnt nothing from the experience, vide the unpleasant and malicious fanaticism in Blair and Cook’s declarations of their intent to both unseat Milosevic from power and bring him before an international court, vide the humiliation of Russia, vide the ever more absurd declarations of internationalist intent since hostilities ceased. That adolescent idealists’ mindset could lead Britain down a very dark path indeed. It is also incompatible with a foreign policy that supposedly encourages elected governments (however imperfect they are) over dictatorships.
What other lessons does this war teach us? It shows above all the utter powerlessness of the democratic process and the sham of international law. In the two countries which have taken the lead, US and Britain, parliamentary support was not formally sought nor given, funds voted or a declaration of war sanctioned. The other members of Nato have been impotent bystanders.
The American Constitution was designed to prevent aggressive acts of war without congressional approval. That constitutional guarantee has been severely tested since 1945, but perhaps never so emphatically as in the past months. If an American president can commit such considerable forces to a war regardless of Congressional approval, it seriously brings into question the value of the constitutional restraint. Where exactly would the line be drawn in the Constitutional sand?
In Britain, the matter was debated at the government’s convenience but at no one else’s. Incredibly, many will think, support for the war was never put to a vote in the Commons.
As for international law, that has been shown in the most unambiguous manner to be a sham. The war was fought without a declaration of war, in contravention of the UN Charter and in a manner guaranteed to cause significant civilian casualties.
Yet Judge Arbour at the War Crimes Tribunal does not indict the likes of Clinton and Blair, only Milosevic. (Readers might like to note that formal complaints to Judge Arbour about Blair and Clinton have been ignored). Law which is not equally applied is no law, but merely a tool of the powerful against the weak. Moreover, there does not appear to be any illegality at which the US would draw the line. Apart from incitements to murder Milosevic, there have been newspaper reports of attempts by the CIA to illegally enter Milosevic’s bank accounts and drain them of funds (we honest folks call that theft). If governments do not obey the core moral and legal commandments of their own societies, law does not effectively exist.
If international law meant anything, the Nato action would be deemed objectively illegal. It was so first because of an absence of lawful international authority, there being no UN sanction for the War. On a national level, neither the British nor the American Parliaments sanctioned either the action or the expenditure which permitted the action.
The war also drove a coach and horses through the UN Charter and the Nato Treaty. The UN Charter was breached because it prohibits action to amend a sovereign state’s borders. As for the NATO treaty, this only provides for action to be taken in defence of member countries. Clearly the Yugoslav government had offered no direct threat to NATO members because there was no attempt to act outside the territory of Yugoslavia. Moreover, the only NATO countries which might have called for assistance to a perceived threat – Greece and Hungary – did not do so and made it clear that they were far from supportive of the Nato action.
In general terms, it was impossible before the war began to make a convincing case that Yugoslavia could present a threat to the peace of Europe. It is a country of ten million souls, poor with an underdeveloped industrial base. Moreover, its natural poverty had been greatly increased by years of civil war and UN sanctions.
Balkan history tells a single story: any of its peoples which become possessed of the advantage of numbers, wealth or arms will oppress as a matter of course any other of its peoples. If the Albanians gain control of Kosovo, rest assured that they will behave as abominably towards the Serbs as the Serbs have behaved towards them. The disputed territory is Serb by history and Albanian by present settlement. There is no absolute right on either side.