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Hitchens on Serbia and East Timor
Edward S. Herman
In each U.S. war there are liberals and leftists who lend it support, and even larger numbers who dont oppose it because the issues and stakes involved seem unclear. Both support and silence are encouraged by the invariable demonization of the enemy and the surge of patriotic support for our troops fighting the demon, which makes opposition costly. Liberals like Anthony Lewis, under steady attack for their mildly dissenting views, are eager to join the establishment throng in an Operation Benevolence, and as they age they find it less and less difficult to see their country doing good as it bombs and sanctions the forces of evil abroad.
The liberal and left response to U.S. wars varies by the nature of the war, the character of the targetand ease and effectiveness of demonizationand the state of liberalism and the left. However, even in the most blatant cases of imperial aggression for a bad cause, as in the U.S. attacks on Guatemala (1954), Vietnam (1949-1975), the Dominican Republic (1965), and Nicaragua (1981-1990), there were numerous liberals and some leftists who gave intellectual service to the state.
It was, of course, much easier to support the Persian Gulf War, as Saddam Hussein had committed aggression against Kuwait and he was (and is) a brutal dictator. In addition, he was an enemy of Israel and Israel was pleased to see him crushed militarily, a factor that fed into liberal-left opinion in this country. In the case of Yugoslavia, also, liberal-left support of a U.S.-led war was greatly aided by the fact that Milosevic, if not a brutal dictator was a manipulative and opportunistic leader who used nationalistic appeals and violence against Serbian enemies without much scruple. Although hardly alone as a sponsor of violence in the Yugoslavia breakup, and in fact the head of a state and ethnic group that was the target of Western political attack from 1990 if not earlier, Milosevic was the chosen demon and was given the same "another Hitler" treatment in the U.S. as his predecessors (most recently, Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein).
Liberals and leftists who joined the NATO crusade against Milosevic had at least three serious problems to contend with in justifying their support. One is that NATO bypassed UN authority and ignored international law in attacking Yugoslavia. A second is that NATO deliberately and openly used extreme violence against the Serbian civil society to achieve its political aims in the Kosovo war. As in Iraq, the entire population was victimized as a collective hostage, and the means employed were in violation of the rules of war. Christopher Simpson has pointed out that infrastructure attacks such as NATO carried out against Serbia were labelled "terrorism" by a 1999 Presidents Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, if done against the U.S. Anthony Lewis has deteriorated morally to the point where he finds this mode of war to be fine because Serbian civilians deserve it, having supported the "tyrant." The contradiction between calling Milosevic a dictator-tyrant and blaming the Serbian populace for the dictators actions was widespread in liberal writings. Other liberals and leftists were unconcerned with the plight of Serbs, who had been made "unworthy victims" and "unpeople" by the political establishment, and the liberals and leftists joined this throng.
A third problem for pro-war liberals and leftists has been fending off evidence that the NATO powers were heavily responsible for the breakup and ethnic group struggle for spatial control in the former Yugoslavia, and that NATO didnt want a peaceful resolution to the Kosovo crisis but instead wanted to punish and weaken or destroy Serbia. The liberal-leftist warriors have largely avoided this set of issues, and implicitly or openly claimed that NATOs effort was truly humanitarian.
On negotiations versus war there is a telling analogy between U.S.-NATO policy in Kosovo and the earlier U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf. After Iraq occupied Kuwait on August 2, 1990, virtually by U.S. invitation, Saddam Hussein became aware that he had misunderstood U.S. signals and he was prepared to get out with only face-saving concessions. But the Bush administration wouldnt let him exit without "his tail between his legs" (Dick Cheney), rejecting a string of negotiating offers by Iraq and third parties. In the pre-bombing maneuvering in 1990-1991 the mainstream media served as perfect propaganda instruments of the state, claiming that Saddam was unwilling to negotiate and setting the stage for the destruction of Iraq.
In the case of Kosovo, it is now on the record that NATO put up conditions at Rambouillet designed to be rejected in order to permit the destruction of Serbia and NATO occupation of Kosovo. One State Department official eventually acknowledged that "We intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply. They needed some bombing." Serbia had made negotiating proposals that could easily have led to a peaceful resolution of that crisis, but NATO didnt want that, the media pretended that Serbia was blocking negotiations, and as with Iraq, the ground was laid for returning the target to the stone age.
Christopher Hitchens has several serious problems in writing on the Kosovo war. One is that although he hates Clinton passionately, he hates the Serbs even more and is driven into the position of supporting and justifying Clintons war despite its approval of a major Clinton enterprise. His hatred of Serbs and Milosevic is so intense that he comes off as a racist and supporter of ethnic cleansing and mass killing, if the victims are Serbs. The Serb army, much of it a conscript army, is "drunken robotic militias" ("Port Huron Piffle," The Nation, June 14), and in his latest he notes that, "The NATO intervention repatriated all or most of the refugees and killed at least some of the cleansers" ("Genocide and the Body-Baggers," The Nation, November 29). That is all he ever says about Serb victims of the NATO war, many thousands of whom were ordinary civilians, but "unpersons" for Hitchens. He mentions that one alleged plan for Kosovo by the "slavo-fascists" was "importing of Serb settlers from Krajina." He has not a word of sympathy for the several hundred thousand Serbs ethnically cleansed from Krajina, never expresses concern that Clinton and NATO supported that expulsion or suggests that they should be repatriated to the homes from which they were driven. Now that the NATO-KLA alliance is in charge of Kosovo, the ecumenical ethnic cleansing of several hundred thousand Serbs, gypsies, and Turks doesnt concern him any more than the dead "cleansers." He never mentions that several thousand Albanians live in Belgrade, and are not abused there by the slavo-fascists, which suggests that the Serb actions in Kosovo cannot be explained by a model of "genocide."
A second problem for Hitchens is that as a leftist he should be against an imperialist war, and a war led by Clinton and Blair against a small country doing its brutal repression within its own borders has a strong smell of imperialism. Hitchens says that "Chomsky really does oppose imperialist war on principle. But his argument [in his The New Military Humanism] rests too heavily on the issue of double standards." This is both an evasion of the issues and a misrepresentation of Chomskys position. The main issues are, first, the wars effects; second, its compatability with the rule of law; and third, the motivations and aims of the war-makerswhether they were driven by humanitarian concerns or by more mundane political-economic factors.
On motivation and aims, Hitchens refuses to discuss this in his November 29 piece, but earlier he stated that NATO responded "when the sheer exorbitance of the crimes in Kosovo became impossible to ignore." In other words, Clinton was driven by humanistic concerns. This, of course, is nonsensethe crimes in Kosovo by the time the NATO bombing began were far less extensive than those in Turkey or East Timor, which Clinton found it easy to ignore and even support, so anybody not snowed by NATO propaganda and/or an anti-Serb fanatic, requires a bit more. NATO propagandists, of course, provided this with claims of the destabilizing effects of the Kosovo struggle that necessitated bombing, and by inflating and dwelling intently on Serb crimes preparatory to military action. NATOs demonization comports well with Hitchenss own demonization and double standard.
On the first issue, of effects, Hitchens is happy with the results ("The NATO intervention repatriated all or most of the refugees..."). He ignores the misery and deaths in the exodus precipitated by the bombing (which Hitchens supported), and anticipated by NATO, and the current 300,000 homeless Kosovo Albanians, as well as the suffering of the very large number of "unpeople" (ethnically cleansed gypsies, as well as Serbs within Kosovo and in the shattered Serbia). On the question of the rule of law, Hitchens is uninterested, presumably because of the beneficent results for the worthy victims (of Serbia).
In a remarkable innovation Hitchens goes on to argue that the double standard "may still be made to operate against itself," and that it has actually worked out as helpful to the East Timorese. Although the Western intervention was "disgracefully late (and no punishment was visited on Indonesian forces or infrastructures)...it seems to me obvious that without the Kosovo operation and the exalted motives that were claimed for it, the pressure to save East Timor would have been considerably less." This again is nonsense, and is also blatant apologetics for a Western betrayal and criminal behavior by Indonesia. East Timor was not saved, it was destroyed, and many thousands of East Timorese are still held in West Timor under deadly conditions, without any outcries about "genocide" from Hitchens and his buddies still spending their energy defending NATO and focusing on Serb crimes. The attention given to East Timor was not a spinoff from Kosovo humanitarian claims, but resulted from the publicity associated with UN-sponsorship of an election for an abused people, an election nominally supported by Clinton, Blair, et al. The miracle was not the sadly belated and puny intervention, but the fact that Clinton and his gang could let Indonesia carry out its savageries with impunity, even after having proclaimed the new humanitarianism. Their success in getting away with this major betrayal can be read from Hitchenss kindly treatment of it.
As regards the double standard involving East Timor, Hitchens says that Chomsky finished his book "before the international detachments arrived in Dili and before the Indonesian occupiers sailed away." But despite the "disgraceful lateness" of the intervention, "I cannot think of any other ground on which Chomsky could have opposed it." But Hitchens misses the point in Chomskys stress on double standards, which is to show both the frequency with which Western intervention worsens human rights conditions and the unlikelihood that the Kosovo intervention was based on any humanitarian concerns. Chomsky believes that the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia worsened human rights conditions and the general welfare of the purported beneficiaries (as well as many others victimized by the attacks) and that its effects contradicted the claimed humanitarian ends.
In his November 29 article Hitchens asserts that "doing nothing" is a form of intervention, but in evaluating the Wests role in East Timor he sets aside his own standard and limits the use of the word intervention to the "disgracefully late" entry of Western troops, ignoring the Wests having done nothing in the face of Indonesian terror for the prior year (not to mention the prior 24 years of murderous occupation). Chomsky has pointed out elsewhere that the United States knew what Indonesia was up to from the beginning of its disruption of the referendum and had the power to call the whole thing off, but didnt. If the Serbs had done to Albanians what they did after the NATO bombing began, and the West only watched and said "please dont," and after the Indonesians had completed their dirty work the West sent a small contingent to Pristina, but did nothing about a hundred thousand Albanians held in Serb concentration camps, you can be very sure that Hitchens would not treat this so complacently.
As regards Hitchens statement that he couldnt think of "any other" grounds than disgraceful lateness why Chomsky would oppose the East Timor intervention, Chomsky no doubt wouldnt have opposed the intervention that finally took place, but he would have stressed its after-the-fact character and the Wests failure to intervene to stop a slaughter before it took place, which it could have done easily and without resort to bombs.
Hitchenss attempt to show that the Serbs were carrying out something called genocide in Kosovo is on an intellectual par with his handling of Chomsky, double standards, and East Timor. He is, of course, troubled by the fact that the forensic studies are showing fewer bodies than the NATO spokespersons and apologists had predicted. The people who "so wittily question the casualty figures in Kosovo" he calls "revisionists," a misuse of the word as the accused individuals thought NATO was lying and inflating the count from the beginning. "Revisionism" for Hitchens means citing evidence contrary to the Hitchens-NATO claims.
His case for Serb genocide rests, first, on an alleged statement made in Greece by Serb official, Zoran Angelkovic, that all he wanted was to reduce the non-Serb population of Kosovo to "a manageable level." Curiously, this statement, supposedly heard and reported to Hitchens by a friend, was not picked up by the Greek press. Hitchens asserts that this "horrific" statement wasnt "quite enough to discompose some of our native revisionists," though how we are to be discomposed by unpublished remarks to Hitchens is unclear.
Hitchens supplements this with the claim by his Greek friend that stage two "would have been the importing of Serbian settlers from the Krajina." No evidence is given for believing this claim. Again, NATOs collaboration with Croatia in pushing out those Croatian Serbs who would allegedly be moved to Kosovo does not disturb Hitchens, or cause him to condemn the earlier NATO-Croatian operation as genocidal although it fits precisely his criterion for Serb genocide.
His main argument for Serb genocide is the evidence of what Milosevic intended for Kosovo, for which "there is no room for doubt." The post-bombing clearing of the cities rested surely on "a deeply laid contingency plan...ethnic cleansing squadrons do not just blossom from nowhere..." (There is really solid evidence that ethnic cleansing squadrons were organized by the Indonesian army in East Timor, and allowed to function for many months by the West, but the word genocide is not applied to that case by Hitchens as the Indonesians "sailed away" after extended destruction and killing.) But a contingency plan, if it exists, is not evidence of intent, as it may be one of many plans and requires a further triggering event and decision. Milosevic and Angelkovic were steadily willing to allow large numbers of international monitors in Kosovo and to pledge increased autonomy for its inhabitants. Hitchens doesnt mention this alternative "contingency plan," nor the previously mentioned acceptance of large numbers of Albanians in Serbia who are not being harassed or expelled.
The accelerated Serb violence and expulsions was a response to NATO bombing, which the Serbs interpreted correctly as NATO air support for the KLA. Vicious and counterproductive as that Serb policy was, it was not genocide, but was part of a sequence of violence and counter-violence that has been forwarded by the Western policy of encouraging the dismantlement of the former Yugoslavia. Those policies, culminating in the NATO bombing assault on Yugoslavia, pushed so hard by humanitarians Clinton, Albright, and Blair, have been given important intellectual support by liberals and erstwhile leftists like Christopher Hitchens.Z
Edward S. Herman is an economist and media analyst. His latest book, published by Peter Lang, is The Myth of the Liberal Media: An Edward Herman Reader.