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After the NATO Bombing, what then?

NATIONAL POST, Monday, April 19, 1999
National Post Online -

If peace breaks out today....

When the war ends, the world will have a lot of new problems on its hands

Michael Bliss National Post

If NATO's war on Yugoslavia had lasted a week, ending in either Serbian compliance or NATO second thoughts, a relatively quick and workable Balkan settlement might have fallen into place. Now the world is at the end of week four of the bombing and the vast refugee movements.

Suppose that Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav president, has had enough, that he accepts our terms, and the war ends today. The aftermath will look something like this:

(a) Troops and devastation in the Balkans. Whatever the final future of Kosovo, who can imagine the co-existence of Serbs and Kosovars in that part of the world without a watchful military presence? Who would bet that foreign troops will be out of the Balkans in our lifetime? Who will pay the cost of rebuilding the countries damaged in the conflict? The West can stand aside after the war and watch Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo/Yugoslavia collapse into decades of poverty and suffering, or, as is likely, find itself paying many billions to try to get those places back on their feet.

(b) The end of NATO. Even total victory today could not disguise the fact that the NATO campaign has been one of the most striking military and public relations blunders in recent history. What was billed as a quick, clean air operation has turned into a massive application of firepower, a human catastrophe on the ground, and, charitably, a somewhat tarnished moral crusade. In this ultimate test of its capacities, the alliance proved a weak, almost ludicrous vessel (its strategy and information campaigns appeared to be managed by Basil Fawlty.) It's impossible to imagine the West or anyone else looking to NATO for leadership in other conflicts. At worst, NATO, having failed in its self-appointed new role, will wither and die. At best, Supreme Commander General Wesley Clark will be quietly eased into retirement.

(c) Collapse of the "human security agenda." Human rights and the rule of international law were the first casualty of the conflict. The debate on responsibility for this will echo for years in an atmosphere of bitter recrimination about atrocity stories, news management, bias, genocide, and the trivialization of the Holocaust. Charges and counter-charges of criminality will clog the international justice system, such as it is. If the Pinochet precedent holds, very few heads of state, neither Milosevic nor the heads of NATO countries, will be able to travel freely in the world. The United Nations will be close to non-functional because of the implications of the marginalization of the Security Council. The community of nation-states will almost certainly close ranks against the view that human rights activism trumps national sovereignty.

(d) American unilateralism. It is hard to imagine the Americans again agreeing to lead future wars by committee. The country that does most of the fighting and pays most of the bills will from now on call the tune, looking to its own interests. Whether the United States will have a taste for the long haul in the Balkans, or will withdraw from Europe to protect its clearer national interests, hangs in the balance.

(e) Global destabilization. Even bringing the Russians in to help police a Yugoslavian settlement will not dampen the resentments created in their region by the conflict. A new Cold War is one possibility, festering anti-Americanism and hostility to Western "human rights imperialism" are others. Around the world every aggrieved ethnic group and every ethnic terrorist organization will treat Yugoslavia as a "how-to" manual. Develop or provoke anything close to credible charges of ethnic cleansing or genocide and you can wind up with hosts of moralists and their guns on your side.

Should we even bother with a consequence

(f), the implications of the war for Canada? The government orders our fliers to bomb another country. Parliament goes on holiday. After their break, the MPs "take note" of the war, and get on with such vital issues as saving Canadians from the cultural sway of Sports Illustrated. No one in the world pays any attention to this once proud Canada, whose reputation for independent diplomacy lies in ruins. Nor will anyone pay attention to our confusions and our protests of good intentions as the world tries to put itself together again after this mess.

Maybe we delude ourselves in believing there's any point to our continued independence. Maybe we would be more influential if we had representatives in Congress.

But why be optimistic? You may be sick of the propaganda, and the war news is slipping to the back pages. But it hasn't ended today and probably won't end tomorrow. The legions carry on with their mandates to shoot and bomb and destroy. Moral outrage and moral certainty and moral callousness and macho commitment overwhelm careful debate.

If peace broke out today, the world would have a lot of new problems on its hands. It won't, and when it finally does, the problems will be much worse than those outlined here. There won't be much consolation in having told you so.

Michael Bliss teaches history at the University of Toronto.

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