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War crimes - A just war, or moral imperialism? A critical look at Nato's Kosovan war in "Masters of the Universe?"
Guardian (London) Saturday April 29, 2000
Book Review: Masters of the Universe? Nato's Balkan Crusade edited by Tariq Ali. Verso, 15 pounds, 240pp
Reviewed by Victoria Brittain
This book will make numerous powerful men in western chancelleries exceedingly cross, and is likely to garner some dismissive reviews from big-name journalists. The eclectic group of contributors have contrived between them to take on just about everyone involved in the promotion of Nato's first war: some of those people may, with hindsight, be rather embarrassed by their collective excitement over the novel idea of a humanitarian war, a war with no casualties (on our side), which they sold to western public opinion.
"Good has triumphed over evil, justice has overcome barbarism, and the values of civilisation have prevailed," declared Tony Blair when the Nato airstrikes were suspended. This was typical of the overblown cant with which the Nato leadership justified their attack on a sovereign state, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Given that the action had no backing from the United Nations and was thus illegal in international law, it is astonishing that so many thinkers were prepared to go along with it. Alex Callinicos's essay "The Ideology of Humanitarian Intervention" quotes Jurgen Habermas, leading philosopher of the western left, as arguing that the Nato action represented "a step on the path from the classical international law of nations towards the cosmopolitan law of a world civil society". Behind such an attitude is the presumptuous idea that Blair and his friends in Nato should be the arbiters of what constitutes goodness, justice and the values of civilisation (Anthony Barnett coined the phrase "moral imperialism" for such British arrogance).
In his vivid, idiosyncratic "Open Letter from a Traveller to the President of the Republic", Regis Debray describes his travels in Serbia and Kosovo, some of it in the company of Paul Watson of the Los Angeles Times (the only correspondent of a western paper who remained there during the war, and who has now won a Pulitzer Prize). In the first three days of bombing the Serbs retaliated with burning, looting and murders; but after that Watson saw no trace of crimes against humanity. Debray observed Albanians returning to Pudajevo and Serbian soldiers guarding Albanian bakeries in Pristina.
"What happened was the imposition of an international air war on an extremely cruel civil war... Judging that they could not fight on two fronts the Serbs seem to have decided to expel manu militari Nato's 'fifth column' or 'land forces', in other words the KLA, especially in the villages where it was impossible to distinguish its members from the rest of the population." There is not, he writes, the slightest doubt that it was the Nato attack that started the humanitarian catastrophe snowballing.
Debray ends with de Gaulle's definition of Nato: "'An organisation imposed on the Atlantic Alliance which is no more and no less than the military and political subordination of western Europe to the United States of America'... I must confess to feeling a bit humiliated when, on asking a member of the Serbian democratic opposition why his president had rushed to meet some American personality before a French one, I received the answer: 'Look, it's always a better idea to talk to the organ grinder than his monkey.' "
The relationship between the US and the rest of Nato is explored in depth, notably by Peter Gowan, in an attempt to explain where the eagerness for the war came from. The Pentagon knew it would not work militarily; Congress was against it; the American public, as Clinton memorably said, would have needed to get out their atlases to know where Kosovo was. The pressure, Gowan writes, came from an anxiety to ensure US credibility with its Nato allies. "The US should not allow the emergence of a unified west European political will to emerge, autonomous from Washington. Instead it had to find a way to rebuild US political leadership above whatever integration went on in western Europe."
Noam Chomsky has written his own book on this war, The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo, which explores all these issues. His essay in this book, "The Kosovo Peace Accord", details the key issue of the Rambouillet Agreement and its controversial Appendix B, the virtually unknown peace plan produced by the Serbian National Assembly on March 23. It shows clearly that there was an alternative to war: negotiations. Chomsky underlines the ideological imperative which selected Yugoslavia as the site of this first "humanitarian war" rather than, say, Turkey, whose crimes, he writes, took place within Nato itself and with massive support from the US. Don't ask us to believe in the New Humanism.
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