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Opinions Archive 1999

Moral intervention

There should not have been any kind of war. This is not any kind of war. This is only an example of desperately good cooperation between local and international stupidity and insolence, and both sides have agreed to lie and pretend that this is a real war over Kosovo. What is real are the vast masses of Albanian refugees and the destruction of Serbia, but these are also the least important issue, for Milosevic as well as for Nato.

Milosevic accepts and endures the destruction of Serbia with as much calmness and serenity as Nato endures the refugee disaster which obviously flared up with the air strikes. Milosevic has already passed every test of brutality with flying colours many times, and proved that even the most massive suffering and destruction, Serb or non-Serb, leaves him perfectly stone cold. He knew, he must have been precisely informed about effect of the Nato air strikes and been pleased by the prospect. He realised that this would give him the opportunity to purify Kosovo more completely than any other course of action. While Nato is bombing Serbia to protect Kosovo Albanians, it doesn't take much to explain to Serb troops that all Albanians are enemies and that expulsion is the best and most humane thing to happen to them. Albanians are becoming a legitimate target for Milosevic, just as Nato considers Novi Sad's bridges, television studios, Milosevic's residence or various government offices as legitimate targets, while civilian casualties need not be mentioned. If the West failed in Bosnia, if it reacted too little or too late, this time it has obviously gone too far. This affair is too soon and to strong, badly explained, destructive but inefficient, that is to say totally counterproductive. Let us remember that the air strikes did not begin because of a humanitarian catastrophe, which did not actually exist at the time, but because Belgrade had rejected the plan defined in Rambouillet and Paris and because it had refused to invite Nato troops to come peacefully to Kosovo. That plan was perhaps optimal for both Serbs and Albanians: it was certainly much better than what they have at the moment, but it was in reality an ultimatum. The dictates were too obvious, everything came at a rush, pressure was of the essence, moderate Albanians were thrown out of the game, the West demanded that Kosovo Liberation Army representatives sign the agreement, at least formally, only to expose Milosevic to the threat of military intervention. It seemed that Americans and Britons had a terrible itch to begin raining down those bombs.

The initial idea of bombing as a way of forcing Milosevic to accept negotiations and the ultimatum was quickly replaced by a new goal, and subsequently a way to provide for the safe repatriation of refugees. It was later explained that Serbia had had Operation Horseshoe to expel the Kosovo Albanians, but in the beginning, both General Wesley Clark and the head of the Kosovo Verification Mission, General Walker, were claiming to be shocked and surprised by the size of the exodus. This means that they did not know of any plan, but Milosevic subsequently offered them humanitarian catastrophe as an excuse.

In any case, the refugees became, quite understandably, the central topic. Hideous scenes from the Macedonian camps flooded television screens, driving all other issues out of consideration. Those issues should have been considered earlier: once it began it was no longer important who had made what mistake at the beginning or who had not done what. The Nato intervention began to be regarded as some kind of punitive expedition and the only issue for the Western public was its inefficiency. Serbia was accorded the status and treatment of Nazi Germany. The issue of whether to deploy ground troops became a major moral dilemma, advocated by moralists and opposed mainly for pragmatic reasons. Spokesmen for Nato and the Pentagon usually have no difficulty in proclaiming anything the bombs hit as a legitimate military target. The routine regrets about civilian casualties are hardly necessary at all. Serbian citizens are regarded as being fantastically loyal to their Fuhrer and few remember their three months of demonstrations against the very same person.

Thus a picture has been assembled of intervention from the moral high ground, although it's not going particularly well and has certainly lasted much longer than envisaged, but nobody seriously questions the premise that Nato is some kind of Hand of God, meting out justice to the most notorious criminal in Europe. But given that we didn't want to lie on behalf of Milosevic or Serbian national interests, there's no reason for us to lie on behalf of Clinton, Blair, Nato, the Kosovo Liberation Army or Albanian interests. This means that we must admit that the image of moral intervention is not so simple as some Western broadcasters might make it seem. In fact this air campaign keeps presenting new and very serious moral dilemmas for which no one had been prepared. The West claims to have intervened quite unselfishly, in the name of humanity only and not in the interests of any particular country. The launching of military forces has always required a specific state reason, certainly selfish and rarely related to any morality. Both Milosevic and the KLA took up arms for the traditional reasons, waging war over territory, while the West interfered for reasons of morality, a preventive action. Throughout all this Nato is not aiming to give support to the KLA, nor is anyone offering anything more than autonomy to Albanians; no one wants to punish the Serbian people and even Milosevic himself is not officially a target. Perhaps the humanitarian situation has not been improved, the withdrawal of the verification mission and the beginning of the air campaign created the conditions for true catastrophe for the Kosovo Albanians, but still the Western officials can do nothing but keep proclaiming their good intentions and noble aims which, as it were, have turned into something quite different.

Of course we should be very suspicious when we hear politicians appealing to morality. I wouldn't like to compare Milosevic's moral profile to any of his Western colleagues, but neither do they seem to me people who communicate regularly with a Higher Force, although in this case they claim as much. Are there not some other and harsher attacks on their moral sensitivity around the globe at the moment? Didn't they miss the opportunity for moral intervention in Bosnia for years? Isn't the disaster of the Kurds comparable to that of the Albanians? At the time when the KLA leaders at Rambouillet were being promoted to responsible statesmen, the Kurdish leader Ocalan was kidnapped and extradited to Turkey with the assistance of Western intelligence services. However, the Lord is summoned as a regular guest on CNN only because of Kosovo, Milosevic and the Albanians.

The problem with this adventure of Nato's is that there are no other apparent reasons for it than the moral one. But as the consequences have turned out to be predictably catastrophic, I can only conclude that the Western leaders were less interested in local reasons and the Kosovo problem itself than they were in their own public. The discredited Clinton, for example, need just such a war as this, and had hoped for a better outcome. So once everything began to go wrong, Western leaders and media began to defend their moral intervention with a mountain of lies, as though infected by Slobodan Milosevic and his propaganda.

We have never seen the West in such a miserable role, and it must have astounded those few liberal and sober-minded people in Serbia who know that there is no other road than that towards Europe and the West. After this experience, the most difficult question will no longer be how to emulate the West, but why. Who could cope with such a ghastly question in a demolished country? Who could offer any sensible answer? With this kind of intervention Nato has gone a long way to rehabilitating Milosevic himself, which is no small feat, and worse still Milosevic stands a good chance of emerging from this undefeated.

Everything about this campaign has turned out to be wrong: the grasp of the problem, the setting of goals, the assessment of the situation and the methods applied. The air strikes have not only proved to be inadequate, but have themselves presented moral problems. Firstly, what kind of war morality is this when one side takes almost no risk of human casualties? Who can believe the sincerity of the Western leaders' grievances about the refugee disaster if the bombing proceeds under the completely racist premise that one American life is more valuable than a million Serbian or Albanian lives? Cruise missiles fire from far away are a direct reflection of disgust for the misfortune of the people on the ground, despite the expectation that the missiles should establish some moral order.

In addition to their enormous technical advantage, these bombs falling from the stratosphere relieve the other side of any respect for any concerns.

Milosevic is not inclined to respect concerns anyway, but if his army in Kosovo really uses Albanians as human shields, this doesn't even look like a major crime in these circumstances. Who can expect any army to agree to be sitting ducks for Nato missiles without trying to protect itself in any way.

Finally, Nato's regrets about civilian casualties are too frequently expressed. In this perfectly unfair war of technology against people, the targets really must be military and the precision absolute. Every civilian casualty in Serbia today looks much more innocent than it would if this were a traditional war with casualties on both sides. In addition, very few people are able to believe that Nato makes so many mistakes and that this is not a strategy of causing panic and a feeling of insecurity among the population.

Nato has already been morally defeated in this moral intervention. An official, albeit implicit, admission of that defeat is beginning to emerge as Nato cites its very credibility as the basic reason to continue bombing. Nato, they say, must not be defeated. The largest military alliance in history has gone to war for the first time. It is a war against an economically exhausted and otherwise underdeveloped country which has already been eaten away from within. And yet it has reached the point where Nato must not be defeated. It's as though they are saying yes, we've blown it, we shouldn't have got into this, but since we're here we have to win something. It is not to be permitted that someone like Milosevic emerges as winner.

As for me, I admit I'm horrified by such a possibility, but I can see that Nato deserves defeat. If Milosevic does emerge as winner, which looks quite probable, we'll wonder how we will be able to live in such a Serbia. If Nato, which represents the leading countries of the world still proclaims itself victor after all, we'll wonder what kind of world we live in. There can scarcely be a positive outcome. The damage appears universal and irreparable, no matter from where you look at it. From Pristina, from Tirana, from Skopje, Podgorica, Belgrade. Nor can we be happy that the war has turned out to be a mistake, both for Europe and America, although they are, formally, our enemies. All of us who have been touched by this war can now choose only whether we would prefer to be unhappy locally or globally. And what about post-war reconstruction? Let's not count our chickens before they hatch.

Stojan Cerovic, Vreme columnist
This article was written for Rec magazine

Source: Free Serbia

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