Clinton Bombs Again

How the Air Strikes Destroyed Democratic Movements In Kosovo, Serbia, And Montenegro

Washington—Bill Clinton isn't the first chief executive in U.S. history to curtail democracy and human rights abroad ostensibly in the name of protecting them. He is, however, rapidly distinguishing himself in this regard. Not that the Clinton administration can be held entirely responsible for perpetrating the latest round of international lunacy, this time in the Balkans. Congress, as it did twice last year, has chosen not to exercise its constitutionally required duty to declare hostilities, thus allowing Clinton's dogs of war (Down, Sandy! Down, Madeline!) to run wild again. Not that this politico-military charge at a windmill is devoid of noble intent.

However, among the many problems with this crusade is that, much as the average American no doubt is opposed to repression and annihilation, they are part and parcel of U.S. foreign policy— as the Clinton administration's Balkan approach continues to show. It's appalling enough that bombing a country in the name of halting depredation (and instead, engendering it) takes place against a historical backdrop of support for such repressive regimes as Turkey and Indonesia, which pursue their own policies of ethnic cleansing. But even more revolting was watching Clinton slyly revise history while trying to strike a morally imperative chord ("We must apply the same lessons in Kosovo before what happened in Bosnia happens there too") without— surprise— taking any real responsibility for the machinations and calculations, deliberate and errant, that have have led to this debacle.

But, then, Clinton has always been more inclined to say the right thing rather than do it. In regard to Bosnia, as Mark Danner astutely pointed out in a 1997 New York Review of Books essay, Clinton's articulated policy ("The U.S. should always seek an opportunity to stand up against— at least speak out against— inhumanity") was "one consisting solely of words [that] brought moral credit [and] carried no risk," and that helped pave the way to the Serbs' massacre of thousands at Srebenica. Rather like Bosnia— in which Clinton blamed European allies for undermining the "lift and strike" approach and made the case that his administration honestly tried, while the problem partially resolved itself through mass murders and expulsions— so too, perhaps, with Kosovo.

The Clinton administration has shown itself to be adroit in the use of that old tool of statecraft, "signaling," to provoke ethnic purges rather than preventing them through proactive diplomacy. In 1995, for example, Croatian forces (trained by ex­U.S. military personnel with the tacit blessing of the Pentagon) were giddy when, on the verge of undertaking a campaign for lebensraum against Serbs in Krajina, President Franjo Tudjman was informed that the U.S. was merely "concerned" about the buildup of Croat troops. In short order, at least 170,000 Serbs were driven from their homes or killed. While France, Russia, and Great Britain condemned the offensive, Clinton praised it, saying he was "hopeful Croatia's offensive will turn out to be something that will give us an avenue to a quick diplomatic solution."

"In essence, the U.S. gave diplomatic cover to the Croatians for this action," says Hussein Ibish, a foreign policy analyst at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "It prevented any UN condemnation of what happened, and it certainly never registered any dismay."

Last year, when U.S. special envoy Robert Gelbard visited the Balkans, he publicly vilified the Kosovo Liberation Army, saying, "I know a terrorist when I see one, and these men are terrorists." In Washington foreign policy circles, some regard this statement as the beginning of a chain reaction that resulted in the current situation, rife with the death of both human beings and democratic movements.

When Gelbard spoke, the KLA was a fairly marginal force, seen by many in both Belgrade and Washington as a diplomatic irritant. Belgrade interpreted Gelbard's comments as approval to act against the KLA with impunity, which, in practice, meant the massacre of nearly 100 people (mostly women and children) in Kosovo's Benitsar enclave.

Until that point, the KLA had not enjoyed broad support. In fact, for most of the past decade, the primary method of ethnic Albanian resistance to Serbian hegemony was a focused political movement utilizing civil disobedience and negotiation. "Even though the Serbs set up what amounted to an apartheid system in Kosovo after it lost its autonomy, rather than arm, the Kosovars began and sustained a nonviolent struggle to achieve their goals," says Michael Beer, director of Nonviolence International. "They held referendums and organized a parallel government. They even had their own form of taxation. A handful of us with chump change did the best we could to try to provide resources to support this movement, but what we had was paltry."

According to Beer, what was lacking was international recognition."If the U.S. had chosen to spend one cruise missile's worth of money on the Kosovars' efforts, and lent them moral support, we could have done a lot with that," Beer says. Unfortunately, he adds, waging proactive peace isn't as sexy as massive military action. By not taking the Kosovars' nonviolent struggle seriously, and by giving the Serbs a green light to massacre in the name of anti-KLA operations, the U.S. helped radicalize many Kosovars who had previously inclined toward nonviolence and didn't necessarily share the KLA's stated goal, which is not merely independence from Kosovo but the establishment of a new, pan-Albanian federation that would encompass Kosovo, Albania, and parts of Macedonia and Montenegro— not exactly stabilizing goals for the Balkans.

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