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.

Of course, Kosovan democracy hasn't been the only victim of the recent hostilities. Largely ignored has been the virtual collapse of the fledgling republican movement in Montenegro. Despite its technical status as part of the Yugoslav federation that includes Serbia, Montenegro elected a pro-Western, anti-Milosevic government in 1998, and its president, Milo Djukanovic, has made no secret of his contempt for Belgrade's actions in Kosovo. To date, Montenegro has enjoyed a tenuous autonomy from Belgrade. However, rather than leave the few Serb military installations in Montenegro alone, U.S.-led NATO forces have bombed them— an action that Zorica Maric of the Montenegrin Trade Mission in Washington says has put the Djukanovic government in serious jeopardy. "NATO is failing to distinguish between democratic Montenegro and Serbia with regard to Kosovo," she says, explaining that with each day the bombing continues, the likelihood grows that Milosevic will use it as an excuse to depose the government of Montenegro— or treat it as a "traitorous" province, much the way Serbia has Kosovo.

Perhaps far worse for Balkan democracy is the situation in Serbia, where the bombings have shattered that country's progressive movement. As Vojin Dimitrijevic, director of the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, put it in an Internet dispatch, "In one night, the NATO air strikes have wiped out 10 years of hard work of groups of courageous people in the non-governmental sector and democratic opposition. We have not tried to overthrow anyone, but we have tried to develop the institutions of civil society, to promote liberal and civic values, to teach nonviolent conflict resolution. . . . In the prevailing atmosphere of war, anti-democratic forces are increasingly losing their inhibitions. Meanwhile, clumsy foreign attempts to 'assist' democracy and respect for human rights in Serbia with vague promises of money merely expose the non-governmental sector to accusations that it is a fifth column."

At a forum in Washington last week hosted by the Institute for Policy Studies, a member of the liberal Serb organization Women in Black was so overcome that she dressed down the assembled panelists, even though they were all fundamentally in agreement. "My friends have been working for democracy in Serbia, and now, we're lining up behind Milosevic. Did the Clinton administration think my people would be saying 'hurrah'?" she fumed. "Bill Clinton has done more for Milosevic than Milosevic could have done for himself."

Indeed, as a Southerner, Clinton might have seen some parallels between the Confederates and the Serbs. As Civil War authority Shelby Foote has noted, when the poorly supplied, outgunned rebels were captured by the Yankees and asked why they were fighting, the standard response was, "Because you're down here." Writing to an American journalist last week, a Belgrade University professor explained the rallying around Milosevic in much the same terms: "In this moment we have only one solution. We must protect our country," he wrote. "We do not have another one." But Clinton's historical myopia is par for the course. As Julianne Smith, a senior analyst at the British American Security Information Council, notes, "Saying bombing enough will get Milosevic back to the table is false— look at the recent history in Iraq, where it clearly hasn't been effective. And as for saying bombing is a protective tool, nothing could be further from the truth. And the assumption that the KLA will stop fighting if the Serb military is degraded is false. There is no evidence that they'll stop and say, 'Fine, we're content with autonomy.' And very little concern is being given to Russia."

To most here in Washington, the initial Russian reaction elicited little concern. As one Republican congressional staffer gleefully put it, "This is our chance to show the world just how little the Russians matter anymore." According to Bill Hartung, international arms expert for the World Policy Institute, this view— embraced to varying degrees among both Republicans and administration officials— is shortsighted. "For a certain strain of unreconstructed Cold Warrior, it's very emotionally satisfying to kick the Russians when they're down, but a weak Russia simply doesn't serve our interests— we really should want a good relationship with the country that has the largest and least secure nuclear stockpile," he says. "They could deep-six START II and slow down the Nunn-Lugar [cooperative nuclear disarmament] stuff. And the easiest thing to do is start reviving some of their relationships with countries the Pentagon is nervous about."

At the start of this week, the answer to the big question that is pertinent to both Russia and NATO— whether ground troops would be deployed— remained unlear. However, even though the Independent's Robert Fisk noted two weeks ago that the Kaiser's policy ("the Balkans are not worth the bones of a Pomeranian grenadier") has been adopted to the letter by NATO, Clinton, in a speech in Norfolk, Virginia, seemed to signal an impending shift. Not only has NATO demanded what it previously had not— that the Serbs pull out and allow the Kosovars to return sans a negotiated peace agreement— but, according to Clinton, the formal objective has changed from degrading Serbian capabilities to the restoration of ethnic Albanians to Kosovo.

This obviously is going to be difficult to accomplish without ground forces. However, unlike the Gulf War— fought on desert plains against apathetic conscripts— NATO forces will be in mountainous regions that lend themselves to guerrilla warfare, facing zealously united soldiers and paramilitaries. Perhaps sustained bombings will soften them up. But recalling the actions of the Serbs who left Sarajevo in 1995— they dug up their own dead and lugged the corpses over refugee trails rather than let them remain interred in Muslim-occupied land— it seems unlikely that a protracted ground war in Serbia and Kosovo will reflect the relative ease of reclaiming Kuwait. One has to wonder, in light of all this, just how festive NATO's upcoming 50th birthday party will be.

Research: Wayne Madsen and Ginger Otis

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