Washington— If ever there was an example of wishful thinking being realized, President Clinton’s address to graduating Air Force Academy cadets last Wednesday was it. “We cannot abandon a just cause because an adversary holds out for more than a few
news cycles,” Clinton said. Conveniently, a few news cycles later, the beginning of the end was announced.
Although peace terms were in fact drafted by a Russian and a Finn— and although the European Union’s announcement of the formation of its own military group was seen by many observers as a rebuke of U.S. hegemony in Europe— the media nonetheless shouted that “NATO terms” had been accepted and that the Alliance and Clinton were triumphant. Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz even weighed in with a piece mocking those who dared to depict the Serbian capitulation as anything short of victory. Kurtz did, however, preface his argument with the phrase, “If the Western peace plan . . .takes hold.” This caveat presaged what many Balkan watchers had suspected: that Milosevic might take a page out of Saddam Hussein’s playbook and draw out a pyrhhic victory.
Clinton’s concern about history’s judgments is well-known in Washington; with his Bridge to the 21st Century jeopardized by his foreign policy folly, he’s found legions of political human shields who have defended him as motivated by “human rights” concerns, despite an administration that’s hardly been characterized by effective policy in this area. To some, this is politics as usual. Yet while human rights organizations like Amnesty International have been documenting war crimes committed by all sides, progressive activists and writers who have simply been pointing out that Operation Allied Force has been anything but a defense of human rights— and have used the occasion to demand consistency in foreign policy and an end to hypocrisy— have been portrayed by others in left circles as everything from uncompassionate wonks to apologists for evil.
“I don’t know how much of it comes from eagerness to protect Clinton, but I find it outrageous— it’s a kneejerk reaction to questions of what it means to take seriously human rights issues,” says Institute for Policy Studies analyst and UN expert Phyllis Bennis, who, along with other progessive stalwarts, has been derided by erstwhile allies. “The responsibility to do something about massive human rights violations is important to progressives, which is why progressives have been working in a changing international environment to take actions and create new institutions that take human rights seriously. But many on the left have been far too willing to accept that claim
of human rights as justification for more international crimes.”
In a much neglected May 23 Chicago Tribune essay, Washington lawyer Walter J. Rockler recalled that, when he was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, chief American prosecutor (and Supreme Court justice) Robert Jackson declared that “launching a war of aggression is a crime and that no political or economic situation can justify it”— an assertion the International Court agreed with, and which was subsequently enshrined in the UN Charter. Not only are NATO’s actions a perversion of
NATO’s charter, Rockler wrote, they’re war crimes. “The notion that humanitarian violations can be redressed with random destruction and killing . . . is mere pretext for our arrogant assertion of dominance and power in defiance of international law,” he wrote. “The rationale that we are simply enforcing international morality, even if it were true, would not excuse the military aggression and widespread killing that it entails. It also does not lessen the culpability of the authors of this aggression.”
In a more perfect world, says Edward Herman, emeritus professor at Wharton Business School and coauthor with Noam Chomsky of Manufacturing Consent, one would hope to see contextual coverage along these lines in ostensibly more thoughtful and allegedly “liberal” publications, but no such luck. Rather than aggressively raise key contextual questions, some liberals— from venerable congressional leaders Bernie Sanders and Tom Harkin to Washingon Post columnist Richard Cohen, among others, have thrown thoughtfulness to the wind and framed Kosovo in visceral terms. At the very least, they’ve depicted it as a humanitarian crusade in which U.S.-led forces are obliged to “do something” given the manifest evil of Milosevic-led Serbia’s actions. At most, they’ve called for continued bombing as well as ground troops to stem Milosevic’s blitzkreig “ethnic cleansing” of Kosovo, which is seen as reminiscent of the Holocaust— which puts anyone who disagrees in the position of being a Nazi by default. Writing in the May 10 issue of The New Republic, for example, Stacy Sullivan essentially told readers not to feel bad about bombing Serbians, as they’ve been hateful, passive accomplices to Milosevic, rather like Third Reichera Germans whose anti-Semitic inertia Daniel Jonah Goldhagen claims was key to enabling the Holocaust.
“There’s an absolutely horrible piece of junk in the American Prospect, and The New Republic‘s coverage has been flacking for
NATO and virtually Holocaust-mongering,” says Herman. “It’s like they think ethnic cleansing began in a vacuum. Raise the issue of how the selection of worthy victims worth fighting for is so unbelievably arbitrary and you really upset people who have already gotten quite frenzied. If you’re looking for Holocaust analogies, there are many closer ones, like East Timor. When Suharto visited Washington in 1995, Clinton called him ‘our kind of guy.’ To not bring up East Timor, Kurdistan, and other places and let ‘humanitarianism’ be used here is to allow disgusting opportunism.”
Rather than backing the war, interventionist liberals could use the hypocrisies of Kosovo as a rallying point to demand that the U.S. support institutions conducive to transnational civil society. Instead, says Robert Hayden, director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, they’re letting righteous feelings sanction a jingoistic status quo. “It feels so good to believe that it’s black and white and you’re combating evil. This is why the Goldhagen view is such pap— this notion that only the Germans could have done the Holocaust, that the Serbs are evil, is bullshit,” he says. “If you put normal people anywhere in abnormal situations — like ones where their leaders pander in the worst way to their fears and prejudices — they behave in ghastly ways that are quite predictable. But what have we said we’re going to do once ‘peace’ is secured? Not contribute anything to the estimated $30 billion it’s going to take to rebuild Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, the KLA — which has its own expansionist ambitions — willingly disarming is about as possible as Ed McMahon showing up on my doorstep, and the way the KLA intends to run Kosovo is not according to the principles embraced by the American Civil Liberties Union. It won’t surprise me at all if the KLA tries to drive NATO out, the same way the Tamil Tigers did their ally the Indian Army, which came to Sri Lanka to protect the Tamils.”