NATO Bombing of Yugoslavia Only Makes Matters Worse

April 01, 1999

Mark Weisbrot
Sacramento Bee, April 1, 1999

Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, March 29, 1999


“You cannot use evil against evil,” said Branka Prpa, a Serbian historian who is part of the democratic opposition to President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia. She was lamenting that the NATO bombing was provoking just what most observers expected in Yugoslavia: increased repression of dissent, as well as strengthening the position of Milosevic and his government.

Meanwhile, the “ethnic cleansing” of Kosovar Albanians, the people we are supposed to be helping, has also intensified. And there is little that NATO forces can do to stop this repression, since they are committed to steering clear of ground combat, and have so far avoided even the risks of using the low-flying aircraft that would be necessary to intervene against the Serbian armed forces.

NATO’s high level of risk aversion is due to the overall lack of popular support back home for the intervention. In the United States, which is supplying nearly twice as many warplanes as the 13 other countries combined, the public was about evenly divided as the bombing began. The usual rallying around the troops, as well as the Pentagon-dominated reporting that has become a standard feature of modern military ventures, has barely managed to coax a majority in favor of the bombing. But the Clinton administration is aware how quickly even this support would disappear in the face of American casualties.

Americans are right to be cynical about our government’s motives and indeed, the possibility of achieving anything positive with this intervention. Just a few hundred miles from Serbia is Turkey, whose government has committed far greater atrocities against the Kurdish population. But the United States will not be bombing Turkey in support of the Kurds’struggle for national autonomy. Quite the opposite: our government actually arms Turkey as it carries out its war against the Kurds.

If the bombing cannot achieve its avowed humanitarian objective of stopping the Serbian repression in Kososvo, what then can it do? It can help to establish the principle that the United States (and NATO) stand above international law, and can attack sovereign nations with impunity. Within the U.S., these military actions (like the bombing of Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq) are also solidifying the imperial Presidency, as against our own Constitution and domestic law. Article I, section 8 of the U.S. Constitution unambiguously reserves for Congress the power to declare war. In 1973 Congress strengthened this provision by passing the War Powers Act to prevent the President from ignoring Congress in undeclared wars like the present one.

In other words, for those who believe that the United States has the right and responsibility to police the world–which includes most of our foreign policy establishment–Kosovo is an opportunity to establish certain precedents. Chief among these principles are that the UN Charter and U.S. Constitution are mere pieces of paper that can be tread upon whenever our leaders find them to be inconvenient.

Kosovo is also an opportunity for the Administration to establish a post-Cold-War mission for NATO, however unclear that may be. The military alliance was expanded this year to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic– an action that appeared to be heavily influenced by the lobbying of major U.S. arms exporters.

It is argued that international solutions are too cumbersome, and that the United Nations in particular is ineffective in these situations. But this is really another way of saying that the United States cannot always control the outcome of a UN decision-making process. Our government is not that interested in helping the UN to resolve conflicts, because it wants to be the supreme arbiter of international disputes whenever it so chooses.

In this case, there is a need for a negotiated solution that both parties would accept. This is not to say that the conflict in Kosovo would be easy to resolve. Certainly it would have been better if the US and Europe had paid more attention to the Kosovars’ widespread, non-violent movement to regain their autonomy over the last decade (it was revoked by Milosevic in 1989). Support for a negotiated compromise might have been more effective prior to the armed uprising of the KLA(Kosovo Liberation Army), which began a year ago.

America could conceivably play a constructive role in helping to end this war, but it will not be done with F-117A stealth fighters or $2.1 billion Stealth bombers flying all the way to Yugoslavia from Missouri. We would have to put the interests of peace and conflict resolution above those of power politics and imperial ambitions. Unfortunately, our leaders do not seem capable of doing that.

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