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NATO’s Balkan Adventure

Tariq Ali is a writer and filmmaker. His latest novel, The Book Of Saladin, is published by Verso.

NATO decided to celebrate its fiftieth birthday with a bang in keeping with the changing character of the “defensive alliance.” It assumed that a short, sharp war in the Balkans would rapidly bring Milosevic to his knees, and Kosovo would become the second NATO protectorate in the region. As I write, this ugly war is over a month old. It is a war that has little, if anything, to do with the people of the old Yugoslavia. This has been a war for U.S. hegemony in Europe and the world, the act of a triumphant imperialism designed to rub the face of its old enemy in mud enriched with depleted uranium.

A number of European countries were not convinced that NATO should embark on adventures without UN sanction. Clinton, backed by his sanctimonious English factotum, Toady Blair (described by Jesse Helms as the “most eloquent voice of leadership in Europe”) decided to bounce the Germans, Italians, and Greeks into a war they did not want. In Germany, Finance Minister Oskar Lafontaine walked out of the government in protest.

Whatever else happens, and regardless of the outcome, this war marks a fundamental shift in world politics. The Russians may or may not be able to help broker a deal which partitions Kosovo, but NATO’s assault has destroyed all illusions about the West. Sooner, rather than later, the new Russia will erupt in anger and sweep aside the politicians who built their reputations on friendship with the United States or enhanced their bank-accounts by advancing the cause of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

War in the Air

In 1908, when hardly anyone in Europe was thinking of war and only eccentrics were dreaming of airplanes, a quaint British socialist, H.G.Wells, wrote a chilling futuristic fiction entitled War in the Air, which I first read as a teenager. Something must have stuck in my subconscious. As I watched the deadly daily routines of NATO warplanes bombing the cities of the Yugoslav federation, I recalled H.G. Wells. Here are a few prophetic lines from this nearly forgotten writer:

Everywhere went the airships dropping bombs. And everywhere below were economic catastrophe, starving workless people, rioting and social disorder. Towns and cities with the food supply interrupted and their streets congested with starving unemployed, crises in administration and states of siege. Money vanished into vaults, into holes, into walls of houses, into ten million hiding places. Money vanished, and at its disappearance trade and industry came to an end. The economic world staggered and fell dead. It was like water vanishing out of the blood of a living creature, it was a sudden, universal coagulation of intercourse…. Everywhere there are ruins and unburied dead, and shrunken yellow-faced survivors in a mortal apathy.

In another novel, The World Set Free, Wells saw a world war brought about by an attack on the Slav Confederacy by Central European Powers, with Britain and France coming to the aid of the confederacy. Not this time. The decision to bomb Belgrade was made by Madeleine Albright and her advisers. When the British New Labour government was told what was required of it, it was, unsurprisingly, eager and willing to help pressure France, Germany, and Italy.

These three countries had hitherto resisted attempts by Albright to embark on unilateral missions without UN sanction. Albright convinced her European allies that (a) Milosevic would capitulate abjectly after a few days of bombing and (b) that under no circumstances could the Russians be permitted to veto the operation. This meant that no appeal to the UN Security Council was possible. NATO would take international law into its own claws.

The pretext for this whole sordid affair was the refusal by the Serb leadership to accept the ultimatum thrown in its face at the Rambouillet talks where NATO (read Albright) insisted both that the peace-keeping force proposed for Kosovo would be limited to NATO troops (i.e., no Russians or Irish or Austrians) and that these forces would have the power to inspect any part of Serbia and not simply Kosovo. This was the equivalent of putting a revolver to the head of Milosevic. He walked out as any other leader of a country would have done in similar circumstances. Hardly surprising then that Mikhail Gorbachev, on a recent visit to Britain, told anyone prepared to listen that negotiations might have become prolonged, but that they could have succeeded if the United States had not so desperately wanted a war.

A Fatal Flaw

Albright wanted a quick NATO victory to show the world that NATO, under U.S. leadership, was much more effective than the United Nations. This strategy lay in ruins the week after its implementation. Why? Because the NATO campaign unleashed against Yugoslavia on March 24, 1999, was undermined by a fatal flaw, which now threatens to undermine the alliance itself.

The flaw in the campaign can be simply stated. Operation Allied Force was designed to win the Yugoslav government over to NATO’s side through the operations of Western (Weberian) means-end “rationality,” mediated by smart weaponry and a threat to bomb Yugoslavia back into the stone age. Albright believed that the response of the government of Yugoslavia would be “rational.” In other words, it would adapt its ends to its means. Once the West destroyed these means by a blitzkrieg from the skies, the Yugoslav government, it was hoped, would begin the process of adjusting its ends until they ended up being virtually the same as those of NATO. Albright thought that any sane—in other words, Weberian-rational—government would understand that NATO had to win, whatever the price paid in destruction of cities and the loss of life and home by Kosovars, Serbs, and the other nationalities in Yugoslavia.

Now it is perfectly true that, in the past, Milosevic had repeatedly demonstrated his ability to bow before superior force at the last minute. He might have done so this time, too, if the U.S. Secretary of State hadn’t pushed him too far at Rambouillet. The bombing of Belgrade made concessions by Milosevic virtually impossible.

The military campaign is neither winning the Yugoslav government over to the Albright doctrine, nor does it show any sign so far of alienating the citizenry from the leadership. A year ago, half a million people marched in the streets of Belgrade demanding an end to the Milosevic regime. The bombs drove these oppositions into the arms of the government. Meanwhile in Kosovo, as the Pentagon had expected and predicted, the violation of Serbian sovereignty, accompanied as it was by the withdrawal of monitors from the troubled region, removed the last restraints. Milosevic embarked on a campaign to drive the Kosovars, especially those in areas used as a base by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), out of their homes and across the borders. Increasing the intensity of the bombing isn’t going to help the Kosovars at all.

The war was launched by politicians hoping for a quick win. It failed. Now it has become a war to save NATO’s “prestige.” In fact, the alliance itself is in mortal danger. For either they negotiate a peace deal or they get involved in a wider conflict, which could lead to a humanitarian mega-disaster and might compel the Russians to think seriously about creating their own security alliance. If this includes the Ukraine, as it must, then the new alliance would be in a permanent confrontation with NATO on the Polish-Ukrainian border.

Hence the glum faces at the recent fiftieth birthday celebrations of NATO in Washington. A wedding with three new brides in attendance—Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary—was threatening to turn into a funeral.

The Contradictory Logic of the War

NATO is now confronted with the possibility of a backfiring war, a Tomahawk turning back against its launcher. This danger was built in from the very beginning of the conflict. Its specific nature as a “human rights” air war was, from the start, contradictory. The political logic of the war was that it was a war against a state, but supposedly in favor of the population. This clashed with the military logic, which necessarily meant destroying ever larger swathes of the assets, infrastructure, ecology, economic and civil life of the state until the government capitulated.

This contradictory logic runs counter to the famous proposition, enunciated by the Prussian military theorist Clausewitz, that war is the continuation of politics by other means. This aphorism is often understood to signify that war is politics pursued by military means. But what Clausewitz actually meant was that when states pursue political objectives through the use of war they must let the military logic of the war govern the politics. The recent assault on Yugoslavia is proving Clausewitz right, but Albright cannot let him be right. The political costs for the Clinton administration would be too high: a possible split and disintegration of NATO itself.

The contradictions in the war are compounded by the fact that there are two military theaters in Yugoslavia: Serbia proper and Kosovo. There are also two military strategies, corresponding to those two theaters. Strategy One is centered on Serbia. Its objective is to gain Milosevic’s consent to NATO’s aims by progressively destroying civil life in Serbia through air power, destroying first military targets, then transport, then factories, then electricity, then water supply, and sewage systems. Such a strategy is governed by military logic. Thus, if destroying electricity for hospitals does not produce victory, then the water supplies must be hit, regardless of the humanitarian disaster this produces.

Strategy Two is centered on Kosovo. Its objective is to dispense with Milosevic’s consent by taking Kosovo with ground forces. But the campaign is primarily conceived as an air war. If body bags are needed, they must be reduced to a bare minimum. This means liquidating all significant opposition on the ground via air power—in other words, destroying at least forty thousand (or perhaps more) Yugoslav regular and irregular forces.

But here a problem arises. For fifty years, the Yugoslav army has been preparing for just such a war (originally, of course, against a threatened attack by Stalin) and it does not reveal itself as a distinct target. It has been trained to camouflage itself. So that is the context in which the military logic of this strategy must prevail: extermination cannot be confined to possible military personnel. This means heavy civilian casualties. Without this NATO could face defeat in a long war, simply because it cannot risk the lives of its own soldiers by occupying space with ground forces until that space has been cleared of a large part of the opposition.

Both these strategies are perfectly feasible militarily, but they would involve mass human destruction. This would make even the most bloodthirsty warmongers in Europe—the French human rights fundamentalists and the Blair clique in London—pause for reflection. What price a “human rights” war that destroys more human lives than ever before in this region? Atrocity news management (ANM in NATO jargon) is not sufficient to conceal the truth from public opinion.

ANM in Strategy One (focused on Serbia) requires destruction of Yugoslav TV and Radio and removal of international (not just Western) correspondents from Belgrade and the rest of Yugoslavia. We should not flatter ourselves that this is mainly because of Western public opinion. The critical problem is opinion in neighboring states, where people will not accept the total destruction of civil life in Serbia. Uprisings and a widening of the war to these neighboring states would be the start of a catastrophic international crisis.

ANM in Strategy Two (focused on Kosovo) is far more viable and has been achieved (except for some Western correspondents moving in from Belgrade). But Western correspondents could be stopped by their Western governments and also by the increasing dangers for them as the blanket bombing of Kosovo mounts. Other international correspondents don’t matter because their reports will not upset the Albanian populations abroad and they are politically under NATO control. ANM in Kosovo has already been very effective. NATO certainly knows from its intelligence satellites exactly what has been happening all over Kosovo, but this picture has been kept from the Western media without protest so far. This, of course, raises the question why NATO has not wanted to tell us what has happened in Kosovo, confining us simply to refugee stories.

There is always the Iraq option: blockade Serbia and subject it to periodic bombing. This would be a strategic retreat for a long-haul and might not bother Western public opinion, whose elasticity has been established. Anglo-American opinion, after all, has accepted the low-profile blockade in Iraq, killing over a million Iraqis with the argument that Saddam could stop it immediately by capitulating; the same tactic could be used against the Serbian population. But the big problem is that a full blockade is very difficult to police in that terrain, and Russia would never accept it: nor would many of the surrounding populations—not only the Slav ones (including Muslims worried about the large Sandjak Muslim population in Serbia), but also the Hungarians, watching the effects of famine on four hundred thousand Hungarians in Voivodina. In any case, a key problem here is that none of this will help the Kosovars, who already look like they are becoming one of Europe’s forgotten peoples.

Thus, this war is turning very grim, very ugly for NATO. They have evidently been moving down a dual track road towards a combination of Strategies One and Two: on One, they are deliberately bombing civilian factories, food-processing plants and, most significantly, electricity supplies. On Strategy Two, they are evidently also progressing with blanket bombing of the key route into Kosovo from northern Albania.

The German government and other European governments (apart from the New Labour toadies in London already notorious for their lack of principle and moral scruple) are looking for a way out of the atrocious contradictions of a war that has gone horribly wrong. In most of the NATO countries, public opinion is also beginning to turn. The citizens of Italy, Germany, and Greece are becoming more and more hostile. In Britain, there is the beginning of a strong antiwar movement. Outside NATO, there is incomprehension. The war has totally isolated the pro-Western groups in Moscow. Every report from Russia indicates the growing anger against NATO and a desire to aid Serbia. The Russians had warned many months ago that a thoughtless enlargement of NATO could provoke a new Central European war. Albright ignored their warnings and complaints. Europe is at a turning point once again. It was never like this, even at the height of the Cold War. The old confrontations were carefully controlled and orchestrated. Almost single-handedly, the U.S. Secretary of State has let the genie of war out of the bottle.


The Book of Saladin, was published by Verso. This essay originally appeared in Il Manifesto.

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