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September 1999 (Volume 51, Number 4)

» Notes from the Editors
September 1999 (Volume 51, Number 4)

We’ve received three letters from readers complaining about our articles on Kosovo. While this isn’t a groundswell of opinion, we assume that there are other readers out there who share the concerns of these critics, and since this is an important issue, we think it’s worth returning to it. We won’t go over the same ground again, but we want to take up at least one larger question raised by the critics.

One of them suggested that human considerations—concern about the atrocities—had been subordinated to cold “logic” in our analysis of NATO imperialism, and in a sense that was the theme of all three letters. This raises a lot of big questions about socialist morality and long-standing complaints that Marxists too often subordinate human to “scientific” concerns. These are questions that can’t be covered in our short notes, but we can say a couple of things. It’s hard to imagine a consistent socialist politics that isn’t ultimately based on “unscientific” motivations like a passion for social justice and a deep aversion to human suffering. But that doesn’t make for easy moral and political judgments. On the contrary, it makes them much more complicated. The options are much easier for people who don’t care about human consequences. For those who do care, the likely consequences of political action have to be carefully assessed—and that, of course, unavoidably requires “logical” analysis.

Consider, for instance, the consequences of the war in Yugoslavia. Even by NATO’s most self-serving estimates, at least four times as many ethnic Albanians were killed after the war started than before—bearing out the experience of many wars throughout history, which has made it painfully obvious that atrocities are more likely to be aggravated, even caused, than prevented by war. The very least that can be said is that the war provided cover for atrocities in Kosovo that couldn’t have happened otherwise. But it’s also likely, as the expert on Serbia, Tim Judah, suggested in the New York Review of Books some months ago, that if what happened during the war was planned in advance, it was a typical Milosevic contingency plan, to be implemented in the event of a NATO attack—which he didn’t expect.

Beyond that, thousands of innocent civilians were killed or injured directly by NATO’s own actions, and more are likely to suffer long into the future, if not from injuries sustained during the war, or from the NATO cluster bombs littering the countryside which are proving to be a far greater danger than Serbian landmines, then from the long-term ecological catastrophe caused by the bombing, or from the many other consequences of a destroyed civilian infrastructure. It’s also clear that NATO gave hardly a thought to the aftereffects of its war and made no provision for dealing with the complete breakdown of civil administration in Kosovo itself, with predictable results in criminal violence, ethnic “cleansing” and murder, not to mention the effects on the normal services of everyday life.

The region is now more unstable than it was before, and the instabilities radiating out from the Balkans will plague the world for years to come—not only in strained relations with Russia but in the lesson learned from this war, notably in Asia: not that dictators can’t act with impunity but that powers like the United States with high-tech weaponry can now achieve their aims with little cost to themselves, and that the only way for weaker countries to resist the hegemony of stronger ones is an arms buildup of their own. (See, for instance, Tom Plate in “NATO’s Victory Will Spur an Asian Arms Buildup,” from the Los Angeles Times, reprinted in the International Herald Tribune, June 19-20, 1999.) And all this is quite apart from the new kind of colonialism that seems to be developing in the form of NATO “protectorates.” (For a useful analysis of this development, see “Building Peace in the Balkans: The Protectorate, a way to dominate,” by Andeja Zivkovic, in Le Monde Diplomatique, July 1999.)

With this catalogue of catastrophes, it’s hard to see how things could have been worse, or indeed anything like as bad, even for Kosovo Albanians themselves, if NATO hadn’t been so eager to go to war—at a time when, even according to the hawkish British foreign secretary Robin Cook, NATO had already achieved 90 percent of its objectives at Rambouillet.

So what should we make of the vast discrepancy between the war’s alleged humanitarian objectives and its profoundly anti-humanitarian consequences?

Well, there are at least two ways of looking at it.

One is to take NATO at its word, accept its humanitarian motives, and just concede that lots of things went badly wrong—all those “blunders” we kept hearing about. But if we take that option, there are serious questions to ask. Why is it, for example, that when, say, a hostage situation goes badly wrong, when the police or special forces, by the use of indiscriminate force, botch a rescue attempt and endanger the people they intended to save, we take it for granted that they should be called to account, even if it’s the kidnappers themselves who turn on their victims? Why in a case like that doesn’t the guilt of the criminals absolve the would-be saviors?

Our moral reckoning in judging that kind of blunder is evidently far more complex than the moral calculus of NATO’s supporters in this war—despite the fact that the consequences of the NATO action are much more serious and far-reaching. Even if we ignore the clear breaches of international law and actions by NATO that amount to war crimes, even if we grant the most noble of motives, what kind of morality is it that can accept such a huge discrepancy between objectives and consequences? What kind of humanitarianism is it that can tolerate such high human costs? Whatever NATO moralists may say, can we live with that kind of morality, that kind of humanitarianism?

But there’s another way of looking at the discrepancy between the stated moral objectives of NATO’s war and its actual consequences. That discrepancy can be most efficiently explained by questioning the objectives themselves, as we did in the June issue. While much of what went wrong could have been expected even if NATO had been acting on humanitarian motives, most, if not all, of what happened, almost every “blunder,” a major human catastrophe, and even NATO’s indifference to the human consequences of its actions, were entirely predictable if we started from the premise that the objective had a lot more to do with imperialism than humanitarianism.

But how would we know about causes and consequences without logic and analysis?

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