Crisis in the Balkans

Noam Chomsky

March 24, U.S.-led NATO forces launched cruise missiles and bombs at targets
in Yugoslavia, “plunging America into a military conflict that President
Clinton said was necessary to stop ethnic cleansing and bring stability to
Eastern Europe,” lead stories in the press reported. In a televised address,
Clinton explained that by bombing Yugoslavia, “we are upholding our values,
protecting our interests, and advancing the cause of peace.”

In the preceding year,
according to Western sources, about 2,000 people had been killed in the
Yugoslav province of Kosovo and there were several hundred thousand internal
refugees. The humanitarian catastrophe was overwhelmingly attributable to
Yugoslav military and police forces, the main victims being ethnic Albanian
Kosovars, commonly said to constitute about 90 percent of the population.
After three days of bombing, according to the UN High Commissioner for
Refugees, several thousand refugees had been expelled to Albania and
Macedonia, the two neighboring countries. Refugees reported that the terror
had reached the capital city of Pristina, largely spared before, and provided
credible accounts of large-scale destruction of villages, assassinations, and
a radical increase in generation of refugees, perhaps an effort to expel a
good part of the Albanian population. Within two weeks the flood of refugees
had reached some 350,000, mostly from the southern sections of Kosovo
adjoining Macedonia and Albania, while unknown numbers of Serbs fled north to
Serbia to escape the increased violence from the air and on the ground.

On March 27, U.S.-NATO
Commanding General Wesley Clark declared that it was “entirely
predictable” that Serbian terror and violence would intensify after the NATO
bombing. On the same day, State Department spokesperson James Rubin said that
“The United States is extremely alarmed by reports of an escalating pattern
of Serbian attacks on Kosovar Albanian civilians,” now attributed in large
part to paramilitary forces mobilized after the bombing. General Clark’s
phrase “entirely predictable” is an overstatement. Nothing is “entirely
predictable,” surely not the effects of extreme violence. But he is surely
correct in implying that what happened at once was highly likely. As observed
by Carnes Lord of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, formerly a Bush
Administration national security adviser, “enemies often react when shot
at,” and “though Western officials continue to deny it, there can be
little doubt that the bombing campaign has provided both motive and
opportunity for a wider and more savage Serbian operation than what was first

In the preceding months, the threat of NATO
bombing—again, predictably—was followed by an increase in atrocities. The
withdrawal of international observers, sharply condemned by the Serb
Parliament, predictably had the same consequence. The bombing was then
undertaken under the rational expectation that killing and refugee generation
would escalate as a result, as indeed happened, even if the scale may have
come as a surprise to some, though apparently not the commanding general.


Tito, Kosovars had had a considerable measure of self-rule. So matters
remained until 1989, when Kosovo’s autonomy was rescinded by Slobodan
Milosevic, who established direct Serbian rule and imposed “a Serbian
version of Apartheid,” in the words of former U.S. government specialist on
the Balkans James Hooper, no dove: he advocates direct NATO invasion of
Kosovo. The Kosovars “confounded the international community,” Hooper
continues, “by eschewing a war of national liberation, embracing instead the
nonviolent approach espoused by leading Kosovo intellectual Ibrahim Rugova and
constructing a parallel civil society,” an impressive achievement, for which
they were rewarded by “polite audiences and rhetorical encouragement from
Western governments.” The nonviolent strategy “lost its credibility” at
the Dayton accords in November 1995, Hooper observes. At Dayton, the U.S.
effectively partitioned Bosnia-Herzegovina between an eventual greater Croatia
and greater Serbia, after having roughly equalized the balance of terror by
providing arms and training for the forces of Croatian dictator Tudjman and
supporting his violent expulsion of Serbians from Krajina and elsewhere. With
the sides more or less balanced, and exhausted, the U.S. took over, displacing
the Europeans who had been assigned the dirty work much to their annoyance.
“In deference to Milosevic,” Hooper writes, the U.S. “excluded Kosovo
Albanian delegates” from the Dayton negotiations and “avoided discussion
of the Kosovo problem.” “The reward for nonviolence was international
neglect”; more accurately, U.S. neglect.

Recognition that the U.S.
understands only force led to “the rise of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation
Army (KLA) and expansion of popular support for an armed independence
struggle.” By February 1998, KLA attacks against Serbian police stations led
to a “Serbian crackdown” and retaliation against civilians, another
standard pattern: Israeli atrocities in Lebanon, particularly under Nobel
Peace laureate Shimon Peres, are or should be a familiar example, though one
that is not entirely appropriate. These Israeli atrocities are typically in
response to attacks on its military forces occupying foreign territory in
violation of longstanding Security orders to withdraw. Many Israeli attacks
are not retaliatory at all, including the 1982 invasion that devastated much
of Lebanon and left 20,000 civilians dead (a different story is preferred in
U.S. commentary, though the truth is familiar in Israel). We need scarcely
imagine how the U.S. would respond to attacks on police stations by a
guerrilla force with foreign bases and supplies.

Fighting in Kosovo
escalated, the scale of atrocities corresponding roughly to the resources of
violence. An October 1998 cease-fire made possible the deployment of 2,000
European monitors. Breakdown of U.S.-Milosevic negotiations led to renewed
fighting, which increased with the threat of NATO bombing and the withdrawal
of the monitors, again as predicted. Officials of the UN refugee agency and
Catholic Relief Services had warned that the threat of bombing “would
imperil the lives of tens of thousands of refugees believed to be hiding in
the woods,” predicting “tragic” consequences if “NATO made it
impossible for us to be here.”

Atrocities then sharply
escalated as the late March bombing provided “motive and opportunity,” as
was surely “predictable,” if not “entirely” so.

The bombing was undertaken,
under U.S. initiative, after Milosevic had refused to accept a U.S. ultimatum,
the Rambouillet agreement of the NATO powers in February. There were
disagreements within NATO, captured in a New York Times headline that
reads: “Trickiest Divides Are Among Big Powers at Kosovo Talks.” One
problem had to do with deployment of NATO peacekeepers. The European powers
wanted to ask the Security Council to authorize the deployment, in accord with
treaty obligations and international law. Washington, however, refused to
allow the “neuralgic word ‘authorize’,” the New York Times
reported, though it did finally permit “endorse.” The Clinton
administration “was sticking to its stand that NATO should be able to act
independently of the United Nations.”

The discord within NATO
continued. Apart from Britain (by now, about as much of an independent actor
as the Ukraine was in pre-Gorbachev years), NATO countries were skeptical of
Washington’s preference for force, and annoyed by Secretary of State
Albright’s “saber-rattling,” which they regarded as “unhelpful when
negotiations were at such a sensitive stage,” though “U.S. officials were
unapologetic about the hard line.”

Turning from generally
uncontested fact to speculation, we may ask why events proceeded as they did,
focusing on the decisions of U.S. planners—the factor that must be our
primary concern on elementary moral grounds, and that is a leading if not
decisive factor on grounds of equally elementary considerations of power.

We may note at first that
the dismissal of Kosovar democrats “in deference to Milosevic” is hardly
surprising. To mention another example, after Saddam Hussein’s repeated
gassing of Kurds in 1988, in deference to its friend and ally the U.S. barred
official contacts with Kurdish leaders and Iraqi democratic dissidents, who
were largely excluded from the media as well. The official ban was renewed
immediately after the Gulf war, in March 1991, when Saddam was tacitly
authorized to conduct a massacre of rebelling Shi’ites in the south and then
Kurds in the north. The massacre proceeded under the steely gaze of Stormin’
Norman Schwartzkopf, who explained that he was “suckered” by Saddam, not
anticipating that Saddam might carry out military actions with the military
helicopters he was authorized by Washington to use. The Bush administration
explained that support for Saddam was necessary to preserve “stability,”
and its preference for a military dictatorship that would rule Iraq with an
“iron fist” just as Saddam had done was sagely endorsed by respected U.S.

Tacitly acknowledging past
policy, Secretary of State Albright announced in December 1998 that “we have
come to the determination that the Iraqi people would benefit if they had a
government that really represented them.” A few months earlier, on May 20,
Albright had informed Indonesian President Suharto that he was no longer
“our kind of guy,” having lost control and disobeyed IMF orders, so that
he must resign and provide for “a democratic transition.” A few hours
later, Suharto transferred formal authority to his hand-picked vice-president.
We now celebrate the May 1999 elections in Indonesia, hailed by Washington and
the press as the first democratic elections in 40 years—but without a
reminder of the major U.S. clandestine military operation 40 years ago that
brought Indonesian democracy to an end, undertaken in large measure because
the democratic system was unacceptably open, even allowing participation of
the left.

We need not tarry on the
plausibility of Washington’s discovery of the merits of democracy in the
past few months; the fact that the words can be articulated, eliciting no
comment, is informative enough. In any event, there is no reason to be
surprised at the disdain for non-violent democratic forces in Kosovo; or at
the fact that the bombing was undertaken with the likely prospect that it
would undermine a courageous and growing democratic movement in Belgrade, now
probably demolished as Serbs are “unified from heaven—but by the bombs,
not by God,” in the words of Aleksa Djilas, the historian son of Yugoslav
dissident Milovan Djilas. “The bombing has jeopardized the lives of more
than 10 million people and set back the fledgling forces of democracy in
Kosovo and Serbia,” having “blasted…[its] germinating seeds and insured
that they will not sprout again for a very long time,” according to Serbian
dissident Veran Matic, editor in chief of the independent station Radio B-92
(now banned). Former Boston Globe editor Randolph Ryan, who has been
working for years in the Balkans and living in Belgrade, writes that “Now,
thanks to NATO, Serbia has overnight become a totalitarian state in a frenzy
of wartime mobilization,” as NATO must have expected, just as it “had to
know that Milosevic would take immediate revenge by redoubling his attacks in
Kosovo,” which NATO would have no way to stop.

As to what planners
“envisioned,” Carnes Lord’s confidence is hard to share. If the
documentary record of past actions is any guide, planners probably were doing
what comes naturally to those with a strong card—in this case violence.
Namely, play it, and then see what happens.

With the basic facts in
mind, one may speculate about how Washington’s decisions were made.
Turbulence in the Balkans qualifies as a “humanitarian crisis,” in the
technical sense: it might harm the interests of rich and privileged people,
unlike slaughters in Sierra Leone or Angola, or crimes we support or conduct
ourselves. The question, then, is how to control the authentic crisis. The
U.S. will not tolerate the institutions of world order, so the problems have
to be handled by NATO, which the U.S. pretty much dominates. The divisions
within NATO are understandable: violence is Washington’s strong card. It is
necessary to guarantee the “credibility of NATO”—meaning, of U.S.
violence: others must have proper fear of the global hegemon. “One
unappealing aspect of nearly any alternative” to bombing, Barton Gellman
observed in a Washington Post review of “the events that led to the
confrontation in Kosovo,” “was the humiliation of NATO and the United
States.” National Security Adviser Samuel Berger “listed among the
principal purposes of bombing ‘to demonstrate that NATO is serious’.” A
European diplomat concurred: “Inaction would have involved ‘a major cost
in credibility, particularly at this time as we approach the NATO summit in
celebration of its fiftieth anniversary’.” “To walk away now would
destroy NATO’s credibility,” Prime Minister Tony Blair informed
Parliament. Blair is not concerned with the credibility of Italy or Belgium,
and understands “credibility” in the manner of any Mafia Don.

Violence may fail, but
planners can be confident that there is always more in reserve. Side benefits
include an escalation of arms production and sales—the cover for the massive
state role in the high tech economy for years. Just as bombing unites Serbs
behind Milosevic, it unites Americans behind Our Leaders. These are standard
effects of violence; they may not last for long, but planning is for the short





are two fundamental issues: (1) What are the accepted and applicable “rules
of world order”? (2) How do these or other considerations apply in the case
of Kosovo?

(1) There is a regime of
international law and international order, binding on all states, based on the
UN Charter and subsequent resolutions and World Court decisions. In brief, the
threat or use of force is banned unless explicitly authorized by the Security
Council after it has determined that peaceful means have failed, or in
self-defense against “armed attack” (a narrow concept) until the Security
Council acts.

There is, of course, more
to say. Thus, there is at least a tension, if not an outright contradiction,
between the rules of world order laid down in the UN Charter and the rights
articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UD), a second pillar
of the world order established under U.S. initiative after World War II. The
Charter bans force violating state sovereignty; the UD guarantees the rights
of individuals against oppressive states. The issue of “humanitarian
intervention” arises from this tension. It is the right of “humanitarian
intervention” that is claimed by the U.S./NATO in Kosovo, with the general
support of editorial opinion and news reports.

The question was addressed
at once in a New York Times report headed: “Legal Scholars Support
Case for Using Force.” One example is offered: Allen Gerson, former counsel
to the U.S. mission to the UN. Two other legal scholars are cited. One, Ted
Galen Carpenter, “scoffed at the Administration argument” and dismissed
the alleged right of intervention. The third is Jack Goldsmith, a specialist
on international law at Chicago Law school. He says that critics of the NATO
bombing “have a pretty good legal argument,” but “many people think [an
exception for humanitarian intervention] does exist as a matter of custom and
practice.” That summarizes the evidence offered to justify the favored
conclusion stated in the headline.

Goldsmith’s observation
is reasonable, at least if we agree that facts are relevant to the
determination of “custom and practice.” We may also bear in mind a truism:
the right of humanitarian intervention, if it exists, is premised on the
“good faith” of those intervening, and that assumption is based not on
their rhetoric but on their record, in particular their record of adherence to
the principles of international law, World Court decisions, and so on. That is
indeed a truism, at least with regard to others. Consider, for example,
Iranian offers to intervene in Bosnia to prevent massacres at a time when the
West would not do so. These were dismissed with ridicule (in fact, generally
ignored); if there was a reason beyond subordination to power, it was because
Iranian good faith could not be assumed. A rational person then asks obvious
questions: is the Iranian record of intervention and terror worse than that of
the U.S.? And other questions, for example: How should we assess the “good
faith” of the only country to have vetoed a Security Council resolution
calling on all states to obey international law? What about its historical
record? Unless such questions are prominent on the agenda of discourse, an
honest person will dismiss it as mere allegiance to doctrine. A useful
exercise is to determine how much of the literature—media or
other—survives such elementary conditions as these.

(2) When the decision was
made to bomb, there had been a serious humanitarian crisis in Kosovo for a
year. In such cases, outsiders have three choices:

(I) try to escalate the

(II) do nothing

(III) try to mitigate the

The choices are illustrated
by other contemporary cases. Let’s keep to a few of approximately the same
scale, and ask where Kosovo fits into the pattern.

(A) Colombia. In Colombia,
according to State Department estimates, the annual level of political killing
by the government and its paramilitary associates is about at the level of
Kosovo, and refugee flight primarily from their atrocities is well over a
million, another 300,000 last year. Colombia has been the leading Western
hemisphere recipient of U.S. arms and training as violence increased through
the 1990s, and that assistance is now increasing, under a “drug war”
pretext dismissed by almost all serious observers. The Clinton administration
was particularly enthusiastic in its praise for President Gaviria, whose
tenure in office was responsible for “appalling levels of violence,”
according to human rights organizations, even surpassing his predecessors.
Details are readily available.

In this case, the U.S.
reaction is (I): escalate the atrocities.

(B) Turkey. For years,
Turkish repression of Kurds has been a major scandal. It peaked in the 1990s;
one index is the flight of over a million Kurds from the countryside to the
unofficial Kurdish capital Diyarbakir from 1990 to 1994, as the Turkish army
was devastating the countryside. Two million were left homeless according to
the Turkish State Minister for Human Rights, a result of “state terrorism”
in part, he acknowledged. “Mystery killings” of Kurds (assumed to be death
squad killings) alone amounted to 3,200 in 1993 and 1994, along with torture,
destruction of thousands of villages, bombing with napalm, and an unknown
number of casualties, generally estimated in the tens of thousands; no one was
counting. The killings are attributed to Kurdish terror in Turkish propaganda,
generally adopted in the U.S. as well. Presumably Serbian propaganda follows
the same practice. 1994 marked two records in Turkey: it was “the year of
the worst repression in the Kurdish provinces,” Jonathan Randal reported
from the scene, and the year when Turkey became “the biggest single importer
of American military hardware and thus the world’s largest arms purchaser.
Its arsenal, 80 percent American, included M-60 tanks, F-16 fighter-bombers,
Cobra gunships, and Blackhawk ‘slick’ helicopters, all of which were
eventually used against the Kurds.” When human rights groups exposed
Turkey’s use of U.S. jets to bomb villages, the Clinton adminis- tration
found ways to evade laws requiring suspension of arms deliveries, much as it
was doing in Indonesia and elsewhere. Turkish aircraft have now shifted to
bombing Serbia, while Turkey is lauded for its humanitarianism.

Colombia and Turkey explain
their (U.S.-supported) atrocities on grounds that they are defending their
countries from the threat of terrorist guerrillas. As does the government of

Again, the example
illustrates (I): act to escalate the atrocities.

(C) Laos. Every year
thousands of people, mostly children and poor farmers, are killed in the Plain
of Jars in Northern Laos, the scene of the heaviest bombing of civilian
targets in history it appears, and arguably the most cruel: Washington’s
furious assault on a poor peasant society had little to do with its wars in
the region. The worst period was from 1968, when Washington was compelled to
undertake negotiations (under popular and business pressure), ending the
regular bombardment of North Vietnam. Kissinger-Nixon then shifted the planes
to bombardment of Laos and Cambodia.

The deaths are from “bombies,”
tiny anti-personnel weapons, far worse than land-mines: they are designed
specifically to kill and maim, and have no effect on trucks, buildings, etc.
The Plain was saturated with hundreds of millions of these criminal devices,
which have a failure-to-explode rate of 20 percent  to 30 percent
according to the manufacturer, Honeywell. The numbers suggest either
remarkably poor quality control or a rational policy of murdering civilians by
delayed action. These were only a fraction of the technology deployed,
including advanced missiles to penetrate caves where families sought shelter.
Current annual casualties from “bombies” are estimated from hundreds a
year to “an annual nationwide casualty rate of 20,000,” more than half of
them deaths, according to the veteran Asia reporter Barry Wain of the Wall
Street Journal
in its Asia edition. A conservative estimate, then, is that
the crisis last year was approximately comparable to Kosovo, though deaths are
far more highly concentrated among children over half, according to studies
reported by the Mennonite Central Committee, which has been working there
since 1977 to alleviate the continuing atrocities.

There have been efforts to
publicize and deal with the humanitarian catastrophe. A British-based Mine
Advisory Group (MAG) is trying to remove the lethal objects, but the U.S. is
“conspicuously missing from the handful of Western organisations that have
followed MAG,” the British press reports, though it has finally agreed to
train some Laotian civilians. The British press also reports, with some
annoyance, the allegation of MAG specialists that the U.S. refuses to provide
them with “render harmless procedures” that would make their work “a lot
quicker and a lot safer.” These remain a state secret, as does the whole
affair in the United States. The Bangkok press reports a very similar
situation in Cambodia, particularly the Eastern region where U.S. bombardment
from early 1969 was most intense.

In this case, the U.S.
reaction is (II): do nothing. The reaction of the media and commentators is to
keep silent, following the norms under which the war against Laos was
designated a “secret war” meaning well-known, but suppressed, as also in
the case of Cambodia from March 1969. The level of self-censorship was
extraordinary then, as is the current phase. The relevance of this shocking
example should be obvious without further comment.

President Clinton explained
to the nation that “there are times when looking away simply is not an
option”; “we can’t respond to every tragedy in every corner of the
world,” but that doesn’t mean that “we should do nothing for no one.”
But the President, and commentators, failed to add that the “times” are
well-defined. The principle applies to “humanitarian crises,” in the
technical sense discussed earlier: when the interests of rich and privileged
people are endangered. Accordingly, the examples just mentioned do not qualify
as “humanitarian crises,” so looking away and not responding are
definitely options, if not obligatory. On similar grounds, Clinton’s
policies on Africa are understood by Western diplomats to be “leaving Africa
to solve its own crises.” For example, in the Republic of Congo, scene of a
major war and huge atrocities; here Clinton refused a UN request for a trivial
sum for a battalion of peacekeepers, according to the UN’s senior Africa
envoy, the highly respected diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun, a refusal that
“torpedoed” the UN proposal. In the case of Sierra Leone, “Washington
dragged out discussions on a British proposal to deploy peacekeepers” in
1997, paving the way for another major disaster, but also of the kind for
which “looking away” is the preferred option. In other cases too, “the
United States has actively thwarted efforts by the United Nations to take on
peacekeeping operations that might have prevented some of Africa’s wars,
according to European and UN diplomats,” correspondent Colum Lynch reported
as the plans to bomb Serbia were reaching their final stages.

I will skip other examples
of (I) and (II), which abound, and also contemporary atrocities of a different
kind, such as the slaughter of Iraqi civilians by means of a vicious form of
what amounts to biological warfare “a very hard choice,” Madeleine
Albright commented on national TV in 1996 when asked for her reaction to the
killing of half a million Iraqi children in five years, but “we think the
price is worth it.” Current estimates remain about 5,000 children killed a
month, and the price is still “worth it.” These and other examples might
be kept in mind when we read admiring accounts of how the “moral compass”
of the Clinton administration is at last functioning properly, in Kosovo
(Columbia University professor of preventive diplomacy David Phillips).

Kosovo is another
illustration of (I): act in such a way as to escalate the violence, with
exactly that expectation.

To find examples
illustrating (III) is all too easy, at least if we keep to official rhetoric.
The most extensive recent academic study of “humanitarian intervention” is
by George Washington University law professor, Sean Murphy. He reviews the
record after the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928 which outlawed war, and then
after the UN Charter, which strengthened and articulated these provisions. In
the first phase, he writes, the most prominent examples of “humanitarian
intervention” were Japan’s attack on Manchuria, Mussolini’s invasion of
Ethiopia, and Hitler’s occupation of parts of Czechoslovakia, all
accompanied by uplifting humanitarian rhetoric and factual justifications as
well. Japan was going to establish an “earthly paradise” as it defended
Manchurians from “Chinese bandits,” with the support of a leading Chinese
nationalist, a far more credible figure than anyone the U.S. was able to
conjure up during its attack on South Vietnam. Mussolini was liberating
thousands of slaves as he carried forth the Western “civilizing mission.”
Hitler announced Germany’s intention to end ethnic tensions and violence,
and “safeguard the national individuality of the German and Czech
peoples,” in an operation “filled with earnest desire to serve the true
interests of the peoples dwelling in the area,” in accordance with their
will; the Slovakian President asked Hitler to declare Slovakia a protectorate.

Another useful intellectual
exercise is to compare those obscene justifications with those offered for
interventions, including “humanitarian interventions,” in the post-UN
Charter period.

In that period, perhaps the
most compelling example of (III) is the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in
December 1978, terminating Pol Pot’s atrocities, which were then peaking.
Vietnam pleaded the right of self-defense against armed attack, one of the few
post-Charter examples when the plea is plausible: the Khmer Rouge regime
(Democratic Kampuchea, DK) was carrying out murderous attacks against Vietnam
in border areas. The U.S. reaction is instructive. The press condemned the
“Prussians” of Asia for their outrageous violation of international law.
They were harshly punished for the crime of having ended Pol Pot’s
slaughters, first by a (U.S.-backed) Chinese invasion, then by U.S. imposition
of extremely harsh sanctions. The U.S. recognized the expelled DK as the
official government of Cambodia, because of its “continuity” with the Pol
Pot regime, the State Department explained. Not too subtly, the U.S. supported
the Khmer Rouge in its continuing attacks in Cambodia. The example tells us
more about the “custom and practice” that underlies “the emerging legal
norms of humanitarian intervention.”

Another illustration of
(III) is India’s invasion of East Pakistan in 1971, which terminated an
enormous massacre and refugee flight (over ten million, according to estimates
at the time). The U.S. condemned India for aggression; Kissinger was
particularly infuriated by India’s action, in part it seems because it was
interfering with a carefully staged secret trip to China. Perhaps this is one
of the examples that historian John Lewis Gaddis had in mind in his fawning
review of the latest volume of Kissinger’s memoirs, when he reports
admiringly that Kissinger “acknowledges here, more clearly than in the past,
the influence of his upbringing in Nazi Germany, the examples set by his
parents and the consequent impossibility, for him, of operating outside a
moral framework.” The logic is overpowering, as are the illustrations, too
well-known to record.

Again, the same lessons.

Despite the desperate
efforts of ideologues to prove that circles are square, there is no serious
doubt that the NATO bombings further undermine what remains of the fragile
structure of international law. The U.S. made that clear in the debates that
led to the NATO decision, as already discussed. Today, the more closely one
approaches the conflicted region, the greater the opposition to Washington’s
insistence on force, even within NATO (Greece and Italy). Again, that is not
an unusual phenomenon: another current example is the U.S./UK bombing of Iraq,
undertaken in December with unusually brazen gestures of contempt for the
Security Council even the timing, coinciding with an emergency session to deal
with the crisis. Still another illustration, minor in context, is the
destruction of half the pharmaceutical production of a small African country a
few months earlier, another event that does not indicate that the “moral
compass” is straying from righteousness, though comparable destruction of
U.S. facilities by Islamic terrorists might evoke a slightly different
reaction. It is unnecessary to emphasize that there is a far more extensive
record that would be prominently reviewed right now if facts were considered
relevant to determining “custom and practice.”


could be argued, rather plausibly, that further demolition of the rules of
world order is by now of no significance, as in the late 1930s. The contempt
of the world’s leading power for the framework of world order has become so
extreme that there is little left to discuss. A review of the internal
documentary record demonstrates that the stance traces back to the earliest
days, even to the first memorandum of the newly-formed National Security
Council in 1947. During the Kennedy years, the stance began to gain overt
expression, as, for example, when the highly respected statesperson and
Kennedy adviser Dean Acheson justified the blockade of Cuba in 1962 by
informing the American Society for International Law that a situation in which
our country’s “power, position, and prestige” are involved cannot be
treated as a “legal issue.”

The main innovation of the
Reagan-Clinton years is that defiance of international law and solemn
obligations has become entirely open. It has also been backed with interesting
explanations, which would be on the front pages, and prominent in the school
and university curriculum, if honesty and human consequences were considered
significant values. The highest authorities explained that international law
and agencies had become irrelevant because they no longer follow U.S. orders,
as they did in the early postwar years, when U.S. power was overwhelming. When
the World Court was considering what it later condemned as Washington’s
“unlawful use of force” against Nicaragua, Secretary of State George
Shultz derided those who advocate “utopian, legalistic means like outside
mediation, the United Nations, and the World Court, while ignoring the power
element of the equation.” Clear and forthright, and by no means original.
State Department Legal Adviser Abraham Sofaer explained that members of the UN
can no longer “be counted on to share our view,” and the “majority often
opposes the United States on important international questions,” so we must
“reserve to ourselves the power to determine” how we will act.

One can follow standard
practice and ignore “custom and practice,” or dismiss it on some absurd
grounds (“change of course,” “Cold War,” and other familiar pretexts).
Or we can take custom, practice, and explicit doctrine seriously, departing
from respectable norms but at least opening the possibility of understanding
what is happening in the world.

While the Reaganites broke
new ground, under Clinton the defiance of world order has become so extreme as
to be of concern even to hawkish policy analysts. In the current issue of the
leading establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, Samuel Huntington warns
that Washington is treading a dangerous course. In the eyes of much of the
world probably most of the world, he suggests the U.S. is “becoming the
rogue superpower,” considered “the single greatest external threat to
their societies.” Realist “international relations theory,” he argues,
predicts that coalitions may arise to counterbalance the rogue superpower. On
pragmatic grounds, then, the stance should be reconsidered. Americans who
prefer a different image of their society might have other grounds for concern
over these tendencies, but they are probably of little concern to planners,
with their narrower focus and immersion in ideology.


does that leave the question of what to do in Kosovo? It leaves it unanswered.
The U.S. has chosen a course of action which, as it explicitly recognizes,
escalates atrocities and violence; a course that strikes yet another blow
against the regime of international order, which does offer the weak at least
some limited protection from predatory states; a course that undermines,
perhaps destroys, promising democratic developments within Yugoslavia,
probably Macedonia as well. As for the longer term, consequences are

One plausible observation
is that “every bomb that falls on Serbia and every ethnic killing in Kosovo
suggests that it will scarcely be possible for Serbs and Albanians to live
beside each other in some sort of peace” (Financial Times). Other
possible long-term outcomes are not pleasant to contemplate. The resort to
violence has, again predictably, narrowed the options. Perhaps the least ugly
that remains is an eventual partition of Kosovo, with Serbia taking the
northern areas that are rich in resources and have the main historical
monuments, and the southern sector becoming a NATO protectorate where some
Albanians can live in misery. Another possibility is that with much of the
population gone, the U.S. might turn to the Carthaginian solution. If that
happens, it would again be nothing new, as large areas of Indochina can

A standard argument is that
we had to do something: we could not simply stand by as atrocities continue.
The argument is so absurd that it is rather surprising to hear it voiced.
Suppose you see a crime in the streets, and feel that you can’t just stand
by silently, so you pick up an assault rifle and kill everyone involved:
criminal, victim, bystanders. Are we to understand that to be the rational and
moral response?

One choice, always
available, is to follow the Hippocratic principle: “First, do no harm.” If
you can think of no way to adhere to that elementary principle, then do
nothing; at least that is preferable to causing harm. But there are always
other ways that can be considered. Diplomacy and negotiations are never at an
end. That was true right before the bombing, when the Serb Parliament,
responding to Clinton’s ultimatum, called for negotiations over an
“international presence in Kosovo immediately after the signing of an accord
for self-administration in Kosovo which will be accepted by all national
communities” living in the province, reported on wire services worldwide but
scarcely noted here. Just what that meant we cannot know, since the two
warrior states preferred to reject the diplomatic path in favor of violence.

Another argument, if one
can call it that, has been advanced most prominently by Henry Kissinger. He
believes that intervention was a mistake (“open- ended,” quagmire, etc.).
That aside, it is futile. “Through the centuries, these conflicts [in the
Balkans] have been fought with unparalleled ferocity because none of the
populations has any experience with and essentially no belief in Western
concepts of toleration.” At last we understand why Europeans have treated
each other with such gentle solicitude “through the centuries,” and have
tried so hard over many centuries to bring to others their message of
non-violence, toleration, and loving kindness.

One can always count on
Kissinger for some comic relief, though in reality, he is not alone. He is
joined by those who ponder “Balkan logic” as contrasted with the Western
record of humane rationality. And those who remind us of the “distaste for
war or for intervention in the affairs of others” that is “our inherent
weakness,” of our dismay over the “repeated violations of norms and rules
established by international treaty, human rights conventions” (historian
Tony Judt). We are to consider Kosovo as “A New Collision of East and
West,” a Times think piece is headlined, a clear illustration of
Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”: “a democratic West, its
humanitarian instincts repelled by the barbarous inhumanity of Orthodox
Serbs,” all of this “clear to Americans” but not to others, a fact that
Americans fail to comprehend (Huntington, interview).

Or we may listen to the
inspiring words of Secretary of Defense William Cohen, introducing the
president at Norfolk Naval Air Station. He opened by quoting Theodore
Roosevelt, speaking “at the dawn of this century, as America was awakening
into its new place in the world.” President Roosevelt said, “Unless
you’re willing to fight for great ideals, those ideals will vanish,” and
“today, at the dawn of the next century, we’re joined by President Bill
Clinton” who understands as well as Teddy Roose- velt that “standing on
the sidelines…as a witness to the unspeakable horror that was about to take
place, that would in fact affect the peace and stability of NATO countries,
was simply unacceptable.” One has to wonder what must pass through the mind
of someone invoking this famous racist fanatic and raving jingoist as a model
of American values, along with the events that illustrated his cherished
“great ideals” as he spoke: the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of
Filipinos who had sought liberation from Spain, shortly after Roosevelt’s
contribution to preventing Cubans from achieving the same goal.

Wiser commentators will
wait until Washington settles on an official story. After two weeks of
bombing, the story is that they both knew and didn’t know that a catastrophe
would follow. On March 28, “when a reporter asked if the bombing was
accelerating the atrocities, [President Clinton] replied, ‘absolutely
not’” (Adam Clymer). He reiterated that stand in his April 1 speech at
Norfolk: “Had we not acted, the Serbian offensive would have been carried
out with impunity.” The following day, Pentagon spokesperson Kenneth Bacon
announced that the opposite was true: “I don’t think anyone could have
foreseen the breadth of this brutality,” the first acknowledgment by the
Administration that “it was not fully prepared for the crisis,” the press
reported a crisis that was “entirely predictable,” the Command- ing
General had informed the press a week earlier. From the start, reports from
the scene were that “the Administration had been caught off guard” by the
Serbian military reaction (Jane Perlez, and many others).

The right of
“humanitarian intervention” is likely to be more frequently invoked in
coming years maybe with justification, maybe not now that Cold War pretexts
have lost their efficacy. In such an era, it may be worthwhile to pay
attention to the views of highly respected commentators—not to speak of the
World Court, which ruled on the matter of intervention and “humanitarian
aid” in a decision rejected by the United States, its essentials not even

In the scholarly
disciplines of international affairs and international law it would be hard to
find more respected voices than Hedley Bull or Louis Henkin. Bull warned 15
years ago that “Particular states or groups of states that set themselves up
as the authoritative judges of the world common good, in disregard of the
views of others, are in fact a menace to international order, and thus to
effective action in this field.” Henkin, in a standard work on world order,
writes that the “pressures eroding the prohibition on the use of force are
deplorable, and the arguments to legitimize the use of force in those
circumstances are unpersuasive and dangerous…Violations of human rights are
indeed all too common, and if it were permissible to remedy them by external
use of force, there would be no law to forbid the use of force by almost any
state against almost any other. Human rights, I believe, will have to be
vindicated, and other injustices remedied, by other, peaceful means, not by
opening the door to aggression and destroying the principal advance in
international law, the outlawing of war and the prohibition of force.”

Recognized principles of
international law and world order, treaty obligations, decisions by the World
Court, considered pronouncements by the most respected commentators these do
not automatically yield solutions to particular problems. Each has to be
considered on its merits. For those who do not adopt the standards of Saddam
Hussein, there is a heavy burden of proof to meet in undertaking the threat or
use of force in violation of the principles of international order. Perhaps
the burden can be met, but that has to be shown, not merely proclaimed with
passionate rhetoric. The consequences of such violations have to be assessed
carefully—in particular, what we take to be “predictable.” For those who
are minimally serious, the reasons for the actions also have to be assessed on
rational grounds, with attention to historical fact and the documentary
record, not simply by adulation of our leaders and their “moral compass.”