Hitchens on Serbia and East Timor

Edward S. Herman

each U.S. war there are liberals and leftists who lend it support, and even
larger numbers who don’t oppose it because the issues and stakes involved
seem unclear. Both support and silence are encouraged by the invariable
demonization of the enemy and the surge of patriotic support for our troops
fighting the demon, which makes opposition costly. Liberals like Anthony
Lewis, under steady attack for their mildly dissenting views, are eager to
join the establishment throng in an Operation Benevolence, and as they age
they find it less and less difficult to see their country doing good as it
bombs and sanctions the forces of evil abroad.

The liberal and
left response to U.S. wars varies by the nature of the war, the character of
the target—and ease and effectiveness of demonization—and the state of
liberalism and the left. However, even in the most blatant cases of imperial
aggression for a bad cause, as in the U.S. attacks on Guatemala (1954),
Vietnam (1949-1975), the Dominican Republic (1965), and Nicaragua (1981-1990),
there were numerous liberals and some leftists who gave intellectual service
to the state.

It was, of
course, much easier to support the Persian Gulf War, as Saddam Hussein had
committed aggression against Kuwait and he was (and is) a brutal dictator. In
addition, he was an enemy of Israel and Israel was pleased to see him crushed
militarily, a factor that fed into liberal-left opinion in this country. In
the case of Yugoslavia, also, liberal-left support of a U.S.-led war was
greatly aided by the fact that Milosevic, if not a brutal dictator was a
manipulative and opportunistic leader who used nationalistic appeals and
violence against Serbian enemies without much scruple. Although hardly alone
as a sponsor of violence in the Yugoslavia breakup, and in fact the head of a
state and ethnic group that was the target of Western political attack from
1990 if not earlier, Milosevic was the chosen demon and was given the same
"another Hitler" treatment in the U.S. as his predecessors (most recently,
Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein).

Liberals and
leftists who joined the NATO crusade against Milosevic had at least three
serious problems to contend with in justifying their support. One is that NATO
bypassed UN authority and ignored international law in attacking Yugoslavia. A
second is that NATO deliberately and openly used extreme violence against the
Serbian civil society to achieve its political aims in the Kosovo war. As in
Iraq, the entire population was victimized as a collective hostage, and the
means employed were in violation of the rules of war. Christopher Simpson has
pointed out that infrastructure attacks such as NATO carried out against
Serbia were labelled "terrorism" by a 1999 President’s Commission on
Critical Infrastructure Protection, if done against the U.S. Anthony Lewis has
deteriorated morally to the point where he finds this mode of war to be fine
because Serbian civilians deserve it, having supported the "tyrant." The
contradiction between calling Milosevic a dictator-tyrant and blaming the
Serbian populace for the dictator’s actions was widespread in liberal
writings. Other liberals and leftists were unconcerned with the plight of
Serbs, who had been made "unworthy victims" and "unpeople" by the
political establishment, and the liberals and leftists joined this throng.

A third problem
for pro-war liberals and leftists has been fending off evidence that the NATO
powers were heavily responsible for the breakup and ethnic group struggle for
spatial control in the former Yugoslavia, and that NATO didn’t want a
peaceful resolution to the Kosovo crisis but instead wanted to punish and
weaken or destroy Serbia. The liberal-leftist warriors have largely avoided
this set of issues, and implicitly or openly claimed that NATO’s effort was
truly humanitarian.

On negotiations
versus war there is a telling analogy between U.S.-NATO policy in Kosovo and
the earlier U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf. After Iraq occupied Kuwait on
August 2, 1990, virtually by U.S. invitation, Saddam Hussein became aware that
he had misunderstood U.S. signals and he was prepared to get out with only
face-saving concessions. But the Bush administration wouldn’t let him exit
without "his tail between his legs" (Dick Cheney), rejecting a string of
negotiating offers by Iraq and third parties. In the pre-bombing maneuvering
in 1990-1991 the mainstream media served as perfect propaganda instruments of
the state, claiming that Saddam was unwilling to negotiate and setting the
stage for the destruction of Iraq.

In the case of
Kosovo, it is now on the record that NATO put up conditions at Rambouillet
designed to be rejected in order to permit the destruction of Serbia and NATO
occupation of Kosovo. One State Department official eventually acknowledged
that "We intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply. They
needed some bombing." Serbia had made negotiating proposals that could
easily have led to a peaceful resolution of that crisis, but NATO didn’t
want that, the media pretended that Serbia was blocking negotiations, and as
with Iraq, the ground was laid for returning the target to the stone age.

Hitchens has several serious problems in writing on the Kosovo war. One is
that although he hates Clinton passionately, he hates the Serbs even more and
is driven into the position of supporting and justifying Clinton’s war
despite its approval of a major Clinton enterprise. His hatred of Serbs and
Milosevic is so intense that he comes off as a racist and supporter of ethnic
cleansing and mass killing, if the victims are Serbs. The Serb army, much of
it a conscript army, is "drunken robotic militias" ("Port Huron
Piffle," The Nation, June 14), and in his latest he notes
that, "The NATO intervention repatriated all or most of the refugees and
killed at least some of the cleansers" ("Genocide and the Body-Baggers,"
The Nation, November 29). That is all he ever says about Serb
victims of the NATO war, many thousands of whom were ordinary civilians, but
"unpersons" for Hitchens. He mentions that one alleged plan for Kosovo by
the "slavo-fascists" was "importing of Serb settlers from Krajina." He
has not a word of sympathy for the several hundred thousand Serbs ethnically
cleansed from Krajina, never expresses concern that Clinton and NATO supported
that expulsion or suggests that they should be repatriated to the homes from
which they were driven. Now that the NATO-KLA alliance is in charge of Kosovo,
the ecumenical ethnic cleansing of several hundred thousand Serbs, gypsies,
and Turks doesn’t concern him any more than the dead "cleansers." He
never mentions that several thousand Albanians live in Belgrade, and are not
abused there by the slavo-fascists, which suggests that the Serb actions in
Kosovo cannot be explained by a model of "genocide."

A second
problem for Hitchens is that as a leftist he should be against an imperialist
war, and a war led by Clinton and Blair against a small country doing its
brutal repression within its own borders has a strong smell of imperialism.
Hitchens says that "Chomsky really does oppose imperialist war on principle.
But his argument [in his The New Military Humanism] rests too heavily
on the issue of double standards." This is both an evasion of the issues and
a misrepresentation of Chomsky’s position. The main issues are, first, the
war’s effects; second, its compatability with the rule of law; and third,
the motivations and aims of the war-makers—whether they were driven by
humanitarian concerns or by more mundane political-economic factors.

On motivation
and aims, Hitchens refuses to discuss this in his November 29 piece, but
earlier he stated that NATO responded "when the sheer exorbitance of the
crimes in Kosovo became impossible to ignore." In other words, Clinton was
driven by humanistic concerns. This, of course, is nonsense—the crimes in
Kosovo by the time the NATO bombing began were far less extensive than those
in Turkey or East Timor, which Clinton found it easy to ignore and even
support, so anybody not snowed by NATO propaganda and/or an anti-Serb fanatic,
requires a bit more. NATO propagandists, of course, provided this with claims
of the destabilizing effects of the Kosovo struggle that necessitated bombing,
and by inflating and dwelling intently on Serb crimes preparatory to military
action. NATO’s demonization comports well with Hitchens’s own demonization
and double standard.

On the first
issue, of effects, Hitchens is happy with the results ("The NATO
intervention repatriated all or most of the refugees…"). He ignores the
misery and deaths in the exodus precipitated by the bombing (which Hitchens
supported), and anticipated by NATO, and the current 300,000 homeless Kosovo
Albanians, as well as the suffering of the very large number of "unpeople"
(ethnically cleansed gypsies, as well as Serbs within Kosovo and in the
shattered Serbia). On the question of the rule of law, Hitchens is
uninterested, presumably because of the beneficent results for the worthy
victims (of Serbia).

In a remarkable
innovation Hitchens goes on to argue that the double standard "may still be
made to operate against itself," and that it has actually worked out as
helpful to the East Timorese. Although the Western intervention was
"disgracefully late (and no punishment was visited on Indonesian forces or
‘infrastructures’)…it seems to me obvious that without the Kosovo
operation and the exalted motives that were claimed for it, the pressure to
save East Timor would have been considerably less." This again is nonsense,
and is also blatant apologetics for a Western betrayal and criminal behavior
by Indonesia. East Timor was not saved, it was destroyed, and many thousands
of East Timorese are still held in West Timor under deadly conditions, without
any outcries about "genocide" from Hitchens and his buddies still spending
their energy defending NATO and focusing on Serb crimes. The attention given
to East Timor was not a spinoff from Kosovo humanitarian claims, but resulted
from the publicity associated with UN-sponsorship of an election for an abused
people, an election nominally supported by Clinton, Blair, et al. The miracle
was not the sadly belated and puny intervention, but the fact that Clinton and
his gang could let Indonesia carry out its savageries with impunity, even
after having proclaimed the new humanitarianism. Their success in getting away
with this major betrayal can be read from Hitchens’s kindly treatment of it.

As regards the
double standard involving East Timor, Hitchens says that Chomsky finished his
book "before the international detachments arrived in Dili and before the
Indonesian occupiers sailed away." But despite the "disgraceful
lateness" of the intervention, "I cannot think of any other ground on
which Chomsky could have opposed it." But Hitchens misses the point in
Chomsky’s stress on double standards, which is to show both the frequency
with which Western intervention worsens human rights conditions and the
unlikelihood that the Kosovo intervention was based on any humanitarian
concerns. Chomsky believes that the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia worsened
human rights conditions and the general welfare of the purported beneficiaries
(as well as many others victimized by the attacks) and that its effects
contradicted the claimed humanitarian ends.

In his November
29 article Hitchens asserts that "doing nothing" is a form of
intervention, but in evaluating the West’s role in East Timor he sets aside
his own standard and limits the use of the word intervention to the
"disgracefully late" entry of Western troops, ignoring the West’s having
done nothing in the face of Indonesian terror for the prior year (not to
mention the prior 24 years of murderous occupation). Chomsky has pointed out
elsewhere that the United States knew what Indonesia was up to from the
beginning of its disruption of the referendum and had the power to call the
whole thing off, but didn’t. If the Serbs had done to Albanians what they
did after the NATO bombing began, and the West only watched and said "please
don’t," and after the Indonesians had completed their dirty work the West
sent a small contingent to Pristina, but did nothing about a hundred thousand
Albanians held in Serb concentration camps, you can be very sure that Hitchens
would not treat this so complacently.

As regards
Hitchens statement that he couldn’t think of "any other" grounds than
disgraceful lateness why Chomsky would oppose the East Timor intervention,
Chomsky no doubt wouldn’t have opposed the intervention that finally took
place, but he would have stressed its after-the-fact character and the
West’s failure to intervene to stop a slaughter before it took place, which
it could have done easily and without resort to bombs.

attempt to show that the Serbs were carrying out something called genocide in
Kosovo is on an intellectual par with his handling of Chomsky, double
standards, and East Timor. He is, of course, troubled by the fact that the
forensic studies are showing fewer bodies than the NATO spokespersons and
apologists had predicted. The people who "so wittily question the casualty
figures in Kosovo" he calls "revisionists," a misuse of the word as the
accused individuals thought NATO was lying and inflating the count from the
beginning. "Revisionism" for Hitchens means citing evidence contrary to
the Hitchens-NATO claims.

His case for
Serb genocide rests, first, on an alleged statement made in Greece by Serb
official, Zoran Angelkovic, that all he wanted was to reduce the non-Serb
population of Kosovo to "a manageable level." Curiously, this statement,
supposedly heard and reported to Hitchens by a friend, was not picked up by
the Greek press. Hitchens asserts that this "horrific" statement wasn’t
"quite enough to discompose some of our native revisionists," though how
we are to be discomposed by unpublished remarks to Hitchens is unclear.

supplements this with the claim by his Greek friend that stage two "would
have been the importing of Serbian settlers from the Krajina." No evidence
is given for believing this claim. Again, NATO’s collaboration with Croatia
in pushing out those Croatian Serbs who would allegedly be moved to Kosovo
does not disturb Hitchens, or cause him to condemn the earlier NATO-Croatian
operation as genocidal although it fits precisely his criterion for Serb

His main
argument for Serb genocide is the evidence of what Milosevic intended for
Kosovo, for which "there is no room for doubt." The post-bombing clearing
of the cities rested surely on "a deeply laid contingency plan…ethnic
cleansing squadrons do not just blossom from nowhere…" (There is really
solid evidence that ethnic cleansing squadrons were organized by the
Indonesian army in East Timor, and allowed to function for many months by the
West, but the word genocide is not applied to that case by Hitchens as the
Indonesians "sailed away" after extended destruction and killing.) But a
contingency plan, if it exists, is not evidence of intent, as it may be one of
many plans and requires a further triggering event and decision. Milosevic and
Angelkovic were steadily willing to allow large numbers of international
monitors in Kosovo and to pledge increased autonomy for its inhabitants.
Hitchens doesn’t mention this alternative "contingency plan," nor the
previously mentioned acceptance of large numbers of Albanians in Serbia who
are not being harassed or expelled.

The accelerated
Serb violence and expulsions was a response to NATO bombing, which the Serbs
interpreted correctly as NATO air support for the KLA. Vicious and
counterproductive as that Serb policy was, it was not genocide, but was part
of a sequence of violence and counter-violence that has been forwarded by the
Western policy of encouraging the dismantlement of the former Yugoslavia.
Those policies, culminating in the NATO bombing assault on Yugoslavia, pushed
so hard by humanitarians Clinton, Albright, and Blair, have been given
important intellectual support by liberals and erstwhile leftists like
Christopher Hitchens.Z

Edward S.
Herman is an economist and media analyst. His latest book, published by Peter
Lang, is
The Myth of the Liberal Media: An Edward Herman Reader.