Mother Jones, Todd Gitlin, & Kosovo

Michael Albert

people were concerned during the Kosovo conflict that crimes against the Albanian Kosovars were so horrific that however painful it might be to
undertake, NATO intervention was warranted. Such folks felt that genocide was
imminent and that U.S./NATO bombing would curb violence and save lives. To
sensibly respond to such views thus required revealing the actual facts and
context, including:

(1) That the
U.S./NATO intervention was motivated not by humanitarian considerations, but
to quell a growing conflict before it threatened U.S. and European interests
and to further entrench U.S. might and demote international law and the UN;

(2) That the
bombing would: strengthen Milosevic and undermine those fighting him in the
democratic opposition; weaken the nonviolent voices of the Kosovars;
exacerbate ethnic hatred to perhaps intractable levels; directly kill and
exile more Kosovars and unleash all restraints on the Serbs doing likewise;
smash Yugoslavia and Kosovo back decades and maybe a century in development
with who knows what long-term human costs; dramatically weaken the UN; destroy
remaining international law; inform the world that the U.S. is ready, willing,
and able to bomb anytime, anywhere; elevate NATO to a war machine; and provide
rationales for further defense spending in the U.S.

(3)  That
the bombing would make things much worse, leading to more deaths and exiles,
and why it was therefore horribly undesirable.

I doubt that
many readers of Z’s anti-war articles are confused about these
matters, but those with access only to mass media are in a different position
and continued exchanges about their concerns should certainly occur.

But there are
other kinds of support for the bombing that aren’t so well motivated,
including, for example, opportunist, intellectually dishonest, yet purportedly
progressive support for it from people who had more than enough information to
know the bombing’s implications, but supported it anyhow, presumably to be
acceptable, to be respected, to be taken seriously in the mainstream press,
and to ride the currents of fashion that elevate progressives who denigrate

judgments about folks’ motives is generally counter productive. It is
usually better to argue the facts, only. But once in a while there is an
instance of "left analysis" that is so disreputable that it ought to be
labeled as such.

In the
September/October issue of Mother Jones Todd Gitlin has a prominent
article titled, "The End of the Absolute No." Mother Jones adds as
a lead-in teaser: "The American left’s reflexive opposition to U.S.
military intervention broke down over Kosovo. A veteran activist says it’s
about time." Clearly MJ’s editors knew precisely what they were
publishing and what its true appeal was.

 tells us
that traveling around the country during the bombing he kept encountering
"old friends from the 1960s anti-Vietnam War movement" and of his being
"pleasantly surprised" to find that he and they "in fear and
trembling" supported the NATO war over Kosovo. He then says, "Until
recently, most of the new left tended to think of Washington’s foreign
policy as all of a piece, the product of original imperialist sin. These were
the fundamentals: The future was preordained by a history of gunboat
diplomacy, coups, alliances with dictatorships—all signs of arrogant
Manifest Destiny on a global scale. The Vietnam War was but one in a long line
of aggressions back to the Spanish-American and Mexican wars, which in turn
were continuous with slavery and the genocide of the Indians, the whole (yes)
shooting match. Cold War belligerency, unwarranted by any Soviet threat,
threatened to blow up the planet. Throwing its military and corporate weight
around the world, America made the impoverished more impoverished, the
desperate more desperate. America was lusty for power, as ingenious with its
deceits as it was untrustworthy. Democracy, self- determination, human
rights—such rationales of the hour were ruses, all. This complex of
half-truths seemed to make sense of many events that otherwise appeared wholly

Which is the
half-truth part of this "manufactured" perspective, some readers may
wonder? Well, past bad acts don’t in themselves guarantee future bad
outcomes, a silly notion—or half-truth. Likewise, U.S. foreign policy is not
a matter of persistent habits, as the passage implies people claimed. Most new
left anti-imperialists believe instead that a set of institutions exists which
breeds certain types of international policy and associated behaviors year in
and year out, with great consistency and only minor deviation, and that as
long as these institutions persist they will continue to have such effects
unless there is some very powerful mitigating factor.

Deriding this
view of U.S. foreign policy, Gitlin apparently wants readers to believe that
he no longer thinks that U.S. interactions with other nations are consistent
outgrowths of U.S. capitalism, international market forces, the historic
north/south division, and reasons of state. Instead, Gitlin purports to
believe that humanitarian concerns can overpower these older sources of
policy. To my reading, this is like pronouncing that we should henceforth
expect corporations to pursue the well being of their workers as a first
priority, regardless of the impact on profits—even though corporations all
around us are behaving no differently than in the past. Well, despite its
obvious problems, let’s see where Gitlin goes with this new "insight"
about policy possibilities.

proclaims that the left has until recently been full of "rejectionists"
who looked at the NATO war and saw "evil" and a "new imperialism,"
Milosevic as America’s "latest demon," and the United States as
"policeman of the world" and did so out of misguided attachment to past
analyses without realizing that things had changed. Of course, other than
pulling some phrases from personal exchanges with "old friends," Gitlin
doesn’t even attempt to assess the actual arguments and evidence offered by
anti-war activists. In fact, Gitlin doesn’t quote so much as a single
argument or claim made by anti-war critics, much less reveal inadequacy or

So how can a
social analyst like Gitlin ignore readily available documentary evidence
regarding the topic of his study—people’s views—yet make grandiose
claims about them and expect to be taken seriously? Perhaps it’s because
Gitlin knows that the audience that he cares to communicate with wants to hear
these words so much that they will not hold them up to even the most modest
scrutiny against fact.

Gitlin says,
"I read the Rejectionists, trying to make out what they proposed instead of
war." Who are the rejectionists that Gitlin read and what did they say?
Gitlin sees no need to tell us —if he did, we could check his claims.
Instead, Gitlin barrels ahead, berating rejectionists for not suggesting
alternatives to bombing. But "rejectionists" made public the suppressed
facts about the U.S./NATO ultimatum and the official Serb position at the
bombing’s outset. They pointed out at the time that there appeared to be
unexplored diplomatic openings, later pointing out in retrospect that that
conclusion was correct and that the settlement (both the formal and actual
outcomes) was a compromise between the initial U.S./NATO ultimatum and the
initial Serb position. U.S./NATO abandoned their most extreme demands, which
guaranteed their rejection, and Serbia accepted a military presence (which
ended up, by U.S. fiat, being a NATO presence in violation of the Peace
Accord). This outcome and the course of the diplomacy all along made it
reasonably clear throughout that there were diplomatic options, and that
pursuing them might well have led to much the same outcome without the huge
atrocities that were undeniably a result of the insistence on bombing.

But suppose
there was, contrary to best evidence, no possible diplomacy and no possible
international sanctions. Would it then follow that we should bomb?

For Gitlin
apparently the answer is yes. For me, plainly not. Rather, in this
hypothetical scenario if you determined that bombing would be predictably
worse than doing nothing, you should do nothing, assuming you are concerned
about the plight of the Kosovars. The logic and moral imperative of doing
nothing rather than doing something that is worse than nothing was repeated ad
infinitum during the war and after as well by the so-called rejectionists
whose views Gitlin is denigrating and which views, we have to assume, he is
familiar with. Now I doubt Gitlin doesn’t understand this. He just chooses
to ignore it and to ignore the substantive discussion that it calls forth—a
sober assessment of what we could sensibly predict about the impact of bombing
before the fact, or what we can say about the bombing in hindsight, for that
matter. Gitlin avoids all this, it seems to me, to fulfill his driving agenda
of the moment which is to take a stance for the bombing and against the
"reflexive left," a creature largely of his creation.

Gitlin says:
"Rejectionists charged inconsistency, asking rhetorically, ‘Why Kosovo but
not Rwanda or East Timor?’ As if, having failed to stop one gang of killers,
we should have tried to stop none." Actually informed critics charged
consistency, that is, they claimed, and still claim, that in all these cases
U.S. motives flow from institutional and geopolitical requisites and have
nothing to do with humanitarian concerns, instead, usually having the opposite
impact and purpose.

What critics
made the comparison that Gitlin refers to for, was to show that U.S. motives
couldn’t be humanitarian. After all, if humanitarian concern was such a
powerful component of policy that it moved the U.S. to massively bomb
Yugoslavia due to Serb policies that had killed several thousand people before
the bombing—then humanitarian concern should also motivate interventions to
curtail Turkish ethnic cleansing at about ten times the scale of Kosovo, or
Colombian violence at almost exactly the same scale as Kosovo, or the violence
in Timor, now threatening again to erupt into horrific proportions, especially
since in all these cases the U.S. wouldn’t have to bomb to curtail horrible
injusticet. It would only have to stop supporting it and demand its halt. So
the point of activists’ comparative references to Turkey, Colombia, Timor,
etc., was demonstrating that if humanitarian concern is not operative in so
many places where it could lead to successful changes by simple actions, then
it just doesn’t exist. Of course, anti-war activists also emphasized that
U.S. motives aside, the key point in rejecting bombing was that bombing would
be predictably counterproductive in human terms.

It is as if the
Mafia suddenly says it wants to use its goons to clean up high schools so they
don’t have internal dynamics leading to racial fighting or violent
shootings. Do we then say, hey, no one else has proposed anything to solve
this pressing problem and the Mafia says it is motivated to do good in this
case, and they do have the means, and no one else has any ideas, so sure,
let’s let them go in and clean up. Or do we instead look at the structure
and history of the Mafia, and at its past and current behavior in the next
door neighborhood where it tries to push drugs, and deduce that despite what
it says, not only are its motives not humanitarian but rather to quell
disturbances that cut into its drug business, but also that its intervention
would do far more harm than good?

Can we imagine
Gitlin deriding those who would reject Mafia intervention on grounds that it
would do more harm than good as being uncaring about the plight of the
students or as being reflexive in presupposing that a once-bad Mafia is an
always-bad Mafia? I think not.

Next Gitlin
says, "Worse, having failed to do what needed to be done to stop the awful
atrocities in Rwanda, were we bound to stand by as the Kosovars were
massacred, dispossessed, and deported? Because they were European, was it a
sort of global affirmative action to look the other way?" This is simply
disgusting. On the one hand, the anti-war activist’s actual claim was that
the U.S. generally escalates violence in such situations, and did so in
Turkey, Indonesia, Colombia, etc. But more, Gitlin is implying that those
against the war—and amazingly, the only people he named were Chomsky,
Ehrenreich, and Zinn, quoting none of them, of course—didn’t give a damn
about the plight of the Kosovars (perhaps even for reverse racist reasons). He
ignores that anti-war activists argued and believed (rightly, history
demonstrated), that the undertaking was not only not humanitarian but would
greatly worsen the human suffering in the region.

Gitlin tells us
that the "rejectionists" start from the presumption that the "United
States and its allies have no business intervening anywhere for any purpose,
that the U.S. is condemned by history to do no good abroad—except, perhaps,
when pressing Israel." There is a rather sleazy implication here: that the
left is anti-Israel (for Israel is the only country they want to pressure) or,
worse, anti-Semitic. But this is utter nonsense. The left has called on
Washington to "press" countless human rights violators —cut off military
aid to Indonesia, press for workers’ rights in Vietnam, Guatemala, and
China, and so on—while at the same time being extremely skeptical of U.S.
bombing as a solution to such violations.

When has the
left ever urged U.S. bombardment of Israel to prevent atrocities against
Palestinians? It is Gitlin who has to explain the inconsistency that cheers
U.S. military strikes over Kosovo, while never urging similar military action
against Ankara, Bogota, or Tel Aviv.

Gitlin says,
"Rejectionists added, once the bombing began, the NATO attacks produced a
disaster for the Kosovar Albanians." Well, actually, those against the war
didn’t add anything of the sort to their pronouncements "once the bombing
began," but instead pointed out that before the bombing began one could
predict with very high confidence levels that its impact would be horrid, and
that that was why one should oppose it. What is more, anti-war activists (rejectionists,
to use Gitlin’s term) also pointed out that the devastation was exactly what
the NATO military command predicted. It was "entirely predictable,"
commander Wesley Clark stated as the bombing began. It was surely anticipated
by the political leadership, who simply didn’t give a damn, as demonstrated
by their failure to plan for the catastrophe it elicited.

Gitlin says,
"Well, NATO’s miscalculation was plain, Milosevic having brutalized the
Kosovars tenfold or a hundredfold once the air campaign began." What
miscalculation? Does Gitlin honestly think that NATO couldn’t predict what
the results of the bombing would be? If so, why Clark’s "entirely
predictable" comment as the bombing began?

Gitlin doesn’t even mention the intentional bombing of civilian targets in
Yugoslavia, a terror war against a citizenry, not an army, a grotesque crime
in all renditions of international law and ethical concern that I can find.
Even if the NATO authorities hadn’t admitted that they knew the likely
outcome of their actions before the fact, to think that they didn’t would be
incredible from someone with as much background and as many resources at his
disposal as Gitlin has.

Gitlin says:
"Still, I thought, if NATO did miscalculate, that was grievous but not a
crime. The crime was Milosevic’s." So if a bystander seeing a person down
the street breaking a window to steal a TV and shoot the store owner, who has
as his only two options to do nothing or to pull out an Uzi and spray the
owner, the owner’s family, the perpetrator, and a whole bunch of innocent
bystanders, chooses to reach for the Uzi—then, in the wrap-up assessment of
the ensuing carnage Gitlin would say that this bystander bore no
responsibility for all those deaths, only the thief/killer did? I doubt it. I
think Gitlin’s rationality only disappears selectively.

Gitlin says of
his transformation, "for some years, I wondered whether it amounted to
middle-age accommodation, a kind of ideological crow’s-feet." But age has
nothing to do with the issues at hand. Instead, perhaps Gitlin has become
accommodated to a world of actors and relations in which it is very
serviceable to be supporting U.S. policy and, in particular, denigrating those
who oppose it. Perhaps Gitlin knows that his article will be well rewarded by
effusive attention from mainstream media, eliciting good wishes from people in
high places, and elevating him to being taken seriously by folks who
previously dismissed him as just another leftist. Is this too harsh? Well,
let’s see.

Gitlin says
about those he calls rejectionists: "Reckless idealism doesn’t care about
results. Refusing to contemplate practical results is childishly
easy—seductive and self-betraying." He has a point here…but of course,
it is Gitlin who is guilty of "refusing to contemplate practical results,"
not anti-war activists, in that it is Gitlin who dismisses without any
evaluation the claim by anti-war activists that "the practical results" of
bombing would be to worsen the pain and suffering of those in the area. More,
when Gitlin charges that others were "uncaring," he’s holding that he
was "caring." So are we to believe that by advocating bombing that
predictably made the plight of the Albanians vastly worse, he was
demonstrating that he cares for them? If so, then by the same logic, was
Lyndon Johnson demonstrating his moral concern and sympathy for the Vietnamese
while bombing them into the stone age, destroying cities to save them? Was
Gitlin therefore confused in opposing Johnson, perhaps not yet as
sophisticated and non-rejectionist as he is now?

Gitlin says
that "backing down [on support for the bombing after its horror became
evident], it felt to me, would be succumbing to yet another purity fetish."
The actual bombing had precisely the effects on the Kosovars, on Yugoslavia,
and on international law, that the critics predicted, but Gitlin nonetheless
persists in his allegiance to the policy, he says, to avoid succumbing to a
"purity fetish." So who is it that is ignoring the "practical effects"
of the policies under dispute? Who is it that is judging policies not based on
their impact on those who are suffering, but based on something else entirely?

Finally why did
Mother Jones publish Gitlin’s "essay?" Well, I think this kind of
publishing by a self-described leftist periodical is a predictable editorial
outcome of a drift toward and longstanding incorporation of corporate
structure, corporate culture, and corporate values in our undertakings, just
as we would predict that if we enforced and celebrated racial and sexual
hierarchies inside our institutions, in time our editorial products would be
apologetic about racism and sexism and denigrate serious anti-racist and
anti-sexist activists.

Let’s hope
Gitlin doesn’t start reporting for "Democracy Now" at a steadily more
corporatized Pacifica.