Morality’s Avenging Angels


( * A version of this document originally was published as Chapter 10 in David Chandler, Ed., Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 196-216.)






By Edward S. Herman an David Peterson


Part I: Introduction


Operation Allied Force, NATO’s 1999 war against Yugoslavia, was not a moral venture, either in the intent of its managers or in its actual effects. True, the war was carried out in the name of an humanitarian action on behalf of the Kosovo Albanians and avenging the human rights atrocities allegedly being committed against them by Serbia as of the start of the bombing, or "to protect thousands of innocent people in Kosovo from a mounting military offensive," as the American President said at the outset of the war (Clinton, 1999a).  But though the war garnered a great deal of support throughout the NATO-bloc powers due to government and media propagandists instilling a widespread belief in the authenticity of its moral goals,[1] the stated goals are contradicted by the institutional nature of the states prosecuting the war and the kinds of forces that determine state policy more generally, by the solid evidence that exists of the other, non-humanitarian ends shaping NATO policy,[2] by the history and character of the dominant NATO powers, and, most important of all, by the actual results of the war.


No state is a moral institution, particularly no Great Power in the execution of its foreign policy.  On the contrary, states and their policies are largely shaped by economic and political interests and strategic considerations, not by humane values; and the greater the power of a state to bestride the world’s stage, to plunder, butcher, and ravish in the lying name of avenging wrongs, the more this holds true (Gilpin, 1987; Amin, 1994; Kolko, 1994: 373-451). When certain humanitarian crises around the world suddenly receive a great deal of attention within a society, and a government responds to them, as the U.S. Government and the other NATO-bloc powers claimed to do with regard to the crisis in Kosovo in 1998-1999, it is always necessary to examine the real causes of that attention, which regularly turn out to be serviceable to larger material and political interests not unwelcome to the policy-making authorities, rather than humanitarian concerns. Conversely, the same point can be made as regards the lack of attention to other humanitarian crises in other countries where both a highly publicized attention and a governmental response to them of a comparable degree would be objectionable to those same powerful interests shaping policy. Thus, for example, neither a random process of selection nor the relative scale of an humanitarian crisis or human rights abuses in any given case are remotely sufficient to explain the Great Power officials’, media’s, and parallel New Humanitarians’ virtual neglect of the mass killings and ethnic cleansings of the Kurdish population in Turkey during the 1990s or the East Timorese by Indonesian-sponsored forces in 1998-1999, and their intense focus on human rights atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, 1991-2001.[3]


Among the New Humanitarians who comprise the subject of this chapter, NATO’s war over Kosovo has been held up as the paradigmatic example of the "humanitarian" intervention, nothing less than the "restoration of the Kosovars to their homeland," Geoffrey Robertson writes, a "great humanitarian" achievement, with the NATO powers showing an "unprecedented attention to obeying the laws of war" (Robertson, 2000: 414).[4]  But the Kosovo crisis was in fact the fourth in a series of civil (i.e., internal) wars fought over the fate of the old Yugoslavia’s federal structure, the right of the republics to declare their independence from it, and the right of the various ethnic populations within those republics to choose which emerging state they would become citizens of.[5]  And though the New Humanitarians have obsessively portrayed these multi-layered internal conflicts as instances of little more than "Serb insurrectionary wars" (Ramet, 1999: ) or even Greater Serb Aggression (i.e., as aggressive, extra-territorial wars rather than as internal or civil wars, launched from Belgrade across the newly internationally recognized borders by Slobodan Milosevic and his fellow Serbs, or what in its serial indictments of Milosevic et al. for crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina issued by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia calls the "joint criminal enterprise" of the "forcible and permanent removal of the majority of non-Serbs, principally Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats, from large areas of the Republic" (ICTY, 2001: Par. 6), but not as constitutional contests over the fate of the old Federation or the right of the conflicting parties to choose in which new state to live), what the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its 1862 Prize Cases decision holds true not only of the status of the belligerents in the U.S. Civil War, but also of the wars over the breakup of the unified Yugoslavia: a "civil war always begins by insurrection against the lawful authority of the government"—precisely what was being contested between the breakaway republics and the remnants of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the 1989-1992 period. This Supreme Court decision continues: "When the party in rebellion occupy and hold in a hostile manner a certain portion of territory; have declared their independence; have cast off their allegiance; have organized armies; have commenced hostilities against their former sovereign, the world acknowledges them as belligerents and the contest is war….Therefore we are of the opinion that the President had a right, jure belli, to institute a blockade of ports in possession of the states in rebellion, which neutrals are bound to regard" (in Wright, 1971: 43).[6]  Doubtless, the same logic applies to the rights and duties of the leadership of the Yugoslav Federation, ca. 1991-92.


Over the course of the past decade and now into this one as well, the New Humanitarians have helped to establish their reputations as New Humanitarians almost exclusively off the bloody wars over the fate of Yugoslavia (and to a much lesser degree over the 1994 slaughters in Rwanda).  So, contra the New Humanitarians, what, exactly, were the wars over the fate of Yugoslavia really about?


The Yugoslav (i.e., "South Slav") solution to this region of Southeastern Europe’s "national problem"—Yugoslavia‘s "perennial" and ultimately insoluble problem—had always been a tenuous one.  "Failure, or the risk of failure, to maintain the [united, Federal] state throughout the [seven] decades of the country’s existence has been an ever present possibility," Lenard Cohen an Paul Warwick write in a very important but little studied book about the historical fragility of ethnic relations in the country.  Historically—but especially since the inter-ethnic carnage of World War II—Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Kosovo province of Serbia—and note that these would be the three most bloodily contested areas in the 1990s—had all been "areas of high ethnic fragmentation" and "persistent hotbeds of political criminality," that is to say, political criminality in the sense of "counterrevolutionary" political crimes, or nationalist crimes against the Yugoslav ideal.[7]  For Yugoslavia, ethnic stability (i.e., between the six officially recognized "nations"[8]) had always been "engineered by a political minority," with the Communist Party’s leadership keenly aware "that it was the failure of interwar pluralism and the multi-party system to resolve the national problem which had led to the violent confrontation of ethnic animosities during World War II…."  Throughout Yugoslavia‘s brief history, Cohen and Warwick conclude, ethnic unity "was more an artefact of party pronouncements, induced personnel rotation, and institutional reorganization, than an outcome of genuine political incorporation or enhanced cohesion among the different segments of the population" (Cohen and Warwick, 1983: 146-162). 


This longstanding, ethnically fragile state of affairs is what provided the historical symbolism and vocabulary out of which each of the wars over the breakup of Yugoslavia emerged in the post-Tito period (May 1980-), after a serious, decade-long (now two decades long) economic depression and the constitutional crises of the 1989-1992 period (Cohen, 1995: 45-77; Woodward, 1995b: 339-392; Hayden, 1999a)—essentially, the de facto death of the Yugoslav Federation in four of the republics, coupled with the de jure survival of its institutions there and in the remainder of the rump Federation, with first Slovenia and Croatia declaring their independence from the old Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in June 1991, followed ten months later by the Muslim-led government of Bosnia-Herzegovina in April 1992.[9]  And this same ethnically fragile, and indeed highly volatile, state of affairs was true not the least with regard to the causes of the 1998-1999 civil wars[10] between the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the Serbian forces over the fate of Kosovo.[11]


Given the evidence, there is no doubt that the real effects of NATO’s supposedly "humanitarian war" against Yugoslavia in 1999 were in fact damaging to both human rights and human welfare (unless of course the respect for human rights is construed selectively along national lines, as the New Humanitarians habitually do[12]), as well as to most of the objectives claimed by the war-makers.  Instead, NATO’s bombing campaign greatly intensified what had already been an ugly and brutal civil war, with an estimated 1,800-2,000 dead on all sides (though most of them ethnic Albanians) (Dienstbier, 2000a: Par. 42; Chomsky, 2000: 104), but a war whose hostilities had largely been brought under control by an agreement signed between the six member Contract Group and Belgrade in October 1998 (though negotiated by the American U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander General Wesley Clark under the threat of force from Washington[13]), thus allowing many of the 250,000 refugees from the fighting earlier that year to return to their homes prior to the onset of the annually harsh 1998-1999 winter. This relatively stable situation held true throughout the fall and winter months until the termination of the Rambouillet process (March 18, 1999), the OSCE’s withdrawal of the members of its Kosovo Verification Mission against the expressed objections of the Serbian Parliament (March 20), and the onset of NATO’s war (March 24).[14]  From March 24 through the June 10 end of the war and the final withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo on June 20, perhaps as many as 7,000 or so people were killed on all sides,[15] and the war generated a massive refugee crisis six times worse than the refugee crisis of 1998, forcing some 863,000 ethnic Albanians to flee the province, along with another 100,000 ethnic Serbs and other ethnic minorities, and another 590,000 people displaced internally, based on the combination of fear, intense zones of conflict in KLA strongholds, and forced expulsions by Serbian forces (OSCE, 1999a: "Forced Expulsions"). In the words of the Canadian OSCE observer in Kosovo, Rollie Keith, NATO’s war "turned a human rights crisis into a catastrophe" (Keith, 1999), with U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Kosovo, Jiri Dienstbier, adding that that the war "has not solved any human problem, but only multiplied the existing problems" (Dienstbier, 2000d).  Last, war-related destruction and environmental damage throughout Serbia (Kosovo included) may be incalculable but was unquestionably enormous, with serious long-term ramifications for all of the countries in the region.[16]


But more important for students of American power and ideology and the New Humanitarians’ enlistment in the service of Empire, it has also been documented that the NATO powers, the United States in particular, had underwritten and encouraged the insurgency of the KLA by pre-bombing training and support (Walker and Laverty, 2000; Beaumont et al., 2001).  Thus even though the October 1998 agreement between the NATO powers and Belgrade had called on the Yugoslav armed forces to withdraw and the KLA to demobilize, the KLA was never a party to the agreement and in fact never did demobilize, exploiting the withdrawal of the Yugoslav forces from zones of conflict to re-occupy territory it had lost in Kosovo (the KLA was estimated to have controlled as much as 40 percent of the territory in the province in 1998) and to repeatedly carry out hit-and-run operations against the security forces and civilians. This underwriting of "terrorists" (U.S. Special Envoy Robert Gelbard’s assessment of the KLA in February 1998) and failure to curb KLA provocations calls into question NATO’s concern over human rights violations by Yugoslav forces against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo alike.  On the contrary, as George Kenney reports, one unnamed U.S. official told him that throughout the entire Rambouillet process, Washington "’deliberately set the bar higher than the Serbs could accept’. The Serbs needed, according to the official, a little bombing to see reason," Kenney adds, all of which suggests NATO’s determination to opt for war rather than peace (Kenney, 1999). 


The actual effects of the war also point to a non-human rights agenda.  First, it cannot be denied that almost the entire refugee crisis of 1999 was generated during the bombing campaign, rather than prior to it.  Moreover, although President Clinton said at the time that the primary aims of the war were to bring "stability" to the region and to end the "ethnic cleansing" of the Kosovo Albanians by Serbia, thus allowing the refugees (a disproportionate percentage of which were ethnic Serbs, it is worth noting[17]) to return to their homes, and all of the people in Kosovo to live together in harmony based on "the principle of multi-ethnic, tolerant, inclusive democracy" and "against the idea that statehood must be based entirely on ethnicity" (Clinton, 1999b), in fact the war not only inflamed, it permanently entrenched, ethnic hatreds and the principle of monoethnic statehood (or a political unit modeled on the classical racist European notion of the nation-state (Hayden, 1992; Hayden, 1999; Hayden, 1999b)).[18] These unnecessary catastrophes were then followed by a postwar pogrom and ethnic cleansing by KLA cadres, killing large numbers of the province’s ethnic minorities (well over a thousand) and causing the flight of an estimated 330,000 ethnic non-Albanians (Dienstbier, 2000a: Par. 43; Dienstbier, 2000b). This post-war cleansing and minority flight took place under NATO’s rule, but were contrary to both Clinton’s and NATO’s proclaimed goal as well as the commitment undertaken by the U.N. and NATO at the end of the bombing, under U.N. Resolution 1244, to demilitarize the KLA and to protect minorities (S/RES/1244, 1999).  This NATO-protected ethnic cleansing of the province was more ecumenical and extensive than anything done by the Serbs in Kosovo before March 24, 1999 to supposedly justify NATO’s resort to war, in what Jan Oberg, the director of the Swedish-based Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, has called "the largest ethnic cleansing in the Balkans [in percentage terms]" (Oberg, 2000).


Today, the province of Kosovo has become a peculiar form of quasi-independent non-state in transition to an unknown but unpromising destiny: Fear-ridden, lawless, with a high level of inter-ethnic conflict, and—on the model of Bosnia-Herzegovina—a de facto colony run by foreign powers (NATO, the European Union, and dozens of NGOs) in the name of "democracy"—or "democracy without consent," in Robert M. Hayden’s telling phrase, an "artificially multi-ethnic" state-within-a-state complete with "sham elections" that cover over the absence of either local authority or real democratic institutions, and whose alleged multi-ethnic institutions exist only "on paper" but whose actual multi-ethnicity is shrinking steadily due to voluntary flight and ethnic cleansing, as David Chandler observed in his report on the November 17, 2001 provincial elections (Hayden, 1998; Chandler, 2001).


Finally, by supporting and providing a home base for—or by harboring—the KLA, NATO has allowed Kosovo to become a base for other incarnations of the KLA to launch serious insurgencies within Macedonia and southern Serbia, with other regions having an Albanian minority perhaps to follow.


In short, sticking to the evidence provided by the actual consequences of NATO’s war provides overwhelming support for the conclusion that, from a genuine humanitarian perspective, the war was a disaster, one that has taken a heavy human toll in Kosovo and is still wreaking havoc in the wider region. "If ethnic hatred triumphs [in Kosovo]," the OSCE warned in late 1999, "then everything that people of good will here and their friends in the international community struggled for during the past ten years would have been in vain.  We cannot allow this to happen" (OSCE, 1999b).  But on the ground, the outcome that NATO’s military intervention and open-ended occupation and administration of Kosovo has achieved can be summed up in eight short words: The triumph of ethnic hatred and ethnic apartheid—in the grandest European tradition.  For the New Humanitarians to hold the Kosovo model up as the paradigmatic example of humanitarian intervention is scandalous indeed, and we believe it represents nothing less than a perversion, even the negation, of true  humanitarianism.




Part 2: The New Humanitarians to the Barricades


Despite the sorry, and still incomplete, record of NATO’s war over Kosovo, despite the New Humanitarians’ equally sorry record with respect to all of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and despite the traditional aversion of human rights advocates and the Left more generally to war as a policy option, but especially wars waged by the Great Powers against weak countries or non-state agents, one of the most striking features of NATO’s 1999 war was the support given to it by intellectuals, human rights officials, artists and writers, lawyers and jurists, and "advocacy journalism" (see Philip Hammond’s chapter), a number of whom present themselves as being "on the Left," but who nevertheless accepted NATO’s official claim that the war’s main objective was both humanitarian in intent and necessitated by a massive humanitarian crisis either already underway or in the offing.[19] Of course, it was their willingness to take this leap of faith into supporting NATO’s war that gave them ready access to the mainstream media, in a kind of power/social dynamic not unlike the one described above, in which taking the right side in a given conflict (i.e., that of the Great Powers) and criticizing the right enemies (i.e., whomever the Great Powers are eager to attack) correlates positively with media access, prestige, career advancement, monetary inputs, including funding from major non-governmental organizations, and even a kind of festishization of certain star individuals, some of whom we deal with below.  With their media access, both in terms of bylines and use as sources, they complemented and reinforced the messages of official sources as well as the rest of the media’s biases producing, collectively, a very broad-based, war-supportive canvas of right-thinking ideas and images.  In short, we believe that the power/social dynamic described herein, a structure of power and ideology (i.e., saying what the Great Powers need to be said at any given moment) and the socially sanctioned rewards that follow (i.e., prestige enhancement, media access, and the like), serves to foreground and promote those commentators whose work is serviceable to the same larger political and material interests not unwelcome to policy-making authorities, rather than to the quality or the accuracy of their work.


The defining characteristics of the New Humanitarians are (1) that they are experts at taking the "right" sides in conflicts, in which the "rightness" of their often unstated, though nevertheless clearly exhibited, allegiances is determined by how well it coordinates with U.S. and/or  NATO policy; (2) that they reject, and even overturn, traditional humanitarianism’s principles of strict neutrality, impartiality, independence, non-violence, and the provision of care; and (3) that they believe that there exists for the Great Powers (or select "coalitions of the willing," but a right that never seems to extend to Official Enemies or Lesser Powers) a "humanitarian" right or even duty to intervene by state violence to terminate human rights abuses based largely, if not exclusively, upon the willingness of United States or NATO to wage war in the name of avenging human wrongs. In the balance of this section we will discuss, briefly, who some of these New Humanitarians are, what their real commitments are, and their linkages and other sources of influence. Then in Part 3, we will deal in more detail with their beliefs and analyses of events in the former Yugoslavia as well as in other humanitarian crises which they largely ignore.


Among the New Humanitarians, and the set that we will study most intensively here, are the academic writers Timothy Garton Ash and Mary Kaldor, political figures such as Vaclav Havel and Bernard Kouchner, human rights stars such as Kenneth Roth and Aryeh Neier, artists and writers such as Susan Sontag, lawyers such as Geoffrey Robertson, and journalists such as Christopher Hitchens, Tim Judah, David Rieff, and Michael Ignatieff.  But there are many other New Humanitarians worthy of mention, including (among scores of others) M. Cherif Bassiouni,[20] Antonio Cassese, Ivo Daalder, Bogdan Denitch, Richard Falk, Richard Goldstone, Philip Gourevitch, Roy Gutman, Michael Glennon, Jurgen Habermas, David Held, Louis Henkin, Paul Hockenos, Stanley Hoffmann, Bernard-Henri Levy, Andrew Linklater, James Mayall, Martha Minow, Michael O’Hanlon, Diana Orentlicher, Steven Ratner, David Rohde,[21] William Shawcross, Brian Urquahart, Ruth Wedgwood, Marc Weller, Nicholas J. Wheeler, and Ian Williams. Of the 40 individuals listed here (and the list could be greatly expanded), Havel is a writer, intellectual and political leader; at least eight have worked for governments or NATO-related organizations involved in policy towards the former Yugoslavia (Cassese, Goldstone, Daalder, Havel, Hockenos, Kouchner, O’Hanlon, Urquhart); three are or have had prominent affiliations with human rights organizations (Kouchner, Neier and Roth); 10 are journalists (Gourevitch, Gutman, Hockenos, Hitchens, Ignatieff, Judah, Rieff, Rohde, Shawcross, Williams); 20 are academics (Bassiouni, Garton Ash, Denitch, Falk, Glennon, Habermas, Held, Henkin, Hoffmann, Ignatieff, Kaldor, Levy, Linklater, Mayall, Minow, Orentlicher, Ratner, Wedgwood, Weller, and Wheeler); five of the academics are professors of law (Falk, Henkin, Bassiouni, Orentlicher, Ratner); one,  Robertson, is a lawyer; Cassese is a former President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and now one of the Tribunal’s judges; and Sontag is more or less a free-floating intellectual, artist and writer.[22]


During the Bosnian crisis and, later, the crisis in Kosovo as well, the New Humanitarians very openly and eagerly "chose sides," most of them enlisting in the fray during the fighting within Bosnia in the early 1990s and immediately attaching themselves to the under-gunned Bosnian Muslim side, then engaged in civil wars with Bosnian Croat forces and especially Bosnian Serb forces. David Rieff for one forthrightly espoused "the Bosnian cause," and with reference to Kosovo was not only "in favor of more bombing," but asserted that "I would be in the lead vehicle" in a ground war" (Rieff, 1999c). Rieff refers to his comrade in arms Michael Ignatieff as having "campaigned for the bombing" and as having served as "an advocate" for a policy of Great Power violence against the Bosnian Serbs (Rieff, 2000b).   True, the New Humanitarians have often criticized NATO, but almost always for NATO’s alleged "failure" to move against the enemy with sufficient violence and terror, for showing an excessive risk aversion, and for their "triumph of the lack of will" (Ignatieff, 2000b; Gow, 1997).   This practice of limiting their dissent to a very narrow range of themes advocating the resort to greater levels of Great Power violence has given their work a false aura of independence from political authority and won for them a false moral stature (or, to put it another way: this moral stature, the coin in which they are paid a grossly exorbitant sum, is one of the socially sanctioned rewards they receive for having the courage to take the right side), but the sides they chose consistently coincided precisely with those fixated upon by NATO’s political leaders. Thus, throughout their work, whether as administrators, reporters, expert sources, legal theorists, and the like, the New Humanitarians have collectively served as cheerleaders for the Great Powers, urging their team (the

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