NATO’s War on Yugoslavia: Ten Years Later

In the chilling conclusion of the Serbian play The Professional, a paranoid and abusive Stalinist interrogates an innocent man accused of pro-Western sympathies. Bloody from beatings and tied-up to a chair for a crime he did not commit, the victim is offered a benevolent compromise by his torturer:


“Let’s make a deal, shall we? We’re both reasonable men. I’ll forgive you for having beaten you, and you confess to being a spy and tell me who your contacts are.”


To say that US/NATO attitudes towards Serbia are like this torturer’s would be unfair to the Stalinist thug. Namely, Serbia has still not been forgiven by the West for having been bombed “back to 1389” ten years ago, in Thomas Friedman’s memorable phrase calling for targeting civilians (NYT 4/03/99). A decade ago, US-led NATO forces bypassed the UN Charter, the UN security council, NATO’s own charter and, despite illusions to the contrary, world opinion to engage in a “humanitarian intervention” that turned a tragedy into an irreversible catastrophe. Major General Lewis MacKenzie recalls the circumstances:


“For anyone playing close attention to the events leading up to the campaign, it was pretty obvious that the independence- seeking Kosovo Liberation Army – which, according to the CIA, was a terrorist organization – and its retained U.S.-based, public-relations support had played the West like a Stradivarius. This culminated with NATO volunteering to be the KLA’s air force” (Globe & Mail, November 22, 2006).


Accomplishments included several thousand deaths (overwhelmingly civilians), hundreds of thousands of refugees, the destruction of scores of hospitals, schools, apartment complexes and other civilian infrastructure, and a calamitous intensification of violence towards Kosovo residents of all ethnicities. As is common in US wars, the long-term effects on the mental health of the affected populations are not even considered worthy of interest. Most major newspapers and news channels neglected to even mention the anniversary of the war, while the extent of its human cost is ignored altogether.  


Having endured 78 days of incessant bombing, the traumatized Serbian population failed to recognize NATO’s benevolence at the time, and their ignorance continues to this day: notwithstanding popular support for EU integration, between 50% and 80% of the population has opposed Serbia’s integration into NATO over the past five years, according to Strategic Marketing polls. The popular sentiment is greeted almost monthly with statements from Brussels and Washington about the need for Serbs to “forget the past” and “move on” to a brighter future in the outdated alliance. Why Serbs are opposed to integration is considered a kind of mystery, as if a mystical hypnosis swept over their minds (often called “nationalism”) and induced irrational dislike of NATO, just as it single-handedly destroyed Yugoslavia (see “Connoisseurs of Cruelty” in New York Review of Books, March 12, 2009).


The reaction is less mysterious to those who remember the war. Belgrade Deputy Mayor Radmila Hrustanović, for her part, commemorated the 10th anniversary by laying wreaths on the grave of Milica Rakić, a three-year-old girl killed in her home by NATO bombs. She was one of hundreds of children slaughtered by US/NATO bombs, many of whose bodies were so thoroughly torn to shreds as to make identification impossible. Hrustanovic noted that:

 They called those murders ‘collateral damage’. She [Milica] was an innocent victim of bombardment and it is hard to forgive her three years of life, nor can that be forgotten. Milica is a symbol of the agony of the people who suffered for 78 days. Ten years later, we were hoping someone would account for what they have done. The murder of Milica and so many others warrants at least an apology” (B92 3/24/09).

An apology that has never even been contemplated by any NATO country, despite overwhelming evidence from human rights groups that NATO used depleted uranium and cluster bombs illegally against civilians. In addition to the installment of the US’s largest military base in Europe – Camp Bondsteel – the US eventually realized a status of so-called “independence” for Kosovo, at a tremendous cost for non-Albanians in the province (over 250,000 fled after 1999), and in violation of UN Security Council resolution 1244 that maintained the "sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia." After a farcical negotiation process, the “final status talks” were scrapped in favor of a unilateral declaration of “independence” on February 17, 2008. Predictably, this action had the same effect on Serbia’s internal politics as the bombing that prepared it: right-wing and authoritarian political currents received vast advantages.


What emerged could appropriately be called a “failed state” of Kosovo, but its quasi-state status (remaining unrecognized by the UN) and its utter dependency on the US/NATO military presence make the term slightly misleading. The failed entity, to be sure, has become the undisputed center for drug and human trafficking, arms smuggling and organized crime in all of Europe. Minority discrimination continues to be rampant, Amnesty International reports, with proven war criminals and former KLA terrorists dominating affairs internally. Anticipated witnesses against Kosovo Albanian leaders accused of war crimes at the Hague Tribunal are routinely murdered. With a faltering economy, an enormous population of unemployed youth, and organized crime at the highest levels of government, Kosovo is, David Binder noted:


“a civil war society in which those inclined to violence, ill-educated and easily influenced people could make huge social leaps in a rapidly constructed soldateska” (“Kosovo auf Deutsch,“ Balkananalysis, 18 November 2007).


Even if the tendencies towards the formation of a “Greater Albania” through a unification of Albania and Kosovo do not win over, the instability created by the US’s state-formation experiment is colossal, and may very well emerge as a major conflict zone in the future.


As with most of recent Balkan history, discussing America’s culpability is regularly equated with a welter of irrelevant positions. One is “whitewashing” the Milosevic regime; one is denying Serbia’s crimes; one is a supporter of genocide. These slurs would be comical if they were not foul insults to the victims of the Kosovo tragedy. The fact that Serbs – like all sides – committed heinous crimes in a mindless and brutal civil war does not, regrettably, change the fact that the US’s criminal campaign was itself unforgivable, its only success being the vast escalation of an unnecessary conflict.


NATO’s notorious claim of intervention for the sake of preventing genocide, and the accompanying lies about casualty figures, were being exposed even before the campaign began. The Independent International Commission on Kosovo’s report noted very early on that the US’s conduct before, during and after the war was the decisive cause of humanitarian disasters that could have been avoided. The State Department had claimed that up to half-a-million Kosovo Albanians were murdered in the period preceding the bombing – a figure that has magically shriveled to 2000 deaths over the entire year preceding the war. Refugee numbers have similarly been reduced to a fraction of what was initially claimed. A decade later, the exaggerations have been proven ludicrous, but no revision of the standard history is even attempted in the US press. Nor are the victims of US violence – both during and after the air campaign – paid any mind.  


The 1999 war’s greatest legacy, however, was the precedent it set for American foreign policy in the post-Cold War period. Post-9/11 military excursions into the Middle East were largely continuations of the model of successful military intervention that was fabricated through the Kosovo tragedy. The utter discrediting of the UN, the contempt for world opinion, and the brutal targeting of civilians were well-established foreign policy practices years before 9/11. We might also remember that Vladimir Putin warned at the onset that unilateral declaration of independence in Kosovo sends a clear message that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are subject to the same rules; indeed, Russia followed NATO’s own standard perfectly in its August 2008 expedition, which was met with amazement. Kosovo is unfortunately far from a “unique case,” as EU spokesmen insisted it was, and its treatment by the US has opened a true floodgate in international relations. Comparable situations with the Basques and Catalans in Spain, the Corsicans in France, the Flemish in Belgium and Turks in Cyprus, make US double standards particularly blatant, which angers Russia as much as it does US victims in the Middle East. Finally, in its insistence on permanent military bases, its contempt for diplomacy and its post-war reconstruction debacles in the Middle East, the US is merely replaying its Kosovo policy on a greater and more destructive scale. If one cares to learn what American nation-building projects look like outside of Ivy League fantasies, one should look at Kosovo.


Thankfully, propaganda about the NATO bombing and the Yugoslav tragedy in general is not omnipresent. A Wall Street Journal editorial notes the legacy of the Kosovo debacle for US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan (Matthew Kaminski, August 08, 2007). George Szamuely’s “The Absurdity of Independent Kosovo” (Feb. 15 2008) was a refreshingly critical forecast of the long-term consequences of US intervention in Kosovo. And Foreign Policy in Focus, to its eternal credit, published an enlightening exchange between Edward Herman and John Feffer, in which what the latter calls “revisionism” has the curious feature of being accurate and well-documented (“Strategic Dialogue: Yugoslavia,” April 6, 2009). As many of the crafters of the NATO war and its aftermath regain power over US foreign policy under the Obama administration, a recollection of this recent history may be in order.

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