Chomsky on 'New Interventionism'

Amandeep Sandhu sandhu at SPAMUVic.CA
Wed Sep 8 18:44:38 MDT 1999

   Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
   2 - 8 September 1999
   Issue No. 445 [INLINE]
   Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM

                             Enlightened humanists
                              and smart missiles

     The NATO war in Yugoslavia has been hailed as the harbinger of a
     new, moral world order, in which "enlightened" states bring
     disorderly miscreants to heel. In the following article, excerpted
     from the first chapter of his soon to be published book, The New
     Military Humanism: Lessons From Kosovo,* Noam Chomsky finds
     something crass and considerably more familiar in the motives and
     actions of the self-described bearers of enlightenment

   Chomsky Noam Chomsky

     The crisis in Kosovo has excited passion and visionary exaltation
     of a kind rarely witnessed. The events have been portrayed as "a
     landmark in international relations," opening the gates to a stage
     of world history with no precedent, a new epoch of moral rectitude
     under the guiding hand of an "idealistic New World bent on ending
     inhumanity." This New Humanism, timed fortuitously with a new
     millennium, will displace the crass and narrow interest politics of
     a mean-spirited past. Novel conceptions of world order are being
     forged, interlaced with inspirational lessons about human affairs
     and global society.

     If the picture is true, if it has even a particle of truth, then
     remarkable prospects lie before us. Material and intellectual
     resources surely are at hand to overcome terrible tragedies at
     little cost, with only a modicum of good will. It takes little
     imagination or knowledge to compile a wish list of tasks to be
     undertaken that should confer enormous benefits on suffering
     people. In particular, crimes of the nature and scale of Kosovo are
     all too easily found, and many could be overcome, at least
     significantly alleviated, with a fraction of the effort and zeal
     expended in the cause that has consumed the Western powers and
     their intellectual cultures in early 1999.

     If the high-minded spirit of the liberation of Kosovo has even
     shreds of authenticity, if at last leaders are acting "in the name
     of principles and values" that are truly humane, as Vaclav Havel
     confidently proclaimed, then there will be exciting opportunities
     to place critically important issues on the agenda of practical and
     immediate action. And even if reality turns out to fall short of
     the flattering self-portrait, the effort still has the merit of
     directing attention to what should be undertaken by those who
     regard the fine words as something more than cynical opportunism.


     On March 24, US-led NATO forces launched cruise missiles and bombs
     at targets throughout the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY),
     "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. By bombing the
     FRY, Clinton informed the nation, "we are upholding our values,
     protecting our interests and advancing the cause of peace." "We
     cannot respond to such tragedies everywhere," he said, "but when
     ethnic conflict turns into ethnic cleansing where we can make a
     difference, we must try, and that is clearly the case in Kosovo."
     "Had we faltered" in what the heading of his speech calls "A Just
     and Necessary War," "the result would have been a moral and
     strategic disaster. The Albanian Kosovars would have become a
     people without a homeland, living in difficult conditions in some
     of the poorest countries in Europe," a fate that the United States
     cannot tolerate for suffering people.

     Clinton's European allies agreed. Under the heading "A New
     Generation Draws the Line," British Prime Minister Tony Blair
     declared that this is a new kind of war in which we are fighting
     "for values," for "a new internationalism where the brutal
     repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated,"
     "for a world where those responsible for such crimes have nowhere
     to hide."

     "The New Interventionism" was hailed by intellectual opinion and
     legal scholars who proclaimed a new era in world affairs in which
     the "enlightened states" will at last be able to use force where
     they "believe it is just," discarding the "restrictive old rules"
     and obeying "modern notions of justice" that they fashion. "The
     crisis in Kosovo illustrates America's new willingness to do what
     it thinks is right -- international law not withstanding," wrote
     University of California law professor Michael Glennon in Foreign
     Affairs. Now freed from the shackles of the Cold War and
     old-fashioned constraints of world order, the enlightened states
     can dedicate themselves with full vigour to the mission of
     upholding human rights and bringing justice and freedom to
     suffering people everywhere, by force if necessary.

     The enlightened states are the United States and its British
     associate, perhaps also others who enlist in their crusades for
     justice and human rights. Their mission is resisted, Glennon notes,
     only by "the defiant, the indolent, and the miscreant," the
     "disorderly" elements of the world. The rank of enlightenment is
     apparently conferred by definition. One will search in vain for
     credible attempts to provide evidence or argument for the critical
     distinction between enlightened and disorderly, surely not from
     history. The history is in any event deemed irrelevant by the
     familiar doctrine of "change of course," which holds that, yes, in
     the past we have erred out of naivete or faulty information, but
     now we are returning to the traditional path of righteousness.
     There is, accordingly, no purpose in asking what might be learned
     from old, musty stories about the past, even though the
     decision-making structure and its institutional base remain intact
     and unchanged.

     On June 3, NATO and Serbia reached a peace accord. The United
     States triumphantly declared victory, though not yet peace: The
     iron fist remains poised until the victors determine that their
     interpretation of the peace accord has been imposed. A broad
     consensus was articulated by New York Times global analyst Thomas
     Friedman: "From the start the Kosovo problem has been about how we
     should react when bad things happen in unimportant places." The
     enlightened states have opened a new millennium by providing an
     answer to this critical question of the modern era, pursuing the
     moral principle that, in Friedman's words, "once the refugee
     evictions began, ignoring Kosovo would be wrong ... and therefore
     using a huge air war for a limited objective was the only thing
     that made sense."


     While even a casual inspection of the chronology suffices to refute
     Friedman's own (and conventional) answer to his rhetorical
     question, a credible answer appears in the same journal on the same
     day, though only obliquely. Reporting from Ankara, correspondent
     Stephen Kinzer writes that "Turkey's best-known human rights
     advocate [Akin Birdal] entered prison" to serve his sentence for
     having "urged the state to reach a peaceful settlement with Kurdish
     rebels." Looking beyond the sporadic and generally uninformative or
     misleading news reports and commentary, we discover that the
     sentencing of the courageous president of the Human Rights
     Association of Turkey is only one episode of a campaign of
     intimidation and harassment of human rights advocates who are
     investigating and reporting horrendous atrocities and calling for
     peaceful resolution of a conflict that has been marked by one of
     the most savage campaigns of ethnic cleansing and state terror of
     the '90s. The campaign has proceeded with mounting fury thanks to
     the active participation of the United States, "upholding our
     values, protecting our interests, and advancing the cause of peace"
     (in the president's words), in a way that is all too familiar to
     those who do not prefer "intentional ignorance."

     These events, continuing right now and taking place within NATO and
     under European jurisdiction, provide a rather striking illustration
     -- far from the only one -- of the answer given by the enlightened
     states to the question of "how we should react when bad things
     happen in unimportant places": We should react by helping to
     escalate the atrocities, a mission accomplished in Kosovo as well.
     Such elements of the real world of today raise some rather serious
     questions about the New Humanism.

     In the Balkans war of 1999, these questions remain out of sight --
     within the "enlightened states," at least. Elsewhere, they are
     readily perceived, over a broad spectrum. To select several remote
     points for illustration, Amos Gilboa, a prominent Israeli
     commentator on military and strategic affairs, sees the enlightened
     states as "a danger to the world." He describes their new rules of
     the game as a reversion to the colonial era, with the resort to
     force "cloaked in moralistic righteousness" as the rich and
     powerful do "what seems to them to be justified."... At a very
     different point on the spectrum, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Western
     idol when he is saying the right things, offers a succinct
     definition of the New Humanism: "The aggressors have kicked aside
     the UN, opening a new era where might is right." They and many
     others like them throughout the world might agree with an
     observation by the prominent and influential -- though little
     celebrated -- radical pacifist A.J. Muste:

     "The problem after a war is with the victor. He thinks he has just
     proved that war and violence pay. Who will now teach him a lesson?"


     The larger issues highlighted by the most recent of the wars of
     Yugoslav secession came into focus with the fading of the Cold War.
     Central among these is the claimed right of intervention on the
     part of states or alliances on humanitarian grounds, which extends
     the scope of legitimated use of force. There is general agreement
     on the timing, but the conclusions about "humanitarian
     intervention" are phrased in different ways, reflecting the
     evaluation of the intent and likely consequences of the emerging
     norms of justified intervention.

     The enlarged options are of two kinds: those carried out under UN
     auspices and in conformity with the UN Charter, which is agreed to
     be the foundation of international law in the post-World War II
     period; and those carried out unilaterally, with no Security
     Council authorisation, by states or alliances (the United States
     and NATO for example, or the Warsaw Pact in earlier years). If
     sufficiently powerful, arrogant and internally well-disciplined,
     such alliances may designate themselves "the international
     community." Questions arise about the first category, but that is
     not our topic here. Rather, we are concerned with the states or
     alliances that do not seek or are not granted authorisation from
     the international community, but use force because "they believe it
     to be just." In practice, that reduces to "America's new
     willingness to do what it thinks is right," apart from operations
     in "unimportant countries" of no concern to the reigning global
     superpower (for example, peacekeeping interventions of the West
     African states, which received retroactive authorisation from the
     United Nations).

     From one perspective, the extended scope of intervention has always
     been legitimate, indeed meritorious, but was obstructed during the
     Cold War because "the defiant, the indolent, and the miscreant" who
     resist the mission were then able to rely for support on the
     Communist powers, dedicated to subversion and insurrection as they
     sought to conquer the world. With the Cold War over, the
     "disorderly" can no longer impede the good works of the enlightened
     states, and the New Humanism can therefore flourish under their
     wise and just leadership.

     From a contrasting perspective, "the new interventionism" is
     replaying an old record. It is an updated variant of traditional
     practices that were impeded in a bipolar world system that allowed
     some space for nonalignment -- a concept that effectively vanishes
     when one of the two poles disappears. The Soviet Union, and to some
     extent China, set limits on the actions of the Western powers in
     their traditional domains -- not only by virtue of the military
     deterrent, but also because of their occasional willingness,
     however opportunistic, to lend support to targets of Western
     subversion and aggression. With the Soviet deterrent in decline,
     the Cold War victors are more free to exercise their will under the
     cloak of good intentions but in pursuit of interests that have a
     very familiar ring outside the realm of enlightenment.

     The self-described bearers of enlightenment happen to be the rich
     and powerful, the inheritors of the colonial and neocolonial
     systems of global dominion: they are the North, the First World.
     The disorderly miscreants who defy them have been at the other end
     of the stick: they are the South, the Third World. The division is
     not sharp and clear; nothing is in the dominion of human affairs.
     But the tendencies are hard to miss, and they suggest some of the
     reasons for the difference of perspective in interpretation of the
     emerging norms of justified intervention.

     The conflict of interpretation is difficult to resolve if history
     is declared irrelevant and the present scene is glimpsed only
     through the filters established by the enlightened states, which
     transmit the evil deeds of official enemies while blocking unwanted
     images. To take the most obvious current illustration, atrocities
     pass through unhindered, even magnified, if they are attributable
     to Belgrade, but not if they trace back to Ankara and Washington.

     If we hope to understand anything about the world, we should ask
     why decisions on forceful intervention are made one way or another
     by the states with the power to exercise their judgment and will.
     At the 1993 American Academy Conference on Emerging Norms of
     Humanitarian Intervention, one of the most distinguished figures in
     the academic discipline of international relations, Ernest Haas,
     raised a simple and cogent question, which has since received a
     clear and instructive answer. He observed that NATO was then
     intervening in Iraq and Bosnia to protect Kurds and Muslims, and
     asked: "Will NATO take the same interventionist view if and when
     Turkey begins to lean more heavily on its Kurdish insurgents?" The
     question poses a clear test of the New Humanism: Is it guided by
     power interests, or by humanitarian concern? Is the resort to force
     undertaken "in the name of principles and values," as professed? Or
     are we witnessing something crass and more familiar?

     The test was a good one, and the answer was not long in coming. As
     Haas raised the question, Turkey was leaning much more heavily on
     the Kurdish population of the Southeast while rejecting offers of
     peaceful settlement that would permit cultural and linguistic
     rights. Very shortly the operation escalated to extremes of ethnic
     cleansing and state terror. NATO took a very definite
     "interventionist view," in particular NATO's leader, which
     intervened decisively to escalate the atrocities.

     The implications concerning the larger issues seem rather clear,
     particularly when we compare this "interventionist view" to the one
     adopted for the Kosovo crisis, a lesser one on moral grounds, not
     only for reasons of scale (crucially and dramatically, prior to the
     decision to bomb the FRY) but also because it is outside the bounds
     and jurisdiction of the NATO powers and their institutions, unlike
     Turkey, which is squarely within. The two cases differ sharply on a
     different dimension, however: Serbia is one of those disorderly
     miscreants that impede the institution of the US-dominated global
     system, while Turkey is a loyal client state that contributes
     substantially to this project. Again, the factors that drive policy
     do not seem hard to discern, and the North-South divisions over the
     larger issues and their interpretation seem to fall into place as


     Even a cursory examination shows that the proclamations of the New
     Humanism are at best highly dubious. The narrowest focus, on the
     NATO intervention in Kosovo alone, suffices to undermine the lofty
     pronouncements. A broader look at the contemporary world powerfully
     reinforces the conclusion, and brings forth with stark clarity "the
     values" that are actually being upheld. If we deviate further from
     the marching orders that issue from Washington and London and allow
     the past to enter the discussion, we quickly discover that the new
     generation is the old generation, and that the "new
     internationalism" replays old and unpleasant records. The actions
     of distinguished forebears, as well as the justifications offered
     and their merits, should also give us pause.

     Let us begin by keeping to the rules and focusing attention on the
     designated case: Serb atrocities in Kosovo, which are quite real
     and often ghastly. We immediately discover that the bombing was not
     undertaken in "response" to ethnic cleansing and to "reverse" it,
     as leaders alleged. With full awareness of the likely consequences,
     Clinton and Blair decided in favour of a war that led to a radical
     escalation of ethnic cleansing along with other deleterious

     In the year before the bombing, according to NATO sources, about
     2,000 people had been killed in Kosovo and several hundred thousand
     had become internal refugees. The humanitarian catastrophe was
     overwhelmingly attributable to Yugoslavian police and military
     forces, the main victims being ethnic Albanians, commonly assumed
     to constitute about 90 per cent of the population.

     Prior to the bombing, and for two days following its onset, the
     United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported no
     data on refugees, though many Kosovars -- Albanian and Serb -- had
     been leaving the province for years, and entering as well,
     sometimes as a consequence of the Balkan wars, sometimes for
     economic and other reasons. After three days of bombing, UNHCR
     reported on March 27 that 4,000 had fled Kosovo to Albania and
     Macedonia, the two neighbouring countries. By April 5, the New York
     Times reported that "more than 350,000 have left Kosovo since March
     24," relying on UNHCR figures, while unknown numbers of Serbs fled
     north to Serbia to escape the increased violence from the air and
     on the ground.

     After the war, it was reported that half the Serb population had
     "moved out when the NATO bombing began." There have been varying
     estimates of the number of refugees within Kosovo before that NATO
     bombing. Cambridge University Law Professor Marc Weller, legal
     adviser to the Kosovar Albanian delegation at the Rambouillet
     Conference, reports that after the withdrawal of the international
     monitors on March 19, "within a few days the number of displaced
     had again risen to over 200,000." House Intelligence Committee
     Chairman Porter Goss gave the estimate of 250,000 internally

     By the time of the peace accord on June 3, the UNHCR reported
     671,500 refugees beyond the borders of the FRY, in addition to
     70,000 in Montenegro and 75,000 who went to other countries. To
     these we may add the unknown numbers displaced within Kosovo,
     perhaps as many as 300,000 in the year before the bombing, far more
     afterwards, with varying estimates; and according to the
     Yugoslavian Red Cross, over a million displaced within Serbia after
     the bombing, along with many who left Serbia.

     The numbers reported from Kosovo are, unfortunately, all too
     familiar. To mention only two cases that are prime illustrations of
     "our values" in the '90s, the refugee total prior to the NATO
     bombing is similar to the State Department estimate for Colombia in
     the same year; and the UNHCR totals at the war's end are about the
     same as the number of Palestinians who fled or were expelled in
     1948, another policy issue that is very much alive today. In that
     case, refugees numbered about 750,000, 85 per cent of the
     population, with over 400 villages levelled, and ample violence.
     The comparison was not overlooked in the Israeli press, where
     Gideon Levi of Ha'aretz described Kosovo as Palestine 1948 with TV
     cameras. Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon warned that if
     "NATO's aggression" is "legitimised," the next step might be a call
     for autonomy and links to the Palestinian Authority for Galilee.
     Elsewhere, Ian Williams, a fervent supporter of the NATO bombing,
     commented, "The Serbs could almost have studied Israeli tactics in
     1948 in their village destruction campaign, except of course the
     Palestinians had no NATO to back them up."


     The distinction between worthy and unworthy victims is traditional,
     as is its basis, remote from any moral principle apart from the
     rights demanded by power and privilege. Washington simultaneously
     rejects the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
     (for unworthy victims, Palestinians and many others) and
     passionately upholds them (for worthy victims, now Kosovo
     Albanians). Though readily understood in terms of power interests,
     the distinctions, when noticed at all, are portrayed as "double
     standards" or "mistakes" in respectable commentary. Attention to
     the facts reveals that there is a single standard, the one that
     great powers typically observe, and that although plans may go awry
     (aggressors have been defeated, etc.), the "mistakes" are
     overwhelmingly tactical.


     Continuing with Kosovo, refugees reported that immediately after
     the bombing began, the terror reached the capital city of Pristina,
     mostly spared before, and provided credible accounts of large-scale
     destruction of villages, brutal atrocities and a radical increase
     in the generation of refugees, perhaps an effort to expel the
     Albanian population. Similar reports, generally quite credible,
     were prominently featured throughout the media, in extensive and
     horrifying detail, the usual practice in the case of worthy victims
     under attack by official enemies.

     One index of the effects of "the huge air war" was offered by
     Robert Hayden, director of the Centre for Russian and East European
     Studies of the University of Pittsburgh: "The casualties among Serb
     civilians in the first three weeks of the war are higher than all
     of the casualties on both sides in Kosovo in the three months that
     led up to this war, and yet those three months were supposed to be
     a humanitarian catastrophe." Admittedly, casualties among Serb
     civilians amount to little in the context of the jingoist hysteria
     that was whipped up for a war against the Serbs. But the toll from
     the bombing among Albanians in the first three weeks, estimated at
     the time in the hundreds though presumably much higher, was surely
     far beyond that of the preceding three months and probably the
     preceding years.

     On March 27, US NATO Commanding General Wesley Clark announced that
     it was "entirely predictable" that Serb terror and violence would
     intensify after the bombing. On the same day, State Department
     spokesman James Rubin said, "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. Shortly after, Clark reported again that he was not
     surprised by the sharp escalation of Serb terror after the bombing:
     "The military authorities fully anticipated the vicious approach
     that Milosevic would adopt, as well as the terrible efficiency with
     which he would carry it out."

     Clark's phrase "entirely predictable" is an overstatement. Nothing
     in human affairs is "entirely predictable," surely not the effects
     of extreme violence. But what happened at once was highly likely.
     "Enemies often react when shot at," observed Carnes Lord, a former
     Bush administration national security adviser. "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


     The outcome was not unanticipated in Washington. House Intelligence
     Committee Chair Porter Goss informed the media that "Our
     intelligence community warned us months and days before [the
     bombing] that we would have a virtual explosion of refugees,...
     that the Serb resolve would increase, that the conflict would
     spread, and that there would be ethnic cleansing." As far back as
     1992, European monitors in Macedonia had "predicted a sudden,
     massive influx of ethnic Albanian refugees if hostilities spread
     into Kosovo."

     The reasons for these expectations are clear enough. People "react
     when shot at" not by garlanding the attackers with flowers, and not
     where the attacker is strong -- but where they are strong: in this
     case, on the ground, not by sending jet planes to bomb Washington
     and London. It takes no particular genius to reach these
     conclusions, nor access to secret intelligence. The overt NATO
     threat of direct invasion made the brutal reaction even more
     likely, again for reasons that could hardly have escaped Clinton
     and Blair.

     The threat of bombing presumably had already led to an increase in
     atrocities, though evidence is slight. The withdrawal of
     international monitors on March 19 in preparation for the bombing
     presumably had the same consequence, again predictably. "The
     monitors were widely seen as the only remaining brake on Yugoslav
     troops," The Washington Post observed in a retrospective account;
     and releasing the brake, it must have been assumed, would lead to
     disaster. Other accounts agree. A subsequent detailed retrospective
     in the New York Times concluded, "The Serbs began attacking the
     Kosovo Liberation Army strongholds on March 19, but their attack
     kicked into high gear on March 24, the night NATO began bombing in
     Yugoslavia." It would take a heavy dose of intentional ignorance to
     interpret the facts as mere coincidence.

     Serbia officially opposed the withdrawal of the monitors. That
     resolution in the National Assembly was not reported by the
     mainstream media, which also did not publish the terms of the
     Rambouillet Agreement, though the latter was identified throughout
     the war as right and just. It was "the peace process," emphasis on
     "the," a term used reflexively to refer to Washington's stand
     whatever it may be (often efforts to undermine diplomacy), a
     practice that has been particularly instructive with regard to the
     Middle East and Central America.

     The bombing was undertaken five days after the withdrawal of the
     monitors with the rational expectation that "the result" would be
     atrocities and ethnic cleansing, and a "sudden, massive" flight and
     expulsion of Albanians. That indeed happened, even if the scale may
     have come as a surprise to some, though the commanding general
     apparently expected nothing less.

     * The New Military Humanism: Lessons From Kosovo is to be published
     by Common Courage Press. This excerpt is printed here by special
     permission from the author.

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