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Forum: NATO fuels the Balkan fire

Bombing Serbia to prevent a wider war is not only hypocritical, says Robert M. Hayden, but also insane

Sunday, March 28, 1999

On March 24, the United States led NATO into the first campaign of military aggression against a sovereign state in Europe since World War II. It did so against the principles of international law and of the United Nations charter. It also did so against the rulings of the Nuremberg trials, which declared that "to initiate a war of aggression . . . is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime."

  Robert M. Hayden is director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. A Yugoslavia specialist who has lived in Serbia, he is the author of "Blueprints for a House Divided: The Constitutional Logic of the Yugoslav Conflict," to be published in June by the University of Michigan Press. 

That NATO is an aggressor is not in doubt. While hardly a "republic" under the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is clearly a state with internationally recognized borders. NATO is attacking that state militarily, brazenly, although Yugoslavia has not attacked or even threatened any NATO country.

To be sure, Serbian forces have attacked ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a province that has been part of Serbia since 1913. While Kosovo had a very mixed population in the past, during the years of its "autonomy" under ethnic Albanian rule (1974-1989), it became almost 90 percent Albanian. The Serbian police have been brutal in response to an armed uprising by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which began to attack Serb police and to murder Serb civilians in 1997.

The resulting conflict has been horrible and tragic. It is hardly unique in the world, however, nor even particularly noteworthy in terms of victims. For example, the Turkish campaigns against the Kurds in Turkey and in Iraq have killed far more people and destroyed far more villages than the Serb campaigns in Kosovo. Yet NATO is not bombing Turkey (which is, of course, a NATO member).

Perhaps the niceties of international law may be forgotten if the cause is right. But what is the cause?

President Clinton has said that we are attacking Yugoslavia to protect the Albanians there from a Serb offensive, to prevent a wider war, to uphold our values, to protect our interests and to advance the cause of peace. Yet few actions could be less likely to produce these results than the massive assaults now being conducted on Serbia.

Protect the Albanians? It was clear before NATO's aggression that the most likely result of air attacks would be an increase in fighting in Kosovo, and this has happened. The Serbs, committed to holding onto their territory, have increased their attacks on the KLA. The KLA, having gained NATO as its air force, has increased its attacks on the Serbs. Caught in the middle are the people of Kosovo, who are now fleeing the increased fighting. Thus NATO has caused a new wave of refugees.

Prevent a wider war? As the increasing flows of refugees reach Albania and Macedonia, they threaten to disrupt those fragile states. Macedonia is particularly vulnerable, since relations between the Slav Macedonian majority and ethnic Albanian minority there are already uneasy. On the second day of NATO attacks on Serbia, thousands of demonstrators, waving Macedonian flags, attacked the American Embassy, and the Macedonian government stated that anti-NATO sentiment was increasing.

So much for, to use Bill Clinton's words, "defusing the Balkans powder keg." Uphold our values? Which values? Isn't international law one of our values?

Here, the relevant comparison is with Iraq, where the United States conducted the Gulf war because Saddam Hussein had invaded a neighboring state, thus changing borders by force. In Kosovo, the United States has led NATO into attacking a sovereign state, thus threatening to change borders by force.

Or perhaps the "values" are the need to protect civilians from military attack. In that case, the United States will need to put Turkey on its target list, not to mention Israel, which has attacked civilians in Lebanon (part of which it also occupies) with some frequency for many years now.

Of course, Bill Clinton referred to "genocide" in his speech justifying the attacks on Yugoslavia. Yet in Kosovo, about 2,000 people have died in two years, in the course of the brutal repression of an armed insurrection. This is a condition usually called "civil war." Tragic, yes. Incidents of war crimes, almost certainly. But "genocide," no. This is an insult to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

Do our values include terrorizing the innocent populations of Belgrade, Novi Sad, Kragujevac, Nis and other Serbian cities? Do they include damaging the power and water supplies of these people? Do they include destroying the livelihood of these people? Are our values, in fact, the same as those we condemned during the siege of Sarajevo by the Serbs (and failed to notice during the siege of Mostar by the Croats)?

Advance the cause of peace? Increasing conflict, and radically increasing the risk of even greater war, seems an odd way to achieve this goal.

Advance our interests? Perhaps. But what are our interests in this case? Bill Clinton has not said. And when we know what they are, will they justify the violations of international law and the betrayal of our supposed values that are manifested by NATO's massive aggression against Yugoslavia?

In a transparent display of hypocrisy, President Clinton has said that NATO is not waging war against the people of Yugoslavia, but against their government. Can anyone believe that people under attack will hate anyone other than the attackers?

NATO's aggression has betrayed those who oppose Milosevic's dictatorship, thus strengthening the rule of the man whom Bill Clinton accurately described as "a dictator who has done nothing since the cold war ended but start new wars and pour gasoline on the flames of ethnic and religious division."

There is now a new arsonist in the volatile Balkans: NATO.

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