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In his apparent quest for the Democratic Presidential nomination, General Wesley Clark rightly criticizes President Bush for waging a “pre-emptive” invasion of Iraq, and in particular for being “unprepared” for the post-invasion occupation of the country. Some Democrats are being drawn to the former NATO Supreme Commander as an authoritative voice against the Iraq debacle, and a “pragmatic” alternative to the disastrous Bush Presidency.
Yet these Democrats apparently have short memories. It was only four years ago that General Clark waged a war against Yugoslavia that had similarly shaky motives and spiraling postwar consequences. Clark has whitewashed the 1999 Kosovo intervention as a “humanitarian” campaign to rescue Kosovar Albanians from Serbian “ethnic cleansing,” even though it actually helped fuel the forced explusions. The General credits NATO bombing of Serbian cities for bringing about the fall of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, even though Serbian democrats loudly objected that it undermined and delayed their ultimate victory. Clark claims that the postwar NATO occupation brought “peace” to Kosovo, but he was clearly unprepared for the violent “ethnic cleansing” that took place on his watch, largely facilitated by his decisions, under the noses of his troops.
First, the NATO intervention made a bad situation worse in Kosovo. The nasty civil war between Milosevic’s Serbian nationalist government and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) militia in the Albanian-majority province had heated up in 1998-99. About 2,000 people had been killed, including civilians on both sides. Voices within the Clinton Administration clamored not only for “punishing” Milosevic, but for (pre-emptively) ejecting Serbian forces from Kosovo to prevent him from carrying out ethnic cleansing. Under Western pressure, Milosevic offered to withdraw from Kosovo, but the peace talks broke down.
Hours after the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia began on March 24, 1999, the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign began, expelling hundreds of thousands of Albanians, and creating an enormous refugee crisis. CIA director George Tenet had predicted in February that a NATO “stick in the nest” could provoke just such ethnic cleansing. Accused of being “unprepared,” General Clark defended the war as “coercive diplomacy,” saying “This is the way the NATO leaders wanted it.” The bombing was not in response to the ethnic explusions, but gave Milosevic the excuse and justification for them. The Kosovo disaster was a self-fulfilling prophecy, much like President Bush invading Iraq to eject phantom “terrorists,” and in the process creating a new cause and battleground for them.
Second, the NATO bombing alienated Serbian civilians who had led the opposition to Milosevic. Cities that had voted heavily against Milosevic were among those targeted with bombing. U.S. jets dropped cluster bombs on a crowded marketplace in Nis. Civilian infrastructure, such as trains, busses, bridges, TV stations, civilian factories, hospitals and power plants, were repeatedly hit by NATO bombs. Depleted Uranium munitions left behind radioactive dust around targets, and bombed chemical plants released clouds of poisonous smoke. Estimates of civilian deaths in the bombing range from 500 to 2,000, with the Washington Post estimating 1,600 (a tally is at <www.counterpunch.org/dead.html> ) These civilian casualties are largely forgotten by those who feel that bombs dropped by a Democratic president are somehow more noble than those dropped by a Republican president.
The Serbian democratic opposition strongly condemned the bombing as undermining and delaying their efforts to oust President Milosevic, and as strengthening his police state. It was not the NATO bombing but Serbs’ largely nonviolent revolution that overthrew Milosevic in October 2000, and replaced him with democratic leader Vojislav Kostunica, who had opposed NATO’s war. In much the same way, many Iraqis who hated Saddam Hussein have criticized U.S. betrayals and sanctions–under both Bush and Clinton administrations–for strengthening Saddam’s hand. Many of these same Sunnis and Shi’ites repressed by Saddam are today calling for the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq, in order to regain their sovereignty.
Third, as NATO troops occupied Kosovo in June 1999, Albanian nationalists unleashed their own program of ethnic cleansing. They attacked and expelled not only thousands of Serbs from communities that had survived in Kosovo for centuries, but also Roma (Gypsies), Turks, Jews, and any other non-Albanians. The Western media defined these attacks as “revenge” or “retaliation” for Serbian ethnic cleansing. But the KLA militia, like its right-wing nationalist counterparts in Bosnia, had long had the goal of an ethnically pure state. Instead of cracking down on the KLA fighters, NATO invited them to join its new Kosovo Protection Corps police force. In the months after the NATO occupation began, Kosovo became far more ethnically “pure” than Milosevic had ever made it, with the percentage of ethnic minorities lower than ever in its history. Amnesty International observed that General Clark’s NATO was “unprepared for the massive abuses of human rights” under the postwar occupation.
Most U.S. media reviews of the wars in former Yugoslavia describe U.S. and NATO interventions as well-intentioned efforts to halt “ethnic cleansing.” Yet the perception in the Balkan region is far different. The U.S. never dropped a single bomb to stop Croatian forces from ethnic cleansing of Serbs or Bosnian Muslims (in fact, U.S. bombing backed up Croatian forces hours before they forcibly expelled Serbs from Croatia in 1995). The memory of NATO in former Yugoslavia is not of a neutral “peacekeeper,” but of a military that took sides with Croatian and Albanian ethnic cleansers against Serbian ethnic cleansers. Postwar agreements (with Clark’s involvement) merely rubberstamped the de facto ethnic partitions of Bosnia and Kosovo that had long been sought by their nationalist militias.
Like in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. interventions in ex-Yugoslavia left behind a new cluster of U.S. military bases, including the sprawling Camp Bondsteel in U.S. Sector Kosovo. Together, this string of permanent U.S. bases stretching from Hungary to Pakistan is creating a new U.S. “sphere of influence” in the strtegic region between the European Union and East Asia. General Clark was surely aware that the U.S. presence in Kosovo would not be temporary, and uses the prospect of ethnic instability to justify it, much as President Bush does to justify a long-term presence in Iraq. Earlier this year, as one of the slew of cable news “armchair generals” coldly assessed the advance of the Iraq invasion, Clark never challenged the underlying premise that the U.S. military should oust Saddam, rather than the Iraqi people, or that the U.S. should have a permanent presence in the Gulf region.
The 1999 Kosovo War had similar origins and outcomes as the 2003 Iraq War. In the 2004 election, do we face the hideous prospect of voting for one flawed war over another? Far from posing a “pragmatic” alternative to President Bush, Clark’s ascendancy would be a failure for the peace movement that has made such advances in community organizing over the past year. In order not to alienate the large segment of the electorate energized by the movement, Democrats are well advised not to nominate a leader with blood on his hands.
Dr. ZOLTAN GROSSMAN is an Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. His peace writings can be seen at www.uwec.edu/grossmzc/peace.html and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.