The Lie of a "Good War"


For U.S. politicians, if all wars are good, some are better than others. Democrats prefer Clinton wars and Republicans prefer Bush wars. But in the end, they almost unanimously come together to support all wars. The differences concern the choice of official rationale..

To suggest subtle criticism of the Republican war against Iraq, while making it clear that they are by no means opposed to war as such, the 2004 Democratic election campaigners can be expected to glorify the Kosovo war. The prominence of General Wesley Clark in the Democratic camp makes that quite clear.

John Kerry’s foreign policy adviser Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute, author of “Democratic Realism: the Third Way”, points to the exemplary nature of the 1999 “<U.S.-led> intervention in Kosovo”. It was “a policy consciously based on a mix of moral values and security interests with the parallel goals of halting a humanitarian tragedy and ensuring NATO’s credibility as an effective force for regional stability”.

The “humanitarian” rationale sounds better than the “weapons of mass destruction” or the “links to Al Qaeda” which never existed. But then, the “genocide”from which the NATO war allegedly saved the Albanians of Kosovo never existed either.

But while the WMD deception has been exposed, the founding lie behind the Kosovo war is still widely believed. It effectively distracts from the very existence of the what Marshall calls the “parallel goal”of strengthening NATO. Aside from the crippling material damage inflicted on the targeted country, the Kosovo lie has caused even more irreparable damage to relations between the Serb and Albanian inhabitants of Kosovo.

The situation in that small province of multiethnic Serbia was the result of a long and complex history of conflict, frequently encouraged and exploited by outside powers, notably by the support to Albanian nationalism by the Axis powers in World War II. Each community accused the other of plotting “ethnic cleansing” and even “genocide”. But there were reasonable people on both sides willing to work out a compromise solution. The constructive role of outsiders would have been to calm the paranoid tendencies in both communities and support constructive initiatives. Indeed, the Kosovo problem could have been easily managed, and eventually solved, had the Great Powers so desired. But as in the past, the Great Powers exploited and aggravated the ethnic conflicts for their own purposes. In total ignorance of the complex history of the region, sheeplike politicians and media echoed and amplified the most extreme nationalist Albanian propaganda. This provided NATO with its pretext to demonstrate “credibility”. The Great Powers have in effect told the Albanians that all their worst accusations against the Serbs were true. Even Albanians know who know better (such as Veton Surroi) are intimidated and silenced by the racist nationalists backed by the United States.

The result is disastrous. Empowered by their official status as unique victims of Serb iniquity, the Albanians of Kosovo — and especially the youth, raised on a decade of nationalist myth — can give free rein to their cultivated hatred of the Serbs. Armed Albanian nationalists proceeded to drive the Serbian and gypsy populations out of the province. Those remaining do not dare venture out of their ghettos. Albanians willing to live with the Serbs risk being murdered. Ever since the NATO-led force (KFOR) marched into Kosovo in June 1999, violent persecution of Serbs and Roma has been regularly described as “revenge” — which in the Albanian tradition is considered the summit of virtuous conduct. Describing the murder of elderly women in their homes or children at play as acts of “revenge” is a way of excusing or even approving the violence.

Last March 17, following the false accusation that Serbs were responsible for the accidental drowning of three Albanian children, organized mobs of Albanians, including many teenagers, rampaged through Kosovo destroying 35 Serbian Orthodox Christian churches and monasteries, some of them artistic gems dating from the fourteenth century. Well over a hundred churches had already been attacked with fire and explosives in the past five years. The objective is quite clearly to erase all historic trace of centuries of Serb presence, the better to assert their claim to an ethnically pure Albanian Kosovo.

The self-satisfaction of the “international community” was severely shaken by the March violence. The occasional KFOR units that tried to protect Serb sites found themselves in armed clashes with Albanian mobs. In the wake of the rampages, Finnish politician Harri Holkeri resigned two months before expiration of his one-year renewable mandate as head of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) supposed to administer the province. He was the fourth to get out of the job as fast as he could. Apparently on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Holkeri lamented to a press conference that UNMIK has no intelligence service of its own, and had received no prior hint of the March pogroms. In short, the mass of international administrators, military occupation forces and non-governmental agencies have no idea what is going on in the province they are theoretically running. Indicating his awareness that the only role left for UNMIK was that of scapegoat, Holkeri warned of “difficult days ahead”. That is a safe prediction.

Trouble ahead

On June 11, the former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army leader Hashim Thaci, the protege of Madeleine Albright and her press officer James Rubin, denounced UNMIK as a “complete failure” and announced that, if he wins Kosovo’s forthcoming elections in October, he will implement his “vision of Kosovo as an independent and sovereign state”.

The circumstances suggest that not only Thaci, but any newly elected Kosovo may do the same. Proclamation of Kosovo’s independence on the eve of U.S. presidential elections could be shrewd timing. With Iraq exploding, American leaders need to maintain the myth of the “success” in Kosovo. Getting into open conflict with the Albanians could be politically disastrous.

At the same time, many Europeans saw the anti-Serb pogroms in March as evidence that Kosovo has a long way to go to reach the “standards” of democratic human rights and ethnic harmony which UNMIK is mandated to achieve before any final decision on the province’s status.

There are serious reasons not to give in to the Albanian demand for an “independent and sovereign Kosovo”.

1. Legality.

First of all, there is the minor question of legality: minor, inasmuch as the NATO powers have ignored it from the start. The war itself was totally devoid of any legitimate basis in international law. It was officially concluded in June 1999 by a peace accord incorporated into U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244, which, among other things, obliged the occupying powers to :

— “ensure conditions for a peaceful and normal life for all inhabitants of Kosovo” — which logically should mean “all”, and not solely the Albanians;

— “ensure the safe and free return of all refugees and displaced persons”

— by which the U.S. negotiators probably meant the Albanians who had fled during the bombing, but since they promptly returned on their own, without difficulty, this stipulation in reality refers to Serbs, Rom and other non-Albanians forced to flee;

— establish an interim political framework “taking full account of […]the principles of sovereignty and integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” — which amounts to recognition that Kosovo remains part of a larger political entity made up of Serbia and Montenegro;

— permit the return of an agreed number of Yugoslav and Serbian personnel, including border control police and customs agents;

— effect the maintenance of civil law and order and the protection of human rights.

In reality, once the United States got its big military foot in the door, Resolution 1244 was scarcely worth the paper it was written on. The United States had other priorities:

— First, in record time, the Pentagon built an enormous military base, “Camp Bondsteel”, on a thousand areas of illegally expropriated farmland strategically located near trans-Balkan transit routes, on the approaches to the Middle East and Caspian Sea oil transport.

— The other obvious U.S. priority was to preserve the clandestine wartime alliance with the “Kosovo Liberation Army”, not only against the Serbs, but also, implicitly, against any European allies which might seek influence in post-conquest Kosovo. After a sham “disarmament” disposing of a few obsolete light arms, the KLA was renamed the “Kosovo Protection Force” and put on the U.N. payroll. Certain of its officers proceeded to mount armed actions to extend “greater Albania” to neighboring Macedonia and parts of Southern Serbia next to Kosovo. These operations were launched from the American sector, next to Camp Bondsteel.

— As for the internal organization of Kosovo itself, the U.S. priority is, as usual, privatization of the economy. Privatization in practice starts with dismantling whatever government services existed, on the theory that without government interference, private initiative will flourish.

In a very special sense, this has indeed proved to be the case. Kosovo, already a transit area for the largest amount of heroin smuggled from Turkey to Western Europe, has rapidly become the center of a new trade in women sex slaves. The Albanian mafia is by far the biggest operator in these trades. The “internationals” who have come to “civilize” the province provide a thriving local market for prostitutes. If they ever go home, the Albanian mafia can count on the networks it has developed throughout Western Europe to keep business going

2. The economy.

In socialist Yugoslavia, Kosovo was by far the poorest area in Yugoslavia, with the highest rate of chronic unemployment. It still is. But then, it benefited from injection of the largest amount of development funds from the rest of the country. Although the sentiment that their poverty was a result of exploitation contributed to the rise of Kosovo Albanian nationalism, the fact is that Kosovo was always heavily subsidized by the rest of Yugoslavia, and as a result was considerably more developed than neighboring Albania.

Since the NATO occupation, Kosovo lives off other sources of income, mainly the flourishing drugs and sex trades. The “international community” has contributed a patchwork of social services (from UNMIK police to NGO counselos) that provide a temporary substitute for the expulsion of the local branches of the Serbian government. Camp Bondsteel provides the largest number of legitimate jobs to Albanians, and may continue to do so even after the demand for chauffeurs and interpreters dries up as the NGOs go home. Saudi Arabia can be counted on to finance mosque construction. But with a per capita income of about $30 per month, it is hard to see where an “independent Kosovo” could scrape up the tax base to pay for a government, especially since so much of the real income is illicit, outside the reach of tax collectors.

Kosovo is only an extreme case of the “transition” from socialism to the free market, as imposed on Eastern Europe by the “international community”. The State and its services were removed by NATO military force, whereas elsewhere the demolition process has been more gradual and less dramatic, the result of pressures from the IMF, the World Bank and the European Union. The mass of unemployed young men have little prospect of earning a living other than by getting in on the crime business. It is hard to see what can prevent “independent Kosovo” from being an uncontrollable crime center.

At the end of World War II, in order to defeat the Fascists and combat the Communists, U.S. intelligence services cynically brought the Mafia back to Sicily. The parallel with Kosovo does not go beyond that. For unlike Kosovo, Sicily is an essentially rich island, with a diversified economy and numerous centuries-old sophisticated urban centers where large sectors of a highly educated population have courageously resisted the corruption and violence of the mafia. This aspect of Sicilian society is insufficiently appreciated abroad, where it is more “romantic” to glorify the gangsters. In comparison, Kosovo Albanian society simply does not possess such material or cultural resources for resisting the power of the new mafias that, while feeding on certain clan traditions, are above all a product of neoliberal globalism.

3. Human rights.

The protection of “human rights” was the pretext for the 1999 war. In terms of everyday human relations, the situation is far worse than before. This is not widely recognized for two reasons. One, since the “international community” rather than Milosevic is in charge, media interest in Kosovo has virtually evaporated. Second, the victims of persecution and harassment, the children whose school buses are stoned, the old people who are beaten and whose houses are set on fire, the farmers who do not dare go out to cultivate their fields, the hundreds of thousands of refugees from “ethnic cleansing” … are Serbs. Or sometimes gypsies. Western media early on identified “the Serbs” as the enemies of “multi-ethnic society” and the perpetrators of “ethnic cleansing”. The curious result seems to be that the absence of Serbs is understood as the best guarantee of a multi-ethnic society. This, at any rate, is the logic of the attitude taken by the international community in regard to the Ibar valley region of Kosovo north of Mitrovica.

That area, which forms a sort of point reaching into central Serbia, is the largest remaining part of Kosovo where Serbs retain a traditional majority sufficient to defend themselves from Albanian intimidation. When, as happens from time to time, Albanian militants from the ethnically purified region south of the Ibar attempt to cross the river, they are stopped by Serb guards. In this situation, “international community” spokesmen almost invariably take the line that Serb extremists are standing in the way of “multi-ethnic” Kosovo. The fact is deliberately overlooked that, while a certain number of Albanians are still living in Serb-controlled northern Mitrovica, all Serbs and Rom have been driven out of southern Mitrovica, and that if the Albanian activists were granted free access to the north, the probable result would be further ethnic cleansing of what remains of the Serb population.

For some in the “international community”, that would be an ideal solution. Once all non-Albanians have been driven out, the professional humanitarians can declare that Kosovo is “multi-ethnic”, and there will be nobody left there to dispute this triumphant assertion.

The overriding concern of the West now is to get out of the Kosovo mess in a way that will allow it to continue to celebrate the Kosovo war as a great humanitarian success. Having left the Balkans in a shambles, the human rights warriors can go on to other victories. The only thing to stop them might be a belated recognition of the truth.

DIANA JOHNSTONE is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, Nato, and Western Delusions published by Monthly Review Press.

Diana Johnstone is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions. Her new book is Queen of Chaos: the Misadventures of Hillary Clinton. She can be reached at