Western policy during the break-up of Yugoslavia and the wars in Croatia and Bosnia of the 1990s was contemptible not merely for its moral bankrupcty – for its collusion with the dictator Slobodan Milosevic’s genocide and aggression – but also for its sheer blindness to the way that history was going. It should have been obvious when the war broke out in Croatia in the summer of 1991, both that Yugoslavia was finished as a state and that Milosevic’s attempt to replace it with a Great Serbia was a deeply regressive and destructive project that could only end in disaster. Western interests would have been best served by looking to the future and defending the Yugoslav successor-states of Croatia and Bosnia. Instead, the Western powers continued to support a united Yugoslavia that was already dead. This rapidly mutated into a policy of appeasing the Serbian strongman, which continued for four sorry years. Western diplomacy twice rescued the collapsing Serbian forces from defeat – in Croatia in late 1991 and in Bosnia in the autumn of 1995 – while calls for military action to halt Serbian aggression were fended off. In the end, the policy of appeasement was abandoned and Milosevic was militarily confronted and eventually put on trial for war-crimes. But only after the Western alliance had been seriously jeopardised and discredited, Milosevic had embarked on yet another round of ethnic cleansing in Kosova, and irreparable damage had been done to the Western Balkans.
In the Egyptian crisis today, Western leaders face another Bosnia moment. Mubarak having launched his violent assault on the Egyptian revolution, they can now take decisive action to halt him – through demanding that he step down immediately in favour of a broadly based caretaker administration and permit free and fair elections, and by making clear that all US and European economic assistance will be withdrawn from Egypt unless he does. It makes no sense to say that the West should keep out of Egypt and mind its own business; the huge economic assistance and political support Mubarak has received from us up till now mean that we are already deeply and inextricably involved and responsible.
Or Western leaders can wring their hands and continue to vacillate, thereby effectively giving Mubarak the same green light they once gave Milosevic. In which case, they will be responsible for the bloodshed and repression that will follow, but they will not achieve the much vaunted ‘stability’. Mubarak’s violence and repression may start a civil war, or may simply warp and poison Egyptian and Middle Eastern politics for years to come, as domestic opposition to his regime, denied the chance to express itself through a normal democratic process and justifiably angry at Western betrayal, is channelled toward extremism and violence – think Algeria or Chechnya. Instead of an Egyptian democratic revolution starting to lift the Middle East out of its cesspool of dictatorship and religious extremism, a more repressive, violent and unstable Egypt under a crumbling, desperate regime will drag the region further down into the depths.
The most murderous acts of state violence are often the work of remnants of decaying regimes that had previously, in their prime, appeared relatively moderate and benign. So it was in Bosnia, where the genocide was spearheaded by the Yugoslav People’s Army that had once served Tito’s enlightened despotism and, before that, had been born from a liberation struggle against the Nazis. So it was in Rwanda, where Juvenal Habyarimana’s dictatorship, previously stable and relatively benevolent in its treatment of the Tutsi, collapsed in a genocidal orgy that (almost certainly) first claimed the life of Habyarimana himself.
The Egyptian crisis has already forced us to confront some painful truths. I have long greatly admired Tony Blair, but his praise for Mubarak as ‘immensely courageous and a force for good’ – even if it was in relation to Mubarak’s input into the Israeli-Palestinian peace-process rather than a general description – was simply disgraceful. Reminiscent, in fact, of Blair’s unfinest hour back in 1999, when he endorsed Vladimir Putin’s fledgling tyranny while its murderous assault on Chechnya was at its height. And look what that got us – a vicious autocracy more hostile to the West than any regime in Moscow since the Cold War.
Unlike with regard to Blair, one expects very little from a hardline-nationalist brute like Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu, who has not only aligned himself with, but actually outdone, the monstrous Saudi regime in his support for the Egyptian dictator and his opposition to Egyptian democracy. The idea of Israel as a ‘beacon of democracy’ in the Middle East has always been wishful thinking on the part of its admirers – essentially the mirror-image of the myth, put about by the other side, of Israel as the root of all evil in the region. Israel is neither an angel nor a devil; it is a flawed democracy whose political classes are in the grip of an obnoxious nationalist mind-set, putting it roughly on a par with contemporary Turkey, Greece or Serbia. Of couse, the Israeli government has legitimate security concerns regarding how a post-Mubarak Egypt will behave, but there is also the rather less legitimate concern as to how its ongoing criminal policy of colonising the West Bank will fare without Mubarak to guard its rear. Hence, not so much a ‘beacon of democracy’ as a beacon for beleaguered tyrants. Arab oppression and Israeli oppression are two sides of the same coin and will fall together; both Israeli security and Palestinian independence will best be achieved by the democratisation of the Arab world.
The Middle East is at a historic crossroads, and Western policy toward the Middle East is at a historic crossroads. Barack Obama and David Cameron have been less than glorious in their reaction to the crisis so far, but nor have they discredited themselves totally, as Bill Clinton and John Major did over Bosnia. There is still time for them to choose the right path. History will judge them.
It is with some hesitation that I comment on the exchange between Noam Chomsky and Ian Williams over the question of responsibility for the bloodshed in Kosova in the late 1990s. Chomsky has no expertise and nothing interesting to say on the topic of the former Yugoslavia, and it is only because of his status as the world’s no. 1 ‘anti-imperialist’ guru that his utterances on the topic attract as many responses as they do. Chomsky epitomises the ‘anti-imperialist’ ideologue who believes in two things: 1) that the US is to blame for everything; and 2) that everything the US does is bad. If you share this worldview, then nothing said by Chomsky’s critics, such as Williams or Oliver Kamm, is going to convince you that he may be wrong on Kosova. If, on the other hand, you do not share this worldview, and are not star-struck by the celebrity Chomsky, then his rambling comparisons between the Western response over Kosova and the Western response over East Timor can only appear extremely tortuous and boring. It is tiresome yet again to point out, for example, the absolute falsehood of Chomsky’s claim that ‘the crimes in East Timor at the same time’ as the Kosovo war ‘were far worse than anything reported in Kosovo prior to the NATO bombing’ – it simply isn’t true.
I am using Chomsky, therefore, only to open a discussion on the question of genocidal causality, and the insidious nature of the sophistry employed by Chomsky and his ‘anti-imperialist’ comrades: that Serbian ethnic-cleansing in Kosova occurred in response to the NATO bombing and was therefore NATO’s fault. As Chomsky put it: ‘The NATO bombing did not end the atrocities but rather precipitated by far the worst of them, as had been anticipated by the NATO command and the White House.’ The thrust of Chomsky’s argument is that since NATO commanders predicted that the NATO bombing would lead to a massive escalation of Serbian attacks on the Kosova Albanian civilian population, and since this prediction was borne out, then NATO is responsible for having cold-bloodedly caused the atrocities that occurred after the bombing started.
The falsehood of this logic can be demonstrated if we ask the following questions:
1) Chomsky claims that the bombing precipitated ‘by far the worst’ of the atrocities, but what precipitated the bombing ?
The answer is that the NATO bombing of Serbia in March 1999 was precipitated by Belgrade’s rejection of the Rambouillet Accords. Belgrade was aware that rejecting the Rambouillet Accords would precipitate Serbia being bombed by NATO, but rejected them nevertheless. By Chomsky’s own logic, therefore, Serbia’s own actions precipitated the NATO bombings, and were consequently responsible for those bombings. Since, according to Chomsky, the bombings led to the atrocities, that means that Serbia was responsible for the atrocities after all.
What Chomsky would like us to believe, is that if a US or NATO action produced a predictable Serbian response, then the response was the fault of the US/NATO. But if, on the other hand, a Serbian action produced a predictable US/NATO response, then the response was still the fault of the US/NATO. This is self-evidently a case of double standards.
2) Chomsky claims that the bombing precipitated ‘by far the worst’ of the atrocities, but what would have been precipitated by a failure to bomb ?
From reading Chomsky and his fellow ‘anti-imperialists’, one would almost believe that the bloodshed in Kosova had been – in Edward Said’s words – a ‘Sunday school picnic’ prior to the NATO bombing. Yet this is what Human Rights Watch reported in January 1999, more than two months before the bombing began:
The government forces intensified their offensive throughout July and August , despite promises from Milosevic that it had stopped. By mid-August, the government had retaken much of the territory that had been held by the KLA, including their stronghold of Malisevo. Unable to protect the civilian population, the KLA retreated into Drenica and some pockets in the West.
Some of the worst atrocities to date occurred in late September, as the government’s offensive was coming to an end. On September 26, eighteen members of an extended family, mostly women, children, and elderly, were killed near the village of Donje Obrinje by men believed to be with the Serbian special police. Many of the victims had been shot in the head and showed signs of bodily mutilation. On the same day, thirteen ethnic Albanian men were executed in the nearby village of Golubovac by government forces. One man survived and was subsequently taken out of the country by the international agencies in Kosovo.
The government offensive was an apparent attempt to crush civilian support for the rebels. Government forces attacked civilians, systematically destroyed towns, and forced thousands of people to flee their homes. One attack in August near Senik killed seventeen civilians who were hiding in the woods. The police were seen looting homes, destroying already abandoned villages, burning crops, and killing farm animals.
The majority of those killed and injured were civilians. At least 300,000 people were displaced, many of them women and children now living without shelter in the mountains and woods. In October, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identified an estimated 35,000 of the displaced as particularly at risk of exposure to the elements. Most were too afraid to return to their homes due to the continued police presence. [our emphasis]
(Contrary to what Chomsky says, the number killed in Kosova prior to the start of the NATO bombing was greater than the number of East Timorese civilians killed by the Indonesians and their proxies during the whole of 1999).
Chomsky is saying that if – instead of presenting an ultimatum to Belgrade at Rambouillet and then proceeding to bomb Serbia when Belgrade defied that ultimatum – the NATO powers had given Belgrade a free hand in Kosova, then Serbian repression in Kosova would simply have continued at what he considers to be an acceptable level. Of course, there is no way of proving one way or the other what would have happened in Kosova if NATO hadn’t gone to war in the spring of 1999, but given the catalogue of horrors in the former Yugoslavia that were demonstrably not ‘precipitated’ by Western military intervention – the destruction of Vukovar, the siege of Sarajevo, the Srebrenica massacre, the killing of at least 100,000 Bosnians, the ethnic-cleansing of 300,000 Kosovars, etc. – the evidence suggests that it would not have resembled Edward Said’s ‘Sunday school picnic’.
3) Chomsky claims that the bombing precipitated ‘by far the worst’ of the atrocities, but even if this were true, would this make those atrocities NATO’s fault ?
Genocides are invariably ‘precipitated’ by something or other. The Armenian Genocide was ‘precipitated’ by the outbreak of World War I and Tsarist Russia’s military advance into Anatolia. The Rwandan Genocide was ‘precipitated’ by the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s offensive against the Rwandan Army, the Arusha Accords and by the shooting down of the plane carrying Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana. Of course, it is entirely legitimate for historians to interpret instances of genocide as having been ‘precipitated’ by something or other, but anyone who uses such explanations to shift the responsibility away from the perpetrators – whether Ottoman, Hutu, German, Serbian or other – is simply an apologist or a denier.
On 30 January 1939, Adolf Hitler gave a speech to the Reichstag in which he stated: ‘If the world of international financial Jewry, both in and outside of Europe, should succeed in plunging the nations into another world war, the result will not be the Bolshevisation of the world and thus a victory for Judaism. The result will be the extermination of the Jewish race in Europe.’
Hitler therefore made it explicit that the outbreak of a world war would result in the extermination of the Jews in Europe. Indeed, the outbreak and course of World War II ‘precipitated’ the Holocaust. Britain and France, when they declared war on Germany in September 1939, were by Chomsky’s logic responsible for the Holocaust. Some ‘anti-imperialists’ have, in fact, attempted to make this very point.
In sum, Chomsky’s case is a disgrace at the level of plain reasoning, never mind at the level of ethics.
Let there be no mistake about this: atrocities, ethnic cleansing and genocide are the responsibility of those who commit them. Whatever ‘precipitates’ them, they are the fault of their perpetrators. And it would be a sorry world indeed if were were to allow perpetrators to deter us from taking action to stop atrocities, ethnic cleansing and genocide, by their threat to commit still worse crimes in the event that we do take action.
Image: Chomsky agreeing with Dobrica Cosic, the leading ideological architect of the Wars of Yugoslav Succession, on the need to partition Kosova – as reported by the Serbian magazine NIN.
Hat tip: Andras Riedlmayer, Daniel of Srebrenica Genocide Blog.
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