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Synthesis/Regeneration 20   (Fall, 1999)

Bombing Yugoslavia:
A "Humanitarian War" for an Imperialist Peace

by Howie Hawkins, Syracuse Green Party

The US bombed Yugoslavia for the same imperialist reasons it bombed Iraq, Sudan, and Afghanistan this year as well as Bosnia in 1995, namely, to project global power and show the world who's the boss. The expressed concern for the rights of Albanian Kosovars was a pretext for advancing US economic and geopolitical interests. The bombing campaign did nothing to protect the Albanian Kosovars from Serb fascists; indeed, it gave them the cover for the ethnic cleansing of Albanians from Kosovo that they had sought for years.

The US pushed the bombing campaign in order to reinforce the dominion of US-run NATO over Europe and to expand NATO's mission to "out of area" military interventions. Under the cover of humanitarian pretensions, NATO now becomes the global cop who enforces the conditions for corporate exploitation, just as nineteenth century imperialism pillaged the Third World while pretending a self-sacrificing "white man's burden" of civilizing the "backward countries."

In Yugoslavia itself, there was nothing of vital economic interest to the US. But there was a nice plum in its province of Kosovo. "The sprawling state-owned Trepca mining complex, the most valuable piece of real estate in the Balkans, is worth at least $5 billion," wrote Chris Hedges for the New York Times. According to the mine's director, Novak Bjelic, speaking in mid-1998 during the civil war between the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Yugoslav army, "The war in Kosovo is about the mines, nothing else. This is Serbia's Kuwait, the heart of Kosovo." The mines contain huge veins of lead, zinc, cadmium, gold and silver, as well as 17 billion tons of coal reserves. (1 [see notes at end])

Under the cover of humanitarian pretensions, NATO now becomes the global cop who enforces the conditions for corporate exploitation...

Aside from the lucrative but not vital Trepca mining complex, the US wants in Yugoslavia the favorable conditions for corporate profit-making that it wants everywhere: sweat-shop labor conditions, a deregulated market, privatized assets, a "stable" (i.e., repressive) government that maintains these conditions against any social insurgency. That the US has commercial as well as military interests in the Balkans was symbolized in the Boeing 737 crash in 1996 that killed Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown. Perishing with Brown were top executives from Boeing, Bechtel, AT&T, Enron, Northwest Airlines, and several other corporations, all of them major Democratic Party donors and traveling with Brown to secure contracts from the $5.1 billion post Bosnian war reconstruction package. (2)

Bombing European Independence

The most important reason the US wanted war in Kosovo, and before that in Bosnia, had to do with concerns outside the Balkans. A primary US political/military goal has been to prevent the Western European powers from breaking free of their subordination to the US through NATO. Since the Cold War ended, the US has needed a rationale for preventing Europe from establishing itself as an independent political/military entity, especially in an alliance with Russia and its nuclear capacities. The wars in Yugoslavia have served this purpose well. The US aim has not been to settle the Balkan conflicts. To the contrary, the US has repeatedly, in Bosnia and Kosovo, blocked settlements, encouraged war by ultra-nationalist and fascistic forces in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia itself, and sought out opportunities to bomb. The US aim has been to occupy the Balkans militarily, thus keeping Europe dependent on US military capacity. (3)

A primary US political/military goal has been to prevent the Western European powers from breaking free of their subordination to the US...

This US goal in the Balkans is linked to the overall US goal of nothing less than global domination as "the indispensable power" in Madeleine Albright's arrogant phrase. A 1992 Pentagon policy document redefined US political/military goals for the post Cold War world. Entitled "The Defense Planning Guide," it states, "Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival [i.e., Europe]....We must...discourage [the advanced industrial nations] from challenging our leadership....It is of fundamental importance to preserve NATO as the primary instrument of Western defense and security as well as the channel for US influence and participation in European security affairs.... We must seek to prevent the emergence of European-only security arrangements that would undermine NATO....[We must maintain] the sense that the world order is ultimately backed by the US....The US should be postured to act independently when collective action [i.e., the UN] cannot be orchestrated." (4) It is in this context of the US drive for global domination and European subordination that the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s must be understood.

Caught Between Domestic Bureaucrats and Foreign Imperialists

But it is not just US machinations that account for the recent Balkan Wars. Internally, the Yugoslav state bureaucracy, led by the Yugoslav League of Communists, held power in the post World War II period through a one-party government and a state-owned market economy. Staking out a position of neutrality between East and West in the Cold War and introducing profit-oriented worker-managed firms (with workers' power strictly circumscribed by the League of Communists), the economy grew phenomenally in the 1950s and 1960s and old ethnic rivalries faded in the general prosperity. By the mid-1960s, however, as the linking of the Yugoslav market to the global market created economic imbalances and competitive pressures, continued Yugoslav prosperity began to depend on an influx of foreign capital, which Western banks were happy to provide.

By 1970, foreign debt was $2 billion; by 1975, $6 billion; and by 1980, $20 billion, representing a quarter of national income, with debt servicing taking 20% of export revenues. Now the IMF stepped in, imposing as a condition of continued financing increasingly severe austerity measures, including wage reductions, mass lay-offs, enterprise liquidations, privatizations, and financial deregulation. Between 1979 and 1985, workers' real personal income fell 25%. The standard of living fell by 40% between 1982 and 1989.

In 1990 and 1991, the economy nose-dived into almost total collapse with runaway inflation and severe depression under even more severe IMF "shock therapy," throwing the Yugoslav state itself into crisis. Throughout the 1980s, workers had paid for servicing the debt, but in 1989 the debt still stood at $20 billion. In the early 1990s, unemployment rose to over 30% and 60% of the people lived below the minimum income formerly guaranteed by the state. Meanwhile, as market forces played an increasing role at the expense of economic planning and inter-regional transfers from wealthier regions like Slovenia to poorer regions like Kosovo, regional inequalities increased dramatically. One of the key Yugoslav bureaucrats slavishly administering the IMF austerity program was Slobodan Milosevic, who launched the Milosevic Commission in 1987 to provide the rationale for economic reforms in 1988 that scrapped economic planning, centralized the Yugoslav federation, and implemented the IMF's pro-capitalist "structural adjustment" package. (5)

...the bureaucratic elites tried to fight the workers movement by dividing it along ethnic lines.

Politically in this period, Yugoslavia became polarized, not between nationalities, but between a growing independent, multi-ethnic workers movement resisting the austerity measures and demanding more democracy and a move by the bureaucratic elites to nationalism as a means of mobilizing a base of support within their respective ethnic communities as the Yugoslav state went into crisis. Led by revived fascist parties that had not been heard from since World War II in alliance with "reform" Communist leaders who now sought to convert their ruling power from a bureaucratic to a capitalist basis, the bureaucratic elites tried to fight the workers movement by dividing it along ethnic lines.

An enormous strike wave had spread across the country in 1987, sparking a non-nationalist workers movement demanding a democratic socialism, not ethnic nationalism. But the bureaucratic ruling class, backed by the US and IMF, mobilized nationalist sentiment in their respective ethnic communities in what became a desperate scramble for crumbs from a shrinking pie.

US policy, codified in a "Secret Sensitive" 1984 National Security Decision Directive (NSDD), "United States Policy Toward Yugoslavia," encouraged these economic measures to break up Yugoslavia's state-owned economy and open it up to full integration into the global market. (6) Until 1991, however, the US opposed the break-up of the Yugoslav state. Meanwhile, Germany led a group of European powers that encouraged Slovenia and Croatia to secede and recognized them once they did on June 25, 1991. The US continued to back Milosevic diplomatically as he went to war in Slovenia and Croatia to keep them in the Yugoslav Federation. The US also supported his simultaneous operations against Albanians in Kosovo, a military operation intended to bolster his political credentials with the anti-Albanian chauvinism of Serb nationalists. Concerned that Germany was creating its own sphere influence, independent of US tutelage, the US looked for a way to get more involved in The Balkans and found it by playing the Bosnian card against Germany and the rest of Europe.

As the war between Croats and Serbs spilled over into Bosnia, the Europe Community proposed an ethnic cantonization of Bosnia. Hundreds of thousands of Croats, Serbs, and Muslims living in Bosnia, one-third of whose families were mixed, protested this ethnic partition of their homeland by the Western powers and local fascists. The independent trade union movement continued to resist, holding out for a multi-ethnic socialist democracy. But the US encouraged the Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic to declare Bosnia independent in March 1992, scuttling a peace agreement Izetbegovic had already agreed to that was little different from the one eventually signed at Dayton fours years later, after all the carnage, atrocities, and ethnic cleansing by militias on all sides. By encouraging the Bosnian war, the ethnic cleansing, the post-war ethnic apartheid that is called peace, and by topping it off with bombing strikes leading to the UN occupation based on US/NATO military logistical support, the US achieved its purpose of making its military capacity indispensable in the region. (7)

Seeking War in Kosovo

The war over Kosovo followed a similar scenario. At Dayton, Albanian Kosovar grievances were kept off the table. The US boosted Milosevic as a "guarantor" of the Dayton Accords. With the collapse of the Albanian regime in the latter part of 1997, the border between Albania and Kosovo opened up and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) began serious military actions in Kosovo with weapons seized from Albanian armories. In early 1998, the US signaled to Milosevic that he was free to undertake counter-insurgency operations by having the US special envoy to the region, Robert Gelbard, declare in Belgrade that the KLA is a terrorist organization.

That same month, March 1998, Milosevic and the elected leader of the Albanian shadow government, Ibrahim Rugova, declared their support for a peace plan proposed by the European Union and Russia that would have provided for autonomy for Kosovo. But the KLA and the US refused to agree, as NATO prepared its bombing plans. On October 13, Milosevic agreed to a cease fire which provided for Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers. But the US obstructed implementation, holding up funding and the observers until it placed William Walker, a veteran of covert operations in Nicaragua and El Salvador, in charge of the OSCE monitoring force. The KLA, probably with US encouragement, ignored the cease-fire while Serbia observed it, according to the European Union's report on the situation in December. But the US pushed for bombing Yugoslavia on the grounds that its counter-insurgency against the KLA was in fact ethnic cleansing. At the insistence of the German and French governments, there was one more round of negotiations at Rambouillet instead of a fall bombing campaign.

As Henry Kissinger put it, "Rambouillet was not a negotiation as is often claimed but an ultimatum." (8) Serbs and Albanians were not allowed to meet with each other. Instead, the US presented a NATO ultimatum in which Yugoslavia was expected to allow NATO to occupy not just Kosovo, but all of Yugoslavia, with Yugoslavia providing free use of all facilities and with complete legal immunity for NATO for anything it might do. It also specified that Kosovo would operate as a free market economy, with state assets like the Trepca mining complex privatized. (9)

Milosevic refused to sign away Yugoslavia's sovereignty. The Albanian Kosovars also refused to sign because the "agreements" did not provide for the Albanians' goal of independence, while they did provide for disarming the KLA. The US pushed forward the most pliable pro-NATO elements of the KLA who would sign after a couple of weeks and brushed aside the elected leader Rugova and the left-wing of the KLA, led by Adem Demaci. Demaci was the political leader of the KLA at the time and advocated making common cause with the democratic, anti-nationalist Serbs in the independent trade unions for the long term vision of a socialist confederation for the Balkans. Since Rambouillet, however, Demaci has been exiled in Slovenia and targeted for assassination by the KLA leaders pushed to the forefront by the US. (10)

Far from protecting the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, the US bombing … precipitated the … ethnic cleansing in order to make ethnic cleansing the excuse for bombing.

After Rambouillet, NATO gave Milosevic, and his fascist sometimes allies in the militias of the Serbian Radical Party, five days notice that the bombing would begin on March 24 and then did not do serious bombing of Serb positions in Kosovo for weeks after that, instead targeting the economic infrastructure of Serbia, Montenegro, and Vojvodina. This gave the militias plenty of time to terrorize Albanians in Kosovo, which they initiated after the pending bombing campaign was announced. Milosevic's Yugoslav army let the militias do the ethnic cleansing as the army prepared defenses against a possible NATO ground invasion. The delay in bombing Yugoslav army positions in Kosovo also gave NATO's humanitarian pretext of countering Serb atrocities time to take hold. The ethnic cleansing certainly came as no surprise to US/NATO, as CIA and Pentagon officials soon admitted. (11) Indeed, it was easily predicted by the tactics used by the Serbs (and Croats and Muslims) in Bosnia and by anyone examining the programs of the major Serb political parties and their leaders' statements in recent years. (12) Far from protecting the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, the US bombing cynically precipitated the predictable ethnic cleansing in order to make ethnic cleansing the excuse for bombing.

The Serb government had been ready to do everything short of a NATO occupation of their whole country to prevent the bombing. The Serbian Parliament had passed a resolution the day before the bombing began that it would accept an armed peacekeeping force under UN command to protect Albanian Kosovars under an autonomy agreement. But US-led NATO wanted war and a NATO occupation of Kosovo and so ignored the Serb peace initiative. (13)

After 79 days of months of economically and ecologically catastrophic bombing came a "settlement" which differed little from that which Milosevic and Rugova, along with Western Europe and Russia, were ready to support a year ago and again at Rambouillet and again the day before bombing commenced, providing for autonomy for Kosovo with international monitoring. NATO got its military occupation, but only of Kosovo, not all of Yugoslavia. Milosevic got a UN Security Council resolution as a fig leaf covering the loss of Kosovo. Albanian Kosovars got to return home as Serbs exit Kosovo, but not to the self-government they had sought. Like the NATO protectorate in Bosnia, Kosovo will be ruled dictatorially by NATO, not Kosovars. It is questionable whether the KLA and the Albanian Kosovars will peaceably disarm and accept foreign occupation for long.

Political Office Is Not Always Political Power

How long can US/NATO occupy the Balkans before the people there wise up to the fact that they have been used as pawns by the great powers intervening, as well as by the lesser indigenous powers Milosevic in Serbia, Tudjman in Croatia, Izetbegovic in Bosnia, and, yes, Rugova (14) and the pro-NATO wing of the KLA, in their ethnic cleansing strategies to consolidate their own bureaucratic power in an economy ravaged by Western indebtedness, structural adjustment, and war?

It is here where one would hope that the Greens-with their roots in the anti-nationalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-bloc movements of the post-war European New Left-would play a major role working in solidarity with the democratic, anti-nationalist movements of the Balkans, most notably the independent trade unions that are still functioning in opposition to both Western imperialism and Balkan nationalism, as well as the smaller women's, peace, and ecological and Green movements that share these goals. (15) But while most Green parties around the world condemned US/NATO aggression in the Balkans, why did the Green parties in governing coalitions in NATO countries, namely, German, France, and Italy, go along with NATO?

...the Red-Green coalitions at all levels mean jobs...for Green Party members.

The German Party was the most involved, with its leading realo, Joschka Fischer, holding the position of Foreign Minister in the German government. For all of Fischer's legitimate outrage expressed at the atrocities and ethnic cleansing committed by Serb forces under Milosevic's watch in Bosnia and Kosovo, it must also be clear to him that Croatia's Tudjman, Bosnia's Izetbegovic, the KLA nationalists, and, above all, US-led NATO, which has encouraged all these forces, including Milosevic's Serbia, in their ethnic wars, are all partners in these crimes.

So why did Fischer, and these other Greens, line up with the NATO war criminals? One can only conclude that these Greens put power before principles, that they wanted to stay in their respective "Red-Green" coalitions at all costs. For the German Greens, the Red-Green coalitions at all levels mean jobs. In the Green party of Fischer's home state of Hesse, by 1989, 80% of the Green Party members had jobs as public officials, party officials, or their staffs. (16) These Greens have let themselves be used by the US to put a humanitarian gloss on its Machiavellian policy of global domination.

The lesson for anti-war Greens is to understand that being in office is not the same as being in power.

The lesson for anti-war Greens is to understand that being in office is not the same as being in power. It will take more than electing Greens to office if we are to dismantle US imperialism. It will take an international movement outside as well as inside of governments. Corporate power is extra-governmental. Its ability to move capital and ruin a government's economic base makes governments subordinate powers under capitalism. And military power is often extra-legal, as NATO's recent bombing campaign demonstrated. The power we potentially have, to counter the extra-governmental power of the corporations and the extra-legal power of the National Security State, lies more with direct action by masses of people in the streets, in workplaces, and in the armed forces themselves than with legislative action by a relatively few Greens elected to public office.


Some of the referenced hyperlinks no longer work. I have not tried to determine whether there are alternate locations for these documents on the web, or where else they may be available. —js

1. Wall Street Journal, June 22, 1998; New York Times, July 8, 1998.

2. Ken Silverstein and Alexander Cockburn, "A Knight of Babylon," CounterPunch, April 1-14, 1996.

3. This article can only touch on the evidence for this contention. Peter Gowan makes a fuller case in "The NATO Powers and the Balkan Tragedy," New Left Review, March/April 1999; "The Twilight of the European Project," CounterPunch, June 15-30, 1999; and the forthcoming The Global Gamble: Washington's Faustian Bid for World Dominance (London: Verso, 1999).

4. Excerpts of "The Defense Planning Guide" were reprinted in the New York Times, March 8, 1992.

5. For blow-by-blow accounts of how Western economic measures undermined Yugoslavia and created the social basis for reactionary nationalisms, see Catherine Samary, Yugoslavia Dismembered (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995) and Susan L. Woodward, Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution After the Cold War (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1995). On Milosevic's role in particular, see Michael Karadjis, "Kosova Genocide: Made in USA," Green Left Weekly, April 7, 1999 and Michael Karadjis, "Is Serbia Socialist?" Green Left Weekly, April 28, 1999.

6. Sean Gervasi, "Germany, the US, and the Yugoslav Crisis," Covert Action Quarterly, Winter 1992-93.

7. The US/NATO bombing strikes against Serb positions in eastern Bosnia in Operation Deliberate Force of August-September 1995, together with the US-backed Croatian offensive in the Serbian Krajina region of Croatia earlier in the summer, "cleansed" these areas of up to 600,000 Serbs. These military actions were taken at a time when Milosevic was granting concession after concession in hopes of ending the wars and winning Yugoslavian integration into Western institutions. For details on how the US constructed humanitarian pretexts for war when peace was at hand in Bosnia, see Diana Johnstone, "To Use a War," Covert Action Quarterly, Winter 1999.

8. Henry Kissinger, "New World Disorder," Newsweek, May 31, 1999.

9. The text of the Rambouillet agreements, including the originally secret appendices that opened up all of Yugoslavia to NATO occupation, can be read at: http://www.state.gove/www/regions/eur/ksvo_rambouillet_text.html.

10. Michael Karadjis, "What Is the KLA?" Green Left Weekly, April 21, 1999.

11. New York Times, April 1, 1999; Washington Post, April 1, 1999.

12. Vojislav Seselj's Serb Radical Party has said for years right in its program that the Albanian "immigrants and their descendants" must be removed from Kosovo (www.haverford.edu/relg/sells/reports/srpclean21.htm). The Radical Party was a ruling coalition partner in Yugoslavia until Milosevic and the Serb Parliament signed the Kosovo peace agreement in June 1999. The programs of the Western-supported opposition parties are more subtle but nonetheless also support Greater Serbia nationalism and the ethnic cleansing and border redrawing that implies. These include Zoran Djindjic's Democratic Party (www.dssrbije.org/yu/english/index.html) and the Serb Renewal Movement (www.spo.org.yu) of Vuk Draskovic, an outspoken Greater Serbian nationalist who supported the revocation of Kosovo autonomy in 1989 and advocated the "peaceful transfer of populations" (i.e., ethnic cleansing) in Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990s. As for Djindjic, he was a close ally Bosnia Serb militia leader Radovan Karadzic during the Bosnia war.

For all the demonization of Slobodan Milosevic by the West, his own public statements and the program of his Socialist Party of Serbia are by far the least nationalistic (www.sps.org.yu/engliski/documents/program/index.html). Milosevic's complicity in ethnic cleansing comes from allying with the nationalists in order to stay in power and for allowing the Serb-officered Yugoslav Army to stand by while the paramilitary forces of Seselj, Radovan Karadic, Arkan (Zelko Raznjatovic), and others carried out ethnic cleansing and other war crimes in Bosnia and Kosovo.

13. See two media advisories by Seth Ackerman, media analyst for Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR): "Forgotten Coverage of Rambouillet Negotiations," May 14, 1999, and "What Reporters Knew About Kosovo Talks But Didn't Tell. Was Rambouillet Another Tonkin Gulf?', June 2, 1999, both available at http://www.fair.or g/press-releases/kosovo-solution.html.

14. Ibrahim Rugova is often painted as a saint by pacifists in the West for his leading role in the decade-long nonviolent resistance to Serbian national oppression of Albanians in Kosovo. However, Rugova is a nationalist who has eschewed alliances with democratic Serbs, an authoritarian who discarded democratic accountability once elected to head the Albanian shadow government in Kosovo, an opportunist who opposed NATO bombing while he was in Kosovo and came out in support of NATO bombing once he got to Italy in May, a "pacifist" who formed his own paramilitary force last year called the Armed Forces of the Kosovo Republic (which the KLA soon violently absorbed), and the head of the clan that is the biggest land and business owner in Kosovo and looks to Western support to consolidate a capitalist economy in Kosovo. On Rugova's authoritarian politics, see Catherine Samary, "Kosovo and NATO," International Viewpoint, April 5, 1999 and Rosa Liebknecht (pseudonym), "Inside the KLA," International Viewpoint, April 27, 1999.

15. See Michael Karadjis, "Serbian Oppositionists Condemn NATO and Milosevic," Green Left Weekly, May 12, 1999.

16. Margit Mayer and John Ely, "Success and Dilemmas of Green Party Politics," in Margit Mayer and John Ely (eds.), The German Greens: Paradox Between Movement and Party (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998).

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