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False History Lessons | The Nation

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False History Lessons

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Confronted with the inexplicable, policy-makers and pundits alike grope for the apt historical analogy. It's a natural human reaction. And as historians learn from their excavations in the archives, some "historical lessons" approach the mythological. That has happened in the debate within the liberal-left community over what to do in Kosovo. Here are two of the most prevalent mythologies being purveyed:

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Kai Bird
Kai Bird is a Nation contributing editor, a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and the author, most recently, of...

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Two decades ago, nearly one-sixth of the population was forcibly expelled. How did King Wangchuck escape any real censure?

How did Hosni Mubarak manage to stay in power for three decades?

§ Kosovo is another Vietnam. Yes, some of the actors are speaking lines that sound very much like William Bundy contemplating the bombing of North Vietnam: "It seems to me that our orchestration should be mainly violins, but with periodic touches of brass." In the nineties, we have "cruise diplomacy." And yes, one of the lessons to be learned from Vietnam and applied to Yugoslavia is that bombing campaigns inevitably stiffen the will of those being bombed--and rarely achieve the intended military goal. But in Vietnam, the United States intervened in a civil war waged in the context of a decades-long anticolonial nationalist struggle. Culturally and linguistically, the Vietnamese were one people. The same cannot be said for the Serbs and Kosovars. Until last month, 90 percent of Kosovo was populated by a people with a distinctly different language, religion and culture.

§ Kosovo is another Holocaust. There are no gas ovens and no mass killing of a whole people. Rather, what we have is state-sponsored ethnic cleansing in the heart of Europe. Thousands of unarmed civilians are being murdered for the express purpose of frightening an entire ethnic group into abandoning its homeland.

If, for purposes of shorthand, we need a historical analogy to understand what is happening in Kosovo, why not look at Bangladesh (then called East Pakistan) in 1971? At the time, East Pakistan was a federated province of Pakistan. The vast majority of the population was Muslim but steeped in the language and culture of East Bengal. A brutal military dictatorship in West Pakistan arrested the democratically elected East Pakistani leader, Mujibur Rahman, and launched a bloody military campaign, ostensibly against East Pakistani "terrorists." Tens of thousands of innocent civilians in East Pakistan were slaughtered--and more than a million refugees poured into India.

Recall how the international community reacted with an outpouring of assistance to those fleeing the West Pakistani killers. But also recall that the refugees could not return home until India mounted a massive invasion of East Pakistan and liberated the country. Thus was born Bangladesh.

If Bangladesh is at least a better analogy than Vietnam, does this suggest that a US-led NATO is bound to launch a ground invasion to liberate Kosovo? At this writing it seems possible. On the eve of its fiftieth anniversary, NATO is so burdened with powerful myths of its own--that it prevented a Soviet invasion of Western Europe at the beginning of the cold war, that it kept the "long peace" and that it even played a decisive role in ending the cold war--that Washington policy-makers are psychologically programmed to do absolutely anything to maintain the alliance's "credibility."

If Clinton is lucky, any ground invasion would end with a relatively clear-cut liberation of Kosovo--just as Indira Gandhi managed to liberate Bangladesh in a relatively short, six-week war. But then again, it could get very messy, particularly if it becomes necessary to march on Belgrade.

If a ground invasion does not happen, much of the mythology surrounding NATO will crumble--which might be good in the long run for Europe and very bad for the Kosovars. They would become the new Palestinians, condemned to tent cities and second-class status throughout Europe.

The left-liberal community on the surface seems to be divided into principled anti-interventionists, who see Kosovo as another Vietnam, and "humanitarian" interventionists, who see it as another Holocaust. But if we dispensed with the worn-out historical analogies, stopped reliving the past, we would find that we do share some fundamental values and an internationalist, postnuclear outlook. In the twenty-first century, we are all going to be trying to build a world in which common-sense international law begins to transcend outdated sovereign rights. An estimated 111 million people died in twentieth-century wars. The human race won't survive the next century unless the nation-state as we know it is regulated by international law.

And yet, as we have seen in recent years in Rwanda, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and now Kosovo, intraethnic, communal violence is precisely the kind of "war" we will face in the next century. Because of political considerations both here and abroad, US unilateralism is ill suited to smothering this kind of war. (Remember Somalia.) Neither is a US-led NATO a viable peacekeeping force. Indeed, it has already become a liability.

So whatever the outcome in Kosovo--and, personally, I hope the Serbs are forced by someone (even NATO) to relinquish one of their own nationalist mythologies and the Kosovars are allowed to go home--the historical lessons of this humanitarian crisis are already clear. We need an international criminal court in which political leaders can expeditiously be indicted and tried for crimes against humanity. We need a standing UN army available to smother ethnic violence and serve as neutral, truly international peacekeepers [see Bird, "The Case for a UN Army," August 8/15, 1994]. We need to empower the UN, reform it, democratize it and recognize that, like democracy at home, a democratic UN will be a messy beast, but it will belong to us all.

The Clinton Administration finds itself in its current predicament precisely because it has not opened up any of these truly internationalist options. Indeed, it has blocked an international criminal court and continued to insist on US exceptionalism in the use of force. In the next century the new tools of internationalism must be more truly international and democratic than are cold war dinosaurs like NATO.

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