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:
§ 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.”