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Kosovo: On Ends and Means | The Nation

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Kosovo: On Ends and Means

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On March 18, the day the Rambouillet talks broke down, David Scheffer, the State Department's ambassador at large for war crimes issues, proclaimed that "we have upwards to about 100,000 men that we cannot account for" in Kosovo. Depending upon the sophistication of the press organ involved, this statement was variously construed as a warning or, as the New York Daily News put it in a headline the next day, 100,000 Kosovar Men Feared Dead. The specter of mass murder critically supported public acceptance of NATO airstrikes, which began less than a week later, on March 24. After two months of bombing, the Yugoslav regime was still, to the Administration's deepening chagrin, in the fight. By this time there were increasing murmurs of discontent in the press regarding the effect of NATO airstrikes on unmistakably civilian targets. Ambassador Scheffer stepped to the plate again in mid-May, calling for "speedy investigations" of war crimes (by Serbs) while now noting that "as many as 225,000 ethnic Albanian men aged between 14 and 59 remain unaccounted for." Several wire services quoted him on different days as saying that "with the exception of Rwanda in 1994 and Cambodia in 1975, you would be hard-pressed to find a crime scene anywhere in the world since World War II where a defenseless civilian population has been assaulted with such ferocity and criminal intent, and suffered so many multiple violations of humanitarian law in such a short period of time as in Kosovo since mid-March 1999." It was a profoundly ignorant remark, of course, but what's important is that the Administration's laserlike focus on allegations and innuendoes of genocidal acts securely established the legitimacy of continued bombing for an at-that-time unknown, perhaps lengthy period.

About the Author

George Kenney
George Kenney, who writes frequently on foreign affairs, resigned from the State Department's Yugoslavia desk in 1992...

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Helpfully sensing that Washington--Scheffer and a battalion of like-minded flacks--had gone too far out on a limb, in June and July the British started publicizing their reduced estimate that 10,000 Albanian Kosovars had been killed. For whatever reason that number stuck in establishment circles. In fact, however, it appears to be still too many. The actual number is probably somewhere in the low thousands.

In mid-July sources from the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, known as KFOR, were telling the press that of 2,150 bodies found by peacekeepers only 850 were victims of massacres. Nevertheless, still eager to bolster the Serb=devil argument, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, in an address to the Council on Foreign Relations on July 26, poignantly mentioned "the village of Ljubenic, the largest mass-grave site discovered so far from this conflict, with as many as 350 bodies." Berger may not have been aware that the Italian in charge of the site, Brig. Gen. Mauro Del Vecchio, had told the press several days earlier that the exhumation had been completed at the site and that seven bodies had been found. All press mention of Ljubenic ceases after that point.

On September 23 El País, a mainstream Madrid paper, reported that Spanish forensic investigators sent to Kosovo had found no proof of genocide. The team, which had experience in Rwanda, had been told to expect to perform more than 2,000 autopsies in one of the areas worst hit by fighting, but it found only 187 bodies to examine. No mass graves and, for the most part, no signs of torture. And when on October 10 other investigators announced that no bodies had been found in the Trepca mine complex, long rumored to contain as many as 700 corpses, skepticism burst into the open. First out of the gate was a Web site called Stratfor.com, a sort of wannabe Jane's Intelligence Review, which in a long article concluded that "bodies numbering only in the hundreds have been found," while taking care not to judge the final outcome prematurely. Though it raised the right questions, Stratfor's estimate was too low because of sloppy research, something symptomatic of much of its work. It was, nevertheless, widely cited. The debate raced around the Internet, popped up in Alexander Cockburn's November 8 Nation column (which was recycled as an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times), found space in another author's opinion column in the Amsterdam De Volkskrant and then emerged as a very lengthy news story in the Sunday Times of London. The Sunday Times added an interview with the head of the Spanish team, Emilio Perez Pujol, who was "disillusioned" by the "war propaganda machine." Pujol says the death toll may never exceed 2,500.

Until recently the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia kept out of the debate, except indirectly in late August when it was quick to deny the figure of 11,000 dead that Kosovo's UN civilian administrator, Bernard Kouchner, was then touting. But on November 10 Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor for the ICTY, reported to the UN Security Council that its investigators had found 2,108 bodies at 195 sites, out of 529 reported locales. Del Ponte cautioned that it was an interim figure and that evidence of grave tampering did exist; Ljubenic and Trepca sites made notorious in press reports were found not to contain masses of bodies. A State Department draft report still set the number of likely Kosovar Albanian deaths at "over 8,000."

Investigators have probably cherry-picked the most likely large mass graves. Serbian forces probably did truck some bodies to Serbia for disposal in, for example, smelters. But could that have been more than a couple of thousand, without leaving a trail of evidence that has so far not appeared? The press has reported on most of the larger graves that KFOR has found. And we know that several thousand Albanian Kosovars were taken to Serbian prisons during the war, are still being held and are gradually being accounted for. Given the number of ICTY-identified sites and the tribunal's findings so far, a reasonable guess of the Albanian dead lies somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000.

By the standards of its own humanitarian argument, Chomsky points out, NATO accomplished nothing or less than nothing. Largely in response to NATO bombing, Serbs killed a few thousand Albanian civilians; to even the score NATO killed a few thousand Serb civilians while, incidentally, clocking Yugoslavia's economic infrastructure. Chomsky ridicules the notion that bombing was meant to stop the Serbs' forcible expulsion of Albanians or that it did anything but accelerate the process--although these expulsions, which were televised around the world, did generate support for NATO's bombing campaign. Chomsky lambastes Administration claims that without bombing, the Serbs would have committed more and worse atrocities. He provides important corrections to conventional wisdom regarding the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's monitoring mission in place before the bombing, underappreciated by Washington, and he documents Serbia's eagerness to seek a negotiated settlement that would have included a substantial international armed presence. He also notes, as have several others, that Rambouillet set up a pretext for bombing, but then he goes on to describe, as only a handful have, how it may well not have been the bombing that led to a settlement but rather a significant change in US demands, a more than face-saving compromise that shifted ultimate responsibility for deciding Kosovo's political future from NATO to the UN. Most thoughtful critics of the war--Michael Mandelbaum's article this fall in Foreign Affairs comes to mind--unfortunately missed this point, which is essential to understanding not only recent history but also the ongoing dynamics of Serb-NATO exchanges.

Chomsky speculates that Washington initiated the NATO war in order to boost NATO's credibility, not in a positive sense but as an arch-demonstration of power. Serbia, Chomsky writes, "was an annoyance, an unwelcome impediment to Washington's efforts to complete its substantial takeover of Europe." Furthermore, "as long as Serbia is not incorporated within U.S.-dominated domains, it makes sense to punish it for failure to conform--very visibly, in a way that will serve as a warning to others that might be similarly inclined." The theme of a rogue superpower serves as the basis for many illuminating comparisons regarding US abuse of power, directly or by way of clients, in Vietnam, Laos, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, Haiti, Palestine, East Timor, Iraq and Turkey, to name a few. Given, for example, that US actions have steadily encouraged the Turks to persecute the Kurds, it would be inconsistent, Chomsky argues, indeed irrational, to give any credence at all to a general claim that US policy is guided by benevolent humanitarian impulses, and the same holds for any such claim about Kosovo. One by one his examples could be debated separately according to the exigencies of circumstance; taken together, they form a damning indictment.

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