Kosovo: On Ends and Means
In today's world the flip side of high-tech bullying is a mad scramble among small states to acquire weapons of mass destruction for their own protection. Proliferation, Chomsky points out in an extended aside, will be one of many unpleasant aftereffects of NATO's war. With some embarrassment, one wonders whether, after the North Koreans sell their missiles and the Russians their bombs, Washington will reconsider the gusto with which it launches military operations.
A less tangible but no less important logical consequence of NATO's unprovoked assault on Yugoslavia is the dangerous precedent this sets for international law. Chomsky says that
in the real world, there are two options: (1) Some kind of framework of world order, perhaps the U.N. Charter, the International Court of Justice, and other existing institutions, or perhaps something better if it can be devised and broadly accepted. (2) The powerful do as they wish, expecting to receive the accolades that are the prerogative of power.
This is quite right. More specifically, what the world has now is, on the one hand, the Westphalian system as it evolved after 1648, with its core insight that sovereign states must mind their own business when it comes to each other's internal affairs, and, on the other, the notion that some doctrine of moral imperatives (or the illusion of such) may justify intervention. The two views are mutually exclusive, notwithstanding recent efforts by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and others to meld them. Even the systems of discourse these paradigms employ to justify themselves operate on entirely different levels. The Westphalian view is pragmatic, rational, concerned with avoiding war; humanitarian interventionism is quasi-religious, unapproachable except through belief. Choosing between them depends upon how one feels getting out of bed. Except now the world learns that it doesn't have much of a choice--we're taking a giant leap backward, some 350 years.
One can, perhaps, define modernity as the evolution of the awareness and appreciation of individuality. In this matter, "humanitarian intervention" represents a significant leap backward. Arguing, in extreme form, not only a right but a duty to intervene, it rejects the gray area of international humanitarian law that applies to individuals, as practiced, say, by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Neutrality is out, while co-belligerency is in. The first to suffer will be individuals who otherwise may have had recourse to some limited, painstakingly created international protections. It's worth recalling that the humanitarian interventionist argument has its modern roots in the Biafra crisis of the late sixties. Francophone groups in particular, and those who would form Doctors Without Borders, argued that aid agencies had to take sides. France, of course, wanted to take sides, in part to secure lucrative oil-lifting rights. For its own reasons the United States decided to take sides in Yugoslavia. The trend is clear enough: We are moving from somewhat successful efforts to moderate or defuse violence, efforts based on enlightened notions of individual rights, toward approving and channeling violence for group ends.
But let's face it, most people who observed the Kosovo conflict didn't suspect they might themselves be victims of a massive government and media disinformation campaign. Moreover, a theoretical or comparative argument wouldn't have seemed particularly persuasive coming from the initiated, who themselves rightly remain puzzled about whether or how to vest abominable government misbehavior with a collective conscious volition. No, the thing that got people's attention was that those articulating the policy seemed to enjoy just a little too much the misery they were causing. The twitchy rantings of US Gen. Wesley Clark, the NATO supreme commander. The snide egoism of Madeleine Albright's amanuensis, Jamie Rubin, and his puckish NATO counterpart, Jamie Shea. What a cast of characters! What an extravaganza! A small group at the pinnacle of power set out capriciously to destroy a small country, succeeded and relished every minute of it. The public recognized the smell of evil. How many kids, indeed, did NATO kill?
In fact, there was quite a lot of dissent brewing about the war. Even the mainstream media voiced doubts. Chomsky barely mentions this, doesn't make anything of it and maybe wasn't aware of it except unconsciously in a feeling of reproach: the public coming to the right conclusions for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, there were hopeful signs of a nascent antiwar movement, one that could have taken to the streets in large numbers if the war had continued. This suggests that establishment power has real limits, that the public has a moral sense of fair play--you could have read that into news from Seattle lately, too. People knew that Kosovo was not an immaculate mistake: The war sprang from a series of bad decisions, and different decisions could have cut it off. There was a way out, after all.
Chomsky's splendid critique demands attention for many reasons, but above all for the questions in it he already thinks answered. How could this happen? Can't we devise laws to regulate properly the conduct of foreign policy? Why do intelligent people in the press tell one another lies? How do we know, really, when we're doing something wrong? Chomsky, described by the science writer Martin Gardner as a "mysterian"--that is, one who believes we never will have answers to explain human consciousness or the creative powers of the human mind--may think not all these questions are worth asking; that only macro-policy and global effects deserve investigation. True, by their nature, questions of practical ethics have no definitive answers. Human beings will continue asking them, though, because we know from experience that in different historical times and places asking about the right moral procedure leads to better and better approximations of the truth, and because it is in our genes to be very afraid of what may happen if we don't.