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Reflections on the War | The Nation

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Reflections on the War

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The Hidden Agendas

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Richard Falk
Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law and practice at Princeton University, is the United Nations Human...

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By ignoring the UN Security Council resolution’s mandate authorizing intervention, NATO may have destroyed the prospects for future legitimate uses of the principle of “responsibility to protect.”

If both sides embrace the fragile cease-fire with leaps of imagination and faith, Israelis and Palestinians could chart an escape route from the inferno.

In addition to these complexities, the NATO war was beset by subtexts having nothing to do with the actual Kosovo situation. One was a desire to validate the need for NATO. Ever since 1989, the rationale for maintaining an expensive defensive alliance, established four decades earlier to meet the threat to Europe posed by Soviet power, had seemed thin indeed. But there was always more to NATO than its cold war rationale: It was the means to insure a continuing US presence in Western Europe, which is widely believed on both sides of the Atlantic to be responsible for regional peace and prosperity, and which is contrasted with the unhappy European experience in the first half of the century, when the United States was not actively engaged. For many Europeans, support for reliance on NATO rested on this concealed premise that the alliance would soon wither away unless its existence could be revalidated in a dramatic way. Washington shared these sentiments, with the added worry that any further evolution of European regionalism could harm US economic interests.

Another subtext was the Pentagon's desire to demonstrate how it could wage war without casualties by relying heavily on information technology for the precision targeting of missiles and bombs. It was part of the drive to maintain military budgets in an era in which there were no credible strategic threats to US security and in which it would be difficult to gain political support for military action if US lives were placed at risk.

Perhaps as important in terms of unspoken concerns, both Americans and Europeans were properly ashamed of their performance in Bosnia, especially that they had allowed Serbian forces to overrun the UN safe haven in Srebrenica; validated the main ethnic cleansing scenario at Dayton; and permitted Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the masterminds of Bosnian Serb criminality, to remain at large despite the Dayton commitment to prosecute war criminals. For many, an ethnic cleansing rerun in Kosovo was too much. Something needed to be done, and in a manner that would not reinforce the Bosnian image of futility.

All these factors led to, and were reinforced by, disastrous errors of judgment. The slide toward war seemed almost orchestrated by Madeleine Albright's insistence that Belgrade swallow whole the Rambouillet accord, without adjustment, despite its blatant and extensive challenges to Yugoslavia's sovereign rights. On one level, the war seemed to result from Richard Holbrooke's theatrical diplomacy, which can only be defended on the false presupposition that Milosevic would back down at the last moment, thereby consolidating his image as an opportunist. That image was based on his acceptance in 1995 of the Croatian push against the Serbs in the Krajina and on his abandonment of the Serb cause in Bosnia that year in the face of NATO bombing in Bosnia. In effect, Holbrooke was playing a bluffing game of geopolitical poker with poor cards, relying on the false reading that Milosevic would in the end treat Kosovo as opportunistically as he had Bosnia and the Krajina. The fact that Milosevic has now "folded" doesn't make the earlier bluff any more reasonable.

The situation was compounded by what were probably also miscalculations by Milosevic, who likely assumed on the basis of the Bosnian experience that calling NATO's bluff would produce, at worst, a short-lived attack with relatively mild consequences. Milosevic probably believed (from past action and anticipated disunity among European governments) that even if NATO initiated bombing, it would be only a shallow commitment.

The result, predictably, was disaster. Not only did the bombing persist for many weeks but the NATO cure greatly worsened the Milosevic disease. Ethnic cleansing was accelerated, creating a massive refugee ordeal for both the Kosovars and neighboring Macedonia and Albania. Further, by opting for zero-casualty warfare, the entire burden of risk was shifted to the target society, including the supposed beneficiaries in Kosovo and innocent civilians throughout Yugoslavia. Kosovo has been substantially destroyed as a viable society, as has much of the civilian infrastructure of Serbia.

The absence of NATO casualties only accentuates the irresponsible character of this strategy, while the number of bombing mistakes, which included hospitals, villages, schools and refugee convoys, has caused the finger of criminality to be pointed in NATO's direction. Recourse to bombing civilian targets such as water and electricity infrastructure, which was deliberately undertaken after the initial phase of bombing military targets failed to achieve "victory," was a grave violation of the laws of war. In addition, the larger concerns of global stability were put in great potential danger due to the allegedly accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy and the seeming alienation of Russia.

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