The Case Against Inaction

The Case Against Inaction

Sadly, some on the left are angrier about NATO’s bombing than they are about the Serbian forces’ atrocities, even though Milosevic’s men have killed more in one Kosovan village than have all the


Sadly, some on the left are angrier about NATO’s bombing than they are about the Serbian forces’ atrocities, even though Milosevic’s men have killed more in one Kosovan village than have all the airstrikes. Those who want an immediate NATO cease-fire owe the world an explanation of how they propose to stop and reverse the massive ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, in light of Milosevic’s history as a serial ethnic cleanser and promise-breaker. Arguments that the NATO action diminishes the stature of the United Nations are, to say the least, highly questionable. What could diminish the UN’s stature more than Milosevic’s successful defiance of more than fifty Security Council resolutions? Only last September, Resolution 1199, invoking Chapter VII of the UN Charter, ordered Belgrade to “cease all action by the security forces affecting the civilian population and order the withdrawal of security units used for civilian repression” in Kosovo. Only last October, Milosevic promised to reduce troop numbers in Kosovo, and his pledge was endorsed and given the force of international law by Security Council Resolution 1203. By the time the Rambouillet negotiations had started, he had more troops in Kosovo than ever before, and they had already begun their well-prepared campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Real internationalists can hardly use the dubious rights of “national sovereignty” to oppose action to stop massacres. Opposition to US military intervention is an understandable rule of thumb, but it shouldn’t become obsessive dogma. After all, most Europeans were happy with US intervention in World War II. The British court decisions on Gen. Augusto Pinochet show that, at last, politicians who murder cannot expect amnesty afterwards. Why should Slobodan Milosevic expect impunity as he carries out crimes against humanity?

Ideally, there should have been a UN Security Council vote endorsing military action, but China and Russia had made it plain that no matter what barbarities Milosevic committed they would veto any such resolution. Happily, most of the Council agreed that ethnic cleansing was not something that could be shielded behind a dubious claim of national sovereignty and soundly defeated, 12 votes to 3, a Russian draft resolution condemning the bombing. Only Namibia joined Beijing and Moscow. NATO, most of whose governments are members of the Socialist International, agreed on a military response.

In short, the court of international public opinion has implicitly, resoundingly, endorsed military action. Milosevic is clearly counting on past experience that the international community will compromise, accept the results of ethnic cleansing and leave him in power. We hope that this time he has miscalculated. Three of the major European players–Britain, France and Germany–under like-minded left-of-center governments have united in their determination to stop him, and they have popular majorities for doing so.

Soon NATO will be faced with two alternatives: stop the bombing and “negotiate,” or commit ground troops. The bombing should stop only when Belgrade agrees to pull out or is pushed out of Kosovo, if necessary by ground troops. For most of this decade Milosevic has used negotiations as a cover to consolidate the gains of ethnic cleansing.

The precondition for a cease-fire must be the withdrawal of Serbian troops and police from Kosovo and their replacement by an international force, mostly NATO but including Russians if they want to become involved–and can afford to. (No one who saw the UN in inaction in Bosnia could wish UN forces on the long-suffering Kosovars.) Of course, the present campaign carries risks. To exorcise its frustration and put off the inevitable involvement on the ground, the White House will be increasingly tempted to escalate attacks on civilian and economic targets. The sooner ground troops are committed to clear Kosovo of Serbian forces and allow the refugees to return, the less temptation there will be, and the more likely that Milosevic will withdraw. Successful military action would also strengthen the prospects for democracy in Serbia. Much of the Serbian opposition argues that airstrikes weaken their position. In fact, it would be impossible to weaken their position on Kosovo: Even fewer of them explicitly oppose the repression there than resisted the war in Bosnia. In reality, Serbia cannot have democracy and Kosovo.

There will be casualties, but the Serbian army and police, although fearsome against unarmed civilians, will be far from home, in hostile territory without air cover. The alternative is a terminal weakening of all the precarious advances in international humanitarian law that have been achieved over the past decade–not to mention the deaths and exile of hundreds of thousands of Kosovars.

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