The ‘Single Standard’ in Kosovo

The ‘Single Standard’ in Kosovo

Cambridge, Mass.


Cambridge, Mass.

Christopher Hitchens points out, correctly of course, that it would be a fallacy to condemn NATO’s bombing on grounds of “double standards” [“Minority Report,” Nov. 29]. He attributes this silly argument to my book The New Military Humanism, which stresses–insistently and unambiguously–that the question of what to do in Kosovo must be evaluated on its own; the standards of the leadership are a different (though not irrelevant) matter. It says, furthermore, that these distinctions are “the merest truisms.” The same is true of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and others discussed; furthermore, support for such interventions would entail no belief in “double standards,” again the merest truism.

It is in the context of assessing intentions that the issue of double standards arises. There is a double standard only if the intentions are humanitarian. That question has to be addressed, not begged, as in Hitchens’s presupposition that Washington’s goals were benign (hence a “double standard”).

My book found no evidence of benign intent in the current cases reviewed, including those he mentions; hence no double standard but rather the familiar single standard of pursuit of power interests with little concern for human consequences. That includes US support for Indonesian terror into late 1999 and Clinton’s success in escalating large-scale atrocities and ethnic cleansing within NATO itself through the 1990s, among other examples. It also includes the decision to bomb Yugoslavia with the expectation, quickly confirmed, that the bombing would provoke a sharp escalation of atrocities and brutal expulsions, while defunding the agency responsible for refugee care; and also Washington’s retreat from its most provocative demands and acceptance (on paper) of peace accords that are a compromise between the options on the table as the bombing began.

The book also reviews the refusal of defenders of the NATO bombing to offer credible reasons for their advocacy of state violence, their consistent evasion of the crucial issues and their practice of constructing absurd fallacies to condemn instead of confronting fact and argument.

The issues are too serious to be treated in this manner.

On the separate question of whether to bomb, Hitchens offers one argument: The bombing that led to the expulsions was justified on the basis of Serbia’s “contingency plans” (which it doubtless had, the book notes). The implications are startling. Consider current US strategic doctrine reviewed in the book, or Israel’s likely plans for the Arab population if the country comes under threat, or Indonesia’s post-referendum plans for East Timor (and presumably within its official territory). Do such plans justify bombing in these and similar cases?

Again, the same conclusion seems warranted.



Washington, D.C.

It is no disgrace to be condescended to by Noam Chomsky nor to be instructed in matters of formal logic and argumentative procedure. However, the distinction between standards and intentions may not be as rigid as he insists. On page 48 of his book The New Military Humanism, we find the following:

Before proceeding, we might take note of a simple point of logic. When a humanitarian crisis develops, outsiders have three choices:
(I) act to escalate the catastrophe
(II) do nothing
(III) try to mitigate the catastrophe
Kosovo falls under category (I), East Timor in 1999 under (II).

Since on page 45 Chomsky had already asserted that “no call has been heard from the New Humanists for withdrawal of Indonesian military forces [from East Timor] or for sending a meaningful UN observer force,” was I not somewhat justified in saying that he rests much of his opposition to the Kosovo intervention on the argument from double standards? I took care at the time to allow for the fact that Chomsky’s book was written before the UN-supervised withdrawal of Indonesian forces from East Timor; an outcome, incidentally, that I (“new humanist” or not) believe to have been shamefully overdue. I wondered then how Chomsky would evaluate either the call for international intervention in Timor or the fact that it did ultimately take place. After reading his letter, I wonder still. (I also wonder whether, if Israel ever did implement a program of expulsion, he would seriously call on its principal armorer to sit tight.)

He and I are further divided by questions of terminology. I am not sure that the term “humanitarian crisis” is quite accurate for the planned pogroms in either Kosovo or Timor. These were deliberate exercises in state-ordered genocide and thus were political crises. Both could have been and were predicted, which is why “contingency plan” belongs in quotes. Both could have been, and were not, averted. But averting either one would have meant a more resolute attitude to intervention. By choosing to take the words “contingency plan” as literal, Chomsky avoids the question of whether the cleansing of Kosovo had actually begun with the Serbian massacre of the villagers of Racak in January 1999. Difference of interpretation is quite possible here, even given the record of the Milosevic regime in Bosnia, and even given its stated intention of reducing the absolute Kosovar population. However, in the eight pages he devotes to Racak and its implications, Chomsky spends most of his time pointing out that the US official on the scene, William Walker, had a dreadful record in El Salvador, before going on to be sarcastic about the relative lack of enthusiasm for matters Timorese. Double standards?

The silly word “benign” doesn’t enter into it: These are questions of principle. I support military resistance to Serbian racism and aggression and the landing of Australian and other troops in East Timor, and if it were up to me, both of these decisions would have been taken earlier (with correspondingly large savings on the humanitarian catastrophe account). Chomsky, as far as I can see, opposes the first and rather weirdly declines to acknowledge the second. The traditional interventionists like Henry Kissinger are opposed to both, which makes me doubt that either is a mere power-projection for the New World Order. We appear to be in a new era, where old reflexes serve us less well. However, this does not relieve us of our responsibility to take the side of the victims, as Chomsky once taught me and many others to do.


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