The Current Bombings:           Behind the Rhetoric

               By Noam Chomsky


     There have been many inquiries concerning NATO (meaning primarily US) bombing in
     connection with Kosovo. A great deal has been written about the topic, including Znet
     commentaries. I'd like to make a few general observations, keeping to facts that are not
     seriously contested.

     There are two fundamental issues: (1) What are the accepted and applicable "rules of
     world order"? (2) How do these or other considerations apply in the case of Kosovo?


     (1) What are the accepted and applicable "rules of world order"?

     There is a regime of international law and international order, binding on all states,
     based on the UN Charter and subsequent resolutions and World Court decisions. In
     brief, the threat or use of force is banned unless explicitly authorized by the Security
     Council after it has determined that peaceful means have failed, or in self-defense
     against "armed attack" (a narrow concept) until the Security Council acts.

     There is, of course, more to say. Thus there is at least a tension, if not an outright
     contradiction, between the rules of world order laid down in the UN Charter and the
     rights articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UD), a second pillar of
     the world order established under US initiative after World War II. The Charter bans
     force violating state sovereignty; the UD guarantees the rights of individuals against
     oppressive states. The issue of "humanitarian intervention" arises from this tension. It is
     the right of "humanitarian intervention" that is claimed by the US/NATO in Kosovo,
     and that is generally supported by editorial opinion and news reports (in the latter case,
     reflexively, even by the very choice of terminology).

     The question is addressed in a news report in the NY Times (March 27), headlined
     "Legal Scholars Support Case for Using Force" in Kosovo (March 27). One example
     is offered: Allen Gerson, former counsel to the US mission to the UN. Two other legal
     scholars are cited. One, Ted Galen Carpenter, "scoffed at the Administration argument"
     and dismissed the alleged right of intervention. The third is Jack Goldsmith, a specialist
     on international law at Chicago Law school. He says that critics of the NATO bombing
     "have a pretty good legal argument," but "many people think [an exception for
     humanitarian intervention] does exist as a matter of custom and practice." That
     summarizes the evidence offered to justify the favored conclusion stated in the headline.

     Goldsmith's observation is reasonable, at least if we agree that facts are relevant to the
     determination of "custom and practice." We may also bear in mind a truism: the right of
     humanitarian intervention, if it exists, is premised on the "good faith" of those
     intervening, and that assumption is based not on their rhetoric but on their record, in
     particular their record of adherence to the principles of international law, World Court
     decisions, and so on. That is indeed a truism, at least with regard to others. Consider,
     for example, Iranian offers to intervene in Bosnia to prevent massacres at a time when
     the West would not do so. These were dismissed with ridicule (in fact, ignored); if there
     was a reason beyond subordination to power, it was because Iranian "good faith" could
     not be assumed. A rational person then asks obvious questions: is the Iranian record of
     intervention and terror worse than that of the US? And other questions, for example:
     How should we assess the "good faith" of the only country to have vetoed a Security
     Council resolution calling on all states to obey international law? What about its
     historical record? Unless such questions are prominent on the agenda of discourse, an
     honest person will dismiss it as mere allegiance to doctrine. A useful exercise is to
     determine how much of the literature -- media or other -- survives such elementary
     conditions as these.


     (2) How do these or other considerations apply in the case of

     There has been a humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo in the past year, overwhelmingly
     attributable to Yugoslav military forces. The main victims have been ethnic Albanian
     Kosovars, some 90% of the population of this Yugoslav territory. The standard
     estimate is 2000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of refugees.

     In such cases, outsiders have three choices:

          (I) try to escalate the catastrophe

          (II) do nothing

          (III) try to mitigate the catastrophe

     The choices are illustrated by other contemporary cases. Let's keep to a few of
     approximately the same scale, and ask where Kosovo fits into the pattern.

     (A) Colombia. In Colombia, according to State Department estimates, the annual level
     of political killing by the government and its paramilitary associates is about at the level
     of Kosovo, and refugee flight primarily from their atrocities is well over a million.
     Colombia has been the leading Western hemisphere recipient of US arms and training
     as violence increased through the '90s, and that assistance is now increasing, under a
     "drug war" pretext dismissed by almost all serious observers. The Clinton
     administration was particularly enthusiastic in its praise for President Gaviria, whose
     tenure in office was responsible for "appalling levels of violence," according to human
     rights organizations, even surpassing his predecessors. Details are readily available.

     In this case, the US reaction is (I): escalate the atrocities.

     (B) Turkey. By very conservative estimate, Turkish repression of Kurds in the '90s falls
     in the category of Kosovo. It peaked in the early '90s; one index is the flight of over a
     million Kurds from the countryside to the unofficial Kurdish capital Diyarbakir from
     1990 to 1994, as the Turkish army was devastating the countryside. 1994 marked two
     records: it was "the year of the worst repression in the Kurdish provinces" of Turkey,
     Jonathan Randal reported from the scene, and the year when Turkey became "the
     biggest single importer of American military hardware and thus the world's largest arms
     purchaser." When human rights groups exposed Turkey's use of US jets to bomb
     villages, the Clinton Administration found ways to evade laws requiring suspension of
     arms deliveries, much as it was doing in Indonesia and elsewhere.

     Colombia and Turkey explain their (US-supported) atrocities on grounds that they are
     defending their countries from the threat of terrorist guerrillas. As does the government
     of Yugoslavia.

     Again, the example illustrates (I): try to escalate the atrocities.

     (C) Laos. Every year thousands of people, mostly children and poor farmers, are killed
     in the Plain of Jars in Northern Laos, the scene of the heaviest bombing of civilian
     targets in history it appears, and arguably the most cruel: Washington's furious assault
     on a poor peasant society had little to do with its wars in the region. The worst period
     was from 1968, when Washington was compelled to undertake negotiations (under
     popular and business pressure), ending the regular bombardment of North Vietnam.
     Kissinger-Nixon then decided to shift the planes to bombardment of Laos and

     The deaths are from "bombies," tiny anti-personnel weapons, far worse than
     land-mines: they are designed specifically to kill and maim, and have no effect on
     trucks, buildings, etc. The Plain was saturated with hundreds of millions of these
     criminal devices, which have a failure-to-explode rate of 20%-30% according to the
     manufacturer, Honeywell. The numbers suggest either remarkably poor quality control
     or a rational policy of murdering civilians by delayed action. These were only a fraction
     of the technology deployed, including advanced missiles to penetrate caves where
     families sought shelter. Current annual casualties from "bombies" are estimated from
     hundreds a year to "an annual nationwide casualty rate of 20,000," more than half of
     them deaths, according to the veteran Asia reporter Barry Wain of the Wall Street
     Journal -- in its Asia edition. A conservative estimate, then, is that the crisis this year is
     approximately comparable to Kosovo, though deaths are far more highly concentrated
     among children -- over half, according to analyses reported by the Mennonite Central
     Committee, which has been working there since 1977 to alleviate the continuing

     There have been efforts to publicize and deal with the humanitarian catastrophe. A
     British-based Mine Advisory Group (MAG) is trying to remove the lethal objects, but
     the US is "conspicuously missing from the handful of Western organisations that have
     followed MAG," the British press reports, though it has finally agreed to train some
     Laotian civilians. The British press also reports, with some anger, the allegation of
     MAG specialists that the US refuses to provide them with "render harmless
     procedures" that would make their work "a lot quicker and a lot safer." These remain a
     state secret, as does the whole affair in the United States. The Bangkok press reports a
     very similar situation in Cambodia, particularly the Eastern region where US
     bombardment from early 1969 was most intense.

     In this case, the US reaction is (II): do nothing. And the reaction of the media and
     commentators is to keep silent, following the norms under which the war against Laos
     was designated a "secret war" -- meaning well-known, but suppressed, as also in the
     case of Cambodia from March 1969. The level of self-censorship was extraordinary
     then, as is the current phase. The relevance of this shocking example should be obvious
     without further comment.

     I will skip other examples of (I) and (II), which abound, and also much more serious
     contemporary atrocities, such as the huge slaughter of Iraqi civilians by means of a
     particularly vicious form of biological warfare -- "a very hard choice," Madeleine
     Albright commented on national TV in 1996 when asked for her reaction to the killing
     of half a million Iraqi children in 5 years, but "we think the price is worth it." Current
     estimates remain about 5000 children killed a month, and the price is still "worth it."
     These and other examples might also be kept in mind when we read awed rhetoric
     about how the "moral compass" of the Clinton Administration is at last functioning
     properly, as the Kosovo example illustrates.

     Just what does the example illustrate? The threat of NATO bombing, predictably, led
     to a sharp escalation of atrocities by the Serbian Army and paramilitaries, and to the
     departure of international observers, which of course had the same effect. Commanding
     General Wesley Clark declared that it was "entirely predictable" that Serbian terror and
     violence would intensify after the NATO bombing, exactly as happened. The terror for
     the first time reached the capital city of Pristina, and there are credible reports of
     large-scale destruction of villages, assassinations, generation of an enormous refugee
     flow, perhaps an effort to expel a good part of the Albanian population -- all an
     "entirely predictable" consequence of the threat and then the use of force, as General
     Clark rightly observes.

     Kosovo is therefore another illustration of (I): try to escalate the violence, with exactly
     that expectation.

     To find examples illustrating (III) is all too easy, at least if we keep to official rhetoric.
     The major recent academic study of "humanitarian intervention," by Sean Murphy,
     reviews the record after the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928 which outlawed war, and
     then since the UN Charter, which strengthened and articulated these provisions. In the
     first phase, he writes, the most prominent examples of "humanitarian intervention" were
     Japan's attack on Manchuria, Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia, and Hitler's occupation
     of parts of Czechoslovakia. All were accompanied by highly uplifting humanitarian
     rhetoric, and factual justifications as well. Japan was going to establish an "earthly
     paradise" as it defended Manchurians from "Chinese bandits," with the support of a
     leading Chinese nationalist, a far more credible figure than anyone the US was able to
     conjure up during its attack on South Vietnam. Mussolini was liberating thousands of
     slaves as he carried forth the Western "civilizing mission." Hitler announced Germany's
     intention to end ethnic tensions and violence, and "safeguard the national individuality of
     the German and Czech peoples," in an operation "filled with earnest desire to serve the
     true interests of the peoples dwelling in the area," in accordance with their will; the
     Slovakian President asked Hitler to declare Slovakia a protectorate.

     Another useful intellectual exercise is to compare those obscene justifications with those
     offered for interventions, including "humanitarian interventions," in the post-UN Charter

     In that period, perhaps the most compelling example of (III) is the Vietnamese invasion
     of Cambodia in December 1978, terminating Pol Pot's atrocities, which were then
     peaking. Vietnam pleaded the right of self-defense against armed attack, one of the few
     post-Charter examples when the plea is plausible: the Khmer Rouge regime
     (Democratic Kampuchea, DK) was carrying out murderous attacks against Vietnam in
     border areas. The US reaction is instructive. The press condemned the "Prussians" of
     Asia for their outrageous violation of international law. They were harshly punished for
     the crime of having terminated Pol Pot's slaughters, first by a (US-backed) Chinese
     invasion, then by US imposition of extremely harsh sanctions. The US recognized the
     expelled DK as the official government of Cambodia, because of its "continuity" with
     the Pol Pot regime, the State Department explained. Not too subtly, the US supported
     the Khmer Rouge in its continuing attacks in Cambodia.

     The example tells us more about the "custom and practice" that underlies "the emerging
     legal norms of humanitarian intervention."

     Despite the desperate efforts of ideologues to prove that circles are square, there is no
     serious doubt that the NATO bombings further undermine what remains of the fragile
     structure of international law. The US made that entirely clear in the discussions leading
     to the NATO decision. Apart from the UK (by now, about as much of an independent
     actor as the Ukraine was in the pre-Gorbachev years), NATO countries were
     skeptical of US policy, and were particularly annoyed by Secretary of State Albright's
     "saber-rattling" (Kevin Cullen, Boston Globe, Feb. 22). Today, the more closely one
     approaches the conflicted region, the greater the opposition to Washington's insistence
     on force, even within NATO (Greece and Italy). France had called for a UN Security
     Council resolution to authorize deployment of NATO peacekeepers. The US flatly
     refused, insisting on "its stand that NATO should be able to act independently of the
     United Nations," State Department officials explained. The US refused to permit the
     "neuralgic word `authorize'" to appear in the final NATO statement, unwilling to
     concede any authority to the UN Charter and international law; only the word
     "endorse" was permitted (Jane Perlez, NYT, Feb. 11). Similarly the bombing of Iraq
     was a brazen expression of contempt for the UN, even the specific timing, and was so
     understood. And of course the same is true of the destruction of half the pharmaceutical
     production of a small African country a few months earlier, an event that also does not
     indicate that the "moral compass" is straying from righteousness -- not to speak of a
     record that would be prominently reviewed right now if facts were considered relevant
     to determining "custom and practice."

     It could be argued, rather plausibly, that further demolition of the rules of world order is
     irrelevant, just as it had lost its meaning by the late 1930s. The contempt of the world's
     leading power for the framework of world order has become so extreme that there is
     nothing left to discuss. A review of the internal documentary record demonstrates that
     the stance traces back to the earliest days, even to the first memorandum of the
     newly-formed National Security Council in 1947. During the Kennedy years, the
     stance began to gain overt expression. The main innovation of the Reagan-Clinton
     years is that defiance of international law and the Charter has become entirely open. It
     has also been backed with interesting explanations, which would be on the front pages,
     and prominent in the school and university curriculum, if truth and honesty were
     considered significant values. The highest authorities explained with brutal clarity that
     the World Court, the UN, and other agencies had become irrelevant because they no
     longer follow US orders, as they did in the early postwar years.

     One might then adopt the official position. That would be an honest stand, at least if it
     were accompanied by refusal to play the cynical game of self-righteous posturing and
     wielding of the despised principles of international law as a highly selective weapon
     against shifting enemies.

     While the Reaganites broke new ground, under Clinton the defiance of world order has
     become so extreme as to be of concern even to hawkish policy analysts. In the current
     issue of the leading establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, Samuel Huntington warns
     that Washington is treading a dangerous course. In the eyes of much of the world --
     probably most of the world, he suggests -- the US is "becoming the rogue
     superpower," considered "the single greatest external threat to their societies." Realist
     "international relations theory," he argues, predicts that coalitions may arise to
     counterbalance the rogue superpower. On pragmatic grounds, then, the stance should
     be reconsidered. Americans who prefer a different image of their society might call for
     a reconsideration on other than pragmatic grounds.

     Where does that leave the question of what to do in Kosovo? It leaves it unanswered.
     The US has chosen a course of action which, as it explicitly recognizes, escalates
     atrocities and violence -- "predictably"; a course of action that also strikes yet another
     blow against the regime of international order, which does offer the weak at least some
     limited protection from predatory states. As for the longer term, consequences are
     unpredictable. One plausible observation is that "every bomb that falls on Serbia and
     every ethnic killing in Kosovo suggests that it will scarcely be possible for Serbs and
     Albanians to live beside each other in some sort of peace" (Financial Times, March
     27). Some of the longer-term possible outcomes are extremely ugly, as has not gone
     without notice.

     A standard argument is that we had to do something: we could not simply stand by as
     atrocities continue. That is never true. One choice, always, is to follow the Hippocratic
     principle: "First, do no harm." If you can think of no way to adhere to that elementary
     principle, then do nothing. There are always ways that can be considered. Diplomacy
     and negotiations are never at an end.

     The right of "humanitarian intervention" is likely to be more frequently invoked in
     coming years -- maybe with justification, maybe not -- now that Cold War pretexts
     have lost their efficacy. In such an era, it may be worthwhile to pay attention to the
     views of highly respected commentators -- not to speak of the World Court, which
     explicitly ruled on this matter in a decision rejected by the United States, its essentials
     not even reported.

     In the scholarly disciplines of international affairs and international law it would be hard
     to find more respected voices than Hedley Bull or Louis Henkin. Bull warned 15 years
     ago that "Particular states or groups of states that set themselves up as the authoritative
     judges of the world common good, in disregard of the views of others, are in fact a
     menace to international order, and thus to effective action in this field." Henkin, in a
     standard work on world order, writes that the "pressures eroding the prohibition on the
     use of force are deplorable, and the arguments to legitimize the use of force in those
     circumstances are unpersuasive and dangerous... Violations of human rights are indeed
     all too common, and if it were permissible to remedy them by external use of force,
     there would be no law to forbid the use of force by almost any state against almost any
     other. Human rights, I believe, will have to be vindicated, and other injustices remedied,
     by other, peaceful means, not by opening the door to aggression and destroying the
     principle advance in international law, the outlawing of war and the prohibition of

     Recognized principles of international law and world order, solemn treaty obligations,
     decisions by the World Court, considered pronouncements by the most respected
     commentators -- these do not automatically solve particular problems. Each issue has
     to be considered on its merits. For those who do not adopt the standards of Saddam
     Hussein, there is a heavy burden of proof to meet in undertaking the threat or use of
     force in violation of the principles of international order. Perhaps the burden can be
     met, but that has to be shown, not merely proclaimed with passionate rhetoric. The
     consequences of such violations have to be assessed carefully -- in particular, what we
     understand to be "predictable." And for those who are minimally serious, the reasons
     for the actions also have to be assessed -- again, not simply by adulation of our leaders
     and their "moral compass." _