By Noam Chomsky
On March 24, U.S.-led NATO air forces began to pound the Federal Republic
(FRY, Serbia and Montenegro), including Kosovo, which NATO regards as a province of Serbia.
On June 3, NATO and Serbia reached a Peace Accord. The U.S. declared victory, having
successfully concluded its "10-week struggle to compel Mr. Milosevic to say uncle," Blaine Harden
reported in the New York Times. It would therefore be unnecessary to use ground forces to
"cleanse Serbia" as Harden had recommended in a lead story headlined "How to Cleanse Serbia."
The recommendation was natural in the light of American history, which is dominated by the theme
of ethnic cleansing from its origins and to the present day, achievements celebrated in the names
given to military attack helicopters and other weapons of destruction. A qualification is in order,
however: the term "ethnic cleansing" is not really appropriate: U.S. cleansing operations have been
ecumenical; Indochina and Central America are two recent illustrations.
While declaring victory, Washington did not yet declare peace: the bombing
continues until the
victors determine that their interpretation of the Kosovo Accord has been imposed.
>From the outset, the bombing had been cast as a matter of cosmic significance,
a test of a New
Humanism, in which the "enlightened states" (Foreign Affairs) open a new era of human history
guided by "a new internationalism where the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer
be tolerated" (Tony Blair). The enlightened states are the United States and its British associate,
perhaps also others who enlist in their crusades for justice.
Apparently the rank of "enlightened states" is conferred by definition.
One finds no attempt to
provide evidence or argument, surely not from their history. The latter is in any event deemed
irrelevant by the familiar doctrine of "change of course," invoked regularly in the ideological
institutions to dispatch the past into the deepest recesses of the memory hole, thus deterring the
threat that some might ask the most obvious questions: with institutional structures and distribution of
power essentially unchanged, why should one expect a radical shift in policy -- or any at all, apart
from tactical adjustments?
But such questions are off the agenda. "From the start the Kosovo problem
has been about how we
should react when bad things happen in unimportant places," global analyst Thomas Friedman
explained in the New York Times as the Accord was announced. He proceeds to laud the
enlightened states for pursuing his moral principle that "once the refugee evictions began, ignoring
Kosovo would be wrong...and therefore using a huge air war for a limited objective was the only
thing that made sense."
A minor difficulty is that concern over the "refugee evictions" could
not have been the motive for the
"huge air war." The United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported its first
registered refugees outside of Kosovo on March 27 (4000), three days after the bombings began.
The toll increased until June 4, reaching a reported total of 670,000 in the neighboring countries
(Albania, Macedonia), along with an estimated 70,000 in Montenegro (within the FRY), and 75,000
who had left for other countries. The figures, which are unfortunately all too familiar, do not include
the unknown numbers who have been displaced within Kosovo, some 2-300,000 in the year before
the bombing according to NATO, a great many more afterwards.
Uncontroversially, the "huge air war" precipitated a sharp escalation
of ethnic cleansing and other
atrocities. That much has been reported consistently by correspondents on the scene and in
retrospective analyses in the press. The same picture is presented in the two major documents that
seek to portray the bombing as a reaction to the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo. The most extensive
one, provided by the State Department in May, is suitably entitled "Erasing History: Ethnic Cleansing
in Kosovo"; the second is the Indictment of Milosevic and associates by the International Tribunal on
War Crimes in Yugoslavia after the U.S. and Britain "opened the way for what amounted to a
remarkably fast indictment by giving [prosecutor Louise] Arbour access to intelligence and other
information long denied to her by Western governments," the New York Times reported, with two
full pages devoted to the Indictment. Both documents hold that the atrocities began "on or about
January 1"; in both, however, the detailed chronology reveals that atrocities continued about as
before until the bombing led to a very sharp escalation. That surely came as no surprise.
Commanding General Wesley Clark at once described these consequences as "entirely predictable"
-- an exaggeration of course; nothing in human affairs is that predictable, though ample evidence is
now available revealing that the consequences were anticipated, for reasons readily understood
without access to secret intelligence.
One small index of the effects of "the huge air war" was offered by
Robert Hayden, director of the
Center for Russian and East European Studies of the University of Pittsburgh: "the casualties among
Serb civilians in the first three weeks of the war are higher than all of the casualties on both sides in
Kosovo in the three months that led up to this war, and yet those three months were supposed to be
a humanitarian catastrophe." True, these particular consequences are of no account in the context of
the jingoist hysteria that was whipped up to demonize Serbs, reaching intriguing heights as bombing
openly targeted the civilian society and hence required more fervent advocacy.
By chance, at least a hint of a more credible answer to Friedman's rhetorical
question was given in
the Times on the same day in a report from Ankara by Stephen Kinzer. He writes that "Turkey's
best-known human rights advocate entered prison" to serve his sentence for having "urged the state
to reach a peaceful settlement with Kurdish rebels." A few days earlier, Kinzer had indicated
obliquely that there is more to the story: "Some [Kurds] say they have been oppressed under
Turkish rule, but the Government insists that they are granted the same rights as other citizens." One
may ask whether this really does justice to some of the most extreme ethnic cleansing operations of
the mid '90s, with tens of thousands killed, 3500 villages destroyed (seven times the number in
Kosovo, according to Clinton's "victory address"), some 2.5 to 3 million refugees, and hideous
atrocities that easily compare to those recorded daily in the front pages for selected enemies,
reported in detail by the major human rights organizations but ignored. These achievements were
carried out thanks to massive military support from the United States, increasing under Clinton as the
atrocities peaked, including jet planes, attack helicopters, counterinsurgency equipment, and other
means of terror and destruction, along with training and intelligence information for some of the worst
Recall that these crimes have been proceeding through the '90s within
NATO itself, and under the
jurisdiction of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights, which continues to
hand down judgments against Turkey for its U.S.-supported atrocities (several in 1998). It took real
discipline for participants and commentators "not to notice" any of this at the celebration of NATO's
50th anniversary in April. The discipline was particularly impressive in the light of the fact that the
celebration was clouded by somber concerns over ethnic cleansing -- by officially-designated
enemies, not by the enlightened states that are to rededicate themselves to their traditional mission of
bringing justice and freedom to the suffering people of the world, and to defend human rights, by
force if necessary, under the principles of the New Humanism.
These crimes, to be sure, are only one illustration of the answer given
by the enlightened states to the
profound question of "how we should react when bad things happen in unimportant places." We
should intervene to escalate the atrocities, not "looking away" under a "double standard," the
common evasion when such marginalia are impolitely adduced. That also happens to be the mission
that was conducted in Kosovo, as revealed clearly by the course of events, though not the version
refracted through the prism of ideology and doctrine, which do not gladly tolerate the observation
that a consequence of the "the huge air war" was a change from a year of atrocities on the scale of
the annual (U.S.-backed) toll in Colombia in the 1990s to a level that might have approached
atrocities within NATO/Europe itself in the 1990s had the bombing continued.
The marching orders from Washington, however, are the usual ones: Focus
laser-like on the crimes
of today's official enemy, and do not allow yourself to be distracted by comparable or worse crimes
that could easily be mitigated or terminated thanks to the crucial role of the enlightened states in
perpetuating them, or escalating them when power interests so dictate. Let us obey the orders, then,
and keep to Kosovo.
A minimally serious investigation of the Kosovo Accord must review the
diplomatic options of
March 23, the day before "huge air war" was launched, and compare them with the agreement
reached by NATO and Serbia on June 3. Here we have to distinguish two versions: (1) the facts,
and (2) the spin -- that is, the U.S./NATO version that frames reporting and commentary in the
enlightened states. Even the most cursory look reveals that the facts and the spin differ sharply. Thus
the New York Times presented the text of the Accord with an insert headed: "Two Peace Plans:
How they Differ." The two peace plans are the Rambouillet (Interim) Agreement presented to Serbia
as a take-it-or-be-bombed ultimatum on March 23, and the Kosovo Peace Accord of June 3. But
in the real world there are three "peace plans," two of which were on the table on March 23: the
Rambouillet Agreement and the Serb National Assembly Resolutions responding to it.
Let us begin with the two peace plans of March 23, asking how they differed
and how they compare
with the Kosovo Peace Accord of June 3, then turning briefly to what we might reasonably expect if
we break the rules and pay some attention to the (ample) precedents.
The Rambouillet Agreement called for complete military occupation and
substantial political control
of Kosovo by NATO, and effective NATO military occupation of the rest of Yugoslavia. NATO is
to "constitute and lead a military force" (KFOR) that "NATO will establish and deploy" in and
around Kosovo, "operating under the authority and subject to the direction and political control of
the North Atlantic Council (NAC) through the NATO chain of command"; "the KFOR commander
is the final authority within theater regarding interpretation of this chapter [Implementation of the
Military Agreement] and his interpretations are binding on all Parties and persons" (with an irrelevant
qualification). OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) has formal jurisdiction
over civilian aspects of the agreement, in coordination with KFOR -- an occupying army, hence in a
position to determine what happens. Within a brief time schedule, all Yugoslav army forces and
Ministry of Interior police are to re-deploy to "approved cantonment sites," then to withdraw to
Serbia, apart from small units assigned to border guard duties with limited weapons (all specified in
detail). These units would be restricted to defending the borders from attack and "controlling illicit
border crossings," and not permitted to travel in Kosovo apart from these functions.
"Three years after the entry into force of this Agreement, an international
meeting shall to be
convened to determine a mechanisms for a final settlement for Kosovo." This paragraph has regularly
been construed as calling for a referendum on independence, though that is not specifically
With regard to the rest of Yugoslavia, the terms for the occupation
are set forth in Appendix B:
Status of Multi-National Military Implementation Force. The crucial paragraph reads:
8. NATO personnel shall enjoy, together
with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft, and
equipment, free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY
including associated airspace and territorial waters. This shall include, but not be limited
to, the right of bivouac, maneuver, billet, and utilization of any areas or facilities as
required for support, training, and operations.The remainder spells out the conditions
that permit NATO forces and those they employ to act as they choose throughout the
territory of the FRY, without obligation or concern for the laws of the country or the
jurisdiction of its authorities, who are, however, required to follow NATO orders "on a
priority basis and with all appropriate means." One provision states that "all NATO
personnel shall respect the laws applicable in the FRY...," but with a qualification to
render it vacuous: "Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities under this
Appendix, all NATO personnel...."
It has been speculated that the wording was designed so as to guarantee
rejection. Perhaps so. It is
hard to imagine that any country would consider such terms, except in the form of unconditional
In the massive coverage of the war one will find little reference to
the Agreement that is even close to
accurate, notably the crucial article of Appendix B just quoted. The latter was, however, reported as
soon as it had become irrelevant to democratic choice. On June 5, after the peace agreement of June
3, the press reported that under the annex to the Rambouillet Agreement "a purely NATO force was
to be given full permission to go anywhere it wanted in Yugoslavia, immune from any legal process,"
citing also the wording (New York Times; also others). Evidently, in the absence of clear and
repeated explanation of the basic terms of the Rambouillet Agreement -- the official "peace process"
-- it has been impossible for the public to gain any serious understanding of what was taking place,
or to assess the accuracy of the preferred version of the Kosovo Accord.
The second peace plan was presented in resolutions of the Serbian National
Assembly on March
23. The Assembly rejected the demand for NATO military occupation, and called on the OSCE and
the UN to facilitate a peaceful diplomatic settlement. It condemned the withdrawal of the OSCE
Kosovo Verification Mission on March 19 in preparation for the March 24 bombing. The
resolutions called for negotiations leading "toward the reaching of a political agreement on a
wide-ranging autonomy for Kosovo and Metohija [the official name for the province], with the
securing of a full equality of all citizens and ethnic communities and with respect for the sovereignty
and territorial integrity of the Republic of Serbia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia."
Furthermore, though "The Serbian Parliament does not accept presence of foreign military troops in
Kosovo and Metohija,"
The Serbian Parliament is ready to review the size and character of
the international presence in
Kosmet [Kosovo/Metohija] for carrying out the reached accord, immediately upon signing the
political accord on the self-rule agreed and accepted by the representatives of all national
communities living in Kosovo and Metohija.The essentials of these decisions were reported on major
wire services and therefore certainly known to every news room. Several database searches have
found scarce mention, none in the national press and major journals.
The two peace plans of March 23 thus remain unknown to the general public,
even the fact that
there were two, not one. The standard line is that "Milosevic's refusal to accept...or even discuss an
international peacekeeping plan [namely, the Rambouillet Agreement] was what started NATO
bombing on March 24" (Craig Whitney, New York Times), one of the many articles deploring
Serbian propaganda -- accurately no doubt, but with a few oversights.
As to what the Serb National Assembly Resolutions meant, the answers
are known with confidence
by fanatics -- different answers, depending on which variety of fanatics they are. For others, there
would have been a way to find out the answers: to explore the possibilities. But the enlightened states
preferred not to pursue this option; rather, to bomb, with the anticipated consequences.
Further steps in the diplomatic process, and their interpretation in
the doctrinal institutions, merit
attention, but I will skip that here, turning to the Kosovo Accord of June 3. As might have been
expected, it is a compromise between the two peace plans of March 23. On paper at least, the
U.S./NATO abandoned their major demands, cited above, which had led to Serbia's rejection of
the ultimatum. Serbia in turn agreed to an "international security presence with substantial NATO
participation [which] must be deployed under unified command and control...under U.N. auspices."
An addendum to the text stated "Russia's position [that] the Russian contingent will not be under
NATO command and its relationship to the international presence will be governed by relevant
additional agreements." There are no terms permitting access to the rest of the FRY for NATO or
the "international security presence" generally. Political control of Kosovo is not in the hands of
NATO, Serbia, or the OSCE, but of the UN Security Council, which will establish "an interim
administration of Kosovo." The withdrawal of Yugoslav forces is not specified in the detail of the
Rambouillet Agreement, but is similar, though accelerated. The remainder is within the range of
agreement of the two plans of March 23.
The outcome suggests that diplomatic initiatives could have been pursued
on March 23, averting a
terrible human tragedy with consequences that will reverberate in Yugoslavia and elsewhere, and are
in many respects quite ominous.
To be sure, the current situation is not that of March 23. A Times headline
the day of the Kosovo
Accord captures it accurately: "Kosovo Problems Just Beginning." Among the "staggering problems"
that lie ahead, Serge Schmemann observed, are the repatriation of the refugees "to the land of ashes
and graves that was their home," and the "enormously costly challenge of rebuilding the devastated
economies of Kosovo, the rest of Serbia and their neighbors." He quotes Balkans historian Susan
Woodward of the Brookings Institution, who adds "that all the people we want to help us make a
stable Kosovo have been destroyed by the effects of the bombings," leaving control in the hands of
the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army). The U.S. had strongly condemned the KLA as "without any
question a terrorist group" when it began to carry out organized attacks in February 1998, actions
that Washington condemned "very strongly" as "terrorist activities," probably giving a "green light"
thereby to Milosevic for the severe repression that led to the Colombia-style violence before the
bombings precipitated a sharp escalation.
These "staggering problems" are new. They are "the effects of the bombings"
and the vicious Serb
reaction to them, though the problems that preceded the resort to violence by the enlightened states
were daunting enough.
Turning from facts to spin, headlines hailed the grand victory of the
enlightened states and their
leaders, who compelled Milosevic to "capitulate," to "say uncle," to accept a "NATO-led force," and
to surrender "as close to unconditionally as anyone might have imagined," submitting to "a worse deal
than the Rambouillet plan he rejected." Not exactly the story, but one that is far more useful than the
facts. The only serious issue debated is whether this shows that air power alone can achieve highly
moral purposes, or whether, as the critics allowed into the debate allege, the case still has not been
proven. Turning to broader significance, Britain's "eminent military historian" John Keegan "sees the
war as a victory not just for air power but for the `New World Order' that President Bush declared
after the Gulf War." Keegan wrote that "If Milosevic really is a beaten man, all other would-be
Milosevics around the world will have to reconsider their plans."
The assessment is realistic, though not in the terms Keegan may have
had in mind: rather, in the light
of the actual goals and significance of the New World Order, as revealed by an important
documentary record of the '90s that remains unreported, and a plethora of factual evidence that
helps us understand the true meaning of the phrase "Milosevics around the world." Merely to keep to
the Balkans region, the strictures do not hold of huge ethnic cleansing operations and terrible
atrocities within NATO itself, in its Southeastern corner, under European jurisdiction and with
decisive and mounting U.S. support, and not conducted in response to an attack by the world's most
awesome military force and the imminent threat of invasion. These crimes are legitimate under the
rules of the New World Order, perhaps even meritorious, as are atrocities elsewhere that conform
to the perceived interests of the leaders of the enlightened states and are regularly implemented by
them when necessary. These facts, not particularly obscure, reveal that in the "new
internationalism...the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups" will not merely be "tolerated," but
actively expedited -- exactly as in the "old internationalism" of the Concert of Europe, the U.S. itself,
and many other distinguished predecessors.
While the facts and the spin differ sharply, one might argue that the
media and commentators are
realistic when they present the U.S./NATO version as if it were the facts. It will become The Facts
as a simple consequence of the distribution of power and the willingness of articulate opinion to serve
its needs. That is a regular phenomenon. Recent examples include the Paris Peace Treaty of January
1973 and the Esquipulas Accords of August 1987.
In the former case, the U.S. was compelled to sign after the failure
of the 1972 Christmas bombings
to induce Hanoi to abandon the U.S.-Vietnam agreement of the preceding October. Kissinger and
the White House at once announced quite lucidly that they would violate every significant element of
the Treaty they were signing, presenting a different version which was adopted in reporting and
commentary, so that when the Vietnamese enemy finally responded to serious U.S. violations of the
accords, it became the incorrigible aggressor which had to be punished once again, as it was. The
same tragedy/farce took place when the Central American Presidents reached the Esquipulas
Accord (often called "the Arias plan") over strong U.S. opposition. Washington at once escalated its
wars in violation of the one "indispensable element" of the Accord, then proceeded to dismantle its
other provisions by force, succeeding within a few months, and continuing to undermine every further
diplomatic effort until its final victory. Washington's version of the Accord, which sharply deviated
from it in crucial respects, became the accepted version. The outcome could therefore be heralded in
headlines as a "Victory for U.S. Fair Play" with Americans "United in Joy" over the devastation and
bloodshed, overcome with rapture "in a romantic age" (Anthony Lewis, headlines in New York
Times, all reflecting the general euphoria over a mission accomplished).
It is superfluous to review the aftermath in these and numerous similar
cases. There is little reason to
expect a different story to unfold in the present case -- with the usual and crucial proviso: If we let it.
Postscript. It is irritating to have one's most cynical expectations
verified, but within hours after the
preceding was posted on the web, the standard story unfolded: Washington provided its
interpretation of the Kosovo Peace Accord (and the subsequent UN Security Council Resolution),
radically different from the text and quite similar to the Rambouillet conditions that the US had
formally renounced. The media and other commentary adopted Washington's version as The Facts.
Events otherwise proceeded on course, and will, with the same proviso.