Noam Chomsky on Kosovo
Letter to The New Statesman
By David Watson
June 23, 2006
Given Noam Chomsky’s shameful prevarications about the wars in the former Yugoslavia in Andrew Stephen’s fawning interview with him, one can only doubt Chomsky’s alleged "unremitting clarity” and “mastery of detail."
For example, what are we to make of a “mastery of detail” that leads to the “astonishing conclusion” (Chomsky’s phrase), based on a very fast and loose reading of an unspecified British parliamentary inquiry, that before January 1999 “most of the crimes committed in Kosovo were attributed to the KLA guerrillas”? This reading, which accepts a claim without testing the claim or the source when it serves his purpose, is risible at best. But the ethical argument it suggests—that Milosevic’s well-documented crimes against humanity in Kosovo were somehow nullified by NATO intervention—is grotesque. And that is in fact the argument of Chomsky’s two shabby books on the Kosovo intervention.
Equally noxious are Chomsky’s insinuations about the mass murder at Srebrenica, and implicitly the Bosnian war as a whole. Everything he says about these events, from the premise that the out-gunned and unsupported Dutch troops were “primarily responsible” for the fall of the enclave, to the premise that the Dutch report is somehow therefore more credible (why not less?), is twisted to fit Chomsky’s argument, no matter what the complex truth. And what is suggested—that Milosevic’s responsibility for genocide is limited to this single horrific event, in fact limited to what was or was not established in a courtroom—is as squalid as it is absurd.
Misrepresenting the Dutch report—which by the way has been widely criticized for its inaccuracies and errors—Chomsky concludes conveniently that Milosevic neither ordered the mass executions nor had any prior knowledge of them. In fact, for all its shortcomings, the report is far more circumspect about the matter of Milosevic’s responsibility, only calling the extent of Milosevic’s influence over Mladic “unclear,” and suggesting that Milosevic was “pretending” to have little influence.
“Indeed,” the report suggests as likely that the attack “was coordinated with Belgrade, or in any event could not have been undertaken without the prior knowledge of Belgrade,” and adds: “Given the many close ties between the Republika Srpska and Serbia, such foreknowledge certainly seems possible.”
Thus, Chomsky’s claim that Milosevic “was horrified” by the massacre transforms a diplomat’s interpretation of Milosevic’s response—the response of a man notorious among international negotiators who dealt with him as a consummate liar—into a “fact.” This polemical sleight-of-hand completely ignores a vast body of prima facie evidence against Milosevic (logistical support from the Yugoslav army for the attack on Srebrenica and the direct involvement of Yugoslav interior ministry troops, for example), and trial testimony. In any case, the fact that Mladic and other Pale Serb personnel remained on the payroll of Milosevic’s military command—a well-known fact acknowledged by Serbian authorities after the fall of Milosevic—would have made him guilty of command responsibility for the massacre, “horrified” or not.
Chomsky’s shoddy apologetics for crimes committed by agents other than the American empire and its cronies have become a lamentable pattern, a pattern underscored for many years by his public refusal to acknowledge the extent of the genocide against the Bosnian Muslims, and by his praise for the alleged scholarship of genocide deniers and his dismissive public stance toward the testimony of Milosevic’s many victims, from Srebrenica and numerous other places, gathered by the Hague tribunal.
Chomsky’s ethical and political failure becomes even more tragic for those of us who agree in substance with many of his positions on US foreign policy, most notably the catastrophe in Iraq. By legitimizing historical deceit and diminishing the sufferings of the Bosnians and Kosovars to shore up his Manichean position, he only succeeds in causing moral and political confusion where authentic principle and political clarity are most needed. We will all pay for this failure.
Also by David Watson:
The Balkan Wars and the New World Dis/Order, January 2002
Milosevic “Crucified”: Counter-Spin as Useful Idiocy, Fall 2002
Empire and Exterminism, May 2000