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Articles on the Kosovo Conflict
Left Behind: The American Left and Kosovo
By Ian Williams
Human Rights Review, vol. 1 no. 2
Jan - Feb 2000
The war in Kosovo split the American left. However, it did not create the fissures, rather it revealed that beneath the spurious unity of support for socialism, there were two very different conceptions of politics. One that put humanitarian concerns and human rights as, not only the first item on the agenda, but the reason for having an agenda at all, and the other that saw these as occasionally and expediently useful rallying calls for struggles against imperialism and the ruling class.
As the UN correspondent of the Nation, a respectable left wing magazine with a strong pedigree of "rational" leftism, I had written several editorials on Kosovo, named and un-named, which had identified the Belgrade regime's serious violations of human rights. One editorial had in fact suggested an ultimatum, that Serbia cease attacks on the Kosovars, or the world would recognize Kosovar independence. In any case it suggested that there should be UN troops there and a guaranteed referendum within three years.
At the outbreak of the NATO bombing, there was some confusion in the Left, as priorities were shuffled. For many, it boiled down to a choice of what was the major issue, NATO intervention in its bombing, or the clear campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Kosovars. Many on the sectarian Leninist Left, did not feel the necessity of choice. They simply denied the reality of Serb massacres and denounced NATO intervention, which was ipso facto, aggression.
However, for the more rational left, it did pose an acute dilemma. The Pentagon had not been prominent in its support for humanitarian causes and it was assumed that NATO was the fig leaf. NATO did indeed by-pass the United Nations, but on the other hand there was the gruesome reality of Milosevic's terror campaign.
With Bogdan Denitch, a Croatian Serb and American who represents the Democratic Socialists of America at the Socialist International, I co-authored a signed editorial supporting NATO intervention, albeit calling for ground troops as soon as possible. We pointed out that while opposition to Western military intervention was an understandable rule of thumb, it was not written in stone, World War II being a case in point.
For the rest of the war, that was almost the last expression of such sentiments in the magazine, with the honorable exception of Christopher Hitchens, who had a guaranteed space in his column. Other contributors including the right wing CATO Institute's Balkan expert were given extensive space, which between they used three times to repeat the canard that the Bosnians had staged the massacre of their own people in the Markale market place massacre in Sarajevo. Towards the end of the war, after a long struggle, Kai Bird, an editorial board member, also managed to interpose a pro-interventionist piece.
I am all for a diversity of opinion, but found it irksome that, for example, a self-proclaimed Taftian Republican should be given such generous column space, while any hint of support for the war from the Left was in effect censored out. It was made clear that there was an editorial line, which was against NATO intervention and that the original piece by myself and Denitch was the balance.
At an early stage, since it was clear that there was a serious division in the American Left, I suggested that the Nation Institute would organize a debate on the War. Over several weeks, this was transmuted into a "Teach In" with four or five speakers opposed to the war, and perhaps one human rights NGO in favour. That eventually became a Pacifica Radio/Nation Institute Teach in LA, which was broadcast live. It had 28 speakers, including some notorious Serb Nationalists who had consistently supported the wars that Serbia had waged on its neighbors, but were, obviously opposed to NATO.
At most three speakers out of the 28 could be construed as supporting intervention, one of whom, myself was subject to a torrent of heckling from a vociferous group of supporters of Ramsey Clark and the International Action Center, not least when I pointed out that I was speaking on an ethnically cleansed panel, which had not one single Albanian or Kosovar. Admittedly some speakers, such as Rev. Jesse Jackson made it plain that they considered Milosevic to be committing unspeakable crimes, but that bombing was not the answer. Others ranged the full gamut of anti-war positions, but few others expressed more than passing lip service to the fate of the Kosovars.
It was apparent that the Kosovars had committed the worst crime of all. They had garnered the support of the United States government which meant that what in another context might be a national liberation struggle had ipso facto become a campaign of reactionary gangsterism and thuggery against a legitimate (and in some opinions, socialist,) government.
In some ways, the nuanced approaches of some were more disturbing than the ostrich approach to Serb atrocities. It is one thing to deny the evidence totally, but to accept it, but then relegate it to a subordinate clause in a diatribe against NATO, was to me a chilling reversal of moral and humanitarian values. Some of the most vociferous sections of the American Left were far more concerned about NATO "aggression" against Serbia than they were about an organized pogrom that seems to have killed up to 15,000 Kosovars in cold blood and drove out a million more as refugees.
The American left has often honorable role in advancing human rights: the right to organize in labor unions, the end of segregation, legal and customary, the rights of women, and, in more recent years, the rights of gays have all been championed and fought for by socialists. So why should socialist support for human rights stop short of the rights of the Albanian Kosovars to free themselves from effective apartheid imposed by Slobodan Milosevic?
Even more chillingly, why should the Kosovars' right to life itself be implicitly or explicitly questioned by people who are prepared to agitate continuously, for example, against the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal? Indeed, what would impel Abu Jamal himself to inveigh against NATO when it tried to stop the massacres of Albanians?
If I rehearse the arguments of others, and try to demolish them, it is not only to score points. I want to demonstrate that behind these contradictory arguments, sometimes espoused simultaneously by the same people, there is a common thread of metaphysical Marxism, in which facts are hewn to fit "the line." In general, the line dictates their response to events. Of course, in this sectarian universe, the lines actually vary a lot.
However, a common characteristic is a deep distrust, verging on hatred of the United States Government. Based on Vietnam, Panama, Central America and so on, this distrust is entirely understandable. However, a principle of US culpability, if extrapolated backwards, would lead to support for the Nazis and the Confederacy. Looking at the behavior of some its present proponents, I am glad that this was not put to the test.
For example, the LA Teach In was held in a synagogue, and I could not help wondering if a similar meeting held in 1939 would not have joined the German-American League in denouncing the war. In fact, they did. Communists for the period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact did indeed denounce the imperialist British Royal Navy for starving German workers with the blockade.
There was also an interesting contrast with European social democratic movements. While many European socialists did indeed oppose NATO action, the mainstream socialists generally supported the principle of NATO intervention, even if there were reservations about the form -- high altitude bombing. In this, they also reflected popular majorities.
Indeed one reason for the much more robust response by NATO to Serb atrocities in Kosovo than to the earlier much bloodier atrocities in Bosnia, or to the shelling of Dubrovnik and Vukovar, was the change in Europe's political complexion. When Slobodan Milosevic began his project for a Greater Serbia in 1991, conservatives of various shades ruled most European countries. In contrast, by the time of Rambouillet eleven of the fifteen EU governments were ruled by social democratic parties in various forms. Included among them were Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, the most powerful members both of NATO and the EU -- apart from the United States.
While many of these parties had traveled a long way towards the center ideologically, they did and do share some basic internationalist and humanitarian core values. When they presented Kosovo as a humanitarian and moral tragedy that had to be dealt with, they could call upon long memories of failing to deal with Hitler's Germany or Mussolini's Italy in a timely way to reinforce the idea that action must be taken. The consequences of Chamberlain's dismissal of Czechoslovakia as "a far away country of which we know little," had not made isolationism a popular trait in most European countries.
It also has to be said that many of the social democratic parties had a long tradition of opposition to the Leninist versions of Socialism that emphasized class struggle at the expense of individual human rights. In many East European countries, from the Bolshevik revolution onwards, social democrats were among the first victims of the communist regimes.
Therefore, although there was anti-war opposition in European Left, it was distinctly a minority. Anti-war activists in the US made much of the protests at the German Greens' conference on the war, but missed the major point, that the majority of the Greens and of the population supported Berlin's participation in the coalition against Serbia.
In the US, of course, the Left is a much less significant force. Its distance and detachment from real influence and power tends to make debate and discussion more intensely ideological: the absence of real pragmatic consequences from the positions it takes allows lines to be straight and rigid.
The first and most extreme group looked at events not from a position of humanitarian concerns, but through the prism of class struggle. Their support for or opposition to any movement was based not on any moral considerations but on their position in the anti-imperialist struggle. Hence although many would offer total support to the IRA in Northern Ireland, to the PKK in Turkey, or to the NLF in Vietnam, they rushed to condemn the KLA as terrorists and bandits. There were indeed many disturbing aspects about the behavior of the KLA, but no more so than with the other organizations that were deemed deserving of solidarity. And few had as much support in their claimed constituency as the KLA so obviously did.
With a straight face, these supporters of liberation movements across the globe were prepared to deny Kosovars the right to self-determination, and indeed condoned the form of Apartheid that Belgrade had inflicted upon the Albanian majority in Kosovo. It was a horrifying display of indifference to human rights violations, perhaps unparalleled since some Leftist intellectuals supported Stalin's purges. But at least, those people in the thirties did not have the benefit of television to see and hear the testimony of the survivors as they crossed the frontiers, or the evidence of the mass graves as the tides of war turned. The message is clear, victim status is determined by the identity of the victimizers, not the enormity of the victimization.
To be fair, there was a second group, which deplored the Serb actions against Kosovars, but could not countenance United States intervention under any circumstances. They were quite prepared to join common ground with the apologists for Serbia against the war, which they clearly saw as a "greater evil" than the actual massacres.
At several meetings in the course of the war, anti-war activists berated others for supporting the "aggressive" NATO pact. In fact, when challenged, they were unable to cite a single incident of NATO military action of any kind. There are legitimate questions about the usefulness of NATO -- but before acting against Belgrade, the Alliance itself had not hitherto fired a shot in anger.
Interestingly, many American Leftists saw NATO as a direct agent of American Imperialism and hegemony. This was not the view in Western Europe. In reality, it was the post-war Labour government in Britain, especially its Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, that was one of the moving forces in trapping the US into NATO. The aim was as the old phrase has it, that it would keep "the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down."
Far from dancing on the string of Washington, the alliance operated on the principle of total consensus of all members. By the time the choices had to be made, it was becoming apparent that some at least of the Europeans, not least the British Labor government, were far more hawkish than the Clinton administration. In his memoir of his tenure as UN Secretary General, Boutros Ghali describes how Clinton responded to media pressure to do "something" over Bosnia. This, he says, "seemed to be air strikes, which would punish the Serbs and provide the United States and NATO with the appearance of decisiveness without risking unacceptable military losses on the ground." The man derided for being anti-Bosnian declared that at Srebrenica, "Nothing can excuse the atavistic cruelty of the Serbs; the incompetence of the international community in no way diminishes their guilt."
It was clear that similar considerations of polity and incompetence played a part in policy-making over Kosovo. It was not the result of US bellicosity, but rather the absence of any track record of firmness which encouraged Milosevic to think he could get away with his atrocities.
However, this would be lost on many American socialists, who acted as if this were a one-off conflict with no antecedents. Despite their alleged internationalism, they seemed to share the general American insularity. Indeed, that is somewhat unfair: they seemed to share a particularly conservative Know-Nothingism. Vukovar, Sarajevo, Srebrenica meant nothing to them, and even when their significance was explained, showed an equal lack of empathy for the victims there as they did for the Kosovars.
Another argument was that effectively, only saints could be victims. Some Kosovo Albanians were involved in smuggling, prostitution, and similar Mafia activities. Some of the money and personnel were involved in the KLA, and therefore all Kosovars were unworthy of support. The irony is that the source for these stories was Milosevic's regime, which is based on a kleptocratic caste of smugglers -- and whose servants have been credibly accused of mass rape in Bosnia and Kosovo. Since all arguments are ad-nationem, needless to say, such accusations only have culpatory effect against Kosovars.
Then there was an argument from history. Edward Said and Noam Chomsky set the tone for many. They both admitted that what the Serbs were doing in Kosovo was evil. However, they then looked at the record of inaction by the West, in Palestine, East Timor, Kurdistan, and so on, and therefore deduced that any action over Kosovo could not be for good motives and should therefore be opposed. Both were clearly worried about the dilemma presented by the obvious Serb atrocities, and both in their various ways decided that no one should undertake the role of the Samaritan. As Chomsky summarized, "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."
It would have been interesting to see the reaction to continuing negotiations with someone whose minions were simultaneously and visibly shooting whole families and stuffing them down wells. Even more interestingly East Timorese leader Ramos-Horta supported NATO action on the much more practical reasoning that it was indeed about time the West started taking robust action in favor of oppressed people, and that this was a welcome precedent.
The moralizing element from Chomsky and Said was common to many. It seems an excessively theological attitude to take. It would have meant, for example, the Allies in World War II should have refused to support Stalin when Hitler attacked him, since the Soviet Union had tainted itself both internally, by its repressive behavior, and externally by its pact with Hitler and attack on Finland, the Baltic Republics, and Poland.
Indeed, by the same token, the people of Europe in 1941 should have refused American and British intervention against Hitler because their motives were impure, as proven by their behavior in Central America, India, and Africa, not to mention their commercial interests.
Then there was the geopolitical argument. Milosevic has made a heroic stand out against globalization. The IMF, the US, NATO, and other partners in the conspiracy were all thwarting a valiant defender of socialism. The crudest version of this was, as usual, given by the supporters of former attorney general Ramsey Clark in the International Action Center, a body dominated by a post-Trostkyist group, Workers World. "Given the record of U.S. human rights violations in the world," said IAC's Brian Becker, "can anyone believe that Clinton, Albright or General Wesley Clark wake up in the morning asking: `Is someone suffering somewhere in the world?' No, the Pentagon is not a human relief agency. And when human rights are given as a reason for intervention, you can be sure there is another agenda." That agenda, he suggested is "domination of this key strategic region as well as setting a precedent for further aggression around the world." Even more rational commentators saw NATO's "real" purpose as establishing a new world order by making an example of Milosevic.
The crude Marxists looked for an economic rationale for NATO intervention. It was the mines of Kosovo that they were after. When it became clear that that the mines were not that important -- and had already been sold off to Greek companies, the search for a materialist motive became more frenzied.
Those desperate for a materialist motive usually ended up citing the Caspian Oil reserves, from which a pipeline would cross Kosovo. There were a few technical hitches to this -- not least the Black Sea, which inconveniently interposes itself between the Caucasus and the Balkans.
In some cases, the clincher was that taking action alienated Moscow. Russia was as alienated as anyone could be anyway -- over a whole range of issues but above all for losing the Cold War and then allowing the Chicago boys in to destroy their economy. However, the effect was that a wide range of Russian scholars were marshaled on the side of Milosevic. Russia, which had performed almost as egregiously in Chechnya, and had consistently supported Serbia in Bosnia and Kosovo, was held up to be the diplomatic savior of the situation.
Then there was the Pacifist wing -- one where, interestingly American xenophobia could merge with Americo-phobic leftism, leavened with a few genuine pacifists, with whom one can sympathize, but would certainly have sympathized with more if they had shown any signs of appreciation for the Kosovarsí tragedy. Pacifists overlapped with isolationists, who saw no reason for American troops to die on anyone else's behalf.
The suggestion that people who enlist in a volunteer army had in some way willfully put themselves forward for combat was greeted with a sneer of "economic conscription." And then there were the people who were against the war, apologists for Serbia, and were against any troops fighting Milosevic but were quite prepared to conscript others' anti-war tendencies for their purposes.
Across the left there was a wholesale conversion of some of the Left to a form of bourgeois legalism. NATO should not take this action because it had not had the sanction of the UN Security Council. Some of the die-hardest left began to stop using this when confronted with the inescapable fact that the UN had authorized Desert Storm and the ensuing sanctions against Iraq -- and they had vociferously opposed both.
The national sovereignty of Yugoslavia and Serbia was another concept that attracted the legalistic left. Strange mystical Serb conceptions of roots and historical homelands were supported by people who did not in any way see that this could lead, for example, to a British claim to Calais, Ireland, or the 13 colonies.
In addition there were the concerns about the ways of waging the war. Even many supporters of military action against the Belgrade regime expressed concern about the use of cluster bomb, depleted uranium ammunition, the risks posed to civilians by the 5,000 meter floor for NATO bombers, and increasingly targeting in close proximity to civilians. These were indeed legitimate concerns, but in the hands of much of the American left they became yet more reasons for opposing any form of military intervention. They were vociferously more concerned about the environmental damage caused by targeting oil refineries than they were about the rotting cadavers strewn across Kosovo.
Which moves to the final obscenity. Many argued that the massacres were mythical, and that the casualties were simply the result of Serb anti-terrorist actions against the KLA. Others (and indeed some of the same people) argued that the massacres did not happen until NATO started bombing, and that therefore NATO was in some way responsible for the refugees and the massacres! The West had somehow forced Milosevic to do this!
I detail all of these contradictory arguments used by different sections of the left, and sometimes simultaneously by the same people, to illustrate a point. Most of them had little or no concern about human rights.
Their starting point was that whatever the US, and therefore its surrogate NATO, did was wrong. They then added reasons, or rather excuses, for their stand. The IAC expressly called for a "class position." They reasoned that since the US was an imperialist power, whoever opposed it was "objectively," on the side of progress, while anyone who impeded the progress of history, like the KLA, was objectively a reactionary. The Albanians, like the Kulaks of yesteryear, were an obstacle to progress and so not to be mourned too vigorously.
Even many who accepted the evil of Milosevic were not prepared to accept that NATO had the right to intervene under any circumstances. At heart they subscribed to a doctrine of irredeemable Western fallibility, which was stronger than their humanitarian impulses.
Those of us on the left who supported intervention began with the humanitarian horror, and a sense of history. For ten years, Milosevic, in the heart of Europe had imposed a form of apartheid on the Kosovar Albanians. For most of the decade he had waged a cruel and bloody ethnic war against his neighbors in Croatia and Bosnia. He was now adding genocide to apartheid in Kosovo.
Many of us had called for intervention earlier, at Vukovar, Dubrovnik, Sarajevo, Srebrenica, because we believed that human rights over-rode conceptions of national sovereignty. We had deplored the way the Americans and British and French in Bosnia had ignored clear mandates from the United Nations to take robust action.
The major argument against unilateral humanitarian intervention is a sound one. It can always be used as a cover for aggressive action, as indeed it was in Czechoslovakia by Hitler. If this had been the US, or the US and UK alone, then there would have been some serious grounds to protest. However, in the historical context, Slobodan Milosevic's regime already stood condemned as a recidivist.
There were some fifty UN Security Council resolutions and 150 presidential statements against him. A host of General Assembly resolutions had taken him to task -- and withdrawn delegate rights from his mission to the UN.
Belgrade had always presented itself as a bastion of European civilization against barbarism, so in a sense, NATO, with its 17 European members, and the EU, was a jury of its peers. They had unanimously condemned him and supported military action against his regime because of his behavior in Kosovo.
Against this was the veto by Russia in the Security Council. When Russia put a resolution condemning NATO's action in the Security Council, it was trounced by an 11-4 vote. And the same happened in every other UN forum where it was raised.
In short, this was not a unilateral action masquerading as humanitarian. It was an action that justifiably had the overwhelming support of the world community. It should have had the support of the American Left, whatever differences there may have been about the conduct of the war.