Defending the Indefensible

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On June 11 in the US progressive magazine The Nation, former left writer Christopher Hitchens wrote a brief article continuing his justification of NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia two years ago. His main point was that ‘for those if us who supported the intervention, with whatever misgivings, it was plain enough that Milosevic wanted the territory of Kosovo without the native population, and that a plan of mass expulsion, preceded by some exemplary killings, was in train. The level of casualties would depend on the extent of resistance that the execution of the plan would encounter.’  He supports this with some anecdotes, some undoubtedly true, about Yugoslav army atrocities in Kosovo.  Hitchens’ text is interesting only insofar as it demonstrates why some of those drawn to the left by a sentimentalism which demands no understanding of how the world works were able to support what was, quite clearly to anyone who does have such an undertsanding, an illegal and morally indefensible action. Hitchens’ article appeared in The Nation on June 11. The next day we received the following comment from Edward S. Herman and David Peterson. Herman and Peterson, anticipating that The Nation would decline to publish their letter, asked other magazines and websites to do so.

In "Body Count in Kosovo" (The Nation, June 11, 2001), Christopher Hitchens outdoes even his previous efforts at rewriting the history of the break-up of Yugoslavia, carrying out his vendetta against the Serbs, and apologizing for NATO's war in Kosovo.



Hitchens' characterization of the opposition to NATO's bombing campaign as based on the belief that "casualties among Kosovo Albanians were not sufficiently high to warrant the NATO intervention" is nothing more than a straw man of his own invention. Although there are legitimate questions to be raised as to how high the Kosovo Albanian casualties were, and how important those casualties were in impelling NATO to war, contrary to Hitchens, the Left's main objections to the war were that it was a case of Great Power aggression carried out in violation of the U.N. Charter and international law, and that it would "not solve any human problem, but [would] only multiply the existing problems," as Jiri Dienstbier, the Czech U.N. rapporteur for human rights in Kosovo, characterized the war's actual result.




Of course, Dienstbier was weighing the impact of the war not only on the Kosovo Albanians, but also on the Serbs as well as other peoples in the region. But a notable feature of Hitchens' writings on Kosovo has been his racist attitude toward the Serbs, an attitude that now extends to the other ethnic minorities in the province as well. Thus, for example, in his "Genocide and the Body-Baggers" (The Nation, Nov. 29, 1999), Hitchens led The Nation's readers in a rousing cheer for NATO's good deeds in Kosovo: "The NATO intervention repatriated all or most of the refugees and killed at least some of the cleansers. I find I have absolutely no problem with that." Here Hitchens ignores the fact that Kosovo's massive refugee crisis of 1999 followed the onset of NATO's bombing campaign rather than preceded it. Note also that in Hitchens' revealing word usage, "refugees" is an ethnically pure concept and serves to denote only Kosovo Albanians . For Hitchens, the only Kosovars who count are ethnic Albanians; the demon Milosevic's populace, along with the rest of the province's shrinking ethnic minorities, are "unpeople" (John Pilger's term)--and any negative consequences that NATO's actions have had for them are of no interest or relevance to Hitchens' evaluation of policy.



Hitchens contends that the bombing campaign was both necessary and justified because "It was plain enough that Milosevic wanted the territory of Kosovo without the native population, and that a plan of mass expulsion, preceded by some exemplary killings, was in train. The level of casualties would depend on the extent of the resistance that the execution of the plan would encounter." Although as a supporter of the war the burden of proof for such a claim should rest on Hitchens' shoulders, neither he nor anyone else has ever provided evidence for the existence of any "plan of mass expulsion"  Hitchens regularly implies that because the Serbs reacted as they did in Kosovo when NATO began its bombing war, and were clearly ready to take such an action, this proves they would have done exactly the same thing under any circumstances.  But as every military power has a spectrum of contingency plans most of which will never be implemented, this is a blatant non-sequitur.  NATO's propaganda claim that Belgrade used the bombing campaign to execute "Operation Horseshoe"--an alleged plan to cleanse Kosovo of its ethnic Albanian population, but whose existence NATO had never mentioned until after the bombs started to fall--has been utterly discredited. (See the book by Germany's retired Brigadier General Heinz Loquai, Der Kosovo-Konflikt. Wege in einen vermeidbaren Krieg ("The Kosovo Conflict: A War That Could Be Avoided," Durchschnittliche Kundenwertung, 2000).)




In his discussion of this "plain enough" Serb plan, Hitchens consistently avoids dealing with the fact that under an October 1998 agreement, Belgrade had allowed a substantial OSCE observer mission in Kosovo, and was prepared to permit the extension of such a mission at Rambouillet.  (See the Agreement For Self-Government In Kosomet, signed among others by the Government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Government of Serbia but rejected by the Contact Group and the KLA in Paris on March 18, 1999)  Although the actual mission was highly compromised from the start by U.S. intelligence agents working under the cover of the OSCE for non-mandated objectives (as a Swiss member of the OSCE's observer mission in Kosovo told the Italian journal  La Liberté, "We understood from the start that information gathered by OSCE patrols during our missions was destined to complete the information that NATO had gathered by satellite. We had the very sharp impression of doing espionage work for the Atlantic Alliance."), nonetheless, a Yugoslav parliamentary Resolution adopted the day before the start of the war vigorously condemned the withdrawal of the monitors.  (See "Parliament says country will defend itself from any attack," BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, March 25, 1999, which reproduces in full the text of the Resolution adopted by The National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia on March 23, 1999.)  Hitchens' failure to mention the OSCE observers can only be explained by the fact that such evidence is not compatible with the "plain enough…plan of mass expulsion."


Nor is there the slightest evidence that there were "exemplary killings" designed to induce general flight, as opposed to killings in an ugly and brutal civil conflict. In an internal report prior to the bombing, the German Foreign Office had even denied that the refugee flows in and out of Kosovo constituted a case of "ethnic cleansing," contending instead that this was the familiar pattern in a nasty civil conflict. "[The] actions of the security forces [were] not directed against the Kosovo-Albanians as an ethnically defined group, but against the military opponent and its actual or alleged supporters," the German Foreign Office determined.  (See "Important Internal Documents from Germany's Foreign Office Regarding Pre-Bombardment Genocide in Kosovo," trans. Eric Canepa.)  What is more, the evidence produced by NATO, the OSCE, the State Department and the Pentagon, the British House of Commons' Defense Review, the U.N., the Red Cross, forensic teams from at least 16 different countries, and all of the NGOs that have set up camp in Kosovo, uniformly fails to support the claims of the West's political leadership and the New Humanitarians that, whether prior to or during the war, a Rwanda-style crisis was in the offing.  (On the question of whether there was any evidence of imminent atrocities prior to the withdrawal of the observers and the onset of NATO's bombing, see Noam Chomsky's analysis in his book, A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor, and the Standards of the West (Verso, 2000), Ch. 3, "Kosovo in Retrospect," pp. 94-147.)

Furthermore, evidence has now surfaced showing that the CIA, working largely through corporate-sector firms such as Military Professional Resources Inc. and DynCorp, had been aiding and training the KLA prior to the bombing, and KLA representatives have openly acknowledged that they were trying to provoke the Serbs to actions that would provide NATO with the jus belli that it was looking for to launch the war. (See Tom Walker and Aidan Laverty, "CIA aided Kosovo guerrilla army," Sunday Times (London), March 12, 2000; Peter Beaumont, Ed Vulliamy and Paul Beaver, "CIA's bastard army ran riot in Balkans," The Observer (London), March 11, 2001; and Rory Carroll, "Crisis in the Balkans: West struggles to contain monster of its own making," The Guardian (London), March 12, 2001).)  Thus, Hitchens' statement that "the level of casualties would depend on the extent of resistance" is misleading not only as regards the mythical "plan of mass expulsion," it also ignores the fact that casualties would depend heavily on the success of the planned provocations.



"As to Racak," Hitchens writes, "it might be argued that Western policy-makers seized too fast on the evidence of a Bosnian-style bloodbath, but...it would be tough to argue that a 'wait and see' policy would have been morally or politically superior. Wait for what? Wait to see what?" Apart from the problems of the non-existent evidence of a bloodbath and NATO's underwriting of provocations, with the Racak case there is strong evidence that those "Western policy-makers" didn't just "seize too fast" on claims of a massacre at Racak, they even helped create those claims in order to justify a decision taken perhaps as early as the summer of 1998 to bomb Serbia and teach it as well as other potential "rogue states" a lesson in who's the boss, and to teach the peoples of Europe that they cannot live without NATO's protection.  (For material that raises doubts about NATO's contention that the incident at Racak was a "massacre" of 40 unarmed Kosovo Albanian civilians, see "Finnish experts find no evidence of Serb massacre of Albanians," Deutsche Presse Agentur, January 17, 2001; J. Rainio, K. Lalu, A. Penttilä, "Independent forensic autopsies in an armed conflict: investigation of the victims from Racak, Kosovo," Forensic Science International, Vol. 116, Issue 2-3, 2001, pp. 171-185; and the critical comments by Dusan Dunjic of Belgrade's Institute for Forensic Medicine, "The (Ab)Use of Forensic Medicine,"

)

As to "wait to see what," this is a phony and misleading question, as the Great Powers didn't have to "wait" for anything; they were always in a very strong position to negotiate even with the hated Milosevic for greater Kosovo autonomy and a stronger international observer presence.  Belgrade had agreed to a number of compromises during the previous decade.  Among others, Milosevic supported the Vance Plan of 1991, the Jose Cutillero Plan of 1992 (a plan vetoed by the Muslim side in Bosnia-Herzegovina), the Vance-Owen Plan of 1993 (a plan eventually sabotaged by U.S. authorities, as Owen describes in his memoirs), and the Owen-Stoltenberg Plan of 1993 (also vetoed by the United States).  But in this case neither the KLA nor NATO--nor for that matter Christopher Hitchens—were interested in compromise or negotiations.



In dealing with the events in Kosovo that followed the March 24, 1999 beginning of NATO's bombing campaign, Hitchens takes the refugee flows that resulted from the fighting as proof that Belgrade had planned to expel the Albanian population all along, thereby reversing cause and effect, exactly as NATO officials have done. While he drags in Rwanda, saying that "we'll never know if another Rwanda was prevented or not, since another Rwanda did not in fact take place," he fails to explain why the Serbs didn't engage in mass killings of Kosovo Albanians even under the stress of wartime conditions, even in areas of great KLA influence and fighting with the KLA. During the war, NATO propagandists were proclaiming mass extermination and even genocide, but these were lies. So, contrary to Hitchens once again, one thing we do know is that crimes on the scale of Rwanda did not take place even under brutal, wartime conditions.



Hitchens ignores the evidence now openly acknowledged by NATO officials that the KLA was working in close military coordination with NATO during the bombing period, and that the intensity of Serb attacks was closely related to strategic military factors, including the operational presence of the KLA in the various theaters of combat.  (See Daniel Pearl and Robert Block, "War in Kosovo Was Cruel, Bitter, Savage; Genocide It Wasn't," Wall Street Journal, Dec. 31, 1999.) Across Kosovo's 29 municipalities, ethnic Albanians did not flee the territory uniformly. Nor were they alone—members of all ethnic groups fled areas where fighting took place.  Municipalities in different parts of Kosovo where the KLA's presence was thin saw relatively little fighting and therefore little refugee flow. This was particularly true prior to the withdrawal of the observers and the start of the bombing campaign. (On this, see the report published by the OSCE, Kosovo/Kosova: As Seen, As Told. The human rights findings of the OSCE Kosovo Verification Mission October 1998 to June 1999,



esp. Part V: "The Municipalities.")



Hitchens spends considerable space on what he calls the "forensic evidence" that has come into public view "as a result of the implosion of the Milosevic regime." But in fact the most important "evidence" that Hitchens cites, the alleged "mass burnings of bodies in the blast furnace of the Trepca steel plant" that was claimed by NATO at the time of its occupation of Kosovo in June 1999, was subjected to a genuine "forensic" examination by a team of French experts under OSCE auspices shortly thereafter, and was found to be non-existent. (See Fisnik Abrashi, "OSCE Says No Sign of Mass Burnings Found in Kosovo," Associated Press, Jan. 26, 2001.)   Although this story has been rehabilitated over the past two years by journalists with the American Radio Works and National Public Radio, based on highly dubious interviews with Serbs boasting of their role in the cremations, these Serbs have remained anonymous sources and have never been available for questioning by independent analysts. Among the other "forensic evidence" cited by Hitchens are the recent reports that a refrigerated truck carrying anywhere from 50 to 86 Kosovo Albanian bodies (accounts have varied) was dredged up during the war from the bottom of the Danube river near the Serb town of Kladovo, the bodies then being reburied in an unknown place somewhere.  Although these stories may very well turn out to be true, given the brutal nature of the war, they do not constitute forensic evidence as such, but are mere hearsay.  It is also important to note that these alleged events would have occurred after the start of the war, and therefore cannot be used to support Hitchens' contention that they are evidence of a Serb "plan of mass expulsion" based on "exemplary killings" that existed before the war.  Instead, they would suggest that the war itself, which Hitchens defends, led to many deaths and deplorable atrocities.  But as an elementary point of logic, the war's negative consequences cannot be used to justify actions that produced those consequences. 

Hitchens says that in the "new atmosphere" of post-Milosevic Serbia it might be possible to prove that "there was a state design" to the murders and secret interments, and that if this were true "it would owe very little to those who described the belated Western intervention as an exercise in imperialism based upon false reporting." But he fails to note that in the "new atmosphere" that exists in Serbia, and in the United States itself, there might be strong political, financial, and even survival incentives--and very little risk--in fabricating claims of murders and secret interments, a point perhaps illustrated by the recently recycled claims about mass cremations at Trepca. He also fails to note the possibility that the reason this evidence might not surface is because it simply does not exist, in which case those who supported the war will no longer have even this crutch to stand on. 



It is also of interest that Hitchens never discusses the "new atmosphere" that prevails today in NATO-occupied Kosovo, a conflict-ridden atmosphere that has led to the creation of a monoethnic state, with more than 250,000 members of ethnic minorities having fled the province in what Jan Oberg, the director of the Swedish-based Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, calls "the largest ethnic cleansing in the Balkans [in percentage terms]." But while Hitchens is extremely captivated by lurid stories of mass cremations and ethnic Albanian corpses spilling out of refrigerated trucks, the estimated 1,300 non-ethnic Albanians killed and perhaps as many abducted (and very possibly killed) in Kosovo under NATO's occupation appear to be of no interest to him at all.  Nor does he ever link NATO's intervention with the spread of armed ethnic Albanian fighting to geographically contiguous areas in southern Serbia and northwestern Macedonia, or with the possibility of yet another incarnation of the KLA carrying its war to Greece as well. For Hitchens, NATO's "humanitarian" war was justified for reasons that terminate with the driving of the Serb army from Kosovo, NATO's occupation of Kosovo, the repatriation of Kosovo Albanian refugees—driven out during NATO's war and returning to a ravaged, burned-out land effectively controlled by the KLA and foreign powers--and, ultimately, the ouster of the Milosevic regime, and no doubt his trial at The Hague as well.  All of the other consequences that one could weigh in the scales of justice, Hitchens passes over in silence.



Hitchens' claim that the potential "emancipation of Serbia" by full disclosure of Serb misbehavior "would owe very little to those who described the belated Western intervention as an exercise in imperialism based upon false reporting" is equally ludicrous.  No serious critic of the war has ever argued that NATO's intervention was "based on false reporting;" their view has been that a combination of false reporting and heavily ideological commentary such as that offered by Christopher Hitchens helped sell the war—as has been the case in virtually all wars.

But beyond this confusion, Hitchens seems to imply that Operation Allied Force was not an imperialistic undertaking, and in fact in his "Port Huron Piffle" (The Nation, June 14, 1999), he clearly stated that NATO finally chose the war-option "when the sheer exorbitance of the crimes in Kosovo became impossible to ignore." Jamie Shea or James Rubin could not have stated NATO's case for war any better than that.  Indeed, it has been amusing to watch Hitchens, currently vigorously assailing Henry  Kissinger for the crimes of the imperial state a generation back, but at the same time lining up with the likes of Bill and Tony and Gerhard, Madeleine and Robin and Joschka in the pretence that their war was driven by humanitarian objectives—in this one case only—and with this being the only factor he mentions to explain their adventures in Kosovo.

Edward Herman has written a number of articles for Spectre and is co-editor, with Philip Hammond, of Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis (Pluto, 2000); David Peterson is a Chicago-based researcher and journalist.

See also -



by Edward Herman and David Peterson:



Kosovo: One Year On



Contagion Media Group/NATO