Hypocritical Humanitarianism

From March 24 to June 10 1999, US military forces, in coordination with a number of other NATO powers, launched round-the-clock aerial attacks against Yugoslavia, dropping twenty thousand tons of bombs and killing upwards of three thousand women, children, and men. All this was done out of humanitarian concern for Albanians in Kosovo – or so we were asked to believe. In the span of a few months, President Clinton bombed four countries: Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq (repeatedly), and Yugoslavia (massively). At the same time, the US national security state was involved in proxy wars in Angola, Mexico (Chiapas), Colombia, and East Timor, among other places. US forces were deployed across the world at some three hundred major overseas bases – all in the name of peace, democracy, national security, and humanitarianism.
Some of us cannot help noticing that US leaders have been markedly selective in their supposedly humanitarian interventions. They made no moves against the Czech Republic for its mistreatment of the Roma (gypsies), or Britain for its longtime repression of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, or the Hutu for the mass murder of half a million Tutsi in Rwanda – or the French who were complicit in that massacre. Nor did US leaders consider launching “humanitarian bombings” against the Guatemalan people for the Guatemalan military’s systematic slaughter of tens of thousands Mayan villagers, or against the Indonesian people because their generals killed over two hundred thousand East Timorese and were engaged in such slaughter through the summer of 1999, not to mention the estimated half-million to one million Indonesians these same generals exterminated in 1965 and after.
Nor have humanitarian concerns caused US leaders and right-wing paramilitary forces to move against scores of other countries around the world engaging in subversion, sabotage, terrorism, torture, drug trafficking, death squads, mass murder, and wars of attrition – actions that have been far worse than anything Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic has been charged with. In most cases, the US national security state has not only tolerated such atrocities but have been actively complicit with the perpetrators – who usually happened to be recipients of US aid and trade.
Consider how the Kurds have been treated. At twenty-five million, the Kurds are the largest nationality group in the world without their own state. For thousands of years they have been inhabited an area now part of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and the former Soviet Union. For decades US leaders and their faithful media mouthpieces ignored the suffering of the Kurdish people. During a brief period in 1990, while busily discrediting and attacking Iraq, US policy makers and pundits made much of the fact that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was mistreating the Kurds under his rule. But not a critical word has been uttered against Turkey, that most faithful and repressive US client sate, with its long history of torturing and killing dissidents. In recent times Turkish leaders have razed or forcibly evacuated three thousand Kurdish villages; forty thousand Kurds have died in the process, with two million rendered homeless. Here was an ethnic repression  that dwarfed anything the Serbs were accused of perpetrating. Yet US leaders made no move to bomb Turkey. On the contrary, they have sold or given Ankara $15 billion worth of weapons since 1980. As a NATO member, Turkey was one of the countries that assisted in the bombing of Yugoslavia.
In 1995 the Clinton administration grudgingly acknowledged that Turkish leaders were committing serious abuses. But not to worry. Turkey’s human rights record was reportedly “improving.” In any case, as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights John Shattuck pointed out, “I don’t think the United States is responsible for Turkey’s internal policies.” Why then does the United States presume to be so urgently responsible for Yugoslavia’s internal policies, to the point of levelling death and destruction upon its people?
In 1993, Western leaders and liberal media commentators in the Unites States and Britain were calling for an interventionist campaign to rescue the Bosnian Muslims from the reputedly wicked Serbs. At that very time, more than a thousand people were dying every day in the CIA-sponsored war of attrition against Angola, far many times more than were perishing in Bosnia. The civil war in Liberia had displaced 85 per cent of the population. In Afghanistan, in Kabul alone, about a thousand people were killed in one week in May 1993. In July 1993, the Israelis launched a saturation shelling of southern Lebanon turning some three hundred thousand Muslims into refugees, in what had every appearance of being a policy of depopulation or “ethnic cleansing.”
Why were Western policy makers and media commentators so concerned about the Muslims of Bosnia but so unconcerned about the Muslims of Lebanon or Iraq? Why werethey so stirred by the partition of Bosnia but not the partition of Lebanon? As the journalist and filmmaker Joan Phillips asks:
Why the Muslims of Bosnia, and never the Serbs of Bosnia? Why have the liberals identified with the Muslim side in Bosnia so strongly that they have disqualified he Serbs from any sympathy? The Serbs have certainly got blood on their hands. But have all the atrocities in the dirty war in what was Yugoslavia been committed by one side? Why are eight hundred thousand Serbian refugees invincible to those liberal commentators searching for victims? Is it because the Serbs are really demons? Or is it because an increasingly conformist and uncritical media jumped on the anti-Serb bandwagon created by their governments at the start of the war in Yugoslavia, and never asked serious questions about what was going on?
Bosnia must remain “multi-ethnic,” Western leaders argued. even as they tirelessly contrived to break up the large multi-ethnic federation of Yugoslavia, itself a nation of twenty-eight nationalities – and form fear-ridden mono-ethnic statelets. “All in all, there seems to be little consistency and even less principle involved in the liberal crusade for Bosnia. It makes you think that there might be a hidden agenda here somewhere,” Phillips concludes.
So the question remains: is the US-NATO forceful intervention in Yugoslavia really motivated by a concern for the various non-Serbian ethnic groups? Is it to keep the peace and stop a genocide? For more than a decade, the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia have been presented as the culmination of historically rooted ethnic and religious enmities. The fact is, there was no civil war, no widespread killings, and no ethnic cleansing until the Western powers began to inject themselves into Yugoslavia’s internal affairs, financing the secessionist organizations and creating the politico-economic crisis that ignited the political strife.
Are the Serbs really the new Nazis of Europe? For those who need to be reminded, the Nazis waged aggressive war on a dozen or more nations in Europe, systematically exterminating some nine million defenseless civilians, including six million Jews, and causing the deaths of millions of others during their invasions, including twenty-two million Soviet citizens. The charges of mass atrocity and genocide leveled against Belgrade will be treated in the chapters ahead.
It is said that lies have wings while truth feebly slogs behind, destined never to catch up. This is often treated as being the inherent nature of communication. And it may sometimes be the case that truthful but mundane information cannot compete with the broad images repeatedly splashed across the media universe. But this is not sufficient explanation for the way issues are propagated in the global arena. Rather than ascribing reified, self-determining powers to concepts like truth and falsehood, we should note that the lies our leaders tell us succeed so well because they are repeated and ubiquitous dissemination. The truth seldom catches up because those who rule nations and manage the mass communication universe have no interest in giving it equal currency.
If millions believe the lies again and again, it is because that is all they hear. After a while, it becomes the only thing they want to hear. Truly remarkable are the people throughout the world who remonstrate and demonstrate against these “humanitarian” interventions. The broad public in the United States and other Western countries remained notably lukewarm about the air campaign against Yugoslavia. The Clinton administration seemed acutely aware of this, as manifested by its unwillingness to commit ground troops out of fear that the US public would not tolerate the loss of American lives. A war for which citizens are not willing to make any sacrifices whatsoever is not a war for which the government can claim deep public support.
Of course, Americans did not like what they heard about “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing,” but there were no signs of the jingoistic fervor that gripped many people during the Gulf War a decade earlier. If anything, there was a general feeling that they were not being told the whole story. The obviously one-sided character of the air war, the fact that Yugoslavia had not invaded anyone, and the impact of the bombing upon a European civilian population contributed to a general sense of unease. Indeed, in the eleven weeks of NATO’s “mission,” support dropped from over 65 per cent to barely 50 per cent and promised to go downward.
In response, the Clinton administration, with the active complicity of the media, took every opportunity to downplay the death and destruction caused by bombings and every opportunity to hype images of satanic Serbian atrocities. Still, the wavering support for the onslaught must have played a part in the White House’s decision to stop the bombing and settle for something less than total occupation of Yugoslavia. This should remind us that the struggle against war and aggression begins at home. Thus it is imperative for us to make every effort to look critically at the prevailing orthodoxy, and devote ourselves to a different course.
Michael Parenti
To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia (2000)