Issue 91 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Summer 2001 Copyright © International Socialism
Two years after its conclusion there are still many who would have us believe that the bombardment of Yugoslavia was a victory for humanitarian ideals over evil, for ethnic tolerance over nationalist hatred, and for the rule of law over that of the gun. These new books by two American radical intellectuals and anti-war activists, Noam Chomsky and Michael Parenti, are dedicated to dispelling these myths by exposing the contradictions between the heady rhetoric our leaders use to justify their actions and the sordid reality their policies in fact promote. As Parenti puts it, our leaders 'can sometimes be hoisted on their own petards given the disparities between their words and actions'.1
Noam Chomsky is a past master at hoisting our leaders on their own petards. The fearsome logic and scrupulous research he employs against them are characteristically his own. His slim book of three short chapters nevertheless contains a formidable 189 footnotes. He begins by treating us to a series of high-minded statements issued by the great and the good in the heat of battle. According to Tony Blair, by bombing Yugoslavia 'the new generation' of leaders was enforcing 'a new internationalism where the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated' and where 'those responsible for such crimes have nowhere to hide'. President Clinton bluntly stated the moral imperative that was guiding the US and NATO: 'If somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background or their religion, and it is within our power to stop it, we will stop it.' And Vaclav Havel, the Czech president, shared with us his profound insight that the bombing implied nothing less than 'the end of the nation-state' and the birth of a historical period in which 'the evolution of civilisation [has] finally brought humanity to the recognition that human beings are more important than the state'.2
It is illuminating for a moment to reflect upon what these grandiose statements about a 'new generation' committed to a 'new internationalism' implicitly say about the principles that must in the past have guided the policies of the 'old generation'. But Chomsky's and Parenti's focus is the present and, above all, the many conflicts around the globe in which the 'new generation' have actively intervened, only this time in support of 'the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups' and the mass terror perpetrated by 'the nation-state'. In each case Chomsky and Parenti show how it was well 'within our power to stop it', often simply by withdrawing military aid.
The case of Turkey, a long-standing member of NATO that assisted in the bombing of Yugoslavia, is a glaring example of what Parenti calls our leaders' 'hypocritical humanitarianism'.3 Chomsky notes that the US provided 80 percent of Turkey's arms at the height of the repression of the Kurds in the mid-1990s; that 1994 was the worst year of the repression of the Kurds but that it was also the year Turkey became the largest single importer of US military hardware; that in 1997 the Clinton administration's supply of arms to Turkey exceeded in one year the total arms the US supplied to it between 1950 and 1983. The result? Tens of thousands killed (about 2,500 Kosovans were killed by Serb paramilitaries during NATO's bombardment), 2 to 3 million refugees (two to three times that in Kosovo during the bombing), and 3,500 villages destroyed (seven times that of Kosovo during the bombing).4 All of which draws this caustic comment from Chomsky: 'The new generation drew the line by consciously putting as many guns as possible into the hands of the killers and torturers'.5 And what of our power to stop it by withdrawing military aid or expelling Turkey from NATO? Parenti cites the reply of Clinton's Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, John Shattuck: 'I don't think the United States is responsible for Turkey's internal policies'.6
Chomsky describes how Turkey was overtaken by Colombia as the leading recipient of US military aid in 1999. With the Kurds pacified at least for the time being, US attention focused on aiding the counter-insurgency strategy of the Colombian government against domestic guerrillas under the cloak of fighting a drugs war. Chomsky notes the correlation between the fact that Colombia has the worst human rights record in the Western hemisphere and that it is simultaneously the hemisphere's leading beneficiary of US military aid. The result was that between June and August 1999 (the bombing of Yugoslavia had ended that June) 200,000 people were driven from their homes by Colombian forces aided by paramilitaries responsible for atrocities at least comparable to those committed by Serb paramilitaries in Kosovo7--with one essential difference. The US supported Colombian forces on the ground but bombed Serb forces from the air.
But perhaps the most infamous example of humanitarian hypocrisy is that of East Timor. Chomsky devotes a whole chapter to comparing it with the tragedy of Kosovo. Following the revolutionary overthrow of the Suharto regime in 1998 the new regime reluctantly announced that a referendum would be held on independence for East Timor. With the goal of intimidating the East Timorese into voting against independence or, failing that, making an example of them to deter other secessionists, the Indonesian army, assisted by paramilitaries, brought havoc on a mass scale to East Timor. In the run-up to the referendum in August 1999 and after, they forced some 750,000 people out of a total population of 880,000 from their homes, with 250,000 fleeing to Indonesian West Timor. An estimated 70 percent of the country was levelled, with some 10,000 killed.8
If there was ever a case of 'somebody com[ing] after innocent civilians and tr[ying] to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background or their religion' this was surely it. Unlike in Kosovo, there had been no active guerrilla activity by the East Timorese, no attacks on the Indonesian police or civilians with the goal of provoking foreign military intervention, no takeover of swathes of territory and, above all else, no bombardment of Indonesia by a coalition of the world's most powerful states in defence of the East Timorese. In short, the actions of the Indonesian army and paramilitaries were utterly without provocation.
But how did the 'new generation' react? Chomsky compares the West's outraged reaction to the Racak massacre of 45 Kosovans in January 1999, which prepared the propaganda ground for war two months later, with its barely audible reaction to the Liquica church massacre of 60 East Timorese in April 1999. With its newly discovered internationalism still burning brightly over the Balkans, the 'new generation' carried on arming Indonesia regardless. As late as September 1999, two weeks after the European Union had imposed an embargo on Indonesia, Britain delivered yet more Hawk jets to the regime despite incontrovertible evidence that the jets had been used in East Timor. In fact, under New Labour, Britain became the leading supplier of military hardware to Indonesia despite protests from Amnesty International, Indonesian dissidents and the East Timorese. Dismissing Robin Cook's pompous claim to an 'ethical' foreign policy, Chomsky quotes back at him his own words expressing support for a 'strong defence industry' as 'a strategic part of our industrial base'.9
Chomsky also uses the case of East Timor to expose the West's attitude to war crimes. He compares the speed with which the West indicted Slobodan Milosevic during the Balkan War together with the unprecedented access to intelligence information NATO provided to the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague when the bombing of Yugoslavia started. But Indonesian crimes were treated altogether differently. The new US ambassador at the UN, none other than former Balkan envoy Richard Holbrooke, told reporters he was 'pinning hopes on an internal tribunal held by Indonesia'.10 This time the US expected the perpetrators of the crimes to discipline themselves. As State Department spokesman James Foley put it, 'The Indonesian military has a responsibility to bring those militias under control'.11 In the end mineral rich Indonesia with a population of 200 million mattered, and impoverished East Timor of 880,000 people did not. So much for Havel's claim that modern civilisation had at long last recognised that 'human beings are more important than the state'.
Chomsky's and Parenti's attentions then turn to the Kosovo war itself. Their target is the claim that it was fought to prevent the mass ethnic cleansing of the Albanians by the Serb authorities. Parenti first debunks the myth that what was happening in Kosovo before the war was genocide. He quotes George Kenney, US policy adviser on the Balkans under the administration of Bush Sr: 'The US government doesn't have any proof of any genocide and anyone reading the press critically can see the paucity of the evidence, despite interminably repeated claims and bloodcurdling speculation'.12 Parenti notes that there were plundering and summary executions by Serb paramilitaries, but rightly concludes that this was 'indicative of a limited counter-insurgency' typical of many conflicts across the globe.13
Chomsky accepts the likelihood that Milosevic had plans of 'truly evil proportions' for Kosovo, such as mass ethnic cleaning in the event of an attack on Yugoslavia, 'just as it is a near certainty that Israel has plans to expel much of the Palestinian population' if it were attacked by Iran or Syria.14 But even if Milosevic had such plans, Chomsky demonstrates that the bombing had nothing to do with preventing their implementation. Had that been so, one would have expected NATO's commander, General Wesley Clark, to have known about them. Instead, Clark admitted that 'the plans have never been shared with me'. He added later that the NATO operation 'was not designed as a means of blocking Serb ethnic cleansing... Not in any way. There was never any intent to do that. That was not the idea'.15
There is also the crucial question of timing. Chomsky shows that the mass ethnic cleansing of the Kosovan Albanians was the consequence of the bombing as the Serbs retaliated and so cannot be honestly cited as justification for it. He notes how Western politicians and commentators have conveniently reversed the true order of events and describes this as 'the doctrine of retrospective justification', according to which the results of one's actions are treated as Machiavellian justification for them.16 As Parenti puts it, 'The Albanian exodus from Kosovo began after the NATO bombings that trampled on human dignity and human rights'.17 Indeed, when questioned about it, Clark admitted as much by accepting that the cleansing was an 'entirely predictable' result of the bombing.18
Had NATO truly been concerned for the plight of the Kosovan Albanians, and that war could provoke retaliatory ethnic cleansing on a mass scale against them, why is it, Chomsky and Parenti ask, that the Rambouillet peace agreement contained a notorious and provocative annex providing for the virtual military occupation of Yugoslavia by NATO? In reply Chomsky tellingly quotes the evidence of Lord Gibson, Britain's second most senior defence minister during the war, to the Defence Select Committee: 'I think certain people were spoiling for a fight in NATO at that time. I think the terms put to Milosevic at Rambouillet were absolutely intolerable; how could he possibly accept them? It was quite deliberate'.19 No wonder Parenti describes the Rambouillet negotiations as an 'ambush'.20
The myth that the bombing was undertaken to defend the Kosovan Albanians lies shattered. The truth lies elsewhere, and we get it from the horse's mouth. In one of his less disingenuous moments, Tony Blair revealed, 'The bottom line was we couldn't lose. If we lost, it's not just that we would have failed in our strategic objectives, failed in terms of the moral purpose--we would have dealt a devastating blow to the credibility of NATO, and the world would have been less safe as a result of that'.21 The evidence is simply overwhelming and we are left with only one conclusion to draw. This is not a 'new generation' committed to a 'new internationalism', but just another ruthless generation of rulers, indistinguishable from the old, except for the expanded scope of their ambitions in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
Chomsky's book ends with a restatement of his belief that the United Nations can offer some way of restraining the US and its subsidiary, NATO. He notes how the arrogant contempt of the US for the principles of the UN Charter over the bombing of Yugoslavia was 'yet another blow to the fragile principles of world order', as indeed it was. But Chomsky also demonstrates here and in his other writings how the US has been 'far in the lead in vetoing Security Council resolutions on a wide range of issues'.22 Given this evidence, it is unrealistic to place any faith in the power of the UN to restrain the imperialist states.23 Instead our faith should remain in the power of organised mass resistance from below to restrain our rulers. It is for very good reason that the US ruling class still remains inhibited--however weakly--by memories of the anti Vietnam War protests of over 30 years ago.
Chomsky and Parenti are nevertheless generally at one when it comes to assessing and demolishing the hypocritical humanitarian intent behind the bombing of Yugoslavia. Although Chomsky's book is the more detailed, rigorous and thought-provoking one, it is not as comprehensive or as original as his classic work on the war, The New Military Humanism.24 Parenti's book is perhaps more readable. But it becomes almost unreadable when he turns his attentions to the Milosevic regime. For him, Yugoslavia was 'the only nation in that region that would not voluntarily discard what remained of its socialism and install an unalloyed free market system'.25
This is not the place to enter into a theoretical debate about the socialist credentials of the Milosevic regime. Suffice it to say, International Socialism has always held fast to the belief that Milosevic's Yugoslavia, no less than Tito's, can most adequately be described as a form of bureaucratic state capitalism.26 For it is clear that what Parenti means by socialism is nothing more than state control of the economy. As a result, in his determination to defend what he sees as socialism, Parenti fails to look the realities of Milosevic's Serbia squarely in the face. In fact, his assessment of economic and political life under Milosevic is at times so distorted that it casts a shadow even over the better parts of his book. Parenti rightly tells us that 'to arrive at a close approximation of the truth is the first duty of a democratic citizenry'.27 He fails conspicuously in that duty when assessing Milosevic's Serbia.
To begin with, Parenti's historical overview of Tito's Yugoslavia is superficial. He notes how after the Second World War 'socialist Yugoslavia became something of an economic success', but fails to elucidate the broader context without which that success would not have been possible--a world economic boom unprecedented in the history of capitalism.28 Yugoslavia's descent into economic catastrophe in the 1970s and 1980s is ascribed to 'a disastrous error', the decision to 'borrow heavily from the West'.29 But again Parenti says nothing about the broader context in which the borrowing occurred, as the post-war economic boom finally spluttered to a halt in the 1970s. Parenti leaves the broader context out of his account because he cannot accept that the central dynamic of the Yugoslav economy was not in essence different from that of global capitalism--and that, in fact, it oscillated in tandem with it. Instead Parenti tries to have his cake and eat it. He attributes Yugoslavia's successes to 'socialism', but its failures to reckless borrowing from the West.
For Parenti, the crucial facts are these. As late as 1990 'better than 60 percent of the total labour force [in Yugoslavia] was in the public sector, much of it self managed'.30 In 1999, 'more than three quarters of its basic industry was still publicly owned'.31 By publicly owned, of course, Parenti means state owned. He then argues that 'as far as the Western free marketeers were concerned, these enterprises had to be either privatised or demolished. A massive aerial destruction...might be just the thing needed to put Belgrade more in step with the New World Order'.32 Stated like this, the argument appears both crude and reductionist.
Firstly, it fails to recognise that Serbia's Balkan neighbour Romania had also made limited progress with privatisation. Two thirds of employees there still work in big state-owned companies. But Romania was not bombed. Secondly, privatisation had progressed in Serbia from which members of the regime were only too happy to profit. Serbia's private banks, for example, were notoriously corrupt and often had very close links with the regime, and 49 percent of Serbian Telecom was sold off to Italian and Greek companies, a sell-off now under investigation because of an alleged bribery scandal. Thirdly, the argument fails to recognise that state ownership survived in Serbia not for lofty ideological reasons, but for desperately pragmatic ones. For most of the 1990s Serbia was involved in proxy wars in Croatia and Bosnia whilst simultaneously the victim of economic sanctions which deprived it of badly needed capital. In these circumstances the Serbian ruling class maintained state ownership because it was the most effective means of waging war and preserving state power under conditions of economic isolation and capital starvation.
A better explanation is to see the bombing from a broader geopolitical perspective as a classic act of imperialist opportunism. NATO, led by the US, exploited the tragedy of Kosovo for its own greater ends--to set a precedent for 'out of area' operations beyond its borders and the control of the UN, and to crush a Russian ally in the Balkans as part of its drive eastwards. And Kosovo, dressed up as a humanitarian disaster of genocidal proportions in the heart of Europe, offered an opportunity to do so which was too good to spurn. Parenti's attempt to demonstrate that the West bombed to get its hands on Yugoslavia's impoverished state property or else destroy it (eliminating competition 'quite nicely', as he puts it)33 is frankly unconvincing, as the Romanian exception alone demonstrates. If there was indeed an economic motive behind the bombardment, it was the pacification of the region prior to the arrival of a trans-Balkan oil pipeline via Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania from the Caspian Sea, where massive capital investment by Western oil multinationals has taken place over the last decade.34
Parenti does describe well the intimate relationship between the economic collapse of Yugoslavia and the rise of nationalism: 'As the economy gets caught in the ever-tightening downward debt spiral with cutbacks and growing unemployment, it becomes easier to induce internecine conflicts as the different nationalities begin to compete more furiously than ever for a share of the shrinking pie'.35 He analyses the contemporary history of Croatian nationalism reasonably well, and cuts through the myth that the Izetbegovic regime in Bosnia represented a democratic and multi-ethnic alternative in the Balkans by quoting Richard Holbrooke's candid assessment that 'although [Izetbegovic] paid lip service to the principles of a multi-ethnic state, he was not the democrat that some supporters in the West saw'.36 But what Parenti gives with his left hand he takes away with his right--none other than Radovan Karadzic is treated sympathetically for appointing 'Communist and leftist officers' who were 'unfriendly toward capitalist restoration and the free market agenda'. He even describes Radio Krajina, run by the Bosnian Serb army, as 'progressive'.37
Parenti's determination to defend what he sees as 'socialist Yugoslavia' therefore swiftly dovetails into an uncritical attitude towards Serbian nationalism--so uncritical, in fact, he cannot bring himself to describe it as nationalism at all. This is nowhere clearer than when he comes to assess--or rather side-step--the issue of how Milosevic rose to power by beating the drum of Serbian nationalism over Kosovo. Here the history of national oppression suffered by the Kosovan Albanians in 'socialist Yugoslavia' (arguably the only nation in it that suffered national oppression) is not even discussed, nor is the economic and political background to the rise of Serbian nationalism. For Parenti to do otherwise would involve confronting some uncomfortable realities about 'socialist Yugoslavia' such as the fierce repression of the Kosovan Albanians during the 1950s and their revolts in 1968 and 1981, or of the Trepca miners who struck in protest at Milosevic's abolition of the province's autonomy in 1989. Instead of examining the crucial question of how and why the national liberation movement of the Kosovan Albanians became by the late 1990s a pliant tool of imperialism, Parenti repeats what is at best a Serbian nationalist half truth when he tells us that Tito did nothing to defend the Serbs of Kosovo from Albanian ethnic cleansing after 1945. Similarly, Parenti makes no mention of the mass strikes and worker demonstrations that hit Yugoslavia in the late 1980s and the way Milosevic defused the burgeoning social revolt by diverting popular discontent into nationalist channels. Demonstrations against galloping inflation, non-payment of wages and job losses were transformed into mass demonstrations against the Kosovan Albanians, this time led by Milosevic instead of against him.
These facts might cause some to pause for thought. Was 'socialist Yugoslavia' quite the multi-ethnic haven Parenti seems to suggest? If much of the public sector was indeed 'self managed', why did Serbian workers have to take their demands and protests on to the streets in the manner of their fellow workers in the capitalist West? How could a 'socialist' like Milosevic (and presumably a true internationalist, unlike the 'new generation') resort to blatant nationalist demagoguery to head off the protests of the workers whose interests he was meant to defend? But Parenti does not pause for thought.
Instead, with every turn of the page, we are fed a sorry diet of illusions in the Milosevic regime. For example, Parenti writes, 'After seeing two consecutive terms as president of Serbia, Milosevic honoured the Yugoslav constitution's prohibition against a third term. He next stood for election as president of Yugoslavia. Such constitutional propriety has not been observed by everyone in the region'.38 And yet, for any but the most partisan observer, such 'constitutional propriety' was a transparent ploy by Milosevic to hang on to power at all costs. Before Milosevic took over the post of Yugoslav president, it was a powerless position occupied by a stooge. When he took over, it instantly became the most powerful political position in Yugoslavia. To make matters worse, Parenti even claims that pro-government demonstrations were 'usually two or three times larger' than opposition ones.39 You begin to wonder about Parenti's sources. For when had Milosevic brought onto the streets day after day through the winter months--as the opposition did in 1996-1997--hundreds of thousands of Serbs determined to force him to accept the true local election results he had, with exemplary 'constitutional propriety', refused to accept? For when had Milosevic brought onto the streets of Belgrade over a million Serbs from all over Serbia--as the opposition did on 5 October 2000--determined to risk their lives if need be in a bloody confrontation with the army and the police to force him to accept the true presidential results he had yet again, with exemplary 'constitutional propriety', refused to accept?
The kernel of truth Parenti seizes upon--but twists out of all recognition--is that Milosevic was not the dictator he was portrayed in the West. He is right to point out that Milosevic did hold elections (though he unwittingly dents Milosevic's 'democratic' credentials by claiming elsewhere that the first 1989 elections were 'US imposed').40 Opposition parties and media were allowed, albeit under intermittent threat of state harassment. In essence, the position in Serbia was not different from that in either Croatia or Bosnia, both backed by the West.
Parenti's antipathy to the Serbian opposition is fierce. It is based on their commitment to a free-market economy and the funding they received from abroad, above all from the US. But at no point does Parenti acknowledge that organisations like Otpor! were able to represent the genuine and deep-seated discontent of many Serbs, particularly the young. Otpor!'s appeal in Serbia was precisely the fact that it opposed Milosevic whilst simultaneously taking a critical stance towards the opposition parties.41 To imply, as Parenti does, that the heroic opposition activists who stood against Milosevic were paid lackeys of the West is not only to mimic uncritically Milosevic's propaganda, but to insult their selfless efforts to build a better future for Serbia. And the simple fact is that a better future could not be built whilst Milosevic clung to power.
Instead Parenti is determined to persuade us that Milosevic did his best in difficult circumstances. On the economic front, we are told, the regime 'was rationing supplies and mobilising scarce resources in an equitable manner and doing a fair job of managing the crisis'.42 But why, then, during the Serbian Revolution that at last overthrew Milosevic, were numerous state company directors forcibly sacked by their workers for corruption and profiteering at their expense? Why were these sackings from below necessary if the state economy was indeed worker 'self managed'? Or were the sackings, more plausibly, a true glimpse of worker self management in action? Parenti is right to say that the free market does not offer a way forward--his chapter on Bulgaria is instructive here--but he is wrong to believe that bureaucratic state control is the answer. The only real alternative is the one glimpsed in the course of the Serbian Revolution when the working class shook the foundations of the very state Parenti would have us believe served their interests. There is only one way of avoiding the twin perils of the free market and state control and that is by standing uncompromisingly on the rock of working class democracy and self emancipation in every sphere of economic, social and political life. Only then can self management truly become a reality.
In short, Parenti is as blind to the realities of the Milosevic regime as he is clear about the humanitarian hypocrisy of our leaders. His book was written before the Serbian Revolution and is the worse for it. The revolution has made a mockery of many of his dubious claims about the regime. It is therefore safe to presume that Parenti would not have got the champagne out to celebrate Milosevic's overthrow. Instead he would probably echo the views of Diana Johnstone, an anti-war journalist Parenti quotes approvingly in his book. She claimed the revolution was carried out by 'NATO-backed putschists', and that 'the large crowds who gathered in Belgrade squares to support their candidate, Kostunica, were blissfully unaware of how they were being used as extras in an international TV production'.43 Such bizarre errors of judgement are nothing but desperate attempts to deny the reality of Milosevic's Serbia and the mass working class uprising that swept him away.44
Chomsky's view is refreshingly different. His book does not deal with the Serbian Revolution either, but shortly after Milosevic's overthrow he wrote, 'What happened was a very impressive demonstration of popular mobilisation and courage. The removal of [Milosevic] is an important step forward for the region, and the mass movements in Serbia--miners, students, innumerable others--merit great admiration and provide an inspiring example of what united and dedicated people can achieve'.45
Chomsky is also clear sighted enough to have no illusions about what the future may hold. Indispensable though the overthrow of Milosevic was for progress in Serbia and the Balkans, there are still serious struggles ahead. Pointing to the overthrow of the apartheid regime in South Africa, Chomsky notes that 'the outcome is far from delightful'.46 Neither is the outcome in Serbia, but this in no way alters the fact that the overthrow of Milosevic's regime was as indispensable to progress in Serbia as the overthrow of apartheid was in South Africa.
If, like Chomsky, we harbour no illusions in either the private free market capitalism the West promotes or the state bureaucratic capitalism that has failed so disastrously in Eastern Europe, we will be better able to orient ourselves in the struggles ahead. We may also be better placed to build an anti-war movement that can make a real difference the next time imperialism drags us into bloody war.