Issue 230 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Ordinary people in the US who have misgivings about Nato's war in the Balkans might well believe that they are the only ones who do. Day after day the mass media pumps out pro-war propaganda, eagerly assisting the Clinton administration in preparing the way for escalating the war. To help dispel any sympathy Americans might feel for Serbian civilians killed by Nato bombs, Time magazine published an article called 'Vengeance of a Victim Race' on 12 April which described the Serbian population as 'Europe's outsiders, seasoned haters raised on self pity. Even the "democrats" are questionable characters.'
Not surprisingly, therefore, opinion polls have shown growing support for Nato's war. A Harris poll conducted on 8-13 April showed 77 percent agreeing with the statement, 'If we don't stop Milosevic and the Serbs now, we will probably have a bigger battle later on.' But the truth is much more complex. While polls show 57 percent support for the use of ground troops, the number drops when the question is posed differently. When asked if 'peace in Yugoslavia is worth the loss of American life' by a CBS poll on 13-14 April, only 32 percent said it would be worth it. Presumably, a survey which asked whether respondents would be willing to sacrifice the lives of their own sons and daughters would show even less support. And the question of ground troops is no longer hypothetical. Last month the US announced its intention to call up to 33,000 reserves to serve both in the air force and as ground support for the air force.
Most ordinary people feel sympathy for the thousands of Kosovan refugees whose misery is captured in newspaper photographs daily. The US has said that its bombers are on a 'humaniitarian' mission to stop ethnic cleansing. Millions of ordinary people, who remember the tragedy of Bosnia, view the bombing as a regrettable but necessary measure to stop Milosevic from pursuing a policy of genocide.
Liberals--having backed Clinton uncritically throughout his presidency--have not offered any alternative to the bombing. The usual cast of Republican and Democratic warmongers have been expanded to include the most liberal of Democrats, including Jesse Jackson--who claims that civil rights leader Martin Luther King would support the Nato war if he were alive today. Even the lone 'independent socialist' Representative Bernie Sanders of Vermont voted to support the Nato air war. In April, Democratic Congressional leaders publicly called on the president to consider the option of sending ground troops. Senator Joe Biden said that, by ruling out ground troops, 'You immediately convince Milosevic that we're not really serious, that we're not ready to stay the course.'
Nor has the left offered anything like a coherent opposition to Nato's so called 'humanitarian' bombs. In 1991 a national anti-war coalition organised a movement to oppose the Gulf War. But no similar coalition has yet emerged against Nato's war in the Balkans. After supporting US troops in Somalia in 1992, ostensibly to deliver food to famine stricken Somalis, and in Haiti in 1994, on a claimed mission to 'restore democracy' (neither of which accomplished its stated purpose), many on the left called for US military intervention during the war in Bosnia. Now, in Kosovo, they are getting what they asked for.
The result has been complete confusion on the left--best exemplified by the 26 April issue of the well known left wing magazine, The Nation. Its editorial explained, 'American progressives are of many minds on where to go from here.' The issue included two essays--one for the bombing, by Bogdan Denitch, and one 'troubled by Nato's war' ('against' would be too strong a word). Denitch, a leading member of the Democratic Socialists of America, affiliated with Jospin, Schröder and Blair's Second International, stated his case plainly: 'The bombing should stop only when Belgrade agrees to pull out or is pushed out of Kosovo, if necessary by ground troops.' The other essay, by Kai Bird, argues, 'The left-liberal community seems on the surface to be divided into principled anti-interventionists, who see Kosovo as another Vietnam, and humanitarian interventionists, who see it as another Holocaust. But if we dispensed with the worn out historical analogies, stopped reliving the past, we would find that we do share some fundamental values.'
This confusion has been played out on demonstrations, including pro-bombing demonstrations held by Albanians and Muslims. On the anti-war side, pro-Milosevic Serbian nationalists have enjoyed the support of a Stalinist sect with few members but a lot of money (currently parading as the 'International Action Centre'), whose joint demonstrations often include chants of 'Kosovo is Serbia'.
But the choice must not be between opposition to bombing and opposition to ethnic cleansing--it is possible, and necessary, to build a movement against both these atrocities. There can never he such a thing as a humanitarian Nato bomb. Nor can we expect to build a genuine anti-imperialist movement which supports the oppression of a national minority. Any movement which does not take up the plight of the Kosovan refugees fails to address the very issue key to many ordinary people's support for the Nato intervention--the fate of the 600,000 Kosovans displaced by ethnic cleansing.
It is quite easy to make a connection between the two. If the US really wanted to help the refugees, it would not send them to live in misery in refugee camps, or, worse still, bring them to detention centres at Guantanamo Bay. For much less than the $4 billion spent on the air war thus far, the refugees could be resettled.
A smaller, but principled, opposition to the war is beginning on this basis--with demonstrations numbering in the hundreds and teach-ins which have also drawn 100 or more at individual campuses. The movement's small size today will not limit its potential to grow, especially if ground troops are sent in. Since Vietnam the US has not dared to involve itself in a prolonged war, with the possibility of extensive US casualties. And as during the Vietnam War a movement which starts small can grow into a mass movement over time. And this time round, such a movement holds the potential to win the hearts and minds of workers who themselves have suffered two decades of an employers' offensive--US imperialism's war at home.