Socialism Today                     The monthly journal of the Socialist Party

Issue 38 contents

About Us

Back Issues



Contact Us



Issue 38, May 1999

The Road to War

    The US miscalculates
    NATO's changing war aims
    Roots of the crisis
    Dayton to Rambouillet... to war

The Nato powers blundered into the Alliance's first war, argues LYNN WALSH. The decision to bomb Serbia (using plans that were drawn up last year) was taken by Clinton and US leaders on the tactical calculation that a few bombing raids was all that would be required to force Milosevic to sign the Rambouillet Accord, granting autonomy to Kosova with a UN peace-keeping force.

INCREDIBLY, THE INITIAL bombing raids were not even considered by the Nato leaders as an act of war, merely a form of armed 'diplomatic' pressure. The US leaders thought that Rambouillet would be a repeat of the Dayton scenario, when a burst of UN-sponsored bombing in August 1995 brought Milosevic to the negotiating table at Dayton, Ohio, USA. They miscalculated: Rambouillet, France, was not Dayton. Milosevic accepted Dayton, which largely 'legitimised' the massive ethnic and territorial purges that had taken place in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, not primarily because of the bombing but because Serbian forces had been forced to retreat by US-backed Croation and Bosnian-Muslim forces on the ground. But the enforced retreat imposed on Milosevic by Dayton made it much more difficult for him to accept Rambouillet.

  There was no right of return under Dayton for the 200,000 Serbs forced out of the Krajina region within Croatia, their traditional homeland for centuries. Milosevic's ambition to incorporate Republika Srpska (within Bosnia-Hercegovina) into the rump Yugoslav Federation was dashed. At the same time, since the end of 1996 Milosevic has faced growing economic crisis and mounting opposition within Serbia. As the arch proponent of a Greater Serbia, who had launched his nationalistic career on the basis of Serbian claims to Kosova, Milosevic could not swallow occupation of the province by a Nato peace-keeping force. In the mythology of Serbian nationalism, the Christian orthodox shrines and battle sites of northern Kosova are regarded as the sacred cradle of the Serb nation.

Milosevic's resistance transformed a 'diplomatic' bombing exercise into a major European war. Nato action justified by the need to protect the Kosovar Albanians from 'ethnic cleansing' provoked the biggest episode of pogroms, ethnic murders and deportations since the end of the second world war. The majority of Kosova's 1.8 million Albanian population was dispossessed, with over half-a-million refugees fleeing across the border within three weeks. Another 850,000 are facing death inside Kosova by Serbian murder squads or shelling, or hunger and exposure. This, together with the civilian casualties in Serbia and Kosova, made a mockery of Nato's 'humanitarian' objectives. Faced with this, the Western powers' war aims changed radically. The war is no longer a war to pressure Milosevic into accepting a deal: it is now a war to defend Nato, to defend the power and prestige of the capitalist powers.

  top     The US miscalculates

US GOVERNMENT DOCUMENTS leaked to the press (see International Herald Tribune, 11 April, 1999) provide an incredible picture of the US leadership's miscalculations. In a secret one-line cable, the Bush administration first threatened Milosevic in its 'Christmas warning' of 24 December 1992. In the event of Serbian-provoked conflict in Kosova, Milosevic was told "the US will be prepared to employ military force against Serbs in Kosovo and in Serbia proper". But when Milosevic launched a major offensive against the Kosovar Albanians in Kosova, beginning near Drenica on 26 February 1998, Clinton's Defence Secretary, Cohen, took the position (according to the leaked documents) that "the Christmas warning was not on the table. We were not prepared for unilateral action".

Clinton's Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, however, became increasingly concerned that US credibility was being undermined by events in Kosova. She began pushing Clinton's policy-makers for some action. On a visit to Rome on 7 March 1998 she declared that the US was "not going to stand by and watch the Serbian authorities do in Kosovo what they can no longer get away with doing in Bosnia". This was described by a foreign policy adviser as "the engagement of American prestige".

Following this, the US pushed for Milosevic to accept a deal: autonomy for Kosova with a UN peace-keeping force. When they had finally pressured the Kosovar leadership to accept the compromise and Milosevic refused to sign at Rambouillet, the US decided to bomb. As the bombing started on 23 March, Clinton publicly announced, "I do not intend to put our troops in Kosova to fight a war". Militarily, this handed Milosevic an incredible tactical advantage. At the same time, he was left with the impression that bombing would be a brief, token action, as in August 1995. According to the leaked documents, a US policy maker commented: "Our own intelligence community may have assumed, as Milosevic seems to have, that we would bomb as we had just done in Iraq - hit them for three days and then stop, whether we accomplished the mission or not".

As the former US Secretary of State (1981-82), Alexander Haig, has commented, the bombing was intended as a 'signalling exercise', "a cruise-missile lightshow". (Wall Street Journal, 12 April, 1999) The assessment of the CIA, on which Clinton and his policy makers based their decision, was that President Milosevic would give in either to the threat of force, or to the first round of air strikes. The CIA advised Clinton that: "After enough of a defence to sustain his honour and assuage his backers (Milosevic) will quickly sue for peace". (The Guardian, 21 April) The CIA did not predict the Serbian regime's drive to de-populate Kosova of its 1.8 million ethnic Albanians. We all know the result. The bombing greatly accelerated the slaughter and dispossession of the Kosovars.

  top     NATO's changing war aims

"CREDIBILITY WAS A key political objective in the Western decision to confront Milosevic and ultimately to attack his armed forces", commented the International Herald Tribune (7 April). Milosevic's resistance immediately raised the stakes. "When American forces are engaged in combat", pronounced Henry Kissinger, President Nixon's Secretary of State during the closing stages of the Vietnam war, "victory is the only exit strategy". If Milosevic refused a ceasefire on Nato's terms (withdrawal of Serb forces, acceptance of negotiations over Kosova autonomy and a Western peace-keeping force), "there will be no alternative to continuing and intensifying the war, if necessary introducing Nato combat ground forces - a solution which I have heretofore passionately rejected but which will have to be considered to maintain Nato credibility". (Daily Telegraph, 13 April) Those on the left who argue that this is a 'humanitarian war', with no US or Western 'national interests' involved, fail to see Nato's real war aims, which became much more serious as a result of Milosevic's reaction to the initial bombing.

"The humanitarian rationale (of imperialism) was always largely a mask, covering a race to gain control of raw materials, ensure strategic staging posts, and thwart the ambitions of rivals closer to home", commented Rupert Cornwell in the Independent on Sunday (18 April). "But 'national interest' in the case of Kosovo boils down to the need to protect the credibility of Nato and its members; if the allies fail to respond after so many threats, so mockingly ignored by President Milosevic, they would no longer be taken seriously".

The US columnist William Pfaff made a similar observation: "The only solution to the crisis is a Nato victory that makes the refugees' return possible… Kosovo's partition would be a defeat. Enclaves inside Kosovo for the refugees also means Nato's defeat. If there is not a Nato victory over Serbia there will no longer be a Nato… The debate over intervention is no longer a dispute over means to an end. It is a debate over abandoning Nato and the American claim to international leadership". (New York Review of Books, 6 April 1999)

Or as The Daily Telegraph (21 April) leader put it: "Whatever the outcome of the original war, the war to stop ethnic cleansing, Nato has now committed itself so deeply that it is in reality fighting to save its own credibility. If the war is now lost, or brought to an end with a shoddy compromise that cedes Milosevic a 'cleansed' territority in a partitioned Kosovo it will do great injury to the Western security system and leave a dangerous power vacuum in the world".

Martin Woolf in The Financial Times (7 April) put it even more succinctly: "To enter the war may have been a mistake: to lose it would be a disaster".

  top     Roots of the crisis

KISSINGER AND OTHER strategists of imperialism are now calling for the intervention of ground forces to save the credibility of the Western powers. Some on the left are also calling for the intervention of ground forces, preferably in their view under the auspices of the UN, as the only way of ensuring the return of the Kosovars to their homes. The history and recent record of US imperialism and other Western powers, however, makes it clear that whenever they intervene, whatever the pretext, it is in order to defend their global interests.

Historically, the intervention of the great powers in the countries of the Balkan peninsula (the ex-Yugoslav states, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Greece and the European part of Turkey) played a major part in stoking up the national and social tensions which have time and again erupted in violent conflicts. In the 19th century the rulers of the Muslim Ottoman (Turkish) empire, Tsarist (Orthodox Christian) empire, and the Western powers (Britain, France, Germany and Italy) drew and re-drew the boundaries of the Balkan states with scant regard for the national aspirations of the Balkan peoples. The Congress of Berlin in 1878 gave Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria their independence from Turkey, but handed Bosnia-Hercegovina to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This led directly to the Balkan wars of 1912-13 and to the first world war. As everyone knows, the war was triggered by the assassination in Sarajevo of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian student who supported the liberation of Bosnia-Hercegovina from Austrian rule.

Many of the upheavals involved 'ethnic cleansing', brought about by pogroms and forced deportations, sanctioned by the great powers. After the first world war, in 1922, a million Greeks were expelled from their traditional homeland in the Asia Minor region of Turkey, an ethnic purge which the great powers calmly accepted. The capitalist powers, who intervene for their own interests, will never solve the region's problems. Only the people of the Balkans themselves can find lasting solutions.

The recent bloody conflicts in the Balkans are partly the legacy of Stalinism, a system (based on the model of the Soviet Union) which combined a bureaucratically planned economy with totalitarian dictatorship. Under the leadership of Tito, the Yugoslav Stalinist regime managed to balance the different national elements in a federal structure. On the basis of economic growth, there was the development of a federal Yugoslav consciousness, especially amongst the working class, which partly overcame the former national divisions. Unfortunately, because of the undemocratic, bureaucratic policies of the state, centuries old national conflicts were put into cold storage rather than dissolved. Even before Tito's death there were growing tensions between the different republics, with the regional bureaucrats (like Milosevic) appealing to nationalistic feelings in order to whip-up support for themselves. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-90, the Yugoslav Federation also began to break up. This was encouraged by the Western powers, especially German capitalism, which was eager to spread its influence and develop markets in the Balkans.

When Slovenia and Croatia split from the Federation in 1992, Germany quickly recognised their independent status. This made the process of break-up irreversible. In particular, it opened up a struggle for control of Bosnia-Hercegovina, a patchwork of different ethnic groups which had always been an area of bitter contention between Serbia, Croatia and other neighbouring states. The power struggle triggered an orgy of nationalistic, ethnic conflict. Power-hungry bureaucrats, emerging capitalists, warlords and local gang leaders all whipped-up nationalistic fervour and hatred for other ethnic groups in order to build up their own power bases. They especially drew support from the more politically backward rural areas. The most chauvinist elements gained a powerful influence, winning out over those who supported the idea of a democratic, secular, non-sectarian Yugoslavia.

After the US victory in the Gulf war in 1991-92, US President Bush announced a 'New World Order', but the Western powers, whether working through the UN or Nato, were utterly incapable of maintaining peace and stability in the Balkans.

In the first phase of conflict in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia, the US and the European powers stood on the sidelines watching the massacres and atrocities that accompanied the barbaric struggle for territory between Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, and Croats. Serbian para-military forces, backed by Milosevic's troops, 'cleansed' over two-thirds of Bosnian territory in the spring of 1992 (mainly of Bosnian Muslims). At the same time, Croatian forces were 'cleansing' minority Serb areas in Croatia. What was the US's stance at that time? Far from being concerned about the humanitarian disaster unfolding, US President Bush's Secretary of State, James Baker, after a visit to Bosnia in June 1991, pronounced: "We've got no dog in this fight". US policy was to let the conflict 'burn itself out'.

In the autumn of 1991, Serb forces shattered the Croatian cities of Vukovar and Djubovnik. Worldwide public outrage at these and atrocities taking place in ex-Yugoslavia put increasing pressure on the US and the Western powers to take some action to prevent the terrible killings and displacement of population. Under the banner of the United Nations, UN peace-keeping forces (mainly Nato but also some Russian troops) were sent in to establish so-called 'safe areas'. This did not prevent Serbian forces from seizing control of Srebrinica, one of the UN protected safe areas, and driving out the Bosnian Muslims. When the UN peace-keeping forces were directly threatened by Serbian forces, they were withdrawn - leaving the Bosnian Muslims to their fate.

While publicly proclaiming that they were playing a purely peace-keeping role, however, the US, Germany, France and Britain were secretly arming and training Croatian and Bosnian-Muslim forces to push back the Bosnian Serb forces of Radovan Karadzic (which were backed by Milosevic). In August 1995, UN forces were withdrawn and Nato commanders gave undercover support to the Croat forces which drove up to 200,000 Serbs out of the Krajina region, where most of them had lived for centuries. In other words, the Western powers gave a green light to the biggest single episode of 'ethnic cleansing' until the recent Kosova events. This inevitably fuelled the fires of Serbian nationalism and further played into Milosevic's hands.

  top     Dayton to Rambouillet... to war

WHILE KRAJINA WAS being 'cleansed', Nato (having threatened to use force against Milosevic since Christmas 1992) sent in its warplanes and missiles to bomb Serbian forces. The US now put forward the peace plan that was presented to Milosevic and the Croatian leaders at Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995. Milosevic accepted the deal (concluded in Paris in December 1995) not because he had been bombed, but because Nato-backed Croatian and Bosnian-Muslim forces on the ground had pushed back the Serbian para-military forces. Dayton brought a temporary respite from civil war, but it did not resolve the underlying problems in Bosnia-Hercegovina - and it had a spill-over effect on Kosova. Previously the Western powers had maintained they would never accept a territorial division of Bosnia-Hercegovina along ethnic lines. But the US-brokered Dayton agreement partitioned Bosnia between the Serbs and the Muslim-Croat federation, largely 'legitimising' the ethnic cleansing that had already taken place. Well over a quarter of a million people were killed during the Bosnian civil war, and there are still over 3.5 million refugees.

Even today, only about a third of the refugees forced out of Bosnia have returned to their home territory. The economy and social structures have still not recovered from the shattering effects of civil war. The tenuous peace of the new Bosnian entity is maintained by 32,000 UN forces, who include some Russian and Ukrainian troops. In reality, however, Bosnia-Hercegovina is now a protectorate run by the Western powers, dominated by the US.

Regional and city governments have been placed in the hands of administrators appointed by the World Bank and the IMF. They are systematically imposing free-market policies, forcing through privatisation of any remaining state industries, and ensuring that regional governments and city councils cut back on social expenditure. High on their list of priorities is to ensure that the fragmented authorities of the Bosnian protectorate are able to pay back to Western banks the debts run up in the former Stalinist Yugoslav Federation. The impoverished, undemocratic state of this protectorate is a warning of what will develop in Kosova under any Western-imposed 'settlement'.

Milosevic is now presented by Western political leaders as an 'evil' dictator, compared by Clinton, Robin Cook and others to Hitler. But during the Dayton peace talks, Milosevic was built up by Western leaders as the Balkan 'peace-maker'. This was despite the fact that he was the most prominent advocate of a Greater Serbia, and had built up his power through whipping-up Serbian nationalism. Despite hs military support for the bloody role of Serbian paramilitaries in Bosnia, at Dayton he was able to play the role of the 'acceptable' face of Serbian nationalism, bringing Radovan Karadovic and the murderous leaders of the Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces into the agreement and guaranteeing their compliance.

Dayton brought an end to the fighting, at least for the time being. While a few of the small-fry murderers and thugs were hauled before the International Human Rights Tribunal in the Hague, however, Milosevic was able to turn his attention once again towards Kosova.

Within Kosova, bitter disappointment that Dayton was silent about the status of the province stimulated a growing demand for independence for Serbia. Support for Ibrahim Rugova, leader of the Democratic Alliance of Kosovo and elected President of the illegal 'Republic of Kosovo' declared in December 1991, was undermined by the fact that he had gained nothing for Kosova from Dayton. Early in 1996, the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA, in Albanian UÇK) emerged as a force, carrying out attacks on Serbian security forces and representatives of Serbian authority. This in turn, brought a growing number of systematic, murderous attacks on Kosovars by Serbian para-military forces. Last year, the US Special Envoy, Richard Holbrooke, managed to negotiate a limited cessation of the repressive offensive being carried out by Serbian forces. But this proved to be only very temporary. Dayton was not a settlement: it was a factor in the subsequent chain of events. Dayton led to Rambouillet, Rambouillet led to the present war.

Home | issue 38 contents | About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page