By Immanuel Wallerstein
When I was young, I saw many a war film in which the heroic
American pilot, flying over hostile territory, shouted "bombs away!" The enemy was
destroyed, and peace restored. The good guys won. President Clinton sent U.S. and NATO
pilots on just such a mission against the Yugoslav government and its leader, whom
Clinton compared to Hitler. When a war breaks out, and this is a war, there
are three levels at which to judge it: juridically, morally, and politically.
Juridically, the bombing is an
act of aggression. It is totally
unjustified under international law. The Yugoslav government did nothing outside its
What has been going on inside its borders is a low-level civil war
into which the U.S. and other powers intruded themselves as mediators. The mediation
took the form of offering both sides an ultimatum to accept a truce on dictated
terms, to be guaranteed by outside military forces. At first, both sides turned this down,
which upset the U.S.very much. They explained to the Kosovars that they couldn't bomb
the Serbs unless and until the Kosovars accepted the truce terms. The Kosovars
finally did so, and now the U.S./NATO are bombing.
National sovereignty doesn't mean
too much in the real world of
power politics. The U.S. is not the first nor will it be the last state to violate some
smaller country's sovereignty. But let us cut the cant. Doing so is aggression, and
illegal under international law.
The juridical situation tells us
nothing about the moral situation.
The U.S./NATO have justified their acts by asserting that the Yugoslav government is
violating fundamental human rights, and that they have a moral duty to intervene (that
is, to ignore the juridical constraints). So let us talk about the moral rights and
I have no doubt myself that the
Yugoslav government has been guilty
of atrocious behavior in Kosovo, as they has been previously, directly or via
intermediaries, in Bosnia-Herzogovina. To be sure, their opponents, the Kosovo
Liberation Army in this case, and the Croatians and Bosnians in the previous war, have also
been guilty of atrocities. And I for one am not going to do the arithmetic to
figure out who has done more atrocities than the other. Civil wars bring out the worst in
peoples, and the Balkan wars of the last five years are not unusual in that respect.
But it does weaken the moral justification for intervention when the immoralities are
Furthermore, if Serb behavior in
Kosovo is to be reprimanded, then
the moral authorities who take it upon themselves to enforce moral law must
explain why they have been unwilling to intervene in Sierra Leone or Liberia, in
northern Ireland, in Chile under Pinochet, in Indonesia under Sukarno, in Chechnya, or
even for that matter in the Basque country. No doubt each situation is different
from the other, and perhaps of different dimensions, but civil wars abound and
atrocities abound. And if we are to take moral enforcers seriously, the least one can ask is
that they are minimally consistent and minimally disinterested.
So, in the end, we are thrown back
on a political analysis. Who did
what for what reasons, and how much do particular actions aid in the reasonable
solution of the disputes? Let us start with the local participants in the conflict.
In the geographically and ethnically intertwined and overlapping zones of the Balkans,
the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was probably the optimal structure to ensure
not only internal peace but maximal economic growth. But it came apart.
This was not inevitable. There
were some key turning-points. One
was in 1987 when Milosevic decided to build his political future on Serbian
nationalism rather than on Yugoslav nationalism/Communism and moved within two years to
suppress Kosovo autonomy. This gave the excuse for, and perhaps instigated, the
wave of successions: Slovenia, then Croatia, then Bosnia-Herzogovina, then the attempted
secessions within Croatia and Bosnia by the Serbs, then the Kosovars. No
doubt, non-Balkan forces also played a role, especially Germany in supporting, if not
more than that, the idea of Croatian independence.
Still, Milosevic's initial moves
were a grievous long-term political error. We now
find ourselves in one of those nasty, violent struggles in which everyone is afraid,
paranoiac, and unwilling to contemplate any sort of real political compromise. And
the fascist Ustashi in Croatia and Chetniks in Serbia are once again a serious political
force. Nor will it end soon. The war in Northern Ireland went on
for over twenty years before anything was possible. The war in Israel/Palestine has gone
on even longer. Sometimes a civil war just has to exhaust itself before any one is
But what about the politics of
the U.S.? Why has the U.S.
government singled out this civil war for active intervention? In the case of the Gulf War,
there was at least the rationale of the importance of oil (and the defense of an invaded
sovereign state, Kuwait). But in economic terms, the Balkan zone is marginal. Nor
can it be argued that there are immediate geopolitical concerns, such as shoring up
an area politically so that some other power cannot take it over. This was the
rationale, or at least one rationale, for the U.S. support of South Korea. Behind North Korea,
argued the U.S., lay China or the Soviet Union. The rationale was that of the Cold
But Yugoslavia has no oil, and
there is no longer a Cold War with
the Communist world. So why doesn't the U.S. ignore the situation the way it
ignores the Congo (at least these days)? To be sure, the U.S. doesn't really ignore any
country, but it does not intervene militarily in most situations. A curious argument has
been made in the last few months. It has been said that the U.S. had to bomb the Serbs,
or else NATO's credibility would be undermined. This is a curious argument because
it is circular. If NATO threatens something, and then doesn't do it, of course its
credibility would be undermined. But it didn't have to make the threat in the first
Or maybe it did. Perhaps the political
issue for the U.S. is
precisely the need to justify the very existence of NATO, which no
longer has an obvious role as such now that the Russian army seems
to be so much weakened. But why would the U.S.want to have NATO at all?
There seem to me to be two main reasons. One is that its existence in
turn justifies the current military expenditures and indeed build-up in the U.S.,
which has economic and internal political advantages for the government.
The second is that NATO is necessary to prevent the west Europeans from straying too
far from U.S.control and above all from establishing an autonomous armed
structure separate from NATO. The Yugoslav imbroglio seems ideal for both purposes.
But will it work? If the Yugoslavs
hold fast, and it seems likely
they will, further military action would involve ground forces. Can the U.S. afford a
second Vietnam? It seems doubtful. And will the west Europeans really continue to play
the game? There are rumblings in the NATO ranks already, and the war is only a week
We have all entered the bramble
bush. The Yugoslavs will be bombed
until it hurts. The Kosovars will be driven out of their homes. Many will die.
Neighboring countries may be drawn into the armed conflict directly. And if the war is
prolonged, there will be internal social turmoil in the U.S. and western Europe. "Bombs
away" may have been worse than a crime; it may have been a folly.