Bloody blundering: Clinton’s cluelessness is selling out Kosovo

If administration leaders really expected NATO airstrikes to accelerate the carnage in Kosovo, they should be indicted for war crimes.

Topics:

During the Balkan war of 1912, Leon Trotsky was a war correspondent for a group of liberal Russian and Ukrainian newspapers. He understood that pan-Slavic and Christian Orthodox chauvinism was a crucial element in Russian tyranny — just as it is today in the warped worldview of our ally Boris Yeltsin. Trotsky witnessed atrocities committed in Kosovo, and wrote that Russian indulgence had made it much easier for Serbian and Bulgarian gangs “to engage in their Cain’s work of further massacres of the peoples of the Crescent in the interests of the ‘culture’ of the Cross.”

Quoting a Serbian soldier whose civil and political conscience had been revolted, Trotsky reported:

“The horrors actually began as soon as we crossed the old frontier … The darker the sky became, the more brightly the fearful illumination of the fires stood out against it. Burning was going on all around us. Entire Albanian villages had been turned into pillars of fire — dwellings, possessions, accumulated by fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers were going up in flames.”

But most Europeans found that they could contemplate the immolation of obscure Muslims with relative equanimity. As indeed can we. In order to understand the shame of what has lately occurred (or better say recurred) in Kosovo, one must revisit the shame of what occurred at Srebrenica. It is unlikely that even the Serbian “irregulars” in Kosovo have yet exceeded what they accomplished in that Bosnian “safe haven” in July 1995: the organized killing and interment of perhaps 10,000 male captives.

That slaughter was carried out as American satellites whirled calmly overhead, recording the information, and as NATO troops stood by and exchanged pleasantries with the overworked executioners. Even Richard Holbrooke, a man trained to realpolitik in a hard school, had the grace to look embarrassed and awkward when asked what the United States knew, and when it knew it. As Mark Danner put it in his brilliant reconstruction of the slaughter for the New York Review of Books:

Even on that Sunday afternoon, as he sat answering the reporter’s questions, Holbrooke tells in his memoirs, ‘Precise details of what was happening in Srebrenica were not known … but there was no question that something truly horrible was going on.’



An odd construction, that sentence, defining what is known only by what is not: Five days after the Serbs swept into Srebrenica, Holbrooke and other officials, men and women perched on the heights of the United States’ national security bureaucracy and benefiting from all its vast powers of perception (satellites gazing down from space; spy planes snapping photographs from the upper atmosphere; unmanned drone planes relaying real-time video images; diplomats and attachis in-country working their informants for secrets and rumors and gossip), could know no “precise details” of Serbian actions in this one tiny place in eastern Bosnia, but were able nonetheless to harbor the certainty that “something truly horrible was going on.”

Srebrenica, however, was described by many liberals, and accepted by the Clinton administration, as “a blessing in disguise.” It so horrified and terrified the Bosnian leadership that it brought them to the conference in Dayton, Ohio. And so grateful was Slobodan Milosevic for the forebearance of Washington in understating and even concealing his role in the mass murder that he consented to come to Dayton also, and to become the valued co-sponsor of a Pax Americana. From this glorious page of diplomacy it was but a step to a whole new chapter: a NATO assault on what seems to most Serbs like all of Serbia, with the ethereal war machines flying high over the continuing pogrom while soliciting another handshake from — the same Mr. Milosevic himself! To get the worst of so many worlds (if the expression is not itself an insult to so many victims past, present and future), one has to have a regime that is numb to all questions of history and all matters of principle.

The tactical and strategic wisdom of confronting Milosevic in this way, and over, if not on, his territory, is debatable in a paltry way. You can forget all the half-baked nonsense about Kosovo being Milosevic’s “Holy Land” or his Jerusalem. It would be more accurate to call it his Sudetenland or his Anschluss. In Kosovo, thanks to the Albanian boycott of the rigged elections, his party gets 20 percent of its seats. In Kosovo in April 1987, thanks to a quick-change from Balkan Stalinism to Balkan National Socialism, he was able to don the mantle of racial and populist demagogue. (There is live footage of the clumsy and obvious staging of this provocation.) It would cost him his head, never mind his job, if he backed down too fast. But, in the cleansing interval that was both provoked and provided by the threat of air attacks on other parts of Yugoslavia, he may have won enough ground and displaced enough people to call for another Dayton, and perhaps get Yeltsin and Holbrooke to help broker it.

One says “other parts of Yugoslavia” because our heroic president and commander in chief could not have been more wrong, in his patronizing speech on Day One of the airstrikes, than in referring to Kosovo as “a province of Serbia.” Internally speaking, it is a formerly autonomous region of former Yugoslavia. Its constitutional autonomy was unilaterally revoked by Milosevic when he began his seizure of power and his demented campaign to redefine Yugoslavia as a Serbian mini-empire. Externally speaking, the frontier demarcating Kosovo from Albania is only recognized, by international treaties, as a Yugoslav border. Should Montenegro secede, as Montenegrin democrats wish, from the rump federation, then there will be no more “Yugoslavia” for Kosovo to belong to.

It would be nice to believe that there was anyone in Washington who had allowed for this possibility or pondered its implications. But then, just try asking whether Kosovo, in the United States’ design, is intended to get its autonomy back, or to become a part of Serbia, or to be subject to an improvised partition, or to become independent, or to federate with a future “Greater Albania” (which would itself be an ugly metastasis of the model Greater Serbia). Blank looks is what you get. These people don’t think, and probably can’t think, beyond the next news cycle. Which is why another Dayton may succeed another Srebrenica.

The likeliest outcome is obviously a de facto partition of an “ethnically cleansed” Kosovo; the very objective proposed by Milosevic’s then-crony Dobrica Cosic back in 1988. Such a partition in which our Russian allies would be eager to help out as brokers would be the infallible cause of another and even nastier war. But by then, President Clinton will have retired to his presidential library in Arkansas. In Bob Woodward’s book “The Agenda,” Clinton was depicted telling his aides that he wished he had been president during World War II. I remember feeling very afraid when I read that.

As humanitarian concerns increased last week — overiding the question of how well-protected were billion-dollar stealth airplanes — I called Srdja Popovic, the chief human-rights lawyer and dissident in former Yugoslavia. Popovic has only recently decided to identify himself as a Serb, and has done so as a further means of denouncing Milosevic. I wondered if anyone from the administration had been in touch with him lately. No, he said, not since 1992.

“I told them then that intervention was required for the sake of Serbia as well as Bosnia and Macedonia and Croatia and Kosovo. They hated this idea so much that they never called me again. What they do now is sporadic, and improvised, and I have the feeling that they have not thought it through at all.” A bad enough feeling, but not as bad as the suspicion that there was a carve-up in the works all along.

The “line of the day” among administration spokesmen, confronted by masses of destitute and terrified refugees and solid reports of the mass execution of civilians, is to say that “we expected this to happen.” They did? (They never told anyone.) If they want to avoid being indicted for war crimes themselves, these “spokesmen” had better promise us that they were lying when they said that.

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>