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.

Published April 5, 1999 8:51PM (EDT)

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.

By Christopher Hitchens

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

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