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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 35, March 1999

NATO at War: Special Editorial

"We had to destroy the village in order to save it." So said the American soldiers after obliterating villages and towns in Viet Nam in the 1960s. Double-speak permeates the war over Kosovo (1) too. Has nothing been learned? From Goliath on, history is littered with examples of larger and better armed forces failing because they did not understand the situation and the people on the ground, because they failed to take proper account of the terrain or the psychology of their opponents - because they lacked strategy and vision. Setting out to justify its expansion and post Cold War concept, NATO has instead exposed fundamental contradictions in the roles of force, high tech weaponry, and military alliances in modern international relations and peacekeeping.

This is the first war in which NATO has engaged as NATO. Regardless of the outcome, there may be profound implications for the future of the United Nations system, international security, the restructuring of Europe and relations with Russia and China.

Wars do not emerge from nowhere. The Milosevic regime's deliberate and brutal suppression of Albanian rights, language and culture after 1989 fuelled the aspirations of the Kosovan Albanians for greater autonomy (not necessarily, at that time, independence). Through the early 1990s, when they could have stretched the Serb forces by opening up a second front, the majority of Kosovans backed the strategy of nonviolent resistance advocated by their chosen President, Ibrahim Rugova. They set up 'parallel' schools, hospitals and town administrations. Despite linking with networks of European peace and human rights activists, who tried to get Western leaders' attention and sound the warning that this was a potential war in waiting, they were ignored. After the Dayton Accord Serb-sponsored repression increased, as did the membership of the Kosovan Liberation Army (KLA), which intensified its demand for complete independence from Yugoslavia, backed up by Albanian guns.

Evil leaders and paranoid, power-mad brutes exist, and Milosevic, Arkan, Seselj et al are undoubtedly of their number. That such war criminals need to be opposed, neutralised and dealt with is not in dispute. But the fact that something needed to be done does not mean that what NATO has done was right or necessary. In fact in its first week of air strikes, NATO hastened Milosevic's aims of clearing Albanians out of Kosovo and reinforcing his own power. It has made things worse for the Kosovans and for those in Yugoslavia who had sought for the past decade to oppose the thugs of Serbian nationalism and sustain the multi-ethnic diversity of Yugoslavia's disintegrating federation.

War avoidance begins with conflict resolution, which requires early attention and resources aimed at addressing the problems and preventing the militarisation of a society. NATO countries gave this stage scant resources. Compare the total budget available to the OSCE with the price tags on the stealth bombers and cruise missiles. NATO's early strategy, such as it was, appeared similar to that of its nuclear posture: deterrence based on overwhelming threat. NATO leaders seemed to think that faced with the unprecedented might of 19 countries in military alliance, Milosevic would, quite rationally, back down. When that didn't work, they kept extending the deadline, looking more and more foolish; until, to save face they sent in the saviour of the Gulf War, their cruise missiles. Not to save the Kosovan people, or they would have made provisions to protect them. NATO was forced into dealing with the humanitarian nightmare only when it realised how badly it was losing the propaganda war, especially in NATO member States. Decades and billions of dollars of military spending has proved to be no deterrent after all. Used against a far weaker opponent, half the stuff doesn't work in bad weather and the other half misses the point. Those arms manufacturers and laboratories that have held sway over US policy for so many decades ought to be tried under the Misrepresentation of Goods Act.

NATO's decisions now dominate the possibilities and conduct of negotiations on arms control and disarmament, to the detriment not only of international security and non-proliferation, but adverse also to the wider security interests of NATO member States. Not even nuclear arms control can be neatly packaged away from the mess of military decision-making, as shown in the reasons cited by the Russian Duma each time it backs down from ratifying START II: NATO expansion; the US-British bombing of Iraq in December; NATO strikes on Yugoslavia in March. Would the fate of the Rambouillet agreement have been different if US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had seriously tried to involve Russia as a valued partner at an earlier stage, utilising the ties between Moscow and Belgrade as potential tools rather than obstructions?

Russia has been humiliated by its economic disintegration and pushed to the wall by NATO expansion. Because of Russia's nuclear arms, the United States has to pay it some lip service, but US actions show how little they now thinks of their erstwhile superpower competitor. Inviting Moscow to contribute to a problem solving strategy and use its influence on Milosevic would have been a canny tactic, though no doubt unpopular with some of the time-warped cold warriors in Congress and the Pentagon. If successful, it could have delivered both Rambouillet and START II . Milosevic could ill afford to alienate his traditional and most powerful ally. Russia could ill afford to refuse the challenge or fail ignominiously. We don't know if this might have worked, for it was never tried. Instead, the United States and NATO bypassed the inconvenient balance of power in the Security Council and sought to marginalise Moscow, ensuring a negative reaction. Consequently, both Rambouillet and START II are probably lost.

NATO's action is presented, by itself and by most Western media, in the dimension of clear-cut morality. It acted to stop the suffering, and if it is failing to do so, then that is the enemy's fault. If the action succeeds, at whatever cost, it proves how much we need NATO. If it fails, it proves how much we need an even stronger Alliance, with even more expensive equipment and prepared to use even more force.

At the heart of NATO are some fatal contradictions which can no longer be ignored for the sake of unity. A heavily armed force led by a superpower deeply and domestically afraid of sustaining casualties of its own; perpetually spending billions in a continuous, solitary arms race against threat perceptions the US machine itself creates and magnifies, seeking ever more sophisticated hardware to keep the bloody reality of warfighting at a comfortable distance. A nuclear alliance doctrinally relying on rationality in military affairs, when invasions and war are invariably driven by the irrational, the psychotic, the power-hungry and the inadequate, desperately trying to prove themselves. A Cold War alliance developed against a seemingly monolithic opponent, viewed through a distorting mirror, NATO is now driven in large part by the domestic necessity of sustaining the big businesses of arms manufacture. It is trying to reinvent itself as the military arm of the international community. It wants to be a risk-free international police force - while seeking to bypass the complexities of obtaining United Nations mandates before acting.

As Nicola Butler discusses in this issue of Disarmament Diplomacy, on the eve of its 50th anniversary NATO is a concept without any substantive or coherent strategy. Quite apart from shunting awkward questions like nuclear policy into study commissions, NATO members have needed to silence their own internal qualms about out of area (non-Article V) operations. And what better way than to demonstrate on a universally acknowledged pariah like Milosevic? But yet again, bedazzled by America's overwhelming hardware, its leaders forgot the psychology of adversity, which silences internal dissent and reinforces the power of national leadership, however bad.

And now what? There are clamourings to send in ground troops and calls to arm the KLA. What are the objectives? Rambouillet is probably dead. Even if most of the hundreds of thousands of dispossessed Kosovan Albanians return, after the burnings and atrocities, who would now be prepared to be governed from Belgrade, even in a confederation? Independence then, or perhaps partition? Under what terms and conditions? And enforced by whom? At the moment Serbia is being bombed into the 19th century. What then? When its people have nothing left to lose and no resources with which to rebuild their economy, what role does NATO intend to play to keep fascism at bay among the bitter ruins?

The immediate necessity is now to halt the bombing and seek... not a political solution, for it is now too late and too early for that... but a settlement enabling those who fled from Kosovo to return, with international assistance and resources to rebuild, and an international force (not only NATO) with a UN mandate to protect the unarmed. Conditioned on the removal and trial of key perpetrators (including the decision-makers) of the atrocities and human rights violations in Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro must also be offered international resources to rebuild and restructure their political relations.

Arming the KLA or providing NATO troops for a ground war against one of the best trained guerrilla armies in the world would only prolong the agony. NATO needs Eastern European and Russian help to dig itself out of this mess. NATO needs the OSCE and United Nations too. And just maybe NATO will find the courage and intelligence to examine the structural and political reasons why, on its first significant test, it has all gone so badly wrong.

Rebecca Johnson, Sean Howard, Nicola Butler, Lorna Richardson

1. For reasons of editorial consistency, Disarmament Diplomacy has decided to adopt the English language spellings of Kosovo and Pristina, while acknowledging that the Kosovan Albanian majority refer to Kosova and Prishtinë.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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