Whose Stupid War Was This?

— Peter Gowan

THE RAMBOUILLET ACCORD was an ultimatum for a war against Serbia, and the terms of the ultimatum demonstrated that if the Serbian government accepted Rambouillet they would very likely face a crushing attack in the future from NATO forces on Yugoslav soil.

With the "failure" of Rambouillet, the Clinton administration took open charge of the preparations for war. And it is at this point that the analysis of those who support the NATO Air War faces irreconcilable contradictions.  For the way in which the war was launched is, on the face of it, absolutely inexplicable.

The bombing campaign was launched on 24th March.  But President Clinton announced on the 19th of March that the bombing campaign would be launched and nothing now could block it. The U.S. administration thus gave the Serbian government five days in which they could do as they pleased in Kosovo.

And when the bombing started, it was organized so that the Serbian authorities could continue to have a free hand in Kosovo—the air war's first phase was directed largely at targets outside the Kosovo theater itself for a full week.

And this military side of the attack was combined with an absolutely contradictory set of explanations for NATO's aggression.  On one side, the attack was justified as an attempt to prevent the genocidal threat to the Kosovar Albanians from the Milosevic regime.

But on the other side, the attack was simultaneously justified by the claim that the Milosevic regime had no such genocidal intentions and indeed wanted the bombing campaign in order to use it to sell Rambouillet to the Serbian people.

These contradictions cannot be explained away by haste, improvisation and confusion on the part of the Clinton administration.  We know that the U.S. National Security Council and the State Department had been planning this war in detail for fourteen months before it started.  (Barton Gellman, "Allies See No Credible Alternative," Washington Post, March 23, 1999, A12)

We know also from the Washington Post that the experts in the U.S. administration spent those fourteen months running over, day after day, all the variants of the course of such a war, all the scenarios of possible Yugoslav government responses to the air attack.

We know that they foresaw the possibilities of mass refugee exits from Kosovo.  The Pentagon foresaw a long air war; the notion that Milosevic wanted the bombing attack was political spin put about by General Wesley Clark.  It was nonsense.  So why did they plan the start of the war in this particular way?

There is only one serious explanation: The Clinton administration was giving the Serbian authorities the opportunity to provide the NATO attack with an ex post facto legitimation.  The United States was hoping that the five days before the launch of the bombing and the first week of the war would give various forces in Serbia the opportunity for atrocities that could then be used to legitimate the air war.

A Calculated Disaster

This was a rational calculation on the part of the U.S. planners.  They knew that the main political opponents in Serbia of Milosevic's Socialist Party—the Radical Party of Seselj and various Serbian fascist groups—supported the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, though the Socialist Party did not.

They knew also that Yugoslav military forces would pour into positions in Kosovo as the OSCE personnel left, clearing strategic villages, driving forward against KLA-U.S. supporters.  They could predict also that there would be a refugee flow across the borders into Macedonia and Albania.

And the U.S. planners were proved right.  Extremist Serbian groups did, it seems, go on the rampage in Pristina for three days after the start of the war. Refugees did start to flood across the borders.  And the resulting news pictures did indeed swing European public opinion behind the war.

As for the Serbian government organizing a genocidal mass slaughter, this did not happen: The Clinton administration organized the launch of the war to invite the Serbian authorities to launch a genocide, but the Milosevic government declined the invitation.

It is simply impossible to argue that the U.S. military campaign was designed to stop the brutalities against the Kosovo Albanians.  It would be far easier to demonstrate that this thoroughly planned and prepared war was designed to increase the chances of such brutalities being escalated to qualitatively higher levels.

The way that the war was launched was designed to increase the sufferings of the Kosovar Albanians in order to justify an open-ended U.S. bombing campaign against the Serbian state.  The technique worked.  But this success cannot be acknowledged.  Instead it must be hidden by the notion of Clinton administration stupidity.

And to this supposed American stupidity the European pundits of NATO can add many others.  The stupidity of trying to save the Kosovar Albanians with an air war instead of a ground war. The stupidity of killing so many Albanian and Serbian civilians.  The stupidity of not swiftly admitting such killings when they occur.

And then there is the most fascinating stupidity of all: the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.  This particular stupidity must have been a defining moment for the European powers, a moment for hard, focused thinking, for one very simple reason: Stupid or not, the governments of Western Europe know that it was not a mistake.

They know that the U.S. military attaches in Belgrade had dined more than once at the Chinese Embassy compound in the city before the war started.  They know very well how prominent the compound is and how professional is the U.S. intelligence operation for targeting.

They know that the embassy was hit on a special mission by a plane from the United States.  And they noted Clinton's casual response: no press conference to make a formal public apology—just an aside about an unfortunate mistake in a speech about something else. They know too that China is by far the most important issue in the entire current U.S. foreign policy agenda.

And the West European states have learned more about the stupidity of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy since it has occurred: It resulted in the collapse of weeks of German-Russian diplomacy which had gone into producing the G8 declaration agreed just before the Embassy was bombed.

That G8 declaration threatened to undermine the five U.S. conditions for ending the war and threatened to rebuild the central authority of the UN over NATO. The embassy bombing put a stop to all that.

More, it completely sabotaged German prime minister Schroder's planned business visit to China; West European efforts to steal contracts with China by taking a softer line than the Clinton administration were brought to a standstill and the West Europeans are being brigaded into line behind Washington's policy in a new confrontation with China.

So Who's Stupid?

All this, for the West Europeans, is surely the height of stupidity.  But pennies have been dropping in the Chancelleries of Western Europe.  They are realizing that even if there has been plenty of stupidity in the NATO war against Yugoslavia, the stupidity may not lie in Washington.

It may lie in quite a different quarter, namely in the state executives of Western Europe itself.  To see why, we need an entirely different take on the origins of the NATO attack on Yugoslavia.

The alternative take on the origins of the NATO war against Yugoslavia starts from the fact that the war did not derive from big power reactions to local events in the Balkans at all. Instead, this theory starts from the premise that the Clinton administration was seeking a war against Yugoslavia as a means for achieving political goals outside the Balkans altogether.

This conception turns the cognitive map used by the proponents of American stupidity on its head. Thus, for example, instead of thinking that the United States was ready to overthrow the norms of the international order for the sake of the Kosovar Albanians, we assume exactly the opposite: The United States was wanting to overthrow the principles of state sovereignty and the authority of the UN Security Council and used the Kosovo crisis as an instrument for doing so.

Instead of imagining that the United States was ready to shut Russia out of European politics for the sake of the Kosovar Albanians, we assume that the Clinton administration used the NATO attack on Yugoslavia precisely as an instrument for consolidating Russia's exclusion.

Instead of assuming U.S. readiness to abandon its policy of engagement with China for the sake of the Kosovo Albanians, we assume that the Clinton administration used the war against Yugoslavia to inaugurate a new phase of its policy towards China.

And last but not least, instead of assuming that the United States firmly subordinated the West European states to its military and political leadership in order to create a new dawn in the Western Balkans, it used a number of ingenious devices—especially the dilettantish vanity of French leaders Chirac and Jospin—to drag the West European states into a Balkan war that would consolidate U.S. hegemony over them, the European Union (EU) and the EU common currency (Euro's) development.

This is where the European stupidity enters the theory.

The one strategic interest of the main West European states (Germany and France) in the Balkans lies in maintaining stable and strong enough states in the region to keep their impoverished populations firmly in place.

West European military intervention in the Balkans has essentially been concerned with preventing mass migrations westward when states collapse.  Anglo-French military involvement in Yugoslavia through UNPROFOR was essentially about that: "humanitarian aid" in the war zone to ensure that the civilian population did not leave the war theater.

Italian military intervention in Albania in 1997 was about the same thing: stanching the flood of humanity out of Albania westward, by rebuilding an Albanian state while blocking emigration and asylum rights.  Anglo-French efforts in Macedonia and Albania in the current war are similarly about caging the Kosovar Albanians within the western Balkans.

Yet now the American air force, with European support, has turned the western Balkans into twenty years (minimum) of chaos from which all the energetic younger generations of all ethnic groups will rightly wish to flee West for decades to come. This is the first European stupidity.

The second strategic interest of the West European states (especially Germany) in Eastern Europe is to maintain stable, friendly governments in Russia and Ukraine.

That too can be ruled out as a result of this war as far as Russia is concerned; Ukraine will have to choose between Russia and the USA (the EU is not a serious alternative).  And both Russia and Ukraine could spiral out of control with disastrous consequences for Central and Western Europe.  This is the second European stupidity.

The third strategic interest of the main West European states has been to combine an effort to bandwagon with U.S. power with preserving an effective check on U.S. efforts to impose its will on their foreign policies, whether in Europe or other parts of the world.

That too seems finished now. The basic West European check on U.S. power was the French veto at the UN Security Council, restraining the United States with its two votes (including that of Britain).  Now that French President Chirac has chosen to discredit the UN Security Council, he has undermined his own ability to speak for Europe at the UNSC and to be a useful partner for other states seeking to gain European help to restrain the United States.  That is a third stupidity.

A fourth West European priority was to be able to claim that the EU is an independent, West European political entity with a dominant say at least over European affairs.  Yet the current war demonstrates that this is a piece of pretentious bluff: the EU has played absolutely no role whatever in the launching or the management of this war.

The European Union will play no role whatever in the ending of the war. It is simply a subordinate policy instrument in the hands of a transatlantic organization, the North Atlantic Council, handling the economic statecraft side of NATO's policy implementation.  And within the North Atlantic Council the United States rules: The way the war ends will shape the future of Europe for at least a decade, yet that decision will be taken in the White House.

And thus the fourth stupidity: The West European states (not to speak of the EU institutions) are political voyeurs with their noses pressed against the windows of the Oval Office trying to read the lips of the people in there deciding Europe's fate.


Peter Gowan is a principal lecturer in European politics at the University of North London.  This article is a fragment from a lengthy draft essay titled "The Yugoslav Anvil, the Hegemon's Hammer and the Twilight of the European Project."

ATC 81, July-August 1999