Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

April 20, 2000


One of the pleasures of keeping fat files – sometimes outweighed, sometimes not by the general air of messiness on the desk – is the opportunity to compare what officials said they expected at various times in the past to what has actually occurred. In the case of NATO officialdom’s hopes/expectations/predictions about how things were likely to play out, the record suggests a nodding acquaintance at best with reality on the ground.

I have before me, for example, a Reuters story from last October on the likelihood of NATO peacekeeping forces being pulled out or reduced in number and when. Guido Venturoni, the Italian admiral who had assumed the post as chairman of NATO’s military command the previous May, was on a whirlwind tour of NATO capitals to keep morale bucked up. That was important because he brought essentially unwelcome news:

"Probably next Spring we can assess the possibility of a force restructuring [in Kosovo]" he told a news conference in Copenhagen, "but for the moment I think it is premature." Politicians in the NATO countries he was visiting would have preferred to hear that some of the 43,000 NATO troops then in Kosovo (about 5,300 from the U.S.) would start to come home fairly soon. Politicians who have even a hint of concern about popular opinion are seldom fond of the idea of open-ended military commitments with no discernible exit plan.


Venturoni also made some interesting claims about the outcome and impact of the NATO bombing campaign and occupation. Although the Kosovo war was "a very challenging test," he said, NATO had passed it with flying colors. "NATO unity was reinforced," said the good admiral.

He also claimed the NATO "peacekeepers" were starting to get a handle on things in Kosovo, citing lower numbers of killings, kidnapping, looting, burning and other unpleasantness per week than in the weeks when the occupation began. "We cannot think, of course, of eliminating hatreds and killings and enmities that are historically there," he admitted. "It takes time, but I think that the trend is positive and so I am optimistic."

Admiral Venturoni did note that the war had highlighted some disparities between the military capabilities of American and European forces. The Americans did seem to do better at surveillance and reconnaissance, for example. "Is it wise for the European nations to grow a little bit in this respect?" he asked rhetorically. "I think, ‘Yes,’ and so this is probably something that will be taken care of in initiatives that are already under way. The aim should be to improve the military capabilities, especially on this side of the Atlantic."

But all in the context of the remarkable unity the Kosovo adventure had evoked among the member-nations of NATO, of course.

Of course.


How good a prophet was Admiral Venturoni? Well, if progress were to continue along the lines he suggested last October, by February one might have expected at least some preliminary thinking about just how the Kosovo forces were to be restructured in anticipation of being drawn down at least a bit by Spring. But that wasn’t exactly the situation by, say, February 24.

Since the previous October, of course, numerous European leaders had expressed many of the concerns the Italian admiral had expressed about the need to bulk up European military prowess. Preliminary plans had been discussed about creating an independent (of NATO) European multinational military force. While US officials had sometimes expressed diplomatically-couched concerns about whether this was really necessary, discussions were and are ongoing.


By late February of this year, all discussions about a possible restructuring and reduction of NATO forces in Kosovo was way, way off the table. Mitrovica had exploded in Serbian-Albanian violence, triggered by a grenade attack February 2 on a United Nations buss in the city with the largest concentration of Serbs left in all of Kosovo, perhaps 9,000. The grenade attack left two Serbs dead and was followed the next day by a Serb rampage through Albanian neighborhoods.

Violence continued, so NATO troops eventually launched door-to-door searches on both side of the ethnic border, and required 2,300 reinforcements within a couple of weeks.

By February 24, all the talk was about the possible need for more NATO troops in Kosovo, possibly including the 22nd US Marine Expeditionary Unit, then stationed on ships in the Mediterranean. Madeleine Albright said the US might be prepared to bring in some of the 1,200 additional troops NATO commanders thought were needed in Kosovo, but the Europeans should go first. Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) gently noted that while President Clinton had all the authority he needed to increase the US commitment in Kosovo on his own, "I think Congress needs to be involved in terms of oversight."

There may have been a mention of abiding by the War Powers Act or consulting the US Constitution and insisting that Congress declare war before a larger, indefinite commitment could be made, but if there was I missed it.


That same day President Clinton finessed the situation by signing a directive providing for $10 million for a US program to train foreign police forces. "In peacekeeping missions from the Balkans to East Timor," quoth Our Boy Bill, "establishing basic law and order has been among the most important – and formidable – challenges." Secretary of State Madeleine said the State Department would be setting up an office to run the program, saying it would improve US capacity to provide police overseas in coordination with the United Nations.

Maybe the former commandos – er, commanders – at Waco could be called upon as instructors. They don’t seem to be doing much except standing by to participate as witnesses in a civil trial that might or might not go forward.

Again, I might just have missed the part about how this appropriation originated in the House of Representatives, as the US Constitution requires all appropriations to do. Surely the executive branch doesn’t have authority to appropriate $10 million for a brand-new program that could have entangling long-term consequences for US relations with a host of others countries without first getting the go-ahead from Congress, does it?

It’s only in empires, not in constitutional republics, that the emperor’s whim is law. Isn’t that right?


By March 13 Spring was just around the corner, but Admiral Venturoni’s hope that by Spring some troop reductions might be in order had hardly been fulfilled. Instead, the murmurings about possible additional troops being needed had become an official request from our pal, US General Wesley Clark, the NATO supreme commander. He needed several thousand more troops – maybe 2,000, maybe more – in three battalions.

The French agreed to provide one battalion, but it wasn’t clear where the others would come from. US Defense Secretary William Cohen noted that "we have quite a contribution to date," with 5,500 of the 44,000 troops then in Kosovo being American. But he noted that there were 2,200 Marine personnel, including 1,150 combat troops, on US ships in the Mediterranean.


So the good admiral missed in his forecast that it might be possible to start thinking about troop reductions in the Spring. How accurate did his comment that the Kosovo war had improved unity among the NATO powers turn out to be?

Well, not especially accurate. On March 13 Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and now the EU’s commissioner for external affairs, was warning that strains over finding of Kosovo’s "reconstruction" could poison relations between Europe and America and lead to a serious transatlantic rift.

Seems Madame Madeleine had made a comment in Sarajevo about the "need for pledges to be fulfilled," which was taken by most as a complaint that the Europeans weren’t kicking in enough money. Mr. Patten said the Europeans had done their share, "but it’s important to convince the [US] Congress."

As Stephen Castle, writing from Brussels for the London Independent put it: "EU-US ties are already tense, with several trade disputes pending and America increasingly suspicious about Europe’s new defense initiative. Mr. Patten warned against opening another front that could ‘contribute to a serious problem for our relationship.’"


In essence, then, Admiral Venturoni, the official NATO spokesman, was almost 180 degrees wrong in his anticipation last October of how things were going and how they would progress. He was guarded in his optimism, of course, but he expressed it. But by Spring NATO troops were being beefed up in Kosovo rather than drawn down. And NATO unity was in tatters.


March 13 was a genuinely busy day for NATO. That was also the day Amnesty International accused NATO and the United Nations of failing to observe high human rights standards in Kosovo. During the late unpleasantness in Mitrovica, said the group, an Albanian had been killed by the NATO-led KFOR force. The circumstances were such, said Amnesty International, that an independent investigation into the incident was required.

There was also the matter of 49 people detained by French forces in the aftermath of the violence in inhumane, cold and unsanitary conditions – an unheated small gymnasium when the temperature was around zero – and denied them basic rights like being told any reason for their detainment.

"We are concerned that the violations we observed that day in Mitrovica are illustrative of a wider pattern of disregard for human rights by KFOR and UNMIK [U.N. Mission in Kosovo] while operating in the capacity of a law enforcement agency in Kosovo," said Liz Griffin, an Amnesty field worker in Kosovo who co-wrote the report. "We note at present that there is absolutely no accountability for the actions of KFOR and UNMIK in Kosovo," she noted a bit later.


It really should be considered, in light of the Amnesty International report, that NATO and UNMIK have become the kind of rogue regimes – systematically cutting corners to the point of abuse in carrying out what they conceive to be the mission – the administration is always warning us about when it requests new funds and new powers to do surveillance on the Internet to fight against terrorists.

That raises a larger question yet. In light of the oft-demonstrated incompetence and malfeasance of NATO, a coalition of nation-states, has the time of that human institution started to run out?


As Lew Rockwell put it recently, "The main political project of the century has been to exalt the state to a god-like status." Even as the kept intellectuals struggle to revive respect for the state as an essential institution under new labels or with new goals, like bolstering national greatness, however, the statist project is in tatters. Everybody but the kept intellectuals knows the state – at least the 20th century mega-state, whether expressed as a communist, Nazi, fascist or welfarist institution – is incompetent and increasingly desperate.

The idea that sheer chaos would ensue if the state and its minions didn’t manage almost all aspects of human existence is being replaced by the dawning notion that state management produces more chaos than it ameliorates – even when the intentions are good, the cause is just (like peace in Kosovo) and the mission seems clear. The state is proving to be a bungler in almost all it undertakes.

The modern nation-state assumed approximately the shape it still has in the 1600s. But all human institutions and empires eventually become bloated and fail, giving way to some new mode of organizing human activity. It might not be the twilight of the nation-state as such just yet. But the bloated monster that most nations have allowed to be built during the 20th century is overdue for a reassessment.

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