"Some ideas are so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them," George Orwell is supposed to have written somewhere. The doctrine of "humanitarian intervention" is one such idea. Most people assume that States are creatures driven by ruthless self-interest. But not Timothy Garton Ash Fellow of St. Antony’s College Oxford, regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, and winner of innumerable prestigious prizes and awards. He will have us believe that the governments of the most powerful countries in the world are run by men and women motivated by the highest ideals, a thirst for justice, and the longing to alleviate human suffering.
Some six months ago I wrote a column for Antiwar.com about an essay Timothy Garton Ash had contributed to the New York Review of Books in which he smugly celebrated the outcome of NATO’s war on Yugoslavia. The past year has not been kind to the champions of NATO. Just about every claim the West’s propagandists made to justify NATO’s seizure of Kosovo has been shown to be a lie. There was no humanitarian crisis in Kosovo in March 1999; the Kosovo Albanian flight across the border began after the launch of the NATO bombing; the Serbs never resorted to "genocide"; NATO bombing inflicted a lot of civilian, but virtually no military, damage; NATO rule has resulted in the ethnic cleansing of Serbs. Confronted by such unpalatable facts, the humanitarian terrorists can respond in one of two ways. They can say, first, that they knew all along that the stories of Serb atrocities were made up. They were a necessary lie, they would argue, concocted for the purpose of justifying NATO’s attack to a public ignorant of geopolitical intricacies. The objective had never been to rescue "persecuted" Kosovo Albanians. It was always about securing the Balkans for NATO in preparation for the West’s drive into Central Asia. Since you cannot talk about such things in public you have to invent a "Hitler" committing dastardly deeds, testing our patience, and causing havoc and mayhem wherever he goes. However, this is a dangerous strategy. Admitting NATO was lying all along will make it hard to pull it off a second time. There is a second, safer option: Just go on brazenly repeating every single NATO lie and count on wearing your opponents down. A lie repeated often enough does indeed eventually become accepted as truth.
This is the strategy Garton Ash adopts in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. In an essay entitled "Kosovo: Was It Worth It?" he devotes thousands upon thousands of tedious words to reassuring us that the only thing wrong with "humanitarian intervention" is that it is…well, too humanitarian. Our rulers are simply too well intentioned for their own good. It is hard to come across a piece of writing as intellectually dishonest, as complacent, as ludicrously implausible, as obsequious towards the powerful as Garton Ash’s. To top it off his essay is filled with observations of staggering banality. We learn, for instance, that "Unless we were there, we will never know what it was like to be there." And that "The world-historical reflections of a Nobel Prize winner prove more ephemeral than the hurried news story of a nineteen-year-old reporter." It is heartening to learn also that "With the openness of modern democracies, there seems to be little of significance that does not get into the press, one way or another, and usually sooner rather than later." He writes about the "eerily silent images from video cameras mounted on the noses of NATO’s high-tech guided missiles show the very window or doorframe the missile is about to hit." Gosh! Garton Ash does not seem as fascinated with what it was like to stand in the doorframe "the missile is about to hit."
The essay is so ripe with absurdities that it is hard to select just one particularly egregious example of Garton Ashism. But it is hard to top his account of the infamous Appendix B episode. Appendix B was the bit in the Rambouillet Accords that was to give NATO the unconditional right to move freely all over Yugoslavia. The Serbs, not surprisingly, rejected this demand. The negotiations in France abruptly came to an end. And NATO launched its onslaught. Here is Garton Ash’s account: "Conspiracy theorists [argue] that the American Satan was, in Rambouillet, making Milosevic an offer that he had to refuse. Their prime evidence Exhibit A, so to speak is Appendix B. This is an extraordinary demand to make of any sovereign state….But as a matter of historical record, all the senior Western negotiators I have spoken to, including [Richard] Holbrooke, [Christopher] Hill, and Robin Cook, agree that the Serb side at Rambouillet, and Milosevic in the final showdown with Holbrooke and Hill, did not even raise Appendix B as an obstacle to an otherwise achievable agreement. In short: Appendix B may have been arrogant and foolish, but it was not a cause of the war." First of all, America’s leaders have openly boasted that at Rambouillet they were making demands so outrageous the Serbs were bound to reject them. The United States just wanted to get the bombing underway. It is hard to see any sovereign State accepting foreign military occupation. Second, it is a matter of historical record that Appendix B was slipped in by the United States at the last minute and the Serbs immediately said no. Garton Ash simply ignores this and, instead, invokes the self-serving lies of Holbrooke and Cook. Note, however, his weasly words: The Serbs "did not even raise Appendix B as an obstacle to an otherwise achievable agreement." What does this mean? That an agreement was achievable at Rambouillet? If so, who balked, and why? That NATO was making demands even more humiliating than Appendix B? If so, what were they? Moreover, if Garton Ash himself is ready to concede that Appendix B was "arrogant and foolish," then the Serbs were surely right to reject it. Yet their punishment was to be bombed. Garton Ash is tottering on the verge of undermining NATO’s case for bombing.
Realizing the peril towards which he is heading, he cuts off this line of thought very quickly. "It was not a cause of the war," he asserts. What was then? "We don’t know." It is never a good idea to reject a plausible theory in favor of no theory at all. Ignoring verifiable matters of fact, Garton Ash starts speculating about matters he has not the slightest ideas about: Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s mind. His speculations are particularly unwarranted, as he has proudly eschewed any attempt to talk to anyone in the Yugoslav Government, let alone anyone close to Milosevic. "NATO’s threat did not seem to him credible. He had called the West’s bluff so many times before. He reckoned the Americans might bomb for a few days and then give up, as they had with Iraq in December 1998. There was a good chance that the coalition of NATO member states, recently expanded to nineteen, would not stay the course. ‘I can stand death lots of it but you can’t," he told the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, shortly before the bombing began. Surely the Greeks Orthodox sympathizers with the Serbs would call a halt? Or the Hungarians. Or the French."
Here we are entering the bizarre world of the armchair warriors. The world is apparently filled with states, which though incapable of inflicting any damage on the United States, are, for some reason forever calling our bluff. Why they should assume that they can with impunity provoke a power that can wipe them off the face of the earth several hundred times over is anybody’s guess. Certainly the United States has in the past shown little reluctance about using considerable force against small states. To back up his theory, Garton Ash quotes something Milosevic is supposed to have said to Joschka Fischer. That Fischer may not exactly be the most be reliable source given his enthusiasm for the bombing is not a thought Garton Ash would dare entertain. Our rulers’ words must never be doubted.
At times Garton Ash’s essay borders on the hilarious. He makes one admission after another, but appears to be too obtuse to realize that they undermine his entire case. Writing about the "ceasefire" agreement negotiated in October 1998 between Milosevic and US envoy Richard Holbrooke, Garton Ash states: "The cease-fire agreement…was to be ‘verified’ by an unarmed Kosovo Verifying Mission while the US envoy, Christopher Hill, tried to negotiate a political settlement. The Holbrooke-Milosevic agreement had one glaring flaw: even if the Serbs kept their word (a mighty ‘if’), the KLA was never party to it. So their units repeatedly violated the cease-fire, while using the breathing space to regroup and rearm." In other words, the October 1998 deal was a fraud from start to finish, perpetrated by the United States. The KLA had no intention of observing a "ceasefire" and was in cahoots with the Kosovo Verifying Mission, which we now know to have been largely a CIA operation. Therefore, Garton Ash pretty much concedes what any reasonably informed observer knew all along: The "humanitarian crisis" in Kosovo that NATO invoked to justify the bombing had been deliberated provoked by the United States and the KLA.
"Any judgment on the wisdom or folly of Western policy depends on the answer to two questions," Garton Ash writes, "Why did Milosevic not back down at the beginning, when faced with the threat of bombing by the most powerful military alliance in the history of the world? Why did he cave in at the end? On July 12 this year I sent Milosevic an e-mail asking him these two questions, but I am not expecting an early reply." The last line is classic Garton Ash smugness. Having framed the issues in such a ludicrous, not to say dishonest way, he takes Milosevic’s refusal to answer his "questions" as yet further evidence of the Yugoslav leader’s reprobate character. How does Milosevic’s backing down or not backing down when faced by the "the threat of bombing by the most powerful military alliance in the history of the world" reflect on the "wisdom or folly of Western policy"? Is Garton Ash suggesting that bullying a small country is wise if said small country takes the prudent course and surrenders? And, foolish, if said small country takes the honorable course and fights back? Here is a policy of astonishing cynicism an interesting addition to the evidently still evolving doctrine of "humanitarian intervention." Interesting also is Garton Ash’s complacent judgment that Milosevic caved in at the end. Any reasonable assessment of the record demonstrates clearly that Milosevic extracted one crucial concession after another from NATO. The final terms on which he settled were a far cry from what he rejected at Rambouillet. Appendix B has gone; talk of a referendum on the future of Kosovo has gone; NATO troops are there under UN auspices. The Serbs had been ready to settle on just these terms at Rambouillet.
Garton Ash, of course, ignores this entirely. Otherwise, he would have to call into question the "wisdom of Western policy."
Undeterred, Garton Ash continues merrily along with his often inane and complacent judgments. He concludes, not surprisingly, that "humanitarian intervention" must become a lot less "humanitarian." In the name of doing good, we must be ready to do bad. Such third-rate Machiavellianism is what passes for strategy these days. "To compel dictators like Milosevic to treat their own citizens with minimal decency," he writes, "we have to generate a credible military threat. This involves seriously preparing to do horrible things both endangering innocent civilians in the guilty state and risking our own soldiers’ lives in ground action. The more awful the threat, the less likely it is that we will have to do what we say we will do. Faced with an overwhelming menace, Milosevic would probably have climbed down before the war began. By credibly threatening war, you may avoid it. But the rainbow coalition of bourgeois democracies that we call the West, let alone the wider so-called ‘international community,’ seems structurally incapable of generating such a threat. The Western liberal societies that care most about stopping gross violations of human rights in other countries also have the most difficulty in willing the means best suited to achieve that end. This is our post-Kosovo dilemma." Note the usual cosseted intellectual’s demand that we do "horrible things," not to mention the well beyond call-up age man’s eagerness to risk "soldiers’ lives." Note the wholly unwarranted assumption that Milosevic did not believe NATO would go ahead and bomb. And as for the "Western liberal societies that care most about stopping gross violations of human rights in other countries also have the most difficulty in willing the means best suited to achieve that end," Garton Ash has to be kidding. The United States and the countries of the West in general do not have the slightest hesitation about inflicting massive suffering on others. To cite just one example, the appalling conditions in which Iraqis today live after 10 years of sanctions is a matter of complete indifference Western policymakers and public opinion alike.
The idea that we are suffering from excessive humanitarianism is, of course, very flattering to us. The real post-Kosovo dilemma, however, is whether an insufferably self-righteous West will soon find itself confronted, not by fanciful Hitlers, but by real opponents.
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