False History Lessons
by Kai Bird
The Nation magazine, April 26,
Confronted with the inexplicable, policy-makers
and pundits alike grope for the apt historical analogy. It's a
natural human reaction. And as historians learn from their excavations
in the archives, some "historical lessons" approach
the mythological. That has happened in the debate within the liberal-left
community over what to do in Kosovo. Here are two of the most
prevalent mythologies being purveyed:
* Kosovo is another Vietnam. Yes, some
of the actors are speaking lines that sound very much like William
Bundy contemplating the bombing of North Vietnam: "It seems
to me that our orchestration should be mainly violins, but with
periodic touches of brass." In the nineties, we have "cruise
diplomacy." And yes, one of the lessons to be learned from
Vietnam and applied to Yugoslavia is that bombing campaigns inevitably
stiffen the will of those being bombed-and rarely achieve the
intended military goal. But in Vietnam, the United States intervened
in a civil war waged in the context of a decades-long anti-colonial
nationalist struggle. Culturally and linguistically, the Vietnamese
were one people. The same cannot be said for the Serbs and Kosovars.
Until last month, 90 percent of Kosovo was populated by a people
with a distinctly different language, religion and culture.
* Kosovo is another Holocaust. There are
no gas ovens and no mass killing of a whole people. Rather, what
we have is state-sponsored ethnic cleansing in the heart of Europe.
Thousands of unarmed civilians are being murdered for the express
purpose of frightening an entire ethnic group into abandoning
If, for purposes of shorthand, we need
a historical analogy to understand what is happening in Kosovo,
why not look at Bangladesh (then called East Pakistan) in 1971
? At the time, East Pakistan was a federated province of Pakistan.
The vast majority of the population was Muslim but steeped in
the language and culture of East Bengal. A brutal military dictatorship
in West Pakistan arrested the democratically elected East Pakistani
leader, Mujibur Rahman, and launched a bloody military campaign,
ostensibly against East Pakistani "terrorists." Tens
of thousands of innocent civilians in East Pakistan were slaughtered-and
more than a million refugees poured into India.
Recall how the international community
reacted with an outpouring of assistance to those fleeing the
West Pakistani killers. But also recall that the refugees could
not return home until India mounted a massive invasion of East
Pakistan and liberated the country. Thus was born Bangladesh.
If Bangladesh is at least a better analogy
than Vietnam, does this suggest that a US-led NATO is bound to
launch a ground invasion to liberate Kosovo? At this writing it
seems possible. On the eve of its fiftieth anniversary, NATO is
so burdened with powerful myths of its own-that it prevented a
Soviet invasion of Western Europe at the beginning of the cold
war, that it kept the "long peace" and that it even
played a decisive role in ending the cold war-that Washington
policy-makers are psychologically programmed to do absolutely
anything to maintain the alliance's "credibility."
If Clinton is lucky, any ground invasion
would end with a relatively clear-cut liberation of Kosovo-just
as Indira Gandhi managed to liberate Bangladesh in a relatively
short, six-week war. But then again, it could get very messy,
particularly if it becomes necessary to march on Belgrade.
If a ground invasion does not happen,
much of the mythology surrounding NATO will crumble-which might
be good in the long run for Europe and very bad for the Kosovars.
They would become the new Palestinians, condemned to tent cities
and second-class status throughout Europe.
The left-liberal community on the surface
seems to be divided into principled anti-interventionists, who
see Kosovo as another Vietnam, and "humanitarian" interventionists,
who see it as another Holocaust. But if we dispensed with the
worn-out historical analogies, stopped reliving the past, we would
find that we do share some fundamental values and an internationalist,
post-nuclear outlook. In the twenty-first century, we are all
going to be trying to build a world in which common-sense international
law begins to transcend outdated sovereign rights. An estimated
111 million people died in twentieth-century wars. The human race
won't survive the next century unless the nation-state as we know
it is regulated by international law.
And yet, as we have seen in recent years
in Rwanda, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and now Kosovo, intra-ethnic,
communal violence is precisely the kind of "war" we
will face in the next century. Because of political considerations
both here and abroad, US unilateralism is ill suited to smothering
this kind of war. (Remember Somalia.) Neither is a US-led NATO
a viable peacekeeping force. Indeed, it has already become a liability.
So whatever the outcome in Kosovo and,
personally, I hope the Serbs are forced by someone (even NATO)
to relinquish one of their own nationalist mythologies and the
Kosovars are allowed to go home-the historical lessons of this
humanitarian crisis are already clear. We need an international
criminal court in which political leaders can expeditiously be
indicted and tried for crimes against humanity. We need a standing
UN army available to smother ethnic violence and serve as neutral,
truly international peacekeepers. We need to empower the UN, reform
it, democratize it and recognize that, like democracy at home,
a democratic UN will be a messy beast, but it will belong to us
The Clinton Administration finds itself
in its current predicament precisely because it has not opened
up any of these truly internationalist options. Indeed, it has
blocked an international criminal court and continued to insist
on US exceptionalism in the use of force. In the next century
the new tools of internationalism must be more truly international
and democratic than are cold war dinosaurs like NATO.
Kai Bird is the author of The Color of
Truth: McGeorge Bundy & William Bundy: Brothers in Arms (Simon
International War Crimes