The Real Story Behind Kosovo's
by Jeremy Scahill, Alternet
News Flash: The Bush administration acknowledges
there is a such thing as international law.
But, predictably, it is not being invoked to address the US prison
camps at Guantanamo, the wide use of torture, the invasion and
occupation of sovereign countries, the extraordinary rendition
program. No, it is being thrown out forcefully as a condemnation
of the Serbian government in the wake of Thursday's attack by
protesters on the US embassy in Belgrade following the Bush administration's
swift recognition of the declaration of independence by the southern
Serbian province of Kosovo. Some 1,000 protesters broke away from
a largely non-violent mass demonstration in downtown Belgrade
and targeted the embassy. Some protesters actually made it into
the compound, setting a fire and tearing down the American flag.
"I'm outraged by the mob attack against the U.S. embassy
in Belgrade," fumed Zalmay Khalilzad,the US Ambassador to
the United Nations. "The embassy is sovereign US territory.
The government of Serbia has a responsibility under international
law to protect diplomatic facilities, particularly embassies."
His comments were echoed by a virtual who's who of the Bill Clinton
administration. People like Jamie Rubin, then-Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright's deputy, one of the main architects of US
policy toward Serbia. "It is sovereign territory of the United
States under international law," Rubin declared. "For
Serbia to allow these protesters to break windows, break into
the American Embassy, is a pretty dramatic sign." Hillary
Clinton, whose husband orchestrated and ran the 78-day NATO bombing
of Serbia in 1999, said, "I would be moving very aggressively
to hold the Serbian government responsible with their security
forces to protect our embassy. Under international law they should
be doing that."
There are two major issues here. One is the situation in Kosovo
itself (which we'll get to in a moment), but the other is the
attack on the US embassy. Yes, the Serbian government had an obligation
to prevent the embassy from being torched and ransacked. If there
was complicity by the Serbian police or authorities in allowing
it to be attacked, that is a serious issue. But the US has little
moral authority not just in invoking international law (which
it only does when it benefits Washington's agenda) but in invoking
international law when speaking about attacks on embassies in
Perhaps the greatest crime against any embassy in the history
of Yugoslavia was committed not by evil Serb protesters, but by
the United States military.
On May 7, 1999, at the height of the 78 day US-led NATO bombing
of Yugoslavia, the US bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade,
killing three Chinese citizens, two of them journalists, and wounding
20 others. The Clinton administration later said that the bombing
was the result of faulty maps provided by the CIA (Sound familiar?).
Beijing rejected that explanation and alleged it was deliberate.
Eventually, under strong pressure from China, the US apologized
and paid $28 million in compensation to the victims' families.
If the US was serious about international law and the protection
of embassies, those responsible for that bombing would have been
tried at the Hague along with other alleged war criminals. But
"war criminal" is a designation for the losers of US-fueled
wars, not bombers sent by Washington to drop humanitarian munitions
on "sovereign territory."
Beyond the obvious hypocrisy of the US condemnations of Serbia
and the sudden admission that international law exists, the Kosovo
story is an important one in the context of the current election
campaign in the United States. Perhaps more than any other international
conflict, Yugoslavia was the defining foreign policy of President
Bill Clinton's time in power. Under his rule, the nation of Yugoslavia
was destroyed, dismantled and chopped into ethnically pure para-states.
President Bush's immediate recognition of Kosovo as an independent
nation was the icing on the cake of destruction of Yugoslavia
and one which was enthusiastically embraced by Hillary Clinton.
"I've supported the independence of Kosovo because I think
it is imperative that in the heart of Europe we continue to promote
independence and democracy," Clinton said at the recent Democratic
debate in Austin, Texas.
A few days before the attack on the US embassy in Belgrade, Clinton
released a Molotov cocktail statement praising the declaration
of independence. In it, she referred to Kosovo by the Albanian
"Kosova" and said independence "will allow the
people of Kosova to finally live in their own democratic state.
It will allow Kosova and Serbia to finally put a difficult chapter
in their history behind them and to move forward." She added,
"I want to underscore the need to avoid any violence or provocations
in the days and weeks ahead." As seasoned observers of Serbian
politics know, there were few things the US could have done to
add fuel to the rage in Serbia over the declaration of independence
-- "provocations" if you will -- than to have a political
leader named Clinton issue a statement praising independence and
using the Albanian name for Kosovo.
On the campaign trail, the Clinton camp has held up Kosovo as
a successful model for how to conduct US foreign policy and Clinton
criticized Bush for taking "so long for us to reach this
Perhaps a little of that history is in order. If Kosovo is her
idea of solid US foreign policy, it speaks volumes to what kind
of president she would be. The reality is that there are striking
similarities between the Clinton approach to Kosovo and the Bush
approach to Iraq.
On March 24, 1999, President Bill Clinton began an 11-week bombing
campaign against Yugoslavia. Like Bush with Iraq, Clinton had
no UN mandate (he used NATO) and his so-called "diplomacy"
to avert the possibility of bombing leading up to the attacks
was insincere and a set-up from the jump. Just like Bush with
A month before the bombing began, the Clinton administration issued
an ultimatum to President Slobodan Milosevic, which he had to
either accept unconditionally or face bombing. Known as the Rambouillet
accord, it was a document that no sovereign country would have
accepted. It contained a provision that would have guaranteed
US and NATO forces "free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded
access throughout" all of Yugoslavia, not just Kosovo. It
also sought to immunize those occupation forces "from any
form of arrest, investigation, or detention by the authorities
in [Yugoslavia]," as well as grant the occupiers "the
use of airports, roads, rails and ports without payment."
Additionally, Milosevic was told he would have to "grant
all telecommunications services, including broadcast services,
needed for the Operation, as determined by NATO." Similar
to Bush's Iraq plan years later, Rambouillet mandated that the
economy of Kosovo "shall function in accordance with free
What Milosevic was actually asked to sign is never discussed.
That it would have effectively meant the end of the sovereignty
of the nation was a non-story. The dominant narrative for the
past nine years, repeated this week by William Cohen, Clinton's
defense secretary at the time of the bombing, is this: "We
tried to achieve a peaceful resolution of what was taking place
in Kosovo. And Slobodan Milosevic refused." Refused peace?
More like he unwisely refused one of Don Corleone's famous offers.
Washington knew he would reject it, but had to give the appearance
of diplomacy for international "legitimacy."
So the humanitarian bombs rained down on Serbia. Among the missions:
the bombing of the studios of Radio Television Serbia where an
airstrike killed 16 media workers; the cluster bombing of a Nis
marketplace, shredding human beings into meat; the deliberate
targeting of a civilian passenger train; the use of depleted uranium
munitions; and the targeting of petrochemical plants, causing
toxic chemical waste to pour into the Danube River. Also, the
bombing of Albanian refugees, ostensibly the people being protected
by the U.S.
Similar to Bush's allegations about Iraqi WMDs in the lead up
to the US invasion, in 1999 Clinton administration officials also
delivered stunning allegations about the level of brutality present
in Kosovo as part of the propaganda campaign. "We've now
seen about 100,000 military-aged men missing ....They may have
been murdered," Cohen said five weeks into the bombing. He
said that up to 4,600 Kosovo men had been executed, adding, "I
suspect it's far higher than that." Those numbers were flat
out false. Eventually the estimates were scaled back dramatically,
as Justin Raimondo pointed out recently in his column on Antiwar.com,
from 100,000 to 50,000 to 10,000 and "at that point the War
Party stopped talking numbers altogether and just celebrated the
glorious victory of 'humanitarian intervention.'" As it turned
out "there was no 'genocide' -- the International Tribunal
itself reported that just over 2,000 bodies were recovered from
postwar Kosovo, including Serbs, Roma, and Kosovars, all victims
of the vicious civil war in which we intervened on the side of
the latter. The whole fantastic story of another 'holocaust' in
the middle of Europe was a fraud," according to Raimondo.
Following the NATO invasion of Kosovo in June of 1999, the US
and its allies stood by as the Albanian mafia and gangs of criminals
and paramilitaries spread out across the province and systematically
cleansed Kosovo of hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Romas and other
ethnic minorities. They burned down houses, businesses and churches
and implemented a shocking campaign to forcibly expel non-Albanians
from the province. Meanwhile, the US worked closely with the Kosovo
Liberation Army and backed the rise of war criminals to the highest
levels of power in Kosovo. Today, Kosovo has become a hub for
human trafficking, organized crime and narcosmuggling. In short,
it is a mafia state. Is this the "democracy" Hillary
Clinton speaks of "promoting" in "the heart"
It didn't take long for the US to begin construction of a massive
US military base, Camp Bondsteel, which conveniently is located
in an area of tremendous geopolitical interest to Washington.
(Among its most bizarre facilities, Bondsteel now offers classes
at the Laura Bush education center, as well as massages from Thai
women and all the multinational junk food you could (n)ever wish
for). In November 2005, Alvaro Gil-Robles, the human rights envoy
of the Council of Europe, described Bondsteel as a "smaller
version of Guantanamo." Oh, and Bondsteel was constructed
by former Halliburton subsidiary KBR.
Herein lies an interesting point. The Serbian government is largely
oriented toward Europe, not the US. The country's prime minister,
Vojislav Kostunica, is a conservative isolationist who is not
enthusiastic about a US military base on Serbian soil any more
than Cuba is about Gitmo. He charged that, in recognizing Kosovo,
Washington was "ready to unscrupulously and violently jeopardize
international order for the sake of its own military interests."
To the would-be independent Kosovo government, however, Bondsteel
is no problem.
Russia and a few other nations are fighting the recognition of
Kosovo as an independent nation, but that is unlikely to succeed.
Still, this action will undoubtedly reverberate for years to come.
"We have in Serbia a situation in which the U.S. has forced
an action --the proclamation of independence by the Kosovo Albanians
-- that is in clear violation of the most fundamental principles
of international law after World War II," argues Robert Hayden,
Director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at
the University of Pittsburgh. "Borders cannot be changed
by force and without consent -- that principle was actually the
main stated reason for the 1991 U.S. attack on Iraq."
And this brings us full circle. International law matters only
when it is convenient for the US. So too are the cries for "humanitarian
interventions." And despite the extremism of the Bush administration,
this is hardly a uniquely Republican phenomenon. In a just world,
there would be a humanitarian intervention against the US occupation
of Iraq -- with its indiscriminate killings of civilians, torture
chambers and widespread human rights violations. There certainly
would have been such an intervention during the bipartisan slaughter,
through bombs and sanctions, of Iraq's people over the past 18
years. But that's what you get when the cops and judges and prosecutors
are the criminals. US policy has always operated on a worthy victim,
unworthy victim system that is almost never primarily about saving
the victims. Humanitarianism is the publicly offered justification
for the action, seldom, if ever, the primary motivation. With
Iraq, Bush wheeled out the humanitarian justification for the
occupation--Saddam's brutality -- only after the WMD lies were
thoroughly debunked. In Yugoslavia, Clinton used it right out
of the gates. In both cases, it rang insincere.
If you are a victim who happens to share a common geography with
US interests, international law is on your side as long as it
is convenient. If not, well, tough. The UN is just a debate club
anyway. Just ask the tens of thousands of Kurds who were slaughtered
by Turkey with weapons sold to them by the Clinton administration
during the 1990s. Or the Palestinians who live under the brutality
of Israel's occupation. In some cases, the "victims"
allegedly being protected by the US actually get bombed themselves,
as was the case with President Clinton's "humanitarian"
bombings of the north and south of Iraq once every three days
in the late 1990s.
In the bigger picture, the Bush administration's quick recognition
of an independent Kosovo has given us a powerful reminder of a
fact that is too often overlooked these days: empire is bipartisan,
as are the tactics and rhetoric and bombs used to defend and expand
Jeremy Scahill, an independent journalist who reports frequently
for the national radio and TV program Democracy Now!, has spent
extensive time reporting from Iraq and Yugoslavia. He is currently
a Puffin Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute. Scahill is the
author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary