Why Clinton Bombed Yugoslavia

by David Ramsay Steele


If any town should engage in Rebellion or Mutiny, fall into violent Factions, or refuse to pay the usual Tribute; the King hath two Methods of reducing them to Obedience. The first and the mildest Course is by keeping the Island hovering over such a Town, and the Lands about it; whereby he can deprive them of the Benefit of the Sun and the Rain, and consequently afflict the inhabitants with Death and Diseases. And if the Crime deserve it, they are at the same time pelted from above with great Stones, against which they have no Defence, but by creeping into Cellars or Caves, while the Roofs of their Houses are beaten to Pieces. But if they still continue obstinate, or offer to raise Insurrections; he proceeds to the last Remedy, by letting the Island drop directly upon their Heads, which makes a universal Destruction both of Houses and Men.
Jonathan Swift, "The Flying Island of Laputa,"
Gulliver's Travels, Voyage III
Since you're, like, the President and stuff, can you, like, set a country on fire, . . . and then, fly over in a helicopter and say, "I am the President of the most powerful nation on earth. You must bow down before me"? Uh-huh-huh, uh-huh-huh, uh-huh-huh, uh-huh-huh . . .
Butt-Head, in Beavis and Butt-Head


On March 24th, 1999, the NATO alliance, led by the United States, began bombing Yugoslavia. They bombed every day, with steadily increasing numbers of planes and escalating destructive power of bombs. The bombing was finally halted after 78 days, with an agreement for withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from Kosovo, to be replaced by a mixed force of NATO and Russian troops under UN auspices.

The bombing of Yugoslavia was, overwhelmingly, of specifically civilian targets: homes, roads, farms, factories, hospitals, bridges, churches, monasteries, columns of refugees, TV stations, office buildings. The bombing was not intended to maximize civilian deaths, but neither was it intended to minimize them. The aim of the bombing was to destroy civilian installations on which people's lives and comfort depended, killing a few thousand random civilians for good measure, and thus weakening the will of the population to resist, so that they would submit to NATO occupation.

On paper, at least, NATO failed to achieve its precise objectives, and had to settle for what it could have achieved without bombing. At Rambouillet, NATO had insisted upon NATO occupation of the whole of Yugoslavia. This has not been obtained, and seems to be off the table for the moment.

NATO had demanded occupation of Kosovo, followed by a referendum after three years. Given other provisions encouraging the racist Albanians in the KLA to terrorize the rest of the population of Kosovo (Serbs, Gypsies, Turks, Muslim Slavs, and non-racist Albanians), this was, as everyone acknowledged, tantamount to guaranteeing the separation of Kosovo from Serbia after three years.

Presumably then there would have been a two-fronted war, with the KLA, armed and funded by NATO, subjugating a reluctant population of Kosovo Albanians (recently given the picturesque name of "Kosovars" by NATO), and also fighting the government of Albania, in order to unify Kosovo with Albania under KLA control. Whether NATO would have followed through with this, or whether they would then have turned upon the Albanians as the new Balkan bogeymen is a matter for speculation. NATO has dropped the three-year timetable for Kosovo's separation from Yugoslavia.

NATO bombed Yugoslavia, in contravention of its own charter, to set the seal on its "new strategic concept": that NATO can bomb any country which is doing bad things domestically, even though it has neither attacked nor threatened any NATO member, and that NATO can decide what to do entirely on its own, without consulting the UN. The Yugoslavs had always agreed to a UN force in Kosovo, but had said no to NATO.

While the Yugoslavs gave in by accepting an occupation force with a large NATO element, NATO agreed to submit its occupation of Kosovo to UN approval. By giving that approval, the UN did appear to accept the legality of bombing civilians in a country which had attacked no one. But the hoped-for precedent for a completely unprovoked NATO attack upon a country without any UN involvement was not set. This is a small matter, but no doubt one that irritates the NATO leadership, which had planned to demonstrate the total obsolescence of the UN, announcing itself as the new government of the world.

The Media War

The mainstream media loyally supported NATO's war at almost every turn. From the New York Times to CNN, they repeated NATO's stories, even when the most cursory attempt to check them out would have raised serious questions.

Following the bombing of Kosovo by NATO, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled Kosovo for Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and the rest of Serbia. The refugees who fled north within Serbia, including the many thousands of ethnic Albanians who arrived in Belgrade, were simply ignored. The ordinary U.S. TV viewer was never told about them, or about the refugees arriving in Bosnia. Those who fled to Montenegro were mentioned once or twice. Only Albanians who fled to Albania or Macedonia were covered. (Serbian refugees were turned away at the Macedonian border, while other non-Albanians like the Gypsies were liable to be brutalized by Albanians in the camps.) As if determined to insult the intelligence of their readers and viewers, the journalists purveyed the theory that none of the ethnic Albanian refugees had left because of the NATO bombardment or because of the war on the ground between the KLA and the Yugoslavs, but solely because of a campaign of "ethnic cleansing" ordered by the Yugoslavian government.

Coincidentally, as the bombing of Yugoslavia drew to a close, there was comparatively low-level warfare between Indians and Pakistanis in Kashmir. The press reported that large areas had been depopulated because local people had fled from the fighting. In this case there was no need to conjure up ethnic cleansing to explain why people would flee a war zone. As in a Keanu Reeves sci-fi movie, there was an almost imperceptible little click, and the world reverted to that parallel universe in which people do leave their homes when armies are shooting at each other, or bombs falling, nearby. The wide-awake reader instantly knows what to make of this uncanny phenomenon: NATO has no immediate plans to bomb India.

The Fantasy World

M. L. Rantala first pointed out that the explosive growth of TV coverage of criminal cases has not provided jobs for criminalists or other forensics experts: they are almost never represented on the TV "true crime" talk shows, which are almost entirely reserved for lawyers, who often don't understand the evidence, but do understand what can be made to play before a jury.

In similar fashion, Balkans experts were all but entirely absent from TV and even newspaper coverage of Clinton's War. Complete ignorance of Balkan affairs was almost a qualification for being heard, starting with Clinton himself, who had kicked off the whole show by patiently explaining that Danzig, where World War II had started, was in the Balkans.

There are hundreds of academics in the NATO countries who devote their lives to studying the Balkans. They were conspicuous by their almost total absence. The one notable exception was Robert Hayden. Presumably he was picked out for privileged treatment because of his close links with Milan Panic, the most pro-Western and anti-Milosevic of recent leading Yugoslav political figures. Someone must have considered him safe.

In the early weeks of the war, Hayden made many TV appearances, and every time he effectively shot NATO's case full of holes. He knew something about the facts. Then, someone at the networks realized the damage he was doing to the war effort, and he stopped being invited.

A completely fabricated fairyland was depicted for viewers and readers, a fantasy construction in which "Kosovars" were "ethnically cleansed" by the "dictator" and "war criminal" Milosevic in something called "Operation Horseshoe." And when those "Kosovars" who tried to get back home were bombed by NATO, this was presented as an "accident."

The Outcome

Undeniably, the U.S. achieved a kind of victory in Yugoslavia. Whether the cost was too high depends upon precisely whose interests are consulted. Kosovo has been occupied by NATO, thus guaranteeing a daily trickle of new "Serb atrocities" (this is the Clinton signature, which may become a universal feature of all politics: governing is always subordinate to campaigning, and campaigning never stops). It is too early to say whether the Russian presence in Kosovo is a trivial diversion, the entree to World War III, or something in between (such as a forerunner of partition).

The NATO victory was a victory for ethnic cleansing. This is true in at least two different senses:

The Albanians gained Kosovo because they practiced ethnic cleansing, and the Yugoslavs lost Kosovo because they did not practice ethnic cleansing (or if it turns out that they did, because it was "far too little, far too late"). For a hundred years, Albanians have been moving into Kosovo, and encouraging non-Albanians to move out. Under the Tito regime the Albanians were given extraordinary privileges in Kosovo, and used their grip on political power to persecute the non-Albanians. Even under Milosevic, who worked to amend the Yugoslav constitution and have those privileges revoked, the Albanians in Kosovo continued to expand and to oust the non-Albanians.
To a Serbian nationalist, it may appear that Milosevic failed to rectify the ethnic balance in Kosovo because of his fatal commitment to the vision of a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia with equitable treatment for all ethnic groups. At any rate, the actual ethnic cleansing of non-Albanians by Albanians set the stage for the bombing, which would complete the ethnic cleansing by eliminating all non-Albanians, along with all Albanians who might stand up to the KLA.

People all over the world were watching, and they could reasonably conclude that, although NATO's motives in bombing the civilians of any country are capricious and whimsical, there is one way to make oneself a less inviting target for bombing: do not permit the continued existence of any minority ethnic group, or at least, not one which forms a regional majority. You can be sure that the Russians are revising their plans to deal with Chechens and the Chinese their plans to deal with Tibetans: at the first sign of insurrection, these groups will be completely crushed in a matter of days, with considerable collateral damage. There will be no drawn-out campaigns which would invite the attentions of "the international community," the grandiose name given to themselves by the rulers of those countries who represent ten percent of the world's population and possess 90 percent of the world's killing power.
Clinton's War will be a tremendous boost to armaments and war preparations all over the world. Everyone can see that this war, although devastating for the Yugoslavs, took longer than Clinton expected and did not achieve quite what he had intended. The lesson is that mighty NATO, even with its present, historically ephemeral, overwhelming dominance, can be resisted. And if it can be resisted, with appreciable costs imposed upon the aggressor, its murderous attacks can in some measure be deterred.

Clinton's War will stimulate the formation of international defense alliances against NATO. At first there will be some trepidation, as the first moves to make such alliances could easily lead to their initiators' being bombed. But the long-term logic will prove irresistible. Great powers like the present United States usually pick on small countries whom they judge can be cheaply subdued. If from the beginning there had been a Russian garrison in Kosovo, Clinton might have decided it would have been more prudent to work up a war in Madagascar or Bhutan, or intervene in some existing conflict such as those in Sierra Leone or Kashmir.

It's true, of course, that the U.S. possesses the technological means to simply exterminate the entire population of any country. Clinton, Albright, and Blair clearly wanted to move somewhat more in that direction, and would certainly have done so, except for the astonishing lack of public support for Clinton's War in the U.S. and Europe. Just recall that it took eight years of fighting in Vietnam before the polls showed a majority not supporting the war. But instead of starting at 80 or 90 percent approval, Clinton's War started at around 60 percent, and steadily eroded, so that another month or two would have seen a clear majority for unconditional pulling out. Even more remarkably, as we go to press, "victory" has not greatly perked up the pro-war polling numbers. Dare we even hope that, as the NATO occupation of Kosovo unfolds, those who believe the war to have been a crime, a blunder, or both, will continue to gain ground?

Some of the opposition to Clinton's War arose because it was plainly a bombing campaign against civilian targets, so that more widespread slaughter of civilians would presumably have hastened the erosion of public support for the war.

Here, one of those delightful unintended consequences of human action came into play. According to Steven Erlanger, New York Times reporter in Kosovo, some Yugoslav government official approved the expulsion of all those journalists hailing from the countries participating in the bombing. But some of these journalists' cars ran out of gas. So some other Yugoslav bureaucrat, refusing to authorize the precious gasoline, determined that these journalists would have to stay. Every day their dispatches, especially those of Paul Watson for the Los Angeles Times, refuted NATO lies.

The upshot is that, given information coming out of the victim country, given the effectiveness of the victim country's army, and given the poll-driven quality of politics in the NATO countries, the U.S. President is somewhat constrained in his mass-murdering sprees. (Since the U.S. is still regularly bombing civilian targets in Iraq, with scarcely a murmur in the U.S. media, one of the shrewdest moves the Iraqi government could make would be to facilitate the admission of foreign journalists.)

As long as there are a sizeable number of people in the U.S. who disapprove of the slaughter of innocent civilians, the total extermination option will in most cases be ruled out, and not even closely approached. In that case, the fighting capability of an army will be of enormous importance even in the case of a tiny country like Yugoslavia.

As the Yugoslav army withdrew from Kosovo in June, it became apparent what those of us following the situation had been saying all along: the Yugoslav military has barely been scratched, even in Kosovo. The NATO bombardment was almost entirely directed against civilian targets, partly because military targets could not be found. NATO did not dare to invade Yugoslavia or even to fly low over Yugoslavia; it could only "degrade" the lives of the civilian population by bombing from a great height. NATO's true métier is to kill children from a distance, and avoid any fighting. That is NATO's strength, but also something of a constraint upon the exercise of that strength.

The Usual Reasons Don't Apply

Why did the United States do this? It certainly was a United States decision, made by President Clinton. Some NATO countries were more enthusiastic than others, some were dragged along reluctantly, some refused to participate at all. If most NATO countries had been solidly against it, they could no doubt have stopped it, but only Clinton could have ordered this operation.

The customarily-proffered reasons for going to war did not apply. The country attacked was not in any way even marginally a threat to America's "national interest." Yugoslavia is a small, poor country of ten million people. (Yugoslavia today is smaller than Cuba, both in population and in land area.) Yugoslavia had not attacked any other country, nor threatened to do so. Yugoslavia had, in fact, recently lost about half of its territory to secessionist movements, and in return for accepting the exclusion of Bosnian Serb territory from Yugoslavia, had been solemnly guaranteed by the U.S. that no further secessions would be countenanced. Yugoslavia under Milosevic has been punctiliously attentive to all international commitments, and hung slavishly upon U.S. desires, as when Yugoslav troops were pulled out of Kosovo in October 1998, because of the threat of U.S. bombing.

Even if all NATO's allegations about treatment of Albanians in Kosovo prior to March 24th were correct, this would, sadly, have been a mild example of ethnic persecution, less severe than dozens of cases around the world, and far less severe, for example, than the repression of Kurds by NATO member Turkey. Kosovo Albanians had their own radio and TV stations, their own newspapers, their own schools. They could say what they wanted and organize freely. The border with Albania was virtually open, and a high percentage of Kosovo residents were illegal immigrants from Albania, refugees from the extreme poverty and social breakdown in that country. What the Kurds in Turkey would give for the conditions of the Kosovo Albanians before March 24th, 1999!

Many critics of NATO pointed out that far worse cases of ethnic persecution prevailed in dozens of countries. The NATO answer was that just because ten murderers get away with it, that's no reason why one murderer should not be apprehended. Whatever the merits of that argument as justifying Clinton's War, it does not explain it. Clinton knew perfectly well that he was attacking a democratic country with (in recent years) a comparatively good human rights record.

The Actual Reasons

Putting aside all sentiment and value judgments, what were the actual reasons for Clinton's War? Why did Clinton do it?

I have provisionally arrived at an eclectic, composite view. My view allows for both "personal" and "strategic" reasons, "improvised" and "conspiratorial" causes. Mark Rothschild has made out a very plausible case for Clinton's War as the implementation of NATO's new strategic concept. While Rothschild's argument gives an important part of the truth, I think it is too rigidly determinist.

For example, his insistence that the bombing of the Chinese embassy must have been a deliberate part of the implementation of the strategic concept outruns the evidence. I don't rule out the possibility that this bombing was indeed deliberate, and a formidable case has been made for this by Jared Israel. But when all is said and done, what this amounts to is (1) that, as a "blunder," the embassy bombing was too outrageously stupid to be believable (in case you're wondering, any "old maps" would have shown this location to be open land with no buildings), and (2) the embassy bombing can be neatly fitted into the pursuit of the NATO strategic concept.

I maintain, however, that (1) the most extraordinary blunders do indeed occur, and are statistically inevitable in such a complex and messy operation as "Allied Force"; and (2) many imaginable events, most of which did not happen, could just as easily be neatly fitted into this or some other grand design. Furthermore, it was necessary to maintain some degree of popular support in the U.S. and Europe for the war, and the embassy bombing seriously risked undermining that important NATO goal.

History Is Filled With Blunders

As we look back at history, especially after all the documents have been declassified and the memoirs published, we find miscalculation, misconception, miscommunication, intrusion of personal idiosyncracies, ineptitude, and bad guesses.

Since that is what we find in the past, we now confront three possibilities: (1) The "grand design" was, in earlier periods, so deeply concealed that it can't be discerned amid the apparent mistakes, even in hindsight; (2) International relations used to be full of mistakes, but just recently have been utterly transformed, and are now effectively subordinated to a grand design; (3) Now, as then, international politics is replete with mistakes. To me, the first two possibilities each appear implausible. Furthermore, many quite recent events, such as the U.S. intervention in Somalia, are very difficult to make sense of, except as comprising a large element of incompetence and bungling.

The arguments of the strategic determinists rather mirror those of the Clinton defenders, after Clinton had bombed a pharmaceuticals factory in Khartoum. The defenders said that this couldn't be a case of "wag the dog," since the Secretary of Defense and other respected politicians had endorsed Clinton's decision. The common assumption is the notion that the U.S. president is constrained to a single unique choice. But surely the U.S. president generally has a number of options, any one of which would receive the support of said respected politicians.

Like any executive, the president is hired to make decisions. Naturally, some decisions would be considered so outrageous they would lead to embarrassing resignations, or worse. But the president always has a range of options. Without lengthy preparations, Clinton would have found it harder to make a case to bomb, say, New Zealand. Milosevic and the Serbs have been demonized remorselessly since 1991 and even earlier. But Clinton did have a choice: he did not have to choose to bomb, and he chose to bomb.

The war decision was made earlier than March of 1999. The U.S. presented Yugoslavia with an ultimatum that the Yugoslavs could only reject. This was presumably deliberate on the part of the U.S. negotiating team. Far from this being anything to do with Slobodan Milosevic, if Milosevic had accepted Rambouillet, he would have swiftly been replaced, and the U.S. negotiators at Rambouillet must have known this. Whatever they may say in public, they are actually acquainted with the fact that Yugoslavia is a democratic state, and that no leader could survive the giving away of Kosovo, much less the whole of Yugoslavia, without a fight.

Either Clinton was behind this aggressive approach from the beginning, or he capitalized on it. His unusually corrupt presidency was endangered by the Chinese espionage/Democratic fund-raising scandal, and he needed something to take that scandal off the front pages. The only possibility was a war, particularly appropriate because the espionage scandal was all about the weakening of America's military. And it worked. This is conjecture, but so is any alternative, and this one seems the most reasonable. Quite possibly, Clinton would not have started the bombing on March 24th if he could have foreseen how things would look one month later. But, from the standpoint of the Arkansas Rapist, all's well that ends well.

I don't know whether Clinton all along intended to produce hundreds of thousands of refugees by his bombing, a "humanitarian crisis" which could then be blamed on "Serb atrocities," or whether he stumbled into the humanitarian crisis, along with the military defeat of the KLA by the Yugoslavs, and then hit upon this expedient excuse for the humanitarian crisis he had created. I'm inclined to the latter view, for who would be confident in advance that enough people would be so gullible as to swallow such a preposterous piece of nonsense?

In making his decision, Clinton must have consulted public opinion and policy wonk opinion. Both Balkans experts and military leaders were overwhelmingly against the bombing, but a powerful movement of anti-Serbian bigotry had been developed in wonk and journalistic circles.

To some extent, key advisors in NATO may have believed some of their own propaganda. Just as anti-Semites may spread stories they know to be false, because they genuinely believe Jews to be evil, so anti-Serbians do the same thing. The faked atrocity at Racak was originally intended as NATO's justification for bombing. When this "atrocity" was called into question too soon, all mention of Racak was dropped by the Clinton administration. But probably the cumulative effect of bigoted anti-Serbian propaganda did convince some people whose wholehearted support Clinton could count on, thereby making his decision to bomb more likely.

The Strategic Background

Clinton had his own motives for bombing the civilians of Yugoslavia, and presumably other responsible agents, like Madeleine Albright, had similar motives of personal advantage or prejudice for facilitating this decision. The fact remains that Clinton bombed Yugoslavia, not New Zealand. A climate of opinion did exist, in both policy wonk and journalistic circles, favoring a war against Yugoslavia. In his 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton berated George Bush for being too soft on Milosevic and too reluctant to intervene in the Balkans. Margaret Thatcher used to talk like this, too, which is sufficient to account for Blair's bellicosity.

Any war requires two kinds of preparation: both general public opinion and the opinion of Washington policy wonks have to be cultivated. Neither of these is very difficult, but the latter is more important and takes more time. Whereas the general public need a bad guy, the wonks need a strategic perspective.

When the Soviet Union fell, and began to dismantle its military might, there was one remaining superpower. NATO had been the way in which the U.S. guaranteed Europe against being overrun by Soviet Russia. This had the incidental advantage for Europe that the European countries could pursue political integration and military co-operation without being concerned about the military dominance of the bigger European nations, especially Germany.

According to Rothschild, the transition is now slowly being made to a European military force independent of the U.S., and NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia is part of the concomitant strategic game. Britain's posture becomes explicable as a reluctance to acknowledge that it is an outpost of the new German empire. This reading of the situation does explain a lot, but it leaves me puzzled as to why the continental European powers did not simply veto Clinton's war, forcing it to be called off or to become a more risky non-NATO, U.S.-British enterprise. The Germans must know that they do not need to fear a renewed Russian expansion for many years at least, and by the time that contingency arises, Germany, not the U.S., will have the decisive say in controlling Europe's armed forces.

A New Empire and a New Religion

When there are two countervailing military superpowers holding each other in check, and one of these disappears, what will the survivor do? It can essentially scale back, disarm, and release a "peace dividend," or it can move forward into the power vacuum, to construct a world empire.

Once the question is posed in these simple terms, there is a kind of quasi-inevitability about the second option. Government agencies do not recommend their own reduction, much less dissolution. An entire bureaucracy does not readily countenance its own redundancy. The interests of these people make them amenable to the notion of finding a new role, a new strategic concept, to replace the older one which now has no relevance.

When Rome began to conquer the surrounding cities of Italy, the Romans presumably did not foresee that their descendants would rule everything from Britain to Egypt. But this outcome was in a sense implicit in their situation and in their characteristic response to their neighbors. There can be a "logic of the situation," which exists whether anyone recognizes it or not. There is a similar thrust in NATO's pursuit of a new world order, with the U.S. President as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, able to bomb any country with impunity.

Having lost its Soviet enemy, NATO had to justify its continuation by inventing a new strategic concept. This concept is, implicitly, a new world empire, with a new world religion. The new religion is involuntary therapy. The War on Drugs, a domestic war to modify people's behavior, a metaphor derived from international conflict, becomes in its turn the metaphor for future international conflicts. Perhaps in time the metaphors will converge, and the reasons for bombing will themselves be drug-related.

Just as domestic wars on drugs, gambling, racketeering, pornography, satanic ritual abuse, and religious "cults" lead to the overthrow of the rule of law, with its protections for the rights of individuals, so the new NATO strategic concept dispenses with such outmoded concepts as "sovereignty," "defense," and "aggression." It is enough to bomb a country's civilian population if its leader is considered a bad man, for example. The fact that the leader of NATO is in sober truth a perjuror, a rapist, a psychopath, and a mass murderer, is of no consequence, since in bombing people whose governments are doing bad things, his intentions are good, and he therefore becomes, in sacramental terms, a consecrated vessel of righteousness.

The new world religion is the belief-system of politically correct social workers. It is essentially ignorant, irrational, and vindictive. People must behave nicely or they will be bombed. What constitutes nice behavior changes with the winds of politically correct fashion, and whether people are behaving nicely is not, as a factual matter, determined with any great exactitude, as can be seen from the thirst to accept allegations of "Serb atrocities" on the flimsiest of evidence. Behind a smokescreen of therapeutic cant, there is the vicious demonization of human populations classified as legitimate targets for bombing: today the Yugoslavian people, tomorrow the Albanians, and after that, the Greeks, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Indians.

The innocent civilians are out there, a world full of them, millions upon millions, all just waiting to be bombed, as NATO crosses the bridge into the twenty-first century.

Return to beginning of ejps
Return to beginning of this issue


Liberty, August 1999, © Copyright 1999, Liberty Foundation