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Sasha Abramsky © 1999


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Six years ago I was a third year student of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford. A war had been fought two and a half years previously in the Gulf, another war was being fought at that moment in the heart of Europe.

In 1994, less than a year after I had taken my final exams, genocide was being carried out in Rwanda, on a scale not seen since the Khmer Rouge's atrocities in the 1970s.

The first war was one between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and a vastly powerful military alliance, ostensibly under the control of the United Nations, in reality led by the United States. The second was the ferocious conflict in Bosnia, one that some diplomats and negotiators such as David Owen termed a civil war, but that others argued was a carefully orchestrated campaign of ethnic slaughter, directed by political figures in Belgrade and exported to the newly independent country of Bosnia. The genocide in Rwanda, also characterized as a civil war, was carried out using primitive weapons such as machete. With well-timed international intervention, it might have been prevented. The intervention never came. The slaughter raged unchecked.

I remember the months prior to and during the war against Iraq vividly, and for a number of reasons. Saddam Hussein invaded the oil-rich kingdom of Kuwait in the summer of 1990. I had just finished my A-Levels and was travelling around Europe. I read about the invasion shortly after leaving the beautiful town of Dubrovnik, on what was then the Yugoslav coast. (Little more than a year later, with Yugoslavia in flames, and the two largest Republics, Serbia and Croatia, at war, Dubrovnik itself was besieged and bombed.) The battle to "liberate" Kuwait from Hussein's invading army was the first major war in the post-Cold War World, in the new single-superpower era. Those of us who were politically active on the left could still look to a vibrant peace movement, nurtured during the nuclear stand-offs of the 1980s, to protest the fighting. And we did so in large numbers. Thousands of us demonstrated in the weeks leading up to the conflict. My own contribution was to turn up outside the Ministry of Defense with a handful of friends, dressed in tie dyes and sheepskin coats, hoping to make up in exuberance what we lacked in muscle. It worked - to a degree: ITN reported on the new prime minister, John Major, reviewing the troops in the Gulf, and then cut to footage of our motley band shouting peace slogans.

Of course, it didn't stop the war. For six weeks bombs rained out of the sky; newly developed "smart bombs" were used, as were dozens of cruise missiles. For techno-enthusiasts, it was heaven. Of course, the world away from the flashy rhetoric and green-lit night photos was a bloody reality. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers were being incinerated or blown apart. And, to my mind, the justifications were deeply hypocritical: after all, Saddam Hussein was a creation of the U.S., a monster who had been nurtured by the CIA during the Cold War, a man who had bought billions of dollars of weaponry from the very countries now decrying his record; moreover, Kuwait, ruled over by an absolute monarchy, was hardly a model democracy. And, of course, the denial by America, the UK and France, that this was a war about oil, stuck so hard in our gullets that it was all we could do to keep from choking to death on our spleen.

We demonstrated almost daily, and - drunk on our own Oxford authority - we passed censure motions in the Junior Common Room (JCR) and, if I recall correctly, also in the Oxford Union.

Two years later I, along with many of my left-wing friends, was arguing in JCR meetings for intervention in Bosnia. Here, we argued, was a country, its capital Sarejevo a multicultural gem, that was being destroyed by the extreme nationalism of the Serbian government, the remnants of the Yugoslav army and paramilitary Serb nationalist forces within Bosnia itself. It was, we felt, a situation somewhat equivalent to that of the Spanish civil war sixty years earlier, when a socialist Republic was brutally overturned by a military putsch.

Bosnia, however, had no oil - and the Yugoslav army, built up as a Third Way buffer between NATO and the Warsaw Pact throughout the post-second world war era, was a powerful foe. Thus, while quarter of a million people were murdered, and millions more displaced, the world stood by, dithering over intervention, the UN declaring "safe havens" in towns such as Srbenica, only to stand aside as Serb forces entered and slaughtered the inhabitants. A war in the heart of Europe went unstopped by the very institution, NATO, supposedly committed to the continent's stability.

Two years later, the UN stood by again, this time while Hutu militia pillaged Rwanda, killing between half a million and a million people. The doctrine of non-intervention in a country's "internal affairs" had virtually legitimated mass slaughter as an instrument of domestic policy.

Fast forward to the current war over Kosovo. Finally, NATO has decided that a man such as Milosevic and a regime such as the one he rules over, cannot be negotiated with. This decision was neither sudden nor capricious. It was the product of many years of deals and betrayals, diplomatic barter and Serbian strong-arming of international aid workers. It came nearly seven years after then-President George Bush had written a letter to Milosevic declaring America would go to war to prevent a Kosovan conflagration, which the west feared would engulf much of southern Europe. In essence, Milosevic was told that while other countries couldn't stop him if he was hell-bent on destabilising a historically volatile region, they could and would make him pay a heavy price for doing so.

Authoritarian regimes, however, feed on war. For all the well-established reasons - such as the desire to distract a populace from economic failure, to create scapegoats for domestic chaos and so on - Milosevic's regime has a logic of violence at its heart. Socialist only in name, it is a regime that has inherited all of the vicious nationalism and paranoia of the pre-Tito Chetniks and none of the many kinder moments of Tito's non-aligned communism.

Opponents of intervention argue that Serbia is merely defending its territorial integrity. They also argue, rightly, that the intervention is selective, that there are many places where intervention didn't occur. They continue that the refugee crisis is being made worse by the NATO bombing. And many seem to believe that because the US has so often been on the wrong side, the immoral side, in the past, therefore it must be on the wrong side this time as well.

But, while I agreed with many of these arguments in 1991, when Iraq was being bombed, this time around I don't buy them. First, Yugoslavian land is not a domain rich in oil or otherwise necessary for the West. The strategic reasons for intervention are not so self-evident as they were in the Gulf. Neither is Milosevic a leader created and sustained by Western intelligence agencies and arms manufacturers. The moral issue, therefore, of going to war to neuter a yes-man-gone-independent who is fighting us with weapons we provided him with, does not seem so pungent in the case of Kosovo.

It is irrelevant whether Kosovo "belongs" to Serbia. As Rwanda so clearly demonstrated, sometimes internal violence is so atrocious that the world has a moral obligation to intervene. One can and should acknowledge distasteful Kosovar nationalism, while arguing that a large, well-equipped army has no right to burn Kosovars out of their homes, and believing that no country has the moral authority to create a modern diaspora through forced expulsion.

The fact that the international community failed so badly in Rwanda is no reason why it should fail in Kosovo. And while bombs obviously create terror, destruction and death, there are plenty of places that the U.S. has bombed to hell and back which haven't experienced the organized exodus of over a million people. There are too many accounts of mass executions, of black-masked paramilitaries rounding Kosovars up and ordering them to the border, to deny that something dreadful is going on on the ground in Kosovo. Or to deny that that something was occurring well before NATO planes began attacking Serbia.

For all these reasons, I am frustrated by so much of the left's opposition to intervention against Serbia. It seems to me that while the strategy of the intervention, the idea of a "smart" aerial war bringing Milosevic to his knees, is more-than-open to debate, those who oppose any armed response to Serbia are failing to engage in what has become a fundamentally moral issue. Can the world, should the world, stand by when regimes slaughter their own subjects? And if not, what are the other options apart from military ones when diplomacy has failed?




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