New Labour New war

The Balkans have moved back to the place they occupied when this bloody century began, at the centre stage of world history. The military assault Nato launched against Serbia on 24 March looks set to develop into by far the biggest war Europe has seen since 1945.

This war was the result of miscalculation on the Nato leaders' part. Its pretext was the refusal by the Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, to accept the Rambouillet 'accords' on the future of Kosovo. A CIA coordinated report by the US intelligence community predicted in January what would happen if the west carried out its threat to attack in such circumstances: 'Milosevic doesn't want a war he can't win... After enough of a defence to sustain his honour and assuage his backers, he will quickly sue for peace' (Guardian, 19 April).

Bill Clinton and his advisers imagined that an attack on Serbia would be a rerun of the Anglo-American bombing campaign against Iraq which began just before Christmas-a television war which would cost no western lives and make the president look good after the impeachment scandal. It is also evident that no serious thought was given to the possible consequences of bombing Serbia on Kosovo itself. As we now know, Milosevic responded, not by surrendering, but by authorising the large scale expulsion of Kosovan Albanians. The bombing precipitated the humanitarian catastrophe that Nato leaders are now using to justify yet more bombing.

Why did Milosevic react in the way that he did? Contrary to the infantile attempts by Nato propagandists to demonise him as the new Hitler, Milosevic is the consummate opportunist, ready cynically to do just about anything to hang on to power. He saw off the last wave of mass opposition to his regime in 1996-97, in part by co-opting ultra-nationalists such as the monarchist Vuk Draskovic and the genuine fascist Vojislav Seselj.

Escalating the crisis in Kosovo may have been a way of keeping the nationalists on side. It may also have been politically impossible for him to accept the Rambouillet 'accords': most nation-states would find it hard to swallow Annex B, which would give Nato troops unlimited access to the whole of Yugoslavia-Serbia and Montenegro, as well as Kosovo itself. The mass expulsions are yet another tactic, as Misha Glenny, one of the best journalists to have covered the earlier bout of Balkan wars in 1991-95, explains: 'The refugees are part of the war (not a pre-ordained programme of ethnic cleansing); they are designed to sow chaos amid Nato but also to threaten the stability of the host countries' (Observer, 18 April).

Confronted with the appalling consequences of their actions, the Nato leaders now seem determined to escalate the war. The social democrats who hold office through much of the European Union are trying to use their political capital as parties of the left to legitimise the assault on Serbia. Tony Blair has called it a war waged by 'a new generation of leaders in the United States and in Europe...who hail from the progressive side of politics... In this conflict we are fighting not for territory but for values' (Newsweek, 19 April). New Labour, new war.

In fact, as every serious ruling class commentator concedes, the war is being fought, not for democratic 'values', but because Nato can't afford to lose. As the bombing began, David Buchan wrote in the Financial Times (26 March), 'The outcome will determine whether Nato, which now has "Partnerships for Peace" with 25 other non-allies stretching east beyond the Caucasus and the Caspian, will become-as it hopes-the predominant force for crisis management throughout Europe.'

One of the central thrusts of US foreign policy under Clinton has been to maintain and strengthen Nato. So the alliance has expanded into east-central Europe, where Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are now members. Nato official doctrine now stresses the importance of 'out-of-area' operations, military action beyond Nato's borders. The ideology of 'humanitarian interventions' has emerged to justify these operations, despite the appalling history of such interventions in Lebanon, Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda.

As for the big powers of western Europe, the catastrophic failure of EU policy during the break up of Yugoslavia in the first half of the 1990s showed that they lack the unified political organisation and indeed the military resources even to maintain order on their own periphery. The French and British general staffs concluded last year that even their combined forces were too weak to win air supremacy over Serbia. So, for the EU as well as the US, Nato remains an indispensable instrument of state policy.

The credibility of Nato will be proved on the bodies of the Balkan peoples. Already the air campaign has widened into a comprehensive assault on the civilian infrastructure of Serbia. The Hungarian-speaking area of Vojvodina has been cut off from the rest of Serbia by the bombing in what seems to be a criminally irresponsible attempt by Nato to stir up yet more ethnic tensions, with potentially dangerous consequences not just in Hungary but in the Hungarian-speaking areas of Romania and Slovakia. Journalists close to the Blair court claim that one of the main thrusts of the air assault is to bottle up the Serb forces in Kosovo and then to cut them to pieces with ground-assault aircraft like the A-10 tankbusters and Apache helicopters. This is a recipe for wholesale carnage, in which many Kosovan civilians would perish alongside their Serbian persecutors. Meanwhile the Observer reports that Nato is planning for a 'semi-opposed' invasion of Kosovo by ground troops by the end of May, presumably after the Serbian army has been sufficiently softened up by air attacks.

Assuming that some such operation were mounted successfully, what would be the eventual outcome? A march on Belgrade seems inconceivable for both military and geopolitical reasons-it might lead to an irreparable break with both Russia and China, whose relations with the US are already deteriorating. In all likelihood Kosovo, or at least its southern rump, would become a wretched Nato protectorate confronting an embittered, impoverished Serbia ruled either by Milosevic or by someone worse like Seselj. And Serb and Albanian zealots would busily prepare for the next war.

This is an utterly appalling prospect. It indicates the complete bankruptcy and cynicism of Nato policy. More than that, the entire crisis over Kosovo underlines one fact above all others. In this supposedly 'postcolonial' epoch, imperialism is alive and well. The great military and economic powers are still bullying everyone else to obey their demands. The only sane response is to rally all the forces we can against this barbarous war-and, beyond that, against the system that makes such horrors possible.

by Alex Callinicos

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