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Limp Willy?
By Frank Smyth, April 1, 1999, Salon.com

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As the Clinton administration escalates NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia to a level not seen in the Balkans since World War II, the worst humanitarian disaster in Europe since that war is likewise emerging, as Yugoslavia's Serbian troops attack ethnic Albanians in the southern province of Kosovo.

Clinton himself has referred to "genocide" in defending his decision to bomb Yugoslavia. "The world did not act early enough to stop" abuses in Bosnia back in 1995, even though "this was genocide in the heart of Europe," Clinton said last week. This week State Department spokesman James Rubin went even further. "There are indications that genocide is unfolding in Kosovo," Rubin said Monday. "We can clearly say that crimes against humanity are being committed."

But even as the State Department calls the Kosovo situation "genocide," the administration and its NATO allies are resisting what seems to be the only option to stop the slaughter: The use of ground troops to protect the remaining Kosovar Albanians.

Human rights advocates are frantic over the escalation of the carnage in Kosovo, but they are divided over whether to openly call for ground troops. Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian forces "have decapitated the community leaders" and "destroyed civil society" in Kosovo, says an anguished Holly Burkhalter of Physicians for Human Rights in Washington. Burkhalter and others observe that scenes from Kosovo are disturbingly reminiscent of the 1995 massacres at Srebrenica, when at least 8,000 men and boys were marched out by Serbian forces in long lines. Only to be killed and dumped into mass graves. The initial refugees fleeing Kosovo were "mostly elderly [people along with] women and children," says Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch. "That makes us wonder what happened to the men." Lines of men and boys, he adds, have been seen marching out of Kosovo in some places.

A self-described "humanitarian interventionist," Burkhalter insists Clinton "can't wait" to act to save Kosovo's people. She says the Clinton administration is obligated to resolve the Kosovo crisis by sending ground troops, pointing out that the United States signed (in 1988) the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. "You don't have to kill everybody for it to be a genocide," says Burkhalter. The language of the convention she mentions includes "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group" -- including "killing members of the group" and "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part." Physicians for Human Rights "is calling this one genocide," Burkhalter adds.

"A year ago, I was in favor of early intervention with a lot of force to stop abuses" in Kosovo, including "ground forces," she says. But she points out that she speaks only for herself; neither Physicians for Human Rights nor Human Rights Watch has officially endorsed sending ground troops. "I'm still in favor of [ground troops]," she says. Besides deploying ground forces, Burkhalter thinks the United States and other NATO member states should indict Yugoslavia's Milosevic himself as a war criminal.

But Fareed Zakaria, author of "From Wealth to Power: The Unusual Origins of America's World Role" and managing editor of Foreign Affairs, favors humanitarian intervention only in far more limited cases. "I don't rule out all humanitarian assistance or intervention," says Zakaria. But he sees the Kosovo crisis as a messy secessionist issue, as the province's relatively new and weak guerrilla group, the Kosovo Liberation Army, along with many of the province's civilians, is seeking Kosovo's independence from Serbia.

Zakaria is in favor of the Clinton administration cutting its losses now and pulling out of Kosovo. Most observers believe that further intervention to defend Kosovo could make it a NATO protectorate for years to come. "It is a thorny political problem to get involved in backing a secessionist province [of any country]," Zakaria says. "Is this political objective in our strategic interest?" President Clinton "says it is strategic [for us to intervene] because it is in the heart of Europe," but "to say the fate of Kosovo is vital to our national interest seems to be a stretch," he continues.

Many human rights advocates maintain that the time is long overdue for the United States to adopt clear guidelines for humanitarian intervention. So far, President Clinton has actually remained fairly consistent, in that he has consistently drifted into one foreign policy crisis after another, rather than steering a clear course. The Clinton administration never took the time to present a strategic argument to justify the current need for humanitarian intervention, or outline how this intervention would achieve its goals. And those looking for a "Clinton Doctrine" will be disappointed. The administration has certainly never articulated a set of guidelines on when to intervene and when not to.

Genocide has not been a reason to intervene before. The Clinton administration has stood by while genocide occurred at least twice. In 1994, by Clinton's own belated admission last year, the administration watched by satellite as at least 500,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda's genocide. And in 1995, as he acknowledged last week, the United States and other NATO member states did nothing to stop the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica.

One place the Clinton administration did intervene to stop a mass tragedy was in Somalia, and that 1993 experience is one reason the president resists deploying ground troops anywhere. The Somalia intervention began under President Bush, who in 1992 ordered U.S. military forces to the clan-split African country, trying to provide order for a besieged relief effort. Bush even visited U.S. forces there near Christmas as one of his last official acts. But Clinton paid the price months later when Somalia clansmen killed 29 U.S. Marines and Army Special Forces "Green Berets." The tragic loss still limits the Clinton administration's options.

Surprisingly, Zakaria, the de facto dean of the contemporary realist school of thought about the use of U.S. power, says that Somalia should stand as a model for future intervention. "It was in and out," he says, with the modest objective of trying to help distribute food to starving people, rather than intervention in an internal crisis.

But even among Clinton's fractious critics, who disagree with each other about what to do next in Kosovo, there's consensus that the current policy is failing fast. Bombing alone is "too little, too late," says Bianca Jagger -- who has long advocated for intervention to stop Serbian aggression in the Balkans -- by telephone from London. Zakaria says the current policy is "futile." And Burkhalter worries that ground troops might be too late, as Milosevic "may have already accomplished his goal" of driving out most of the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo.

Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist who has also served as an investigative consultant for Human Rights Watch as well as Amnesty International, is a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff.

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