Kosovo, East Timor, R2P, and Ian Williams

In a discussion of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in Foreign Policy In Focus, Ian Williams vehemently denies my uncontroversial observation, well-known to everyone familiar with the Kosovo events, that “NATO air raids on Serbia [beginning March 24 1999] actually precipitated the worst atrocities in Kosovo.” He declares that this familiar observation “isn’t only untrue but morally unpalatable in its spurious causality, like claiming that the British air raids on Germany precipitated the Nazi gas chambers.”

Williams doesn’t explain what he regards as untrue and morally offensive, so let us review carefully what he should certainly know well, and ask what might support his charges.

There is massive evidence about Kosovo in impeccable Western sources, never questioned. That includes two compilations of documents by the State Department, detailed reports of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe Kosovo Verification Mission monitors, a British parliamentary inquiry, reports of NATO, the UN, and more. As I wrote in the paper on R2P to which Williams refers, the results are unequivocal: The worst atrocities began as the bombing started (to be precise, there was a slight increase a few days earlier when the monitors were withdrawn, over Serbian objections, in preparation for the bombings). On March 27, NATO Commander General Wesley Clark informed the press that the vicious Serbian reaction was “entirely predictable.” He added shortly after that the sharp escalation of atrocities had been “fully anticipated” and was “not in any way” a concern of the political leadership.

Clark clarified the matter further in his memoirs. He reports that on March 6, 1999, he had informed Secretary of State Madeline Albright that if NATO proceeded to bomb Serbia, “almost certainly [the Serbs] will attack the civilian population,” and NATO will be able to do nothing to prevent that reaction. Correspondingly, the Milosevic indictment kept to crimes after the bombing, with a single exception, which we know could not have offended the consciences of the United States, the United Kingdom, and their supporters, as discussed in my R2P paper.

We may ask, then, what is untrue and morally offensive in my repeating uncontroversial facts that Williams doesn’t happen to like. Was it untrue and morally offensive, for example, for General Clark to inform the White House and the press that the bombing would precipitate the worst atrocities — correctly, as it quickly turned out?

Considerably more remarkable even than these apologetics for NATO is what Williams says about the crimes in East Timor at the same time. These crimes were far worse than anything reported in Kosovo prior to the NATO bombing, and had a background far more grotesque than anything claimed in the Balkans. He writes that “Chomsky quite rightly raised the question of why there was no intervention in East Timor.” It would have been outlandish to raise that question, and I did not do so. Since Williams favors Holocaust analogies, it would be like raising the question of why Nazis didn’t intervene to stop the slaughter of Jews by local forces in the regions they occupied.

The question doesn’t arise, and for a simple reason: The United States and United Kingdom had been intervening for decades, providing decisive support for atrocities committed against Kosovars, and continued to do so right through the escalation of crimes in 1999, even after the vast destruction in early September. There was no secret about the reasons. In my R2P paper I quoted National Security Council advisor Sandy Berger who, after the September atrocities, dismissed the matter by saying “I don’t think anybody ever articulated a doctrine which said that we ought to intervene wherever there’s a humanitarian problem” — in this case, a “problem” we are directly expediting. Britain and Australia reacted the same way. As discussed further in the same paper, there would have been no need for any form of intervention: it would have been enough for the United States, United Kingdom, and their allies to have withdrawn their decisive participation in Indonesia’s crimes. That was demonstrated a few days after Berger’s dismissal of the “problem” when, under strong domestic and international pressure, Clinton finally informed the Indonesian generals that the game was over and they instantly withdrew, allowing a UN peacekeeping force to enter unopposed — a step that could have been taken at any time during the 25-year horror story.

It is understandable that Williams doesn’t like to look at the blood on his hands, but it cannot be so simply washed or wished away.

If Williams really is uninformed about the topics he is addressing, he can find easily accessible sources that review them in some detail, including my book A New Generation Draws the Line (Verso, 2000) and a great deal more since.

On R2P, I have nothing to add beyond what is in the R2P paper. As pointed out there, the version of R2P adopted by the 2005 UN summit affirms what had already been accepted, at most with a shift of emphasis, which is why it was so easily adopted. There is, however, a radically different version of R2P, presented by the 2001 Evans Commission, which adds a provision allowing “regional” organizations to act without Security Council authorization in their “area of jurisdiction.” That provision is sharply distinct from the African Union (AU) exception, which permits AU intervention within the AU. In practice, the Evans extension refers solely to NATO, which claims an extremely broad “area of jurisdiction.” The Evans version of R2P simply reinstates “the so-called ‘right’ of humanitarian intervention,” which has always been vigorously opposed by the non-aligned countries, the traditional victims.

Much of the discussion underway evades or obscures this crucial distinction, as well as the fact, which I also discussed, that the great powers right now are adopting Berger’s principle, refusing to exercise the responsibility they like to orate about, as could be done in some cases in quite straightforward ways. I also discussed the AU exception, and why it differs so radically from the OAS Charter. Judging by the irrelevant question on non-intervention he raises, Williams did not hear or read that section of my talk. I cannot, of course, take responsibility for his baseless beliefs about my views on this and other matters.

Noam Chomsky is a noted linguist, author, foreign policy expert, and contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus
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