Response to Chomsky

I am afraid that simply because Noam Chomsky makes an ex cathedra observation does not make it “uncontroversial” — not even when he hyperbolically accuses me of having “blood on my hands.” He still defends his statement that “NATO air raids on Serbia [beginning March 24, 1999] actually precipitated the worst atrocities in Kosovo,” and is surprised that I find this untrue — let alone morally unpalatable.

One hesitates to teach logic, let alone linguistics, to the distinguished professor, but his use of the world “precipitate” shifts the blame for the massacres and mass deportations that he admits took place from the actual perpetrators to those who were trying to stop them. (Incidentally, at the time Bogdan Denitch and I called for intervention but also condemned the form of intervention that President Clinton chose — high-level bombing.)

One can certainly accuse the West of neglecting the plight of the Kosovars, but it was Milosevic and his regime that deprived the Kosovars of their rights and then began to kill and deport them. It was that regime that had recently killed up to 8,000 Bosnians at Srebrenica, whose dismembered and reburied bodies are still being found. There was no NATO bombing to blame for that rather shameful inaction.

In fact, faced with that cold-blooded massacre, NATO leaders had every reason to fear the worst in Kosovo.

I would recommend that Chomsky read the judgment of the UN war crimes tribunal, after it had considered the evidence of 113 witnesses for the prosecution and 118 for the defense, not to mention tens of thousands of pages of documents submitted by both sides. It found five Serb officials guilty of the “criminal enterprise” that he attributes to NATO. It concludes that “the direct testimony from many witnesses demonstrates that the Kosovo Albanian population was fleeing from the actions of the forces of the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] and Serbia, rather than the NATO bombing and the KLA.”

For a flourish that should excite some indignation, the report added that “there is no doubt that a clandestine operation consisting of exhuming over 700 bodies originally buried in Kosovo and transferring them to Serbia proper took place during the NATO bombing” and adds that the “great majority of the corpses moved were victims of crime and civilians, including women and children.”

In finding the Serbian officials guilty, the tribunal noted that “the NATO bombing provided an opportunity to the members of the joint criminal enterprise — an opportunity for which they had been waiting and for which they had prepared by moving additional forces to Kosovo and by the arming and disarming process described above — to deal a heavy blow to the KLA and to displace, both within and without Kosovo, enough Kosovo Albanians to change the ethnic balance. And now this could all be done with plausible deniability because it could be blamed not only upon the KLA, but upon NATO as well [italics mine].” The blame-shifting certainly seems to have worked with Chomsky, but the judges looked at the mass of evidence and decided to the contrary.

Chomsky betrays a persistent Manichaean worldview in which the United States is always the source of evil in the world. Even with that in mind he would surely like to reconsider his implied comparison of the United States with Nazis. (“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 United States is often, but not always wrong, and its enemies are sometimes, but not always right. The United States was certainly wrong in East Timor, and indeed in the near contemporary situation in Western Sahara, and I have been reporting on those injustices for many decades. Along with the other members of the Security Council the United States had a clear duty to intervene to assert international law. In the absence of effective international (i.e., U.S.) intervention, the Indonesian military would have been every bit as brutal and aggressive.

We could deplore this intervention as much as we like, but I fail to see what was going to stop Indonesia’s brutality otherwise. Indeed, Chomsky points out that it was Clinton’s intervention that persuaded the Indonesian general’s that the game was up in East Timor. Yes it was long overdue, but it was an American intervention, which deserves some grudging credit. Also, by delegating U.S. forces to the UN on the Macedonian border, the United States successfully prevented yet another former Yugoslav republic being sucked into Milosevic’s bloodstained mire. There are hundreds of thousands of dead Rwandans who would have welcomed a U.S. intervention there.

However, Chomsky takes an absolutist position on intervention in principle, which would have had him picketing the Normandy beaches to stop the war against German workers.

The United States is culpable in many ways over East Timor, but that should not detract from the primary role of the Indonesian government and military. Nor should any person of ethics try to shield the Milosevic regime from its unique culpability for events in Srebrenica and Kosovo. Chomsky’s quasi-theological conception of the United States as the supreme evil power tends to exonerate the less evil powers, turning Ariel Sharon, the Indonesian generals, Milosevic, and the others into mere secondary agents. Meanwhile, condemning in principle any effective action to stop these malign actors actually lends them aid and comfort — while doing nothing for their victims.

Senior Foreign Policy In Focus analyst Ian Williams is a journalist and author. Much of his work can be found on his blog, Deadline Pundit.