The prize-winner in the contest for the greatest blunder of 1998 was a Latin American patriotic terrorist who sent a letter-bomb to a us consulate in order to protest against the Americans interfering in local politics. As a conscientious citizen, he wrote on the envelope his return address; however, he did not put enough stamps on it, so that the post office returned the letter to him. Forgetting what he put in it, he opened it and blew himself up—a perfect example of how, ultimately, a letter always arrives at its destination. And is something quite similar not happening to the Slobodan Milosevic régime with the recent nato bombing? For years, Milosevic was sending letter-bombs to his neighbours, from the Albanians to Croatia and Bosnia, keeping himself out of the conflict while igniting fire all around Serbia—finally, his last letter returned to him. Let us hope that the result of the nato intervention will be that Milosevic will be proclaimed the political blunderer of the year.
And there is a kind of poetic justice in the fact that the West finally intervened apropos of Kosovo—let us not forget that it was there that it all began with the ascension to power of Milosevic: this ascension was legitimized by the promise to amend the underprivileged situation of Serbia within the Yugoslav federation, especially with regard to the Albanian ‘separatism’. Albanians were Milosevic’s first target; afterwards, he shifted his wrath to other Yugoslav republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia) until, finally, the focus of the conflict returned to Kosovo—as in a closed loop of Destiny, the arrow returned to the one who fired it, by way of setting free the spectre of ethnic passions. This is the key point worth remembering: Yugoslavia did not start to disintegrate when the Slovene ‘secession’ triggered the domino effect—first Croatia, then Bosnia, Macedonia . . . —for it was already at the moment of Milosevic’s constitutional reforms in 1987, depriving Kosovo and Vojvodina of their limited autonomy, that the fragile balance on which Yugoslavia rested was irretrievably disturbed. From that moment onwards, Yugoslavia continued to live only because it did not yet notice it was already dead—it was like the proverbial cat in
It is thus easy to praise the nato bombing of Yugoslavia as the first case of an intervention, not into the confused situation of a civil war, but in a country with full sovereignty. Is it not comforting to see the nato forces intervene not for any specific economico-strategic interests, but simply because a country is cruelly violating the elementary human rights of an ethnic group? Is this not the only hope in our global era—to see some internationally acknowledged force as a guarantee that all countries will respect a certain minimum of ethical (and, hopefully, also health, social, ecological) standards? However, the situation is more complex, and this complexity is indicated already in the way nato justifies its intervention: the violation of human rights is always accompanied by the vague, but ominous reference to ‘strategic interests’. The story of nato as the enforcer of the respect for human rights is thus only one of the two coherent stories that can be told about the recent bombings of Yugoslavia, and the problem is that each story has its own rationale. The second story concerns the flip-side of the much-praised new global ethical politics in which one is allowed to violate state sovereignty on behalf of the violation of human rights. The first glimpse into this flip-side is provided by the way the Western media selectively elevate some local ‘warlord’ or dictator into the embodiment of Evil: Saddam Hussein, Milosevic, up to the unfortunate (now forgotten) Aidid in Somalia—at every point, it is or was ‘the community of civilized nations against . . .’. And on what criteria does this selection rely? Why Albanians in Serbia and not also Palestinians in Israel, Kurds in Turkey, and so on? Here, of course, we enter the shady world of international capital and its strategic interests.
According to Project CENSORED, the top censored story of 1998 was that of a half-secret international working agreement, called the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (mai). The primary goal of mai will be to protect the foreign interests of multinational companies. The agreement will basically undermine the sovereignty of nations by assigning power to corporations almost equal to those of the countries in which these corporations are located. Governments will no longer be able to treat their domestic firms more favourably than foreign firms. Furthermore, countries that do not relax their environmental, land-use and health and labour standards to meet the demands of foreign firms may be accused of acting illegally.
This other story also has its ominous military side. The ultimate lesson of the last American military interventions, from Operation Desert Fox against Iraq at the end of 1998 to the present bombing of Yugoslavia, is that they signal a new era in military history—battles in which the attacking force operates under the constraint that it can sustain no casualties. When the first Stealth fighter crashed in Serbia, the emphasis of the American media was that there were no casualties—the pilot was saved! The counterpoint to it was the almost surreal way cnn reported on the war: not only was it presented as a tv event, but the Iraqis themselves seemed to treat it this way—during the day, Baghdad was a ‘normal’ city, with people going around and conducting their business, as if war and bombing was an unreal nightmarish spectre that occurred only during the night and did not take place in effective reality.
Let us recall what went on in the final American assault on the Iraqi lines during the Gulf War: no photos, no reports, just rumours that tanks with bulldozer-like shields in front of them rolled over Iraqi trenches, simply burying thousands of troops in earth and sand. What went on was allegedly considered too cruel in its sheer mechanical efficiency, too different from the standard notion of a heroic face-to-face combat, that images would perturb public opinion and a total censorship black-out was strictly imposed. Here we have the two aspects joined together: the new notion of war as a purely technological event, taking place behind radar and computer screens, with no casualties, and the extreme physical cruelty too unbearable for the gaze of the media—not the crippled children and raped
How, then, are we to think these two stories together, without sacrificing the truth of each of them? What we have here is a political example of the famous Gestalt drawing in which we recognize the contours either of a rabbit’s head or of a goose’s head, depending on our mental focus. If we look at the situation in a certain way, we see the international community enforcing minimal human rights standards on a nationalist neo-Communist leader engaged in ethnic cleansing, ready to ruin his own nation just to retain power. If we shift the focus, we see nato, the armed hand of the new capitalist global order, defending the strategic interests of capital in the guise of a disgusting travesty, posing as a disinterested enforcer of human rights, attacking a sovereign country which, in spite of the problematic nature of its régime, nonetheless acts as an obstacle to the unbridled assertion of the New World Order.