The Guardian, Sunday April 11, 1999
It's time the world stood up to the American bully
Edward Said is sick of seeing the arrogant US use morality to justify
its greed for power
Once again, led by the United States, a war is being conducted – this
time in Europe – against an unprincipled racist dictator who will almost
certainly survive the onslaught, though thousands of innocents will pay
the actual price. The pretext this time is the persecution, ethnic
cleansing and continued oppression of Albanians in the province of
Kosovo by the Serbian forces of Slobodan Milosevic.
No one at all doubts that horrible things have been done to the
Albanians under Serbian domination, but the question is whether US/Nato
policy will alleviate things or whether they will be made worse by a
bombing campaign whose supposed goal is to make Milosevic give up his
Since, as in most cases, the bombing campaign is not all that it seems
to be, it is worth a look behind the headlines, especially given the new
ferocity and willingness to intervene militarily on the part of US
foreign policy decision makers (Clinton, Cohen, Albright, Berger).
One needs to remember that, since the US is a world power, one
calculation that enters its foreign policy decisions is how deployment
of its military might will affect America's image in the eyes of other
countries. Henry Kissinger made that a central concern of his
Indochinese policy when he undertook the secret bombing of Laos: your
enemies will learn you are prepared to do anything, to the point of
appearing totally irrational.
The exercise of massive destruction disproportionate to the goal, say,
of stopping an enemy advancing, is a principal aim of this policy.
Punishment is its own goal, bombing to display Nato authority its own
satisfaction, especially when there is little chance of retaliation.
That is one consideration behind the current campaign. Another is the
misguided and hopeless goal of humbling, or destroying Milosevic's
regime. This, as in Iraq, is illusory. No nation attacked from the air
will rally to the attackers. If anything, Milosevic's regime is
strengthened. All Serbs feel their country is attacked unjustly, and the
cowardly war from the air has made them feel persecuted. Besides, not
even the Kosovo Albanians believe the air campaign is about independence
for Kosovo or saving Albanian lives: that is a total illusion.
What transpired before the bombing was that the US seems to have
persuaded the Kosovars that, if they went along with the 'peace plan',
Kosovo would get independence; this was never said, but only implied,
leading the Kosovars to expect Nato help. But the US has never stated
unequivocally that it is for full self-determination for all the peoples
of former Yugoslavia.
There should have been a clearly stated willingness to accept
self-determination for Kosovo as well as a safeguarding of rights for
the Serbian minority there. None of this was done. And neither were the
consequences thought through: that Serb forces would respond to Nato
bombardment by intensifying their attacks against Albanian civilians;
more ethnic cleansing; more refugees; more trouble for the future.
There is now talk of 200,000 ground troops – mostly American – entering
the battle and expanding the war, with attendant problems of prolonged
occupation, guerrilla warfare, greater devastation, more refugees, and
so on. A lot of this comes from the delusion that the US is the world's
In the meantime, its policy against Iraq continues, as does its
sanctions policy against other Islamic or Arab countries. Nothing of
what the US or Nato does now has anything to do with protecting the
Kosovars or bringing them independence: it is rather a display of
military might whose long-range effect is as disastrous as a similar
policy in the Middle East. In 1994, when a US intervention might have
averted genocide in Rwanda, there was no action. The stakes were not
high enough, and black people not worth the effort.
Therefore, it seems to me imperative that the Nato bombing should stop,
and a multi-party conference of all the peoples of former Yugoslavia be
called to settle differences between them on the basis of
self-determination for all, not just for some at the expense of others.
This is the same principle violated by US-sponsored peace processes
elsewhere, notably in the Middle East.
There is nothing about the current policy of bombing Serbian forces that
will either guarantee democracy for Serbia or protect Albanians still
being treated horrifically by Milosevic's forces. In its arrogance, the
US has forced Nato to go along with it, whereas it is quite clear that
there is increasing disunity within Nato ranks, not just Greece and
Italy and Turkey, but also France and Germany.
The greatest danger is that more people will be displaced, more lives
lost, and more fragmentation occur in places like Macedonia and
Bosnia-Herzegovina. All this for the US to assert its will and show the
world who is boss. Its ostensible humanitarian concerns are hypocrisy
since what really counts is the expression of US power.
What I find most distressing is that destruction is being wrought from
the air with a fastidiousness about loss of American life that is
positively revolting. Clinton knows that Americans will not tolerate
Americans dying. Yet he can destroy Yugoslav lives with modern airpower
technology, sanitising horror with the illusion of safety and distance.
When will smaller, lesser, weaker people realise America is to be
resisted at all costs, not naively pandered to?
• Edward Said is a professor at Columbia University