Preemptive Attacks and Humanitarian Wars

by Mark Hand

Dissident Voice

October 9, 2003
First Published in Press Action


Diana Johnstone's Fools' Crusade, a well-researched and lucidly written account of the role played by Europe and the United States in the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, serves as a perfect bridge to understanding the relationship between the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and the NATO war against Serbia in 1999.


Johnstone shows how NATO's reasons for interfering in Yugoslavia should not be viewed in isolation. "Whatever the declared motives, the war against Yugoslavia served as an exercise in the destruction of a country," Johnstone writes. "The pretext is flexible: harboring terrorists, building weapons of mass destruction, or 'humanitarian catastrophe' all can be used to justify bombing as part of an unfolding strategy of global control."


Harboring terrorists was the pretext used by the United States and its allies to bomb, invade and occupy Afghanistan in 2001. Building weapons of mass destruction was the pretext to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And ending a humanitarian catastrophe was why President Clinton and his friends in Europe bombed Yugoslavia.


Johnstone argues that should the tough unilateralist approach of George W. Bush's administration cause serious disaffection among U.S. allies, policymakers in Washington have the option of "returning to the soft approach of 'humanitarian war' that proved so successful in silencing critics and rallying support" for the attacks on Yugoslavia.


Even before the official launch of its invasion of Iraq in late March, U.S. officials framed the planned aggression not only as a preemptive measure to protect Americans from Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction but as a humanitarian gesture to the Iraqi people. We will invade your country, drop bombs on your cities and kill your children. And after your leaders have been ousted, we will force you to obey our rules, buy goods from our companies and grow dependent on our presence. We do all of this because we are humanitarians.


A huge chunk of the world's population recognizes Washington's invasion and occupation of Iraq as an ugly case of neo-imperialism -- or whatever term is preferred to describe the domineering policy -- that it really is. The war against Yugoslavia, on the other hand, produced very little negative reaction around the world because the political center-left in Europe and the United States that waged the military campaign succeeded in co-opting traditional antiwar constituencies, including groups that had opposed the Vietnam War and U.S. policy in Central America. "In most Western countries, only a few drastically weakened fragments of left-wing movements and isolated individuals still remembered that humanitarian intervention, far from being the harbinger of a brave new century, was the standard pretext for all the Western imperialist conquests of the past," Johnstone writes.


In Washington, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets this past January to tell the Bush administration not to invade Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out in late 1990 against the planned military action in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. But during NATO's bombing campaign of Serbia in 1999, protests in Washington against that military aggression managed to attract only a few thousand people, many of whom were Americans of Serbian or Russian descent or were affiliated with the Eastern Orthodox Church. There was little solidarity in the United States and Europe with the people in Serbia who had become targets of the NATO bombing campaign.


Johnstone takes a deeper look at the forces at play in Yugoslavia in the 1990s by highlighting the role that so-called non-governmental organizations played in getting the Europeans and the United States to side with groups that favored a splintered Yugoslavia. Like Michael Parenti does in his To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia, Johnstone zeroes in on the group Human Rights Watch. She argues that opinion in Europe and the United States was heavily influenced by the bias of human rights organizations with government connections. Amnesty International was genuinely "non-governmental" during the wars of secession in Yugoslavia. "However, Amnesty has been increasingly upstaged by Human Rights Watch, which can scarcely be described as 'non-governmental' given its close ties to the U.S. administration," Johnstone writes.


Johnstone takes a look at the influence of lobbyists in Washington pushing the agenda of the various ethnic groups in Yugoslavia. "In the past, ethnic lobbies were concerned with advancing the domestic condition of their constituents," she says. "As the United States has become more of an empire, the focus has shifted toward committing the American superpower to intervene on the side of exile groups with a political agenda to change things back home possibly gaining a share of influence and power for themselves."


Iraqi exiles also played a role in the U.S. decision to invade and occupy Iraq. Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress certainly were hoping to gain a toehold in Baghdad once the United States ousted Saddam. But while U.S. policymakers said their goals were aligned with these Iraqi exiles, Washington had its own agenda. These exile groups could be used both to provide legitimacy to the invasion and to shroud the Bush administration's desire to conquer Iraq in order to make the country friendlier to U.S. corporate interests.


In his book, Parenti makes sure the reader understands his aim is not to validate the rule of Slobodan Milosevic. "Again, it cannot be said too many times: to reject the demonized image of Milosevic and of the Serbian people is not to idealize either nor claim that Yugoslav forces have not committed crimes," Parenti writes. "It is merely to challenge the one-sided propaganda that laid the grounds for the imperialist dismemberment of Yugoslavia and NATO's far greater criminal onslaught."


Johnstone says the objective of Fools' Crusade is not to recount the whole story of the NATO wars against Yugoslavia but to put the story in perspective. "The inevitable selectivity may be reproached as evidence of a 'pro-Serb' bias," she says. "Inasmuch as the dominant mainstream bias has been blatantly anti-Serb, this is unavoidable in an effort to recover a fair balance."


The NATO war against Serbia in the 1990s was no more a humanitarian intervention than former NATO Supreme Commander Wesley Clark is an antiwar candidate for the 2004 presidency. Both claims are fabrications used to win the support of the political center-left.


As Johnstone shows, NATO actions in 1999 included the deliberate bombing of civilian targets, such as bridges far from Kosovo and petrochemical plants releasing huge amounts of dangerous chemicals into the environment, as well as the use of cluster bombs against a civilian population. While the war against Serbia and invasion of Iraq catered to different constituencies, the actions were similar in that they involved military aggression against sovereign nations that had not violated or even threatened the territories of the invading forces.


Mark Hand is editor of Press Action, where this article first appeared (www.pressaction.com). He can be reached at: mark@pressaction.com


Other Articles by Mark Hand


* The Empire Strikes Again

* The Cascading Power of a Myth

* The Struggle Against Going Mainstream

* Cockburn and the Workers World Party




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