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In the Skies and in the Streets 

The war, and the anti-war protests, go badly

Wednesday, May 12 1999
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

It’s been a bad week for the war and a bad week for what passes for our peace movement.

In Belgrade, the military’s bombs demonstrated — as they demonstrated last year in the Sudan — that they are no smarter than the intelligence agents who identify their targets. The street address of an embassy is not exactly classified information. Is it too much to ask of the CIA that their agents purchase up-to-date Fodor’s guidebooks, or the latest Belgrade phone book?

In our campaign over Kosovo, meanwhile, NATO is facing a quandary. Over half a million Kosovar Albanians, driven from their homes but not from their homeland, are living in the hills and hollows. They are badly, and increasingly, in need of air drops of food and medicine. To date, however, NATO has refused to authorize any low-flying relief drops, for fear that the Serbs will shoot the planes down. Mass starvation and disease are bad things, our leaders aver — but not bad enough to justify putting American pilots at risk.

Most wars don’t present this kind of dilemma. The choice between saving your own troops and saving endangered civilians isn’t really a choice at all. Even in the Good War, World War II, we never undertook rescue missions for concentration-camp inmates. What we undertook was the destruction of the government and the army that had instituted the camps. Saving Private Ryan to the contrary, armies aren’t much on rescue missions.

The peculiar problem with Kosovo, however, is that the war’s stated rationale is explicitly humanitarian: We fight to restore Kosovo to its residents and to oppose the idea and reality of ethnic cleansing. A compelling case could be made — and some of the more courageous activists within Serbia’s democratic opposition have made it — that the war should be fought more along the lines of World War II, with the goal of removing the Milosevic regime and its fascistic institutions. But with the 19 NATO nations unlikely to unify around this goal, the operating and sole raison d’être for the war remains humanitarian. This, however, is substantially undermined unless we are willing to risk some American lives for those of half a million Kosovar Albanians.

Thus one more instance of the void at the center of the Clinton-Blair "Third Way": The war eschews both the "crude militarism" of a ground war against Serbia and the "simplistic humanitarianism" of a relief mission that puts our boys in harm’s way. Like other Third Way policies, it is defined almost entirely by what it is not. God knows what — morally and strategically — it actually is.

 

One of the most striking things about the war on the home front is that it has generated so little protest from American progressives. At this point in the Persian Gulf War, thousands of demonstrators had already taken to the streets. To date, however, Kosovo has generated fewer protesters than the U.S. raid into Panama to seize Manuel Noriega. Which leaves some on the left wondering, in the words of state Senator Tom Hayden in a recent op-ed article, "Where are the voices of protest?"

Kosovo pits the left’s historic antipathy to U.S. military interventions against its historic antipathy to state-sanctioned ethnic and religious discrimination, brutality and genocide. In my own informal survey of L.A. lefties, I’ve been continually surprised by the depth and the breadth of the ambivalence I keep encountering. A couple of weeks ago, I called a young left activist acquaintance — a full-time union organizer who lives with two other full-time union organizers, one of them the youngest member of the Communist Party I know — and asked him what they’d been saying to one another about the war. "We haven’t really talked about it much," he answered. That seemed a fairly remarkable response in itself, so I pressed him further. "In Iraq, the oil issue was clear to people on the left," he continued. "There’s no equivalently clear connection between the fight in Kosovo and the American drive to expand U.S.-style capitalism."

Within the past week, a local left-wing anti-war coalition has come together — but if its initial statement on the war is any indication, its prospects of activating the ambivalent progressive majority are roughly zilch. On May 5, a number of left-leaning groups — ranging from local chapters of the relatively mainstream Americans for Democratic Action and the National Lawyers Guild, to the more marginal Freedom Socialist Party and the International Action Center — announced the formation of the Los Angeles Peace Center Coalition Against the War in Yugoslavia. The coalition’s statement straightforwardly condemns the NATO bombing, but then quickly moves to seize the moral low ground. The statement makes no condemnation of the Milosevic regime, or of its policy toward the Kosovar Albanians. Indeed, the only specific act of ethnic cleansing referred to is Croatia’s campaign against the Serbs. As to the Albanians — well, the Albanians are as much nonpersons in this document as the Palestinians are nonpersons in the political manifestoes of Likudnik West Bank settlers. That is, they are not mentioned even once.

Instead, there are two references to "refugees" who seem to have been the victim of some lamentable process that happened without identifiable human agency other than NATO. "While as outraged and distressed by the plight of the refugees as anyone . . . " begins one sentence. The other reference is a bit longer: "It is clearly the U.S./ NATO bombing that has turned the refugee situation brought about by Yugoslavia’s civil war into the horrific humanitarian crisis it is today." Reading this, you would never think the Milosevic regime even had a role in what has befallen the Albanians.

Indeed, the only one of Yugoslavia’s ethnic groups singled out as a victim in this document is the Serbs. "We do not for a moment believe that ‘humanitarian concern’ is what drives the Clinton administration or its NATO allies," the statement continues. "Only a few years ago, the same forces that are now prepared to bomb Yugoslavia into ashes stood by silently while 500,000 Serbs were ‘ethnically cleansed’ from Croatia . . . " This is certainly true, though the number is inflated — but why is it the only cited example of NATO inaction? We also stood by while the Serbs shelled Dubrovnik and Sarajevo. Why are the Serbs the P.C. victim-of-the-month, to the exclusion of all others? And why don’t the policies of the Milosevic regime merit so much as a passing mention in the coalition’s assessment of the war? Is it only possible to condemn the NATO bombing by deliberately ignoring the most brutal campaign waged against a European people since the end of World War II?

Plainly, a lot of other organizations that have condemned the bombing think otherwise. California Peace Action begins its statement against the bombing by proclaiming, "While any sane person would find Slobodan Milosevic’s brutal campaign against ethnic Albanians unconscionable and support efforts to end it, most now see what President Clinton should have foreseen: that the NATO bombing campaign has only made the situation worse." The socialist organization Solidarity, in its journal Against the Current, is vehemently anti-NATO and vehemently anti-Milosevic.

But the stalwarts at the coalition are too busy reasoning backward to entertain such cavils: Since they oppose the NATO bombing, the target of that bombing — the regime as well as the people — must perforce be, if not quite commendable, then at least immune to censure. This is not, alas, the first time that local progressives have careened down this slippery slope. In her autobiography, longtime L.A. Communist leader Dorothy Healey recalls with rue how the party managed to estrange almost all its allies during the years of the Nazi-Soviet Pact (1939–41) by another such example of backward reasoning: "Just because the Soviet Union was forced by circumstances to sign a pact with Germany did not mean that we should have in any way downplayed our own opposition to the Nazi regime." Healey and her comrades at least had Stalinist discipline as their excuse. What’s the coalition’s?

Coalition spokesperson Jim Lafferty told me that the idea of condemning Milosevic came up in internal discussions, but proved to be a point of division. A more Pyrrhic display of unity is hard to conceive. Last Saturday — the day after our bombing of the Chinese Embassy — the 20-or-so organizations within the coalition staged an anti-war rally in Westwood. By my count, each organization turned out about a dozen protesters.

So a well-intentioned but miserably fought war in Kosovo is countered by a well-intentioned but miserably conceived anti-war movement in L.A. Fearful symmetry, indeed.

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