BOMBING THE BRIDGE TO THE 21ST CENTURY: Behind NATO’s Bombardment of Yugoslavia

by Mitchel Cohen

“If we have to use force, it is because we are America! We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”

– Madeleine Albright, Feb. 19, 1998

In 1990, everyone knew that the coming war in the Gulf had something to do with oil. And something to do with “defending our way of life,” as President George Bush put it. But by 1996, and ’97, ’98 and ’99, the U.S. was still bombing Iraq. First it was to prevent Iraq from manufacturing bacteriological weapons. Then it was to allow American monitors to take part in a UN inspection of alleged nuclear reactor facilities. And now it is about – what? Can anyone remember why the US continues to bomb Iraq?

Hundreds of thousands of children and others have died from illnesses such as leukemia and dysentery brought on by the US’s bombardment with radioactive “depleted uranium” weapons, and malnutrition brought on by the deadly imposition of “sanctions” which keeps much needed foreign goods, foods, medicines, and clean water out of the hands of the Iraqi people. The chant “No Blood for Oil,” which had mobilized hundreds of thousands of anti-war activists in the beginning of the decade, had become but a faint echo by decade’s end under the Clinton/Gore administration’s skillful management of George Bush’s policies.

Not that the Gulf War was ever solely about the guzzle of immediate oil profits enjoyed by Exxon, Shell, Conoco, Texaco and Mobil; in political terms, it was the means by which the oil man and former CIA head George Bush (and his oleogenous progeny) hammered the disparate and contradictory tendencies of the ruling class into line behind the policy of the New World Order.

The subsequent “humanitarian” military intervention in Somalia, the US military occupation of Haiti, the bombing of one of the only modern pharmaceutical plants on the African continent (in the Sudan), the ongoing bombardment of Iraq, and the bombardment of Yugoslavia have helped establish the extension of that policy throughout the globe. Under the guise of “Humanitarian” intervention in the 1990s (which came to full military application with the bombardment of Yugoslavia early in 1999), peasants have been forcibly removed from their villages and communal use of farmland – first in Haiti and now across Africa – and factory farming of genetically engineered cassava and other crops for export has been installed in their place. The New World Order – economically under the auspices of the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and US Agency for International Development, and militarily through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – is extending so-called “free market economics” eastward (often at the point of a bayonet) into the former socialist bloc. New NATO members include Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, who joined just a few weeks before NATO began its bombing of Yugoslavia on March 24th; Hungary immediately became an important participant in NATO’s logistical planning for the “war”. NATO has also offered entry into its Partnership for Peace program to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, nudging itself dangerously close to the borders of the Ukraine and Russia.

That, of course, is the plan. In the words of former UN vice-general secretary Eric Suy, with the bombing of Yugoslavia and the stationing of thousands of troops there, NATO has “beg[un] the encircling of Russia.”

“The only weak point in the whole [NATO] scenario is precisely Yugoslavia,” Suy wrote. “It is there that stands NATO’s interest in this war. The ultimate goal is situated one step further. For that, one should not lose sight of the huge oil reserves of the Caspian Sea. NATO wants to reinforce its ‘pied á terre’ in the region.”

Indeed, before the bombardment, there were no NATO troops in what remained of Yugoslavia. That area stood out like the hole of a bagel amidst the forces of the New World Order. And yet, almost all of Yugoslavia’s military apparatus had focused not on “the West”, but eastward towards the Soviet Union. All the camouflage, missiles, traps and tanks were geared towards countering a Soviet, not a US, invasion. Yugoslavia had built its military apparatus with the help of the US to be capable of repelling an invading Soviet force.

In fact, contrary to NATO’s war propaganda, for many years Yugoslavia’s elected president, Slobodan Milosevic, was not Russia’s “friend”, but the International Monetary Fund’s point man in the region, the one responsible for imposing IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs on his country. One writer even quotes Milosevic as having “urged Yugoslavs to overcome their ‘unfounded, irrational, and … primitive fear of exploitation’ by foreign capital.” (Leonard Cohen, “Broken Bonds: Yugoslavia’s Disintegration and Balkan Politics in Transition“, p. 56) It was only when massive public protests forced Milosevic to ease the rate of privatization of public utilities that he incurred the wrath of the international financiers led by the US, Germany and England.

How could the International Monetary Fund speed up the corporatization of Yugoslavia without strengthening the anti-IMF/World Trade Organization resistance there or, for that matter, the growing resistance in the European Union as well? Europe, after all, was being asked to shoulder a larger part of the military burden; to do that it would have to cut its impressive social welfare programs and impose a form of structural adjustment. Could the US government, in this way, stave off the EU from becoming a serious threat to US multinational corporate interests in the region?

These are questions that challenged US policy-makers throughout the late 1980s and 90s. A fascinating (and scary) overview of US strategy was outlined by former National Security Adviser to President Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski: “A wider Europe and an enlarged NATO will serve the short term and longer term interests of US policy,” Brzezinski explained. “A larger Europe will expand the range of American influence without simultaneously creating a Europe so politically integrated that it could challenge the United States on matters of geopolitical importance, particularly in the Middle East.” (“A Geostrategy for Asia,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 1997). In other words, work to unify Europe to serve as US trading partner and military policeman, but keep a number of conflagrations going to prevent the EU from getting too powerful and becoming a threat to e.g. Exxon’s oil interests.

A 1992 Pentagon policy document, “The Defense Planning Guide”, explains: “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival [i.e., Europe]. … We must … discourage [the industrial nations] from challenging our leadership. … It is of fundamental importance to preserve NATO as the primary instrument of Western defense and security as well as the channel for US influence and participation in European security affairs…. We must seek to prevent the emergence of European-only security arrangements that would undermine NATO. … [We must maintain] the sense that the world order is ultimately backed by the US. … The US should be postured to act independently when collective action [i.e., the UN] cannot be orchestrated.” (NY Times, March 8, 1992)

But how to do this without sacrificing public support, or at least acceptance? US President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and German Chancellor Shroeder – all Social Democrats – positioned NATO to pose as defender of Yugoslavia’s ethnic Albanian minority against Serbian repression. Words like “genocide,” “ethnic cleansing” and “holocaust” punctuated official pronouncements before the bombing. These were parrotted internationally by many erstwhile “progressive” non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and liberal leaders, who never bothered to check the facts, creating a climate of villification and hatred in the US and Britain towards the Serbian people as a whole. The campaign to demonize “the Serbs” – an entire people – allowed many to rationalize the bombardment and inured them to what was being done to all the people in the region under the guise of “long standing ethnic rivalries”.

The UN now estimates that, in the year leading up to the bombing, the so-called “genocide” in Kosovo consisted of a grand total of, at most, 2,000 people killed, on all sides. Where is the “genocide”? More people were killed by NATO in the bombings than had been killed by the Serb Army, Serb paramilitaries, KLA soldiers, Albanian paramilitaries and police actions in Kosovo in the entire preceding year, put together. This is not to say that atrocities were not committed, especially as warfare erupted internally between the Yugoslav authorities and the Kosovo Liberation Army – the “national liberation army” of a sector of the Albanian majority in Kosovo – and low-level repression of Albanian Kosovars exploded into a major tragedy after NATO began bombing Yugoslavia. But the assertion that these 2,000 deaths constituted “genocide” or “ethnically based” killing is simply false; the dead were mostly victims of armed skirmishes in a nasty civil war.

This climate of orchestrated hysteria enabled NATO to permanently station troops in a region that had kept them out. It was promoted by the Clinton-Blair-Shroeder axis, in order to rationalize the bombardment under a declaration of “humanitarian” warfare to stop “ethnic cleansing.” Forget that hundreds of thousands of ethnic Serbs had been brutally expelled from the Krajina region of Croatia in 1995 with US support and that, to this day, they remain displaced or in refugee camps inside Yugoslavia, victims of the largest and yet unheralded “ethnic cleansing” in the region since World War II. Forget that the primary “ethnic cleansing” in the region, after the forced displacement of Serbs from Krajina, was a US/British plan called Vance-Owens, which set up “safe havens” (“reservations”) for ethnicities. This was applauded by NATO allies as a good thing back in the mid-1990s. Forget that NATO-member Turkey drove more than one million Kurds from their villages, to say nothing of that country’s prior genocide of two million Armenians or its occupation and partition of Cyprus. Turkey, as a leading member of NATO, continues to enjoy the support of the US government and is one of the largest recipients of US weapons of mass destruction on the planet. Forget that almost all of the 250,000 non-Albanians returning to their homes in Kosovo – and many Albanians as well, who do not support the KLA – have now been driven out by KLA death-squads, and that more than 400 Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-KLA Moslems have been murdered outright, under the watchful eyes of NATO “peacekeepers.” And forget that German finance capital was instrumental in the break-up of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, which set the stage for what are now incorrectly portrayed as “eternal ethnic hatreds” and warfare.

Politically, the bombardment of Yugoslavia was, for Clinton, a high-stakes gamble. In this war the NATO alliance came within perhaps three to four weeks of breaking apart – too narrow a margin on which to hinge political support for the globalization of capital and the New World Order as main facets of US global strategy. This explains why President Clinton was desperate for a quick agreement. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright trumpeted this approach right from the start: “I don’t see this as a long-term operation. I think that this is … achievable within a relatively short period of time.” (Madeleine Albright, March 24). Compare that to her comments three weeks later, as the lengthening bombardment threatened to spin altogether out of control: “We never expected this to be over quickly. The President himself has said, ‘This is not a 30-second commercial.’ We are in there for a long time” (Madeleine Albright, April 19, 1999). Regardless of “spin” (that is, “lies”), after 79 days of bombing, the US government, led by Clinton, Gore, Albright, Cohen and Berger, was forced to settle for less – at least on paper – than it had called for under the ultimatum issued at Rambouillet.

As stipulated in a relatively unknown clause of the now infamous Rambouillet Ultimatum which the US State Department attempted to impose on the people of Yugoslavia prior to the commencement of bombing, “the economy of Kosovo shall [henceforth] function in accordance with free market principles” (Article I, Chapter 4a). One might rightly ask what such an economic construct is doing in a political document pertaining to ending internecine hostilities. President Clinton went even further on the subject in a little known but telling statement made the day before he ordered NATO to begin bombing Yugoslavia: “If we are going to have a strong economic relationship that includes our ability to sell around the world, Europe has got to be a key. … That’s what this Kosovo thing is all about.” (The Nation, Apr. 19, 1999)

That, of course, was also the understanding promoted by former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, whose military plane crashed (some say it was shot down) over Yugoslavia four years ago. Aboard that publicly funded plane were dozens of millionaire corporate executives, military personnel and defense contractors whose companies had contributed generously to the Clinton/Gore campaign, and who were now looking to recoup their “investments” by exploiting the break up of Yugoslavia and its vast natural resources and cheap skilled labor, for their own private corporate gain and expansion of their markets.

Just as oil corporations’ profits went through the roof during and after the Gulf War in 1991, during NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia weapons manufacturers’ stock prices increased dramatically as well. From March 24 to May 24, 1999, Rockwell International (manufacturer of the B-1 bomber): +48%; Boeing Aircraft (manufacturer of the B-52 Stratofortress, KC-135 Stratotanker): +30%; Raytheon Systems (manufacturer of the Tomahawk cruise missile, AGM-88 HARM Missile, Patriot anti-missile): +37%; Lockheed Martin (manufacturer of the F-117A Nighthawk, F-16 Falcon): +18%; Northrop Grumman (manufacturer of the B-2 bomber, EA-6B Prowler): +16%. [Sources: U.S. Department of Defense, May 24, 1999. New York Stock Exchange, May 24, 1999.]

At stake, at the time of Brown’s death, were $5.1 billion in reconstruction funds (that figure has now quadrupled), with the World Bank scheduled to raise $1.8 billion in 1996 alone. Brown’s journey was emblematic of U.S. strategy in the Balkans, namely, as Counterpunch (April, 1996) put it, “to bring the region firmly into the American sphere of military and commercial interest. His was the tour to cash in the investment and bring home the trophies.”

And so, the armed might of the U.S., Germany, and England destroyed Yugoslavia’s supply of drinking water, water pumping stations, purification plants and power plants, electrical grids, television and radio antennas, refineries and energy producing facilities, foreign embassies, bridges, roads, factories, airports, and cultural and religious monuments, decimating the civilian infrastructure as well as devastating the environment. Weapons containing depleted uranium smashed into the soil and bombarded people’s homes, spreading radiation and mayhem. As has occurred in Iraq, Albanian and other Kosovar refugees returning to their homes can expect cancer rates, particularly in children, to skyrocket in the region over the next few years, and the work of women, especially – as women are typically care-givers in patriarchal society, especially to children and in the home – will be made much harder, pressuring against breaking free of gender-defined roles and enabling capital to extract even greater amounts of value from their unpaid labor in the home.

The US/NATO bombed Yugoslavia’s petrochemical plants, chemical fertilizer factories, oil refineries, fuel storage tanks and power plants. Deadly chemicals spilled out of them and into the rivers and soil. Clouds of toxic chemicals swept the countryside and cities, poisoning the agriculture and ecosystems not only in Yugoslavia but in the surrounding countries. Thousands of unexploded cluster bombs (which act as landmines) now dot the entire region, and periodically explode, taking off a human limb here, an eye there, and down the road an entire body.

Indeed, the danger from mines and unexploded bombs in Kosovo is far greater than previously thought, and casualties have soared by the hundreds every day. In an article in the New York Times (“Mines and Unexploded Bombs Wreak Death and Mayhem in Kosovo,” Aug. 6, 1999), Carlotta Gall writes from Pristina that “by far the most dangerous are the volatile British – and U.S. – made cluster bombs, which have been found in almost every part of the province and have already caused some terrible accidents.”

With winter coming on in Yugoslavia, there is no fuel for heat. US officials have publicly stated that they hope to use the cold and hunger to break the resistance of the Yugoslavian people and force them to accept the privatization of all public projects and utilities called for at Rambouillet. But in October this strategy was thwarted, as the first of massive shipments of heating oil arrived from China, breaking the US embargo.

To make sense of all of this we must, as always, start by putting the politics of corporate America, and particulary big oil, back on the agenda. “No Blood For Oil” rings as true for Yugoslavia as it did for Iraq, and critics of US policy would do well to “follow the oil”. As always, the politics of oil is the key to understanding US policy, or at least the starting point.

No Blood for Oil?

When we are talking about oil, we are also talking not only about billions of dollars in profits but about the environment. Again, this is as true in understanding the rationale underlying US policy in Europe and the bombardment of Yugoslavia as it was for the massive and ongoing destruction heaped upon Iraq. That rationality, as embodied in the strategic paradigm we now call the New World Order, is also the means by which one sector of the ruling class has been able to regain control of the executive branch of the US state itself – the state being terrain contested by different capitalist sectors with sometimes opposing interests. It is a rationality based on competition between regional capitalists, the need for capitalism globally to reconfigure the oil-producing working class, the imposition of structural adjustment programs dictated by the IMF and World Bank, and the strengthening of NATO which, in turn, allows the US to dictate terms to the areas of the world deemed in the ruling class’s “national interest” – that is, unfettered access to the world’s resources.

The competition between geographic regions for resources, investments, cheap labor and strategic positioning complicates what has typically been portrayed simply as an oil grab, an effort to pirate the world’s resources. Although the fight for access to the world’s natural resources plays a critical role in shaping US foreign policy, that does not mean that there is a direct cause and effect relation.

Last Fall, US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson told Stephen Kinzer of the New York Times, “We’re trying to move these newly independent [former Soviet] countries toward the West. We would like to see them reliant on Western commercial and political interests rather than going another way. We’ve made a substantial political investment in the Caspian and it’s very important to us that both the pipeline map and the politics come out right.”

Political power grows out of the barrel of oil. And in “the Caspian region [there] is one of the largest remaining potential resources of undeveloped oil and gas in the world,” according to one Exxon executive. He added that the area might be producing as much as 6 million barrels of oil per day by 2020. Exxon expects the oil industry to invest $300-$500 billion in the interim to exploit the reserves. The US Department of Energy estimates that 163 billion barrels of oil and up to 337 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are to be found. If the estimates are borne out, the region will become a petroleum producer comparable in scope to Iran or Iraq.

Western analysts also expect the Caspian region to become a major world gold producer. Kazakhstan, with 10,000 tons, has the second largest reserves in the world. Mining companies from the US, Japan, Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Israel are already operating in the region.

But the US no longer goes to war to be able to immediately extract resources from the mine in Kosovo, any more than it spent two decades murdering Vietnamese to own the tin and tungsten there, or even the cheap labor now so pervasive in manufacturing Nike shoes. Even though the northern Kosovo mine at Trepka is worth many billions of dollars, and the oil in the Caspian Sea is worth 100 times more than that, sometimes it is more profitable in the short term for the system as a whole (though not for an individual corporation) to leave the resources in the ground – provided you can dictate access to them (which the US can usually do through its credit agencies of finance capital, backed by military might) and prevent competitors from developing the same resource – thus protecting or enhancing the value and control over what has already been extracted, manufactured or refined, as well as the labor that goes into it. This enables the US ruling class, through its control of the global financial apparatus along with its control of the State, to be in a position to control the world price of all natural resources, of all oil, of world labor, even that which it does not own – and deny that possibility to competitors, in this case Russia, China and Japan (and, to an extent, Germany and the European Union). That this requires state-funded troops in and around pipelines, mines and oil rigs to defend private corporate interests, with the authority to respond immediately, gives the appearance of a simple lust for immediate extraction of resources; but that linear cause and effect relation is inaccurate. Enter NATO.

NATO’s real mission is not difficult to discern: impose global capitalist policy on the local level – privatization, structural adjustment, sweatshops, and the prevention of real working class organizing, environmental regulations, and unionization – in other words, impose the neoliberal agenda. The UN troops now stationed in Kosovo and throughout the former Yugoslavia are there to complete the work that Milosevic only partly accomplished – suppression of domestic upsurges and working class struggles – just as they had done in Haiti and Somalia.

Nor is the Wall Street Journal shy about the rationale for such efforts, either: “We’d rather see the money go to buy bombs that might save lives than be used to expand the welfare state.” (May 17, 1999) Of course bombs take lives, they do not save them. Still, to the cheers of its Wall Street denizens, US payments for this military operation were, for the first time, taken by President Clinton and Vice President Gore directly from supposedly sacrosanct Social Security trust funds.

Access to pipelines and world markets; the ability to set the global price not only to make billions in profits but to achieve geopolitical objectives that dovetail – but are not necessarily congruent with – the immediate economic interests of individual countries or corporations (even those as big as, say, Exxon); the exploitation of the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, coraling them one by one into the rubric of the US empire; the use of the World Trade Organization, IMF, World Bank, USAID and the entire apparatus of global finance and trade to impose “structural adjustment” on the world favorable to US capital’s strategic and long-term economic interests – all of these, and more, are wrapped up in the expansion of NATO, the bombing of Yugoslavia, and the justifications offered for the new “humanitarian” warfare that sees human beings and the environment as equally expendable.



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