The unanswered questions about the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the NATO air war against Yugoslavia seem to have raised little interest among the courtier media in the United States, although the London Observer has cited an unnamed intelligence officer to the effect that NATO targeted the building deliberately because it was detected transmitting Yugoslav military communications. That’s unfortunate but typical.
The original explanations several surfaced shared one signal characteristic. All of them were literally unbelievable. It’s not that one should doubt the capacity of the CIA to be incompetent or that tragic accidents don’t happen, especially in wartime. But the particular explanations offered at the time of the bombing simply lacked even rudimentary plausibility.
The CIA used an outdated map? Sorry, but an outdated map wouldn’t have shown the building, which was relatively new and had not previously been the site of the Yugoslav Directorate of Supply and Procurement, the purported target of the bomb.
Later stories told of a mid-level intelligence officer who persistently raised questions about targeting that particular building warnings supposedly noted in a classified internal CIA report that has not been made public but shown to some members of Congress. So these questions never got to senior levels before the bombing targets were set? How plausible is that?
TARGETING BY BRAILLE
A June 24 Washington Post story contains the following explanation:
"According to a high-ranking State Department official, an intelligence officer got the correct address of the Yugoslav arms procurement agency from the Internet but then used the numbering of buildings on parallel streets to mistakenly identify a spot on a map of Belgrade. He took that map to an expert in aerial photography who determined coordinates for the building. The bombs accurately hit those coordinates, which turned out to be the Chinese Embassy. A cross-check of various databases listing sensitive sites, such as schools, hospitals and embassies, failed to catch the error because the data had not been updated after the Chinese Embassy moved in 1996.”
At least half a dozen items in that explanation, from relying on the Internet (however valuable it is for various purposes) to using parallel streets to not updating databases since 1996 should have raised the antennae of any minimally skeptical reporter. But it was reported straight and sourced anonymously, of course.
(The same story quotes "Clinton administration officials” as promising to investigate and inform the Chinese of the results. "There will be some outcome as far as accountability,” said one official (again, anonymous). "There will be no sweeping under the rug.”) Sure.
TRUTH STILL NOT KNOWN
I have no solid way of knowing whether or not the Chinese Embassy was targeted deliberately although part of Mad Bomber Albright’s denial ("to use a fine diplomatic term, that’s balderdash.”) is potentially troubling. While insisting the bombing was "a tragic accident,” she went on to say that as to "what the Chinese were doing at that embassy, clearly there is information that they were carrying on intelligence activities,” as if this were unique among embassies. Is Madeleine leaving wiggle-room so that if the truth is deliberate bombing and it ever comes out, she has some shred of justification made in advance? I don’t know. But it’s a question worth pursuing.
Perhaps this is a minor episode in the context of a cruel and destructive war that was never justifiable. But bombing the embassy of a country many Americans believe is the next logical global competitor to U.S. "hegemony” (as the Chinese would say "indispensable nation”) is at least curious. The Observer’s story doesn’t answer all the possible questions and raises some of its own, like what the Chinese might have gained from helping the Milosevic regime in wartime. But the questions should be ferreted out. Too bad most of the media in a position to do so seem uninterested.
DEMOCRACIES DO FIGHT
Perhaps it was reading a hagiographic review of new collections of social philosopher John Rawls’ work in the Oct. 25 New Republic that got me going. The reviewer, Thomas Nagel, actually claimed that "hope for the future of humanity resides in the spread of liberal democratic societies, which have so far fulfilled Kant’s remarkable prediction that they will not go to war with one another, and have left behind the worst forms of domestic oppression.”
All right, Nagel qualified his comment by referring to "liberal democracies,” a loosely defined term. And some sloppy thinkers do equate democracy with some of the conditions that seem to be important to sustaining democracies, like the rule of law, respect for some rights and liberties and concern for the rights of minorities. But the mere act of holding democratic elections to choose one’s rulers implies, in and of itself, none of these niceties. And concern about the desires of a majority is often used as a pretext, perhaps especially in nominal democracies, for running roughshod and brutally over the rights of minorities.
But the fact is that the NATO nations, which choose their rulers by at least nominally democratic means, waged a war of aggression (illegal under the terms of treaties they had solemnly signed) on Yugoslavia, which while it might not be a "liberal democracy” in Nagel’s nonexistent definition, chose its rulers by at least nominally democratic means that were not judged more corrupt than average by international observers.
Democracies waged war on another democracy, (perhaps not a perfect democracy, but which of the NATO nations is?) putting the lie to one of the more sanctimonious myths of our time, that democracies don’t go to war with one another. The myth should have been exploded, but obviously it hasn’t been.
Maybe some people prefer to believe that this wasn’t a real war.
The persistence of the will to believe in the old "democracies don’t war with one another” myth underlines how the word democracy "in the incantatory sense,” as C.S. Lewis once put it, has come to replace sturdier concepts of the good society like limited government, confining government to the Declaration of Independence’s assigned role "to preserve these rights,” or governments of limited, designated powers with all other rights reserved for the people. As long as a government can be viewed in any sense as a "democracy” and the meaning of the word is kept suitably vague, it can venture forth on aggressive and bloody missions in the world, oppress its own people, kill citizens (as at Waco) and violate individual freedom at will, and most modern sages will view it with complacency.
A more useful ideal to those who value peace would be a "free society” rather than a "democracy.” But how long has it been since Americans casually invoked, often in an easily joking fashion, the old saw that "it’s a free country, isn’t it?”
When I was young the phrase came easily to most peoples’ lips, and even though it might not have been as true as some of us might like, Americans believed the country was and should be a place where individuals could do as they liked so long as they didn’t harm others. You seldom hear the phrase anymore. It’s probably because few Americans believe it anymore.