Across the political spectrum, US leaders insist that they will only go to war “as a last resort.” They want us to believe that they will try every peaceful means to resolve differences with other countries before resorting to war. But if those “peaceful means” mean only ultimatums that are unacceptable to the target country, then US leaders are simply going through a diplomatic charade before going to war.
In such a case, “war as a last resort” refers only to the means of achieving a goal, not to the rights or wrongs of the goal itself. If the underlying purpose is to impose the will of the US government on another country or society, then “war as a last resort” amounts to an illegal threat of war to compel a country to submit to US demands, not a commitment to peace or to the rule of law.
As I wrote last February, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton uses the term “diplomacy” to mean precisely this kind of brinksmanship, which creates a pretext for war if the other side won’t back down and is quite different from diplomacy to resolve international disputes peacefully, as required by the United Nations Charter and customary international law.
When Clinton told a televised “national security” forum that she “view(s) force as a last resort, not a first choice,” she was echoing what she and Sen. Bernie Sanders both said in Democratic Party debates. But in Clinton’s case, using the phrase “last resort” in this way is a clever way to reassure her listeners without actually modifying her hawkish and coercive approach to international relations. By contrast, Sanders was on firmer ground since he voted against two wars on Iraq (in 1990 and 2002), but did vote for war on Yugoslavia in 1999, a vote he still defends.
In negotiations at Rambouillet, France, in 1999, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave Yugoslavia only a devil’s choice between agreeing to a NATO military occupation (of all its remaining territory, not just Kosovo) and a NATO assault. When President Slobodan Milosevic refused these impossible terms, the West blamed him for triggering a U.S.-led war that was neither a war of self-defense nor a U.N.-backed collective security operation. In other words, it was a war of aggression by the US and NATO against a largely defenseless nation.
But Milosevic had been so thoroughly demonized that few Americans seriously considered Yugoslavia’s position. Today, even fewer Americans know that the man our leaders tagged as a “new Hitler” and the “Butcher of the Balkans” was eventually exonerated by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), ten years after he died of a heart attack in a prison cell at The Hague.
Few also remember that the 1,380-member-strong Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was withdrawn six days before NATO began its aerial bombardment.
Pascal Neuffer, a Swiss member of the KVM, said, “The situation on the ground on the eve of the bombing did not justify a military intervention. We could certainly have continued our work. And the explanations given in the press, saying the mission was compromised by Serb threats, did not correspond to what I saw. Let’s say rather that we were evacuated because NATO had decided to bomb.”
The political stage was set for NATO’s assault on Yugoslavia by a battle in a village called Racak two months earlier. Yugoslav forces attacked CIA-backed Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighters who had terrorized the area and ambushed police patrols. The head of the KVM, former US Ambassador to El Salvador William Walker, arrived in Racak the next day and misreported the battle to uncritical Western media as a massacre of civilians by Serb forces.
But autopsies conducted by Yugoslav, Belarusian and Finnish medical examiners contradicted Walker’s account. The dead did not appear to be victims of summary execution. They died from a variety of gunshot wounds, as in any firefight; only one of 40 corpses examined was shot at close range; and there were only one woman and one teenage boy among the otherwise adult male bodies.
While the Western media largely parroted Walker’s false account, and the confirmation of the autopsy results by the Finnish medical examiners was only partially made public in a journal article two years later, two French reporters in Kosovo immediately challenged Walker’s narrative based on Associated Press video footage of the battle and other anomalies.
Questioning a Massacre
Christophe Chatelet’s article in Le Monde was headlined, “Were the dead in Racak really massacred in cold blood?” Describing how the KLA who reoccupied the village the evening after the battle appeared to have staged the scene to look like the result of a massacre, Le Figaro’s veteran Yugoslavia correspondent Renaud Girard presciently concluded his story on Racak with a rhetorical question, “did the KLA seek to transform a military defeat into a political victory?”
Racak was the “atrocity” needed by President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Albright to rally the media, the public and otherwise progressive Members of Congress like Bernie Sanders to support a war of aggression. The US and its allies then dropped 23,000 bombs and missiles on civilian as well as military targets across Yugoslavia, killing thousands of civilians and striking hospitals, schools, power stations, private homes, a TV station and the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.
Kosovo was annexed as a NATO protectorate, and Hashim Thaci, the KLA leader and organized crime figure whom Albright had chosen over Kosovo’s political leaders to head its delegation at Rambouillet, is now the president of a new nation that has struggled for stability and international recognition.
But Thaci’s days in the sun may be numbered – Le Figaro reported in March that an international court is preparing new charges against him. One shocking charge, already well documented by former ICTY prosecutor Carla Del Ponte and an investigation by the Council of Europe, is that Thaci was the head of a criminal gang that exploited the chaos of Kosovo under NATO bombing to murder up to 500 Serbian and Roma prisoners so that they could harvest their internal organs to sell on the international transplant market.
But the Kosovo Model has served Western warmongers well. The exaggeration or fabrication of atrocities by US enemies and the blind eye turned to atrocities by US allies are now standard fare whenever our leaders promote some new military intervention, and the subservient Western mainstream media remains reliable allies in these deceptions. If a foreign leader has been sufficiently demonized by Western propaganda, even baseless predictions of unlikely atrocities can serve as a casus belli, as was the case in Libya in 2011.
The U.K. parliament’s foreign affairs committee recently concluded an inquiry into the Western destruction of Libya. One of its key findings was that the British government “failed to identify that the threat to civilians was overstated,” because it “selectively took elements of Gaddafi’s rhetoric at face value.”
Of course, it was Western governments themselves who “overstated” the threat to civilians in Benghazi from Libyan government forces. The cherry-picking of Colonel Gaddafi’s statements ignored his offer of amnesty to rebels who laid down their arms. There were also no massacres in other towns recaptured by Libyan government forces.
The committee also concluded that the emergence of “militant extremist groups” among the NATO-backed rebels was entirely predictable; and that the UK“drifted into an opportunistic policy of regime change” that “was not underpinned by a strategy to support and shape post-Gaddafi Libya.”
Yet, just last April in a Democratic presidential debate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was still repeating the same propaganda line, justifying the U.S.-supported “regime change” on the grounds that Gaddafi was a “genocidal” dictator.
If only the world had been presented with an honest account of our country’s international crimes against Yugoslavia in 1999, the worldwide civil society resistance to Western aggression against Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya would have been strengthened by broader awareness of the dangers of US militarism and the deceptive role of Western propaganda in setting the stage for war.
We’ll never know for sure, but that might just have tipped the balance in favor of those who insisted that only the guilty should be punished for the crimes of 9/11, not millions of innocent people in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries.
Massive Military Spending
Politicians and candidates keep telling us that the key to our safety and security lies in the strength of the US military, which must therefore always be two or three times larger and more expensive than those of all its potential enemies combined. The US today spends more on its military than the sum of our nine closest military competitors (most of whom are US allies in any case) and more than the total military spending of 182 less militarized countries combined.
Despite the chaos unleashed by decades of military adventurism, US leaders seem blissfully unaware that this lopsided military imbalance is undermining global security and stability instead of improving it. After President George W. Bush oversaw the most expensive unilateral arms buildup in history, President Obama has achieved what would have seemed impossible to most Americans in 2008 – he has actually outspent Bush.
The reason that this imbalance is so dangerous lies in the very nature of military force. Weapons of war are designed to wound, maim or kill people, not to help them in any way. Bombs and missiles do not rebuild buildings, cities or societies – they only damage or destroy them.
The term “regime change” is a misnomer. Overwhelming military force does not “change” regimes – it just destroys them. We should understand by now that when our leaders threaten to “change” a regime by military force, that will replace it only with rubble, graveyards, chaos, corruption and poverty.
But this huge imbalance in military forces and expenditures creates the dangerous illusion that our leaders can threaten or use military force to reshape the world as they see fit, to solve any problem or achieve any geostrategic goal. Corporate media, from Hollywood to the New York Times, spin this military madness into a full-fledged fantasy in which a country that doesn’t even provide its own people with basic human rights like healthcare, housing or a subsistence living, and instead manages poverty with aggressive, militarized policing and mass incarceration, is cast as a global warrior for democracy and human rights.
US leaders saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as an ideological victory that opened doors to expand the U.S.-based capitalist economic system to the four corners of the world. They have bullied and bribed compliant governments to join U.S.-led trade and investment schemes that prioritize concentration of wealth and power over people and the environment.
Countries that resist integration into this neoliberal system or try to develop alternative models are subject to withering propaganda, crippling sanctions, U.S.-backed coups and, in the “last resort,” to the threat and catastrophic use of military force.
This strategy and the role of the US military in enforcing it have now been explicitly detailed in US policy documents for 25 years, beginning with the original version of the Pentagon’s “Defense Planning Guidance” that was leaked to the New York Times in 1992. This US policy of illegal, unilateral use of force to “protect vital US interests,” explicitly defined to include “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources,” was formally unveiled to the world in the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review and the 2002 National Security Strategy.
The late Sen. Edward Kennedy condemned the latter as “a call for 21st century American imperialism that no other country can or should accept.” But there is no hint that the spiral of violence and chaos our leaders have unleashed across the world has led them to rethink their commitment to the illegal threat and use of military force as an instrument of US policy.
What we need from our political leaders and candidates is not the threat of more “last resort” wars on the Kosovo model, but a new commitment to peace and international law, most importantly to the U.N. Charter’s prohibition on the threat or use of military force.
Until then, we should interpret deceptive formulations like “force as a last resort” as meaning that our leaders remain committed to an endless state of war that they have no idea how to contain or control. If humanity and civilization are to survive, we must force them to consider a very different “last resort”: peace, disarmament and a rule of law that governs the rich and powerful as well as the poor and downtrodden.
Nicolas J. S. Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. He also wrote the chapters on “Obama at War” in Grading the 44th President: a Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.