The Real Story Behind Kosovo's Independence
By Jeremy Scahill
-- - News Flash: The Bush administration acknowledges there
is a such thing as international law.
But, predictably, it is not being invoked to address the US
prison camps at Guantanamo, the wide use of torture, the
invasion and occupation of sovereign countries, the
extraordinary rendition program. No, it is being thrown out
forcefully as a condemnation of the Serbian government in the
wake of Thursday's attack by protesters on the US embassy in
Belgrade following the Bush administration's swift recognition
of the declaration of independence by the southern Serbian
province of Kosovo. Some 1,000 protesters broke away from a
largely non-violent mass demonstration in downtown Belgrade and
targeted the embassy. Some protesters actually made it into the
compound, setting a fire and tearing down the American flag.
"I'm outraged by the mob attack against the U.S. embassy in
Belgrade," fumed Zalmay Khalilzad,the US Ambassador to the
United Nations. "The embassy is sovereign US territory. The
government of Serbia has a responsibility under international
law to protect diplomatic facilities, particularly embassies."
His comments were echoed by a virtual who's who of the Bill
Clinton administration. People like Jamie Rubin, then-Secretary
of State Madeleine Albright's deputy, one of the main architects
of US policy toward Serbia. "It is sovereign territory of the
United States under international law," Rubin declared. "For
Serbia to allow these protesters to break windows, break into
the American Embassy, is a pretty dramatic sign." Hillary
Clinton, whose husband orchestrated and ran the 78-day NATO
bombing of Serbia in 1999, said, "I would be moving very
aggressively to hold the Serbian government responsible with
their security forces to protect our embassy. Under
international law they should be doing that."
There are two major issues here. One is the situation in Kosovo
itself (which we'll get to in a moment), but the other is the
attack on the US embassy. Yes, the Serbian government had an
obligation to prevent the embassy from being torched and
ransacked. If there was complicity by the Serbian police or
authorities in allowing it to be attacked, that is a serious
issue. But the US has little moral authority not just in
invoking international law (which it only does when it benefits
Washington's agenda) but in invoking international law when
speaking about attacks on embassies in Belgrade.
Perhaps the greatest crime against any embassy in the history of
Yugoslavia was committed not by evil Serb protesters, but by the
United States military.
On May 7, 1999, at the height of the 78 day US-led NATO bombing
of Yugoslavia, the US bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade,
killing three Chinese citizens, two of them journalists, and
wounding 20 others. The Clinton administration later said that
the bombing was the result of faulty maps provided by the CIA
(Sound familiar?). Beijing rejected that explanation and alleged
it was deliberate. Eventually, under strong pressure from China,
the US apologized and paid $28 million in compensation to the
victims' families. If the US was serious about international law
and the protection of embassies, those responsible for that
bombing would have been tried at the Hague along with other
alleged war criminals. But "war criminal" is a designation for
the losers of US-fueled wars, not bombers sent by Washington to
drop humanitarian munitions on "sovereign territory."
Beyond the obvious hypocrisy of the US condemnations of Serbia
and the sudden admission that international law exists, the
Kosovo story is an important one in the context of the current
election campaign in the United States. Perhaps more than any
other international conflict, Yugoslavia was the defining
foreign policy of President Bill Clinton's time in power. Under
his rule, the nation of Yugoslavia was destroyed, dismantled and
chopped into ethnically pure para-states. President Bush's
immediate recognition of Kosovo as an independent nation was the
icing on the cake of destruction of Yugoslavia and one which was
enthusiastically embraced by Hillary Clinton. "I've supported
the independence of Kosovo because I think it is imperative that
in the heart of Europe we continue to promote independence and
democracy," Clinton said at the recent Democratic debate in
A few days before the attack on the US embassy in Belgrade,
Clinton released a Molotov cocktail statement praising the
declaration of independence. In it, she referred to Kosovo by
the Albanian "Kosova" and said independence "will allow the
people of Kosova to finally live in their own democratic state.
It will allow Kosova and Serbia to finally put a difficult
chapter in their history behind them and to move forward." She
added, "I want to underscore the need to avoid any violence or
provocations in the days and weeks ahead." As seasoned observers
of Serbian politics know, there were few things the US could
have done to add fuel to the rage in Serbia over the declaration
of independence -- "provocations" if you will -- than to have a
political leader named Clinton issue a statement praising
independence and using the Albanian name for Kosovo.
On the campaign trail, the Clinton camp has held up Kosovo as a
successful model for how to conduct US foreign policy and
Clinton criticized Bush for taking "so long for us to reach this
Perhaps a little of that history is in order. If Kosovo is her
idea of solid US foreign policy, it speaks volumes to what kind
of president she would be. The reality is that there are
striking similarities between the Clinton approach to Kosovo and
the Bush approach to Iraq.
On March 24, 1999, President Bill Clinton began an 11-week
bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. Like Bush with Iraq,
Clinton had no UN mandate (he used NATO) and his so-called
"diplomacy" to avert the possibility of bombing leading up to
the attacks was insincere and a set-up from the jump. Just like
Bush with Iraq.
A month before the bombing began, the Clinton administration
issued an ultimatum to President Slobodan Milosevic, which he
had to either accept unconditionally or face bombing. Known as
the Rambouillet accord, it was a document that no sovereign
country would have accepted. It contained a provision that would
have guaranteed US and NATO forces "free and unrestricted
passage and unimpeded access throughout" all of Yugoslavia, not
just Kosovo. It also sought to immunize those occupation forces
"from any form of arrest, investigation, or detention by the
authorities in [Yugoslavia]," as well as grant the occupiers
"the use of airports, roads, rails and ports without payment."
Additionally, Milosevic was told he would have to "grant all
telecommunications services, including broadcast services,
needed for the Operation, as determined by NATO." Similar to
Bush's Iraq plan years later, Rambouillet mandated that the
economy of Kosovo "shall function in accordance with free market
What Milosevic was actually asked to sign is never discussed.
That it would have effectively meant the end of the sovereignty
of the nation was a non-story. The dominant narrative for the
past nine years, repeated this week by William Cohen, Clinton's
defense secretary at the time of the bombing, is this: "We tried
to achieve a peaceful resolution of what was taking place in
Kosovo. And Slobodan Milosevic refused." Refused peace? More
like he unwisely refused one of Don Corleone's famous offers.
Washington knew he would reject it, but had to give the
appearance of diplomacy for international "legitimacy."
So the humanitarian bombs rained down on Serbia. Among the
missions: the bombing of the studios of Radio Television Serbia
where an airstrike killed 16 media workers; the cluster bombing
of a Nis marketplace, shredding human beings into meat; the
deliberate targeting of a civilian passenger train; the use of
depleted uranium munitions; and the targeting of petrochemical
plants, causing toxic chemical waste to pour into the Danube
River. Also, the bombing of Albanian refugees, ostensibly the
people being protected by the U.S.
Similar to Bush's allegations about Iraqi WMDs in the lead up to
the US invasion, in 1999 Clinton administration officials also
delivered stunning allegations about the level of brutality
present in Kosovo as part of the propaganda campaign. "We've now
seen about 100,000 military-aged men missing ....They may have
been murdered," Cohen said five weeks into the bombing. He said
that up to 4,600 Kosovo men had been executed, adding, "I
suspect it's far higher than that." Those numbers were flat out
false. Eventually the estimates were scaled back dramatically,
as Justin Raimondo pointed out recently in his column on
Antiwar.com, from 100,000 to 50,000 to 10,000 and "at that point
the War Party stopped talking numbers altogether and just
celebrated the glorious victory of 'humanitarian intervention.'"
As it turned out "there was no 'genocide' -- the International
Tribunal itself reported that just over 2,000 bodies were
recovered from postwar Kosovo, including Serbs, Roma, and
Kosovars, all victims of the vicious civil war in which we
intervened on the side of the latter. The whole fantastic story
of another 'holocaust' in the middle of Europe was a fraud,"
according to Raimondo.
Following the NATO invasion of Kosovo in June of 1999, the US
and its allies stood by as the Albanian mafia and gangs of
criminals and paramilitaries spread out across the province and
systematically cleansed Kosovo of hundreds of thousands of
Serbs, Romas and other ethnic minorities. They burned down
houses, businesses and churches and implemented a shocking
campaign to forcibly expel non-Albanians from the province.
Meanwhile, the US worked closely with the Kosovo Liberation Army
and backed the rise of war criminals to the highest levels of
power in Kosovo. Today, Kosovo has become a hub for human
trafficking, organized crime and narcosmuggling. In short, it is
a mafia state. Is this the "democracy" Hillary Clinton speaks of
"promoting" in "the heart" of Europe?
It didn't take long for the US to begin construction of a
massive US military base, Camp Bondsteel, which conveniently is
located in an area of tremendous geopolitical interest to
Washington. (Among its most bizarre facilities, Bondsteel now
offers classes at the Laura Bush education center, as well as
massages from Thai women and all the multinational junk food you
could (n)ever wish for). In November 2005, Alvaro Gil-Robles,
the human rights envoy of the Council of Europe, described
Bondsteel as a "smaller version of Guantanamo." Oh, and
Bondsteel was constructed by former Halliburton subsidiary KBR.
Herein lies an interesting point. The Serbian government is
largely oriented toward Europe, not the US. The country's prime
minister, Vojislav Kostunica, is a conservative isolationist who
is not enthusiastic about a US military base on Serbian soil any
more than Cuba is about Gitmo. He charged that, in recognizing
Kosovo, Washington was "ready to unscrupulously and violently
jeopardize international order for the sake of its own military
interests." To the would-be independent Kosovo government,
however, Bondsteel is no problem.
Russia and a few other nations are fighting the recognition of
Kosovo as an independent nation, but that is unlikely to
succeed. Still, this action will undoubtedly reverberate for
years to come. "We have in Serbia a situation in which the U.S.
has forced an action --the proclamation of independence by the
Kosovo Albanians -- that is in clear violation of the most
fundamental principles of international law after World War II,"
argues Robert Hayden, Director of the Center for Russian and
East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. "Borders
cannot be changed by force and without consent -- that principle
was actually the main stated reason for the 1991 U.S. attack on
And this brings us full circle. International law matters only
when it is convenient for the US. So too are the cries for
"humanitarian interventions." And despite the extremism of the
Bush administration, this is hardly a uniquely Republican
phenomenon. In a just world, there would be a humanitarian
intervention against the US occupation of Iraq -- with its
indiscriminate killings of civilians, torture chambers and
widespread human rights violations. There certainly would have
been such an intervention during the bipartisan slaughter,
through bombs and sanctions, of Iraq's people over the past 18
years. But that's what you get when the cops and judges and
prosecutors are the criminals. US policy has always operated on
a worthy victim, unworthy victim system that is almost never
primarily about saving the victims. Humanitarianism is the
publicly offered justification for the action, seldom, if ever,
the primary motivation. With Iraq, Bush wheeled out the
humanitarian justification for the occupation--Saddam's
brutality -- only after the WMD lies were thoroughly debunked.
In Yugoslavia, Clinton used it right out of the gates. In both
cases, it rang insincere.
If you are a victim who happens to share a common geography with
US interests, international law is on your side as long as it is
convenient. If not, well, tough. The UN is just a debate club
anyway. Just ask the tens of thousands of Kurds who were
slaughtered by Turkey with weapons sold to them by the Clinton
administration during the 1990s. Or the Palestinians who live
under the brutality of Israel's occupation. In some cases, the
"victims" allegedly being protected by the US actually get
bombed themselves, as was the case with President Clinton's
"humanitarian" bombings of the north and south of Iraq once
every three days in the late 1990s.
In the bigger picture, the Bush administration's quick
recognition of an independent Kosovo has given us a powerful
reminder of a fact that is too often overlooked these days:
empire is bipartisan, as are the tactics and rhetoric and bombs
used to defend and expand it.
Jeremy Scahill, an independent journalist who reports frequently
for the national radio and TV program Democracy Now!, has spent
extensive time reporting from Iraq and Yugoslavia. He is
currently a Puffin Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute.
Scahill is the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World's
Most Powerful Mercenary Army.
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