Credit the Serbian People, Not NATO

The people of Yugoslavia did what NATO bombs could not. As in 1989, it was not the military prowess of the western alliance bringing freedom to an Eastern European country, but the power of nonviolent action by the subjugated peoples themselves.

Virtually everyone in the Serbian pro-democracy movement recognizes that last year’s U.S.-led bombing campaign set back their campaign to oust strongman Slobodon Milosevic. A populace tends to close ranks while being bombed. Indeed, one of the ironies of the NATO air campaign was that it primarily targeted the cities, where the center of the opposition was located. This played right into the hands of Milosevic, who could then portray himself as the people’s savior against foreign aggression. The targeting of bridges, civilian industry, media centers, and other parts on the country’s non-military infrastructure–which took the lives of over 500 civilians–artificially extended the life of Milosevic’s corrupt and autocratic regime.

Last week’s protests were the third large-scale civil uprising against Milosevic in the past decade. The previous two failed in large part due to the refusal of the United States and other western powers to support the democratic forces. Indeed, during the 1996 uprising, U.S. special envoy, and now UN ambassador, Richard Holbrooke, successfully argued that the Clinton Administration should back Milosevic, in recognition of his role in the successful peace deal in Bosnia, and not risk the instability which might result from a victory by Serb democrats.

Through both appeasement and war, the U.S. allowed Milosevic to remain in power far longer than he would have otherwise. That the Clinton administration would now attempt to claim credit for his ouster is ludicrous. As the new Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica put it, “The Americans assisted Milosevic not only when they supported him, but also when they attacked him. In a way, Milosevic is an American creation.”

The Clinton Administration does deserve credit, along with some European countries, for its support in recent months of pro-democracy groups within Yugoslavia. The $36 million given to fund election monitors and other non-governmental organizations had a far greater impact than the billions of dollars spent during the previous year to bomb the country. Yet even the more recent U.S. assistance would have had virtually no impact were it not for the tenacity, organization, and bravery of the democratic forces, the real heroes of this revolution.

It is unfortunate that such assistance did not come earlier; if it had, it could have led to the ouster of Milosevic prior to last year’s tragic events in Kosovo. It is similarly unfortunate that no such assistance came to the Kosovar Albanians during their eight-year nonviolent struggle against Serbian rule. The U.S. took interest in their plight only after the Kosovars took up arms in 1998, with the “assistance” coming through a high-altitude bombing campaign in March 1999. This assistance prompted the Serbs to dramatically escalate their repression against the Kosovar Albanians through large-scale ethnic cleansing. After eleven weeks of air strikes, the war ended on terms much closer to what the Serbs had proposed that February than what the allies had insisted upon at their meetings in Rambouillet, France.

Last week’s mostly nonviolent mass action against Milosevic’s attempt to steal the election follows similar people power movements which toppled dictatorships in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Madagascar, Bolivia, and scores of other countries in recent decades. To try to credit NATO air power for this nonviolent victory on the ground is nothing more than a desperate attempt to rationalize the alliance’s existence in the post-cold war era, and to justify the dramatic increases in U.S. military spending advocated by both Democrats and Republicans.

In many respects, Bill Clinton and western democratic leaders are as out of touch with reality as the tyrants of Eastern Europe and the Third World are: They underestimate the power of ordinary people–unarmed but determined–to make history. Until foreign policy makers are able to recognize this, the U.S. will squander its potential to truly be a world leader in the cause of democracy and human rights.