Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 31
26 April 1999

Andrew Stroehlein E U R O P E   A T   W A R :
Doing the Right Thing - Even
If It Is for the Wrong Reason

Andrew Stroehlein

Critics of NATO's action against Belgrade have recently been drawing attention to statements of several Western politicians and NATO commanders that seem to suggest non-humanitarian aims for the war effort. According to the allegations, the Western leaders are not fighting the war in Yugoslavia to help the Kosovars nor to bring peace to the region. After failing to bring Milosevic to his knees after weeks of bombardment, these politicians and military officials are now only concerned with resuscitating the strong image of the Alliance. So what? Even if this is the case, the war remains just.

It is quite true that several NATO spokesmen and Western leaders have been making proud noises in this direction of late. Alliance spokesman Jamie Shea said that for NATO to stop bombing would be "to admit defeat," clearly indicating that such an admission was unthinkable. NATO's victory or defeat was of paramount importance - perhaps even more important than the humanitarian aims themselves?

The improper emphasis on NATO's image rather than the Kosova crisis itself can be seen in the highest of places. In his commentary piece in The Sunday Times on 18 April 1999, US President Bill Clinton says, "Kosovo has demonstrated beyond doubt the continued importance of our Alliance and the need to keep adapting it to new challenges..." By implication, to fail in Kosova would be to admit that the Alliance is no longer important: NATO's very raison d'etre is dependent upon a successful resolution of the Kosova crisis. Putting the cart before the horse, such rhetoric is rather dangerously close to saying that NATO needs Kosova to prove the Alliance's value to the world.

Also seemingly downgrading the humanitarian aims, at least temporarily, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair announced to the House of Commons recently, "To walk away now would destroy NATO's credibility. It would be a breach of faith with thousands of civilians who took us at our word." In the US at the end of last week, Blair again suggested that preserving NATO's street cred was becoming fundamental in his view, saying, "On its fiftieth anniversary, NATO must prevail." Many British MPs agreed that fulfilling its promises puts NATO's credibility on the line.

Unfortunately, NATO's fiftieth anniversary commemoration over the weekend only hardened the feeling among cynics that NATO is currently more concerned with defending itself, than the people it claims to be helping.

So, is NATO fighting for the Kosovars or for NATO? Is "preserving NATO's credibility" now a war aim? Have image and standing become more important to some leading politicians than humanitarian aims and the goal of regional peace in the Balkans?

Well, so what if they have?

Actually, it is neither surprising nor meaningful that some Western politicians are partially driven by a desire to salvage NATO's pride in all this.

Being vain people, politicians they do not like to be seen to be losing. Nor are the proud quick to recognise their mistakes. Rather than trying to make their militaries achieve aims which are universally recognised as impossible through air power alone, they should have actually allowed them to fight a proper ground war, or at least they should have demonstrated the seriousness of their preparations for one. Now, feeling impotent as Belgrade slaughters tens of thousands, these Western leaders are willing to invest significantly more to see that NATO's honour is upheld.

An error in judgement and poor planning this may be, and it certainly demonstrates an inherent human failing, the propensity to destructive conceit. But none of this undermines NATO's efforts in any way.

The reasons of some politicians for wanting to escalate the war may be dubiously connected to their feelings of NATO's wounded pride, but this does not detract from the fact that a war to topple Milosevic is morally justified. Such an effort is justified to stop the murders of leading intellectuals, to stop the burning of villages, to stop systematic rape and to stop the slaughter of tens of thousands and the forced exile of hundreds of thousands.

If a particular politician is more worried about NATO's pride than those suffering Kosovars, that does not really matter, because he remains pointed in the right direction. Few Kosovars probably care why NATO is promising to get their homes back for them. The point for them - and for humanity's sake - is that NATO fulfils that promise.

I am definitely NOT saying that the end justifies the means. I am saying that the end justifies the occasional, vaingloriously muddled reasoning of a handful of pompous politicians.

In WWII, how many of the Allies were really fighting specifically to stop the slaughter in the extermination camps? (The US had aerial photographs of Auschwitz during the war, but sadly refused to bomb the murder factory for fear of causing civilian casualties.) There were humanitarian arguments voiced during the war, but, certainly, the Allied leaders' pride and blind determination often obscured their vision and clouded their arguments. However, that did not tarnish the essential integrity of their cause. Defeating Hitler's barbarity and stopping the slaughter easily justified a few egotistical statements of some Allies during the war.

Some Western politicians may appear to care more about NATO's image than NATO's mission, but that is of little consequence: a ground war against Belgrade is still the right thing to do for peace, stability and prosperity in Europe.

Andrew Stroehlein, 26 April 1999


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