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Thursday, June 22, 2006

A simple request

My friend Danny Postel, senior editor of OpenDemocracy, calls my attention to this recent interview with Noam Chomsky in the New Statesman.  Specifically, to this passage:

“Remember, the Milosevic Tribunal began with Kosovo, right in the middle of the US-British bombing in late ‘99 . . . Now if you take a look at that indictment, with a single exception, every charge was for crimes after the bombing.

“There’s a reason for that. The bombing was undertaken with the anticipation explicit [that] it was going to lead to large-scale atrocities in response. As it did. Now there were terrible atrocities, but they were after the bombings. In fact, if you look at the British parliamentary inquiry, they actually reached the astonishing conclusion that, until January 1999, most of the crimes committed in Kosovo were attributed to the KLA guerrillas.

“So later they added charges [against Milosevic] about the Balkans, but it wasn’t going to be an easy case to make. The worst crime was Srebrenica but, unfortunately for the International Tribunal, there was an intensive investigation by the Dutch government, which was primarily responsible—their troops were there—and what they concluded was that not only did Milosevic not order it, but he had no knowledge of it. And he was horrified when he heard about it. So it was going to be pretty hard to make that charge stick.”

OK, this kind of thing really has to stop.  Now.

For three reasons: one, because it is a pack of lies, and as a wise man once said, the job of the intellectual is to tell the truth and expose lies.

Two, because the defend-Milosevic crew has been getting more and more outlandish and bizarre every year, and, like unto loony LaRouchies, they have sometimes been discovered messing with legitimate progressive organizations.  If real progressives don’t speak out on this, it won’t be long before we’ll be hearing that poor Slobodan cried bitter tears of sorrow when he heard about the massacre of Srebrenica, even though it never really happened in the first place.  And, insult upon injury, we’ll be hearing about this from so-called “leftists.”

Three, because of Chomsky’s unique stature as the go-to dissident American intellectual in interviews like this, which gives these extraordinary claims the stamp of respectability for one wing of the left.  If Chomsky were to refuse to sign on to this nonsense, the defend-Milosevic crew would consist primarily of third-rate party apparatchiks like Ed Herman and Diana Johnstone and Michael Parenti, with their little “Srebrenica Denial Research Group”, churning out regular attacks on what Johnstone calls the “Srebrenica mourning cult,” and we could place them on the shelf next to the handful of people who have spent the last decade and a half muttering to themselves darkly about how the Trilateral Commission teamed up with the Rothschilds and Queen Elizabeth to spread lies about their man Slobodan, who was only trying to carry on the socialist project in a brutal neoliberal world. 

For the record: at first I opposed NATO war in the Balkans—and then, as I learned more about the conflict (and, crucially, as I heard more from the people I’ve named above, particularly Johnstone, who eventually convinced me that she was, on a charitable reading, insane), I decided that people like Ian Williams and Danny Postel were to be trusted, and people like Herman and Johnstone were not.  From Williams’ review of a collection of essays edited by Tariq Ali:

Opposition to a war can unite the strangest people. In the USA, opposition to NATO’s intervention in Kosova united on the same platforms isolationist Republican conservatives, pacifists, Serb nationalists, Stalinists and Trotskyists who both thought that Miloševic was the last living socialist, and a lot of people who thought that anything that the US did was wrong. . . .

There were, it has to be said, some honourable exceptions, who realized that Belgrade’s treatment of the Kosovars was insupportable, but felt that the cure was worse than the ailment. Some thought that the KLA should be helped in their war of liberation, but that there should be no foreign intervention. Indeed, even many vociferous supporters of intervention were worried about the international legal implications of taking action without UN approval, and also about the form of the intervention. High-level bombing increased risks of civilian casualties in order to save politically inconvenient military casualties for the US, and the refusal until the final stages to consider ground troops, almost certainly prolonged the war and allowed Belgrade to go ahead with its atrocities. . . .

It is clear that the US was dragged unwillingly and half-heartedly into the Balkans, and that on this occasion it was European leaders who dragged it in. It is also true that if the US had made a credible threat of action at any time almost from the shelling of Vukovar onwards, let alone in Kosova, it would have stopped Miloševic in his tracks. Indeed the US position has consistently been the very reverse of Teddy Roosevelt’s: it has been to shout loudly and to carry a light-weight olive branch rather than a big stick. The strident Madeleine Albright cries ‘wolf’ again and again abroad, while Clinton and the Congress at home worry about the political costs of a single casualty. . . .

Some contributors, correctly, accuse Clinton and other Western leaders of hypocrisy. ‘Where were they in Rwanda, in Turkish Kurdistan, in East Timor?’, they want to know. I want to know what they think should be done when war criminals carry out ethnic cleansing? Should they be allowed to carry on because Russia wants the freedom to commit mayhem in Chechnya, protected by its veto? Should the American use of the veto to protect Israel exonerate Russia and inhibit anybody else from ever attempting to intervene?

. . . The intervention was indeed carried out ineptly. The diplomacy beforehand was totally inadequate. The US is indeed a very bad global citizen. All this is true. But war criminals should not be allowed impunity.

As they say on blogs, read the whole thing.  And then read this for good measure, because Williams really deserves a far wider readership among liberals and progressives.

But you know, you don’t have to have supported war in the Balkans to know what’s wrong with the defend-Milosevic crew. Bill Weinberg didn’t support that war, but he’s still properly outraged at Ed Herman’s post-Balkans project of clearing good Slobodan’s name (and check out Weinberg’s demolitions of Herman’s apologetics in comments).  And Eric Gordy’s devastating response to Johnstone is worth a good long look, too, not least for the incredibly detailed exchange with Marko Attila Hoare in comments.  The best single source on the strange culture of the Milosevic cult is Balkan Witness (edited by Roger Lippman), which offers, among other things, an extensive (though quite depressing) compilation of essays on the history of war-crimes deniers and apologists for Milosevic.

There are otherwise intelligent people who believe that Chomsky’s remarks on the Balkans, echoing and echoed by Herman, Johnstone, Parenti and company, constitute the properly “left” or “progressive” position on the matter.  Quite apart from the profound moral incoherence this entails, requiring such leftists and progressives to engage in the most extraordinary circumlocutions and ideological contortions, it also licenses all kinds of ancillary mischief in its wake, like this vile piece of work from a book I’ve seen advertised on a number of liberal and progressive blogs.  So I have a simple request.  Whether you supported war in Kosovo or opposed it, please, please let’s leave the Milosevic apologetics and the war-crimes denials to the fascists. 


UPDATE, June 22Dennis Perrin, who’s smart enough to know better, accuses me of practicing “guilt by association” in linking Chomsky to Herman, Johnstone, and Parenti.  Please see comment 58 for my preternaturally patient rebuttal of this charge.  Dennis also asks, searchingly, “Why Serbia? Why now, when Milosevic is dead, the matter is pretty much at rest, whatever one thinks of it, and there are other, more pressing issues to deal with (I’m thinking here of that Iraq thing)?” and answers, “Who the fuck really knows.” Can anyone help out Dennis on this one, say, by directing him to the June 19, 2006 dateline of the New Statesman article?  Perhaps we can get him to ask Professor Chomsky this question.  At least we are reassured that Ed Herman is “a very soft-spoken, polite guy”!  Not at all the kind of person who would accuse longtime lefty Bill Weinberg of employing a rightwing smear tactic, or who would decidate years of his life to arguing that only a couple of hundred people died in Srebrenica.  As for the rest of Perrin’s remarks about me, they are beneath him—or should be.

UPDATE, June 23Ah, Dennis, Dennis, I didn’t answer the points in your first post because you didn’t actually make any.  But thanks for reading all the comments here, and responding to them on your blog.  It’s a shame you don’t permit comments yourself.  Anyway, I honestly don’t want to argue with you, personally, about people you consider your friends.  I just want to let you know that when you write, “I suspect that [Berube] also believes that, far from being ‘horrified,’ Slobo was gleeful about the carnage, perhaps dancing a jig when the first casualty figures rolled in,” you’re quite wrong.  I don’t care what Slobo felt.  I do, however, object to anyone who tries to minimize his role in Srebrenica and the eight long years of ethnic cleansing prior to the Kosovo war, for precisely the same reason I would object to anyone who tries to claim that Bush and Rumsfeld do not, in the end, have command authority for what happens in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.  Whenever someone says, “not only did Bush not order torture, but he had no knowledge of it. And he was horrified when he heard about it,” I consider him or her a Bush apologist—or, at the very least, someone who provides cover for Bush apologists.  Wouldn’t you?

Posted by Michael on 06/22 at 09:17 AM
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