Kosovo yet again (sorry!) With 24 Apr update
My good intention to leave the Kosovo issue alone for a while, lest I be accused of obsessing about it (which I am, and do), was torpedoed by David Clark’s stout defence of the NATO attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 in his Guardian article of 16 April 2009 (“Kosovo was a just war, not an imperialist dress rehearsal“). There was never any possibility of leaving this unanswered, and today’s Guardian publishes my rebuttal letter. It’s only slightly pared down from my original text, but for comparison, and to preserve a few lost nuances, here’s the original as submitted:
I hope that David Clark’s advice to the FCO was more balanced and dispassionate than his article about Kosovo (Kosovo was a just war, not an imperialist dress rehearsal, Comment, 16 April). His defence of that ill-conceived and unsuccessful operation relies mainly on misrepresenting the motives and arguments of its critics.
What he calls the Rambouillet “peace conference” was in reality a partisan exercise to manufacture an excuse for bombing the Serbs to punish them retrospectively for Bosnia. NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia was in flagrant breach of our Charter obligations and thus an act of aggression. Far from stopping Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, it provided the excuse and motive for accelerating and greatly aggravating it: Kosovo Albanians started to be driven out of their country only after the NATO bombing began.
The bombing completely failed in its objective (forcing the Serbs to accept withdrawal of their forces from Kosovo and installation of an international regime instead). It was only when President Clinton discreetly invited the Russians and the Finnish President Ahtisaari, with his own representative, to re-write the Rambouillet ultimatum, and accepted Russian participation in the eventual settlement, that the Serbs were forced to accept the new terms — which could have been agreed three months earlier if the US and UK delegations had been negotiating in good faith at Rambouillet, without the need for a single bomb being dropped.
It’s obvious in retrospect that the misrepresentation of this disastrous, unnecessary and illegal misuse of force as a huge success, especially for Tony Blair, was at least one factor predisposing him to commit us three years later to an uncannily similar misadventure, on an even bigger scale, in Iraq.
It’s heartening that the great majority of the six Web pages of comments on Mr Clark’s defence of the NATO misadventure disagree, with varying degrees of passion, with his account of it. It’s obviously unnecessary to be a Serb, an apologist for Milosevic, or an anti-NATO crusader, to see through the web of misleading interpretation that has been woven over this unhappy episode.
David Clark — whom on a different topic I salute for his magnificent ‘minutes’ of the Cabinet meeting at which it was decided to go to war over Iraq — was a special adviser to Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary at the time of the Kosovo débacle and co-chair of the Rambouillet conference which engineered the implausible excuse for the NATO attack on Yugoslavia. When I thought the Guardian was not going to publish my letter, I sent its text to Mr Clark in a message which included this:
I have put a longer and more detailed analysis of the subject, quoting my sources wherever possible, on my website at
You might also care to glance at http://www.barder.com/ephems/384, about Robin Cook and Rambouillet. I had a lot of time for Robin Cook, but I have never been able to understand how he allowed himself to be associated with Madeleine Albright’s essentially fraudulent role at Rambouillet.
Finally, I don’t really apologise for harping on this neuralgic subject. It’s important that future historians should draw the right lessons from what happened at Rambouillet and what happened to Yugoslavia as a result, and not the distorted lessons which apologists for the NATO action, including Mr Clark, seek to draw. It was those distorted lessons which clearly contributed, along with many other factors, to the even greater catastrophe of Iraq, only three-and-a-bit years later.
Update (24 April 09): I’m happy to see that the Guardian’s formidable security editor, Richard Norton-Taylor, has quoted my Guardian letter about Kosovo with approval in a column about Tony Blair’s recent inexplicable reaffirmation of the misconceived interventionist policies proclaimed in his infamous Chicago speech of ten years ago. The less good news is that the Norton-Taylor article has appeared only online, not in print, for some unfathomable reason. It’s worth reading, not only for its quotations from my letter, but also for the way it takes apart the now comprehensively discredited Mr Blair (who, incidentally, as Mr Norton-Taylor knows but many others don’t, is not a middle east or any other kind of ‘peace envoy‘: his rather more narrowly defined, but hardly less difficult job is to encourage foreign investment in Palestine). nb: One of the 98 or so ‘comments’ on the Norton-Taylor article purports to quote from an article, or articles, by me, but its author acknowledges in a later comment that the pieces quoted are by someone else.