Tony Blair’s chapter on Kosovo: a travesty
I shan’t buy Tony Blair’s book: judging by the extracts I have read, it would do bad things to my blood pressure. But I have read the Kosovo chapter, which is about as mendacious and misleading an account of a major international event as it’s possible to imagine. Don’t groan that it’s all ancient history now, no longer worth our attention. It led on directly to Iraq, and if we’re not going to allow that blunder to happen again, it’s important to learn the real lessons from Kosovo, and not to allow the perversely distorted and self-serving account offered by Mr Blair to become the accepted wisdom.
In A Journey Tony Blair, who boasts openly of having been the principal cheerleader for the NATO attack on Yugoslavia in 1999, skates smoothly over the preceding conference at Rambouillet, at which a pretext for military action against the Serbs in revenge for Bosnia was shamelessly manufactured; claims falsely that when the bombing was getting nowhere he persuaded his friend Clinton to agree to an invasion by land forces (Clinton in fact never agreed to any such thing: the Congress would never have agreed to it: and there was never the smallest possibility of getting NATO agreement to it); and then asserts that it was because of the “prospect of ground troops” that Milosevic “retreated in disarray”, whereas Milosevic knew there was no such prospect; and ascribes Milosevic’s “capitulation” to a visit to Belgrade by “the UN negotiators led by President Ahtisaari of Finland”. Actually the UN never authorised the NATO attack (which was therefore illegal under international law) and never sent negotiators under Ahtisaari or anyone else to negotiate with Milosevic. When three months of NATO bombing all across Yugoslavia was clearly no nearer to securing Milosevic’s acceptance of the ludicrous ultimatum issued at Rambouillet, and with Blair clamouring for an utterly unreal escalation of the air attack to a full-scale ground invasion, Clinton quietly secured Yeltsin’s agreement to send the former Russian prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, to join the American diplomat Strobe Talbott, US Deputy Secretary of State, and Martti Ahtisaari, the Finnish President and experienced UN negotiator, to go to Belgrade with a radical revision of the Rambouillet demands, to which Milosevic, knowing that with the Russian now involved the game was up, soon acceded. If Clinton and Blair had been prepared from the start to accept Russian participation in the search for an end to the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the eventual Talbott-Chernomyrdin-Ahtisaari settlement could have been achieved three months earlier without a bomb being dropped, a rocket fired or a drop of blood spilled.
Blair’s book’s account also implies, again falsely, that the Serbs were driving Kosovo Albanians out of Kosovo as refugees into neighbouring countries before the NATO attack began (in fact the NATO attack precipitated it, so the exodus can’t be cited as an excuse for the NATO attack). And, finally, he claims that the eventual fall of Milosevic from power was a result of the NATO action, whereas there’s good evidence that NATO’s attack actually strengthened Milosevic’s position with his fellow-Serbs, and his later electoral defeat occurred well after the dust had settled on Kosovo. The passages on pages 227 and 242 of the Blair book encapsulate the principal misrepresentations and distortions of the whole account of the Kosovo disaster.
Blair’s potted history of the Kosovo affair unaccountably omits to mention that the British government’s legal advisers were warning that the proposed NATO attack on Yugoslavia for the proclaimed purpose of forcing Milosevic to obey the demands of the Rambouillet ultimatum would be unlawful under the Charter, the supreme instrument of international law — until the Americans, and Tony Blair himself, persuaded them to change their advice (as one of the Americans involved incautiously revealed in a newspaper article later [James Rubin, press spokesman for US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the time of Rambouillet and the NATO attack on Serbia, Financial Times, 29 Sep 2000: quoted here]) Does that ring some kind of bell?
If some of this sounds strangely familiar, that could be because the Kosovo war was a curtain-raiser for Iraq. Blair — as his book makes unashamedly clear — contrived to convince himself, and an improbably large number of others, that the ending of Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo had been achieved by the use of force (and the threat of even greater force): and that he, Blair, had been the principal author and protagonist — as indeed he was — of the whole triumphantly successful operation — as in plain fact it was not. The lesson he managed to learn from Kosovo was that you could use force against another country without UN authority and without the excuse of acting in self-defence, and get away with it. To exalt and justify the NATO attack with the trappings of a Doctrine, he invented a prototype of the purely illusory “right of humanitarian intervention”, launched in a notorious speech in Chicago in April 1999, shortly after the start of the NATO assault. Hailed as their heroic saviour by the Kosovo Albanians, Blair became a fervent apostle of the use of force in international affairs, where necessary without regard to international law. His book vividly illustrates how a comprehensive misreading of Kosovo encouraged his tendency to self-deception, solipsistic moralising and a messianic belief in his personal destiny, culminating inexorably in his decision to join the most unprincipled American president in living memory in the tragic aggression against Iraq.
The NATO attack on Yugoslavia over Kosovo was: unnecessary; illegal and in plain breach of the UN Charter; publicly justified by fraud and deception (namely, the deliberate misrepresentation of what really happened at Rambouillet); responsible for well over 12,000 deaths, the great majority of these being of innocent civilians; the cause of enormous damage to the economic infrastructure of all the countries of the region; and, in the end, wholly unsuccessful, since it was not the NATO military action but quiet US-Russian-Finnish diplomacy — in which Blair and the UK played no part whatever — that finally forced Milosevic to end the ethnic cleansing and to withdraw his forces from Kosovo.
All this, you might say, is now water under the bridge, and (to mix the liquid clichés) relatively small beer compared with Iraq. But we still need to understand what really happened to make Iraq possible, and to identify the factors in that criminal blunder which contributed to it, so that we can try to minimise the risk of such a thing ever happening again. Kosovo was one such factor, with its numerous Iraqi echoes. The single word “therefore” makes a lethal and incontrovertible point in a question posed by the writer Thomas Powers in the August 19 issue of the New York Review of Books, referring to Iraq, but equally applicable to Kosovo, and referring to a president, but equally applicable to a prime minister [emphasis added]:
What is the proper response to a president who has conspired to launch an unjustified and therefore illegal war against another country? The more clearly the matter is stated, the more troubling are its implications.
It’s tempting to say that 11 years later it’s time to ‘move on’. But we still haven’t even begun to consider seriously those “troubling implications”, and before we can possibly do so, the untruths and evasions in Tony Blair’s book need to be exposed, so that we may at long last face the reality of what went so badly wrong.