Chomsky's reply to Bogdan Denitch

C. G. Estabrook galliher at
Sun Apr 25 09:13:37 PDT 1999

Date: 04/24/99

Bogdan Denitch writes in a message forwarded to the ZNet forum system, in reply to my comments there, that there are "a few problems with Noam's reply." I'll run through his criticisms in this reaction, again in the public forum system.

(1) "To begin with the number of Albanians dead is a great deal higher than 2000."

Bogdan is referring to my (accurate) statement that according to NATO, 2000 people had been killed (on all sides) in the year prior to the bombing that began on March 24. Bogdan's objection to this (true) statement is that AFTER the bombing that he supported, the number of Albanian dead increased substantially, which I am sure is true -- a problem that he should face, evidently. But that leaves no problem with my accurate reiteration of NATO's version of the events of the year preceding the bombing. Note that there was no ambiguity or unclarity about the statements to which he is referring.

(2) "Serbian repression in Kosovo does not date to Rambuillet but to 1987 when the Milosevic regime started its crack down on Kosovo."

Bogdan misstates the facts (which he knows very well -- much better than I). Serbian repression goes back much further than 1987, and there has been "bitter conflict between Serbs and Albanians in and over Kosovo going way back" (quoting myself). The major change, as I described, was from 1989 when the Milosevic regime effectively rescinded autonomy in Kosovo. I then reviewed the later stages, much too briefly but accurately as far as it went. The second charge therefore has no more more merit than the first.

I might add something I didn't get around to discussing. Milosevic also rescinded autonomy in Vojvodina, the home of the Hungarian minority. There, in response to the NATO bombing that Bogdan supported, the very promising democratic opposition has now predictably rallied in support of the government, its leaders now saying that by devastating Vojvodina and attacking the rest of the country, "NATO showed they only understand the policy of violence." Bogdan might want to explain why he disagrees with the democratic opposition that has been destroyed, at least for the present, by the policies he advocated, and urges that we must trust NATO military force to impose a solution (I return to his position on this directly).

(3) "For ten long bitter years the Albanian resistance was non-violent; neither the Milosevic regime nor the oposition nor the international community used that time to negotiate anything at all. Kosovo, alas, only became a problem when a minority of Albanians took up arms."

Apart from the fact that he has the dates wrong, as noted, Bogdan is simply repeating the remarks of mine that he has read. Namely, "In reaction to the effective rescinding of autonomy [from 1989], a movement took shape, headed by Rugova, which established a parallel government, surely with the intention of ultimate independence, a longstanding goal of the Albanian population of Kosovo, now an overwhelming majority," but this "impressive campaign" was disregarded by the West.

To add more (discussed further in an article forthcoming in Z), the nonviolent movement was completely sold out by the US at Dayton, after which many Kosovars recognized that the US understands nothing but force -- just as the Vojvodina democratic opposition now understands that, by bitter experience, though Bogdan crucially disagrees.

Proceeding, in reaction to the western sellout, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) began to gain support, and in February 1998 carried out its first serious attack against Serbian police stations, actions officially condemned as "terrorist" by the US, which also officially condemned the KLA as "without any question a terrorist group."

To allay further misrepresentation, I am saying nothing here about the accuracy of the US characterization of the KLA, any more than I was saying anything about the accuracy of NATO's account of the pre-bombing violence when I (accurately) reported it. That's a distinct question. I am simply reporting the official position of the United States, the country that Bogdan (explicitly) recommends that we must trust to impose a solution by force.

To return to problem (3), when Bogdan's misdating is corrected, he is repeating what I wrote, and this problem vanishes as well.

(4) Bogdan writes that we must dispense with "this legalism about Serbian jurisdiction on Kosovo."

That is, we must send to the trash can the fundamental principles of world order, international law, and treaty obligations concerning sovereignty, tearing up this "scrap of paper," as a German Chancellor once famously said. And once we dispense with "this legalism," we then adopt the only really existing alternative: the powerful will act as they wish.

That is not an uncommon stand among the rich and powerful. But it is strongly opposed by most of the world, who recognize that with all their faults, the principles of world order afford the weak at least some limited protection against predatory states (they are of no value to the rich and powerful, who do what they want anyway). They do not always afford protection, of course. Thus the UN, World Court, etc., could do nothing about Washington's attack against South Vietnam (then all of Indochina), its terrorist wars in Central America, the Russian invasions of Hungary and Afghanistan, Israel's (US-backed) invasions and terror in Lebanon, and on, and on. But limited protection is not the same as no protection.

My own expressed view, to which Bogdan is responding, is that we should not simply "adopt the standards of Saddam Hussein" and dismiss the principles of world order as a ridiculous "legalism" (Bogdan's word, and his expressed view). Rather, we should take them seriously, and also recognize that "there is at least a tension, if not an outright contradiction, between the rules of world order laid down in the UN Charter and the rights articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ... The issue of `humanitarian intervention' arises from this tension." And the history of "humanitarian intervention," and the US reaction to authentic cases, will be dismissed only by those who insist that facts are irrelevant to understanding and choices.

The tension/contradiction provides an appropriate context for Kosovo, and innumerable other cases like it: the Kurds in Turkey, to take a case of atrocities in the '90s that are vastly more serious in human cost than anything attributed to Milosevic in Kosovo before the NATO bombings (I'll put off the comparison after the bombing, though it is worth undertaking) -- and that differ crucially from Kosovo in two respects: (a) these atrocities have been given decisive military and diplomatic support by the US and hence could easily be mitigated or terminated, and (b) they remain unprotested here, greatly to our shame, while we follow Washington's marching orders and focus attention laser-like on its chosen case: Kosovo.

Here Bogdan and I do differ. He rejects my stand that we should take the principles of world order and treaty obligations seriously, recognizing and attending to the tension/contradiction between the rights of sovereignty and protection of human rights. His objection makes sense only on one assumption: that the principles of world order, treaty obligations, etc., should be dismissed as "a scrap of paper," and we should adopt the only actually existing alternative, namely, the powerful do as they wish, while the mainstream of intellectuals (as always) applaud it as right and just, whatever it turns out to be, later complaining if it turns out to be too costly. I don't think I need cite examples, for Bogdan or anyone else.

Note that these are the alternatives. If Bogdan has a third one in mind, it would be interesting to hear it.

His further comments have no relation whatsoever to anything I wrote, so I will not discuss them.

Bogdan does have his own proposal: that NATO military forces, not the UN or any other neutral authority, must impose a solution by force. We must therefore trust the US and its NATO associates to do the right thing, not the UN. If he can present the reasons for his conclusion, that would be a constructive contribution. It would also be a constructive contribution for him to explain why he supported the NATO bombing which (predictably) led to a vast escalation of atrocities, the destruction of the democratic dissident movements in Yugoslavia that were the best hope for ridding the world of their elected leader Milosevic, and other deleterious consequences too well-known to mention. To repeat, it would be a constructive contribution for him to justify his support for the bombing (with its predictable consequences) and his reliance on the US to impose a just and fair solution, while dismissing the UN and others. But it is not a constructive contribution to falsify the statements of those who disagree with him, and to respond to arguments that he invents and falsely attributes to them.

Noam Chomsky

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