Solidarity & "Humanitarian" Imperialism (was Re: Yoshie's dearth of female contributors)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Sat Mar 18 16:44:22 PST 2000


>Yoshie Furuhashi wrote:
>>I might join Solidarity if they changed their tenor
>>on anti-imperialist issues.
>What do you mean? What's their line?

The last panel discussion at the Solidarity Youth conference at OSU on the second day was on Internationalism vs. Imperialism; as one of the panelists Tim Marshall acknowledged, the issue of whether to call for "peace-keepers" has been a sore point among Solidarity activists. In fact, the panel left the issue undiscussed, in that no consensus was likely to emerge and that it was likely very divisive. Unlike the Dissentoids, Solidarity couldn't bring itself to clearly endorsing "humanitarian" imperialism; on the other hand, Solidarity couldn't clearly reject the rhetoric & practice of "peace-keeping." For instance, at the Solidarity Youth conference, the workshop on East Timor was led by a woman field organizer from ETAN Kristin Sundell, who argued for UN "peace-keeping" (Ms. Sundell tried to debate the issue with me after the aforementioned panel discussion on imperialism, for I questioned the virtue of "peace-keeping" force in East Timor during the very brief [non-]discussion -- you know my opposition to imperial "peace-keeping" in general; it is sad to have a disagreement with a good activist who has put in a lot of work, but the issue calls for a clear political choice, and my choice is No to "humanitarian" imperialism).

In fact, I've already discussed this subject on LBO, and allow me to repost my take on this, in case any new LBO-talker is interested.

***** Date: Sun, 17 Oct 1999 19:20:16 -0400 To: lbo-talk at From: Yoshie Furuhashi <furuhashi.1 at> Subject: NLR, Branka Magas, & Against the Current (was RE: Gitlin's 'Yes' Echoed Among Leftists)

from Seth Ackerman to Jim Heartfield:
>> Others who were as wrong-footed as Said included the New Left Review
>> (who ended up having a big split over the issue)
> Could you elaborate, please? I thought NLR was pretty firmly against
>NATO's actions in the Balkans, even in Bosnia.

I don't know anything about the internal politics of the _New Left Review_, but I took a look at the _NLR_ issue titled "The Imperialism of Human Rights," and I found it to be rather muddled.

***** New Left Review No. 234: Themes: The Imperialism of Human Rights

The United States and the West European powers had every chance to raise the issue of Kosovan autonomy or independence at the time of the recognition of the break-up of the old Yugoslavia in 1991-92, and again in 1995, at the time of the Dayton agreement. But, instead, the West deemed that an independent Kosovo would upset the delicate balance in Macedonia and belie the unitary principle they were maintaining in Bosnia. So, despite the manifest oppression of Kosovo's Albanian population, its plight was ignored. Even at the Rambouillet negotiations, the West did not propose self-determination for the Kosovars, preferring that it should become a species of NATO haven still within Yugoslavia. The proposal that most Serbian security forces, including all paramilitaries and police, be withdrawn from Kosovo was reasonable, but the insistence that they be replaced by a NATO-led expedition was provocative and liable to sabotage any hopes of agreement.... <> *****

So, what's the argument here? That the USA and the West European powers should have raised the issue earlier and proposed 'self-determination' for the 'Kosovars' at the Rambouillet negotiations? (And by 'Kosovars,' do they mean only Albanians in Kosovo?) Perhaps that's not the intent of the _NLR_ editorial board, but the muddled writing makes it possible for the reader to make such an interpretation. It's as politically confused as that Hollywood movie _Three Kings_ (directed by David O. Russell).

And what of Branka Magas, a regular contributor to _NLR_?

There is a pathetic but significant exchange between the editors of _Against the Current_ and Branka Magas; in this exchange, the muddled thinking of the _AtC_ editors (who also believe, like Said, et al., that there was an effective "arms embargo" on the Izetbegovic regime -- naively perpetuating a falsehood that even the _New York Times_ exposed years ago!) makes it possible for Branka Magas to pick it apart from her resolutely pro-NATO interventionist standpoint:

***** Copyright © 1999 by Against the Current

A Letter from the Editors: NATO's Road to War/Ruin <>

THE CARNAGE IN Kosovo and the United States/NATO air campaign-which, we will argue, is escalating toward either humiliating defeat or a full-scale ground war-pose one of the greatest challenges in a generation to the left's principles, political courage and moral backbone. During most of our lifetimes, it's been unprecedented to confront such a situation of apparent total conflict between competing imperatives: between the need for immediate action to stop the crimes against the population of Kosovo, and the need to oppose and halt imperialist interventions....

...While we oppose this war-NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia today, and the ground war and occupation that are inevitably in the planning stage-we must also reject in this instance some of the most common "constructive alternatives" to military intervention that are often employed by the peace movement. Hiding behind calls for "a negotiated political peace settlement" or "United Nations peacekeeping," or promoting any pacifist illusions whatsoever about non-violent conflict resolution, are morally unacceptable here: In real life, they could not mean anything but handwringing while Serb forces completed the mass depopulation of Kosovo, after which of course Milosevic would negotiate "peace" at leisure....

...Fact: To stop state-sponsored mass murder and population removal requires not "conflict resolution," but the defeat of the perpetrators. Generally speaking, the time to defeat them is before they have put in place the apparatus for mass murder. Nowhere is this more true than in the Kosovo case.

The crime against humanity perpetrated in Kosovo would have been prevented, years in advance, by the defeat of the Milosevic regime and allied gangsters during their previous war, in Bosnia. What was required then, from 1991 on, was not NATO bombings or invasions, but simply allowing the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina to arm itself against the ethnic cleansing that aimed at destroying a small multicommunal state.

The West imposed an arms embargo in the name of "avoiding a wider war," which left the unarmed Bosnian civilian population subject to destruction by Milosevic's "Yugoslav National Army" and by Serb and Croat paramilitaries, finally forcing Bosnia into a military alliance with Croatia for physical survival....

Kosovo Yes-NATO No!

Given these realities, it is impossible for socialists to want NATO's operation to succeed. Supporting this war, now, can only mean supporting imperialism. In the real world, we cannot pick-and-choose between ostensibly benevolent military interventions, carried out in the name of humanitarian rescue, and those conducted for naked military-political aggrandizement or profit-because inevitably, inexorably, the former becomes the pretext for the latter.

That is the case even in Kosovo, a war the United States and NATO didn't "provoke" but actually tried to avoid through a criminal policy of appeasement. Once having begun, this is inevitably a war for NATO to occupy and re-configure the map of the Balkans-even though the war itself, should it end in yet another "political settlement" with Milosevic or should it produce military debacles and serious casualties for the invaders, may prove to be NATO's own road to ruin....

What Can We Do?

We support the Kosovar Albanians' right of self-determination. No one with democratic values can deny the legitimacy of their struggle, which is a fight for physical and cultural survival as well as political rights. Even further, under circumstances of threatened annihilation or mass dispersal of the population, an independent Kosovo is the only real-life solution.

But the Kosovars' absolutely legitimate struggle is only one element in what has become a much larger and reactionary imperialist war. The United States always regarded the Kosovars as bargaining pawns, never supported Kosovo independence-and even welcomed the defeat of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1998, when the Yugoslav military launched its first assaults. Yet even aside from that, we do not support "liberating" Kosovo through NATO destruction of Serbia's cities and people....

...The KLA itself is no left-wing force: It appears to be politically incoherent at best, and (probably for that reason) vastly overestimated its prospects for military success against Milosevic's army. But it is fighting a justified war for independence and against a threatened genocide.

Given imperialism's responsibility for this tragedy, we can only demand that all the Kosovar refugees receive immediate asylum wherever they wish to come. For those who choose refuge in the United States, that means the right to come here-with unconditional rights to permanent residency or citizenship or return to their homeland whenever they may choose-not the unspeakable plan to put them in detention in Guam or Guantanamo.

Equally important, we must do everything in our power to reach out to the doubly besieged democratic opposition activists in Serbia, who are being bombed from the air by NATO and hunted down by the regime on the ground, in some cases threatened with being drafted into the Serb army or the ethnic-cleansing paramilitaries for duty in Kosovo....

...Finally, in the military conflict that now dominates the ruins of former Yugoslavia, let's be clear: There is no side to support, neither Milosevic's genocidal post-stalinism nor NATO imperialism. Neither side is a lesser evil. Freedom for Kosovo! Abolish NATO! *****

With this level of political confusion and contradiction in the _AtC_ editorial, it is no wonder Branka Magas found it easy to deride it:

***** Winners and Losers: Along NATO's Road to War/Ruin by Branka Magas <>

NATO-Friend and Foe

Your explanation of what actually pushed NATO into intervening, though persuasive in part, is essentially contradictory. The half-hearted nature with which NATO has been pursuing this war argues against the alleged threat of a "more virulent post-Cold War NATO" bent on intervening everywhere emerging as a result. It is true, on the other hand, that the United States and its NATO allies have miscalculated Milosevic's determination and that, once their bluff was called, they had to act. This "need to save face," however, cannot be the only reason. During the war in Bosnia Western bluff was often called with no comparable reaction. Western soldiers wearing UN uniform were at one time tied to strategic objects to prevent NATO bombing them. What has made the Western governments finally undertake this action has been the understanding that, unless Milosevic accepts some degree of self-rule for Kosova, the whole of the southern Balkans would explode, with unpredictable consequences for Europe.

The emergence of the KLA was the sign that something had to be done, not least because Belgrade was using the KLA as a pretext for the start of its campaign of "ethnic cleansing." After Milosevic had refused to accept the Rambouillet compromise, a limited number of strikes from the air were supposed to make him change his mind. If Milosevic had not used the start of the bombing to push a million of Kosovars into the neighboring countries, NATO would have stopped its action early on. But once he did, NATO had no choice but to carry on. If the Kosovars are unable to return to their homes, war will spread to Macedonia and Albania and throughout the whole region in fact. This is no idle threat. An even greater destruction, disruption of economic exchange and outflow of refugees would be the result. This is something that Europe could not possibly tolerate.

It should be also borne in mind that NATO's defeat will be perceived as a defeat not only of the West, but also of democracy and individual human rights which it has come to symbolize. Western retreat would feed anti-democratic forces in general and all kinds of reactionary and xenophobic forces will gain in strength. If Milosevic can murder and deport hundreds of thousands of Bosnians and Albanians and get away with it, why should not others try to get rid of their minorities, even when these are very large? And why should one stop at the ethnic Other? Why not drive out or kill all those who do not think like you? Why should one not murder or drive into exile journalists or trade unionists, for example? This is what all kinds of people will be asking. These are some of the reasons why Europe cannot afford to allow genocide to be become a "normal" part of its political reality.

The people who these past month have been demonstrating in the streets of Western Europe against NATO bombing and for immediate negotiation with Belgrade do not understand what is at stake. Fifty years of peace and prosperity have made West Europeans comfortable and complacent. They refuse to see that other unprincipled settlements which their governments have made with Milosevic over the past years have made many millions destitute and a good part of the Balkans destroyed. They do not wish to see (such is the political culture that has formed them) that the regime in Belgrade is something quite exceptional-a machine put together for the purpose making war, which can survive only by permanently generating conflict.

Your editorial seeks NATO's defeat "on the grounds that by its very nature it is not and cannot be anything other than a machine for imperialist domination" and that the USA has gone to war against Serbia in order to maintain its hegemony. The United States and NATO did not provoke the war, it says, and actually tried to avoid it "through a criminal policy of appeasement." However, now that they have stopped avoiding war, now that they have given up the policy of appeasement, it accuses them of seeking "naked military-political aggrandizement or profit." It sketches out an unlikely scenario of an all-out occupation and redrawing of the map of the Balkans' (a costly enterprise in a region in which NATO states have no direct economic interest) and presents it as the realities: "Given these realities, it is impossible for socialists to want NATO's operation to succeed."

This line of argument is purely ideological. The editorial, in fact, need not have been written at all. Your paper could have simply stated that, since NATO is an imperialist alliance, supporting NATO is supporting imperialism. What begins as a "truly agonizing dilemma"-between the need for immediate action to stop the crimes against the population of Kosova and the need to oppose and halt imperialist interventions-turns out not to be a dilemma at all. The choice was easily made. Halting NATO is far more important than halting Milosevic. While the Kosovars seek support in the polities and public opinion of Western Europe and the United States, given their power to affect their fate, your magazine is concerned above all with potential dissenters within the socialist camp: "Our fundamental quarrel is not with the victims who are understandably seeking help from any possible source, but rather with those supporters of this war who fail to face up to the consequences of where it is most likely to lead."

For the people in the Balkans, however, the consequences of NATO's failure to stop Milosevic far outweigh the danger of NATO's imperialist ambitions. After all, NATO is sitting in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but its soldiers are not torching towns and villages, murdering and raping helpless citizens. For the Kosovars the main enemy is not NATO but Milosevic: it is he, not NATO, who must be defeated, if they are to return to their homes. As your editorial states, NATO defeat means that "the Kosovars will be left a landless and homeless people." This does not detract true socialists, [see note 3] however, from the belief that NATO's ruin - not Milosevic's ruin - "is the only possible good that can come from this horrific human holocaust." They "uphold Kosovars' right to struggle for their survival by any means available to them"-provided, of course, that one of these means is not NATO. But if not NATO, which other?

This categorical stance would be more understandable if "true socialists" offered a workable alternative. They do not, however. As the editorial puts it so neatly: "Obviously we cannot influence in any way the struggle between the Kosova Albanians and the Yugoslav Army." The seemingly compassionate demand that "all the [one million] Kosovar refugees receive immediate asylum wherever they wish to come" will, however, only relieve Milosevic of his unwanted human burden. Tens of thousands of Albanians who leave Kosova's neighborhood for a permanent settlement in the so-called "third countries" will not return to disturb the newly created ethnic balance in "Serb Kosovo." The Kosovars, however, do not wish to become refugees in the USA, but return to their own country. *****

While I strongly disagree with Branka Magas' argument, and it's good that _AtC_ didn't go so far as to support the NATO bombings outright, it is easy to see that Magas' argument is at least more politically consistent and principled than the _AtC_ editors'. That is why I have been criticizing the muddled thinking of assorted liberals and leftists, postmodern or otherwise. Muddled thinking (in part held together by misinformation) made it easier for Magas, Gitlin, and other hawks to sell their line, for in comparison to the NLR, the Against the Current, etc., their [i.e. hawks'] argument was at least logically coherent.

Yoshie *****


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