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Imagining intervention without violence

NCR Staff

It is the hard question that grips the conscience of anyone faced with TV images of mass graves and refugees, the question that has caused many an erstwhile pacifist to shrink from condemning the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia: If not military force, then what’s the answer?

When members of a minority are being killed by a ruthless regime using national sovereignty as a shield, when humanitarian pleas fall on deaf ears, what do you do?

“When the conflict opened, the peace community really didn’t articulate an answer to that question,” said Jim Douglas of Birmingham, Ala., a veteran activist and writer who has traveled widely in the Balkans.

“There are ideas out there,” Douglas said. “But we have to get them into circulation.”

As NATO and the Yugoslav authorities seem to near a settlement, observers such as Douglas say the need to identify nonviolent alternatives will lose none of its urgency. Whether in Kashmir, Kurdistan or some other hot spot, the world has not seen the last of ethnic cleansing, and the question of how to handle someone like Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic will recur.

The problem for critics of the bombing is that Kosovo isn’t Grenada, where assertions of an American “rescue mission” rang hollow in many ears from the start. In Kosovo, people are being shot, raped and run out of the country. If it takes bombs to combat such barbarism, many in the West believe, then such “humanitarian intervention” is justified.

Opponents of the war thus face the burden of proof: If you’re against violence, what do you suggest?

The first lesson from Kosovo, war opponents say, is the insight embodied in the Hippocratic oath: If you can do nothing else, at least do no harm.

“The one thing that is clear in this situation is that our reaction to the brutality in Kosovo did nothing to stop what Milosevic was doing,” said Howard Zinn, a progressive historian and author of A People’s History of the United States. “Instead it made things far worse.”

“The flow of refugees, the destruction of villages multiplied by five or six times after the bombing started,” he said. Zinn, who teaches at Boston University, spoke to NCR by telephone.

Can’t justify the damage

Pacifist author Eileen Egan of New York agreed. “Even if you believe in a just war,” she said, “the proportionate response is not to increase the suffering of the people we want to help.” Referring to the targeting of bridges, roads, water plants and other elements of the civilian infrastructure in Yugoslavia, Egan said, “We’ve wreaked more damage than we could possibly ever justify.”

Although the Clinton administration argues that the bombing worked -- that it brought Milosevic to the table -- Zinn says the basic conditions of the settlement could have been obtained several months ago. In the meantime, America has created the basis for future conflict.

“We’ve generated a deep resentment,” Zinn said. “We terrorized the ordinary people of Yugoslavia -- when children cannot sleep because of the incessant bombing, that’s terrorism. We have sown seeds of hatred which will endure, and we’re already seeing that in the breakdown of our relations with Russia and China.”

Eric Garris, a peace activist during the Vietnam era who is today a Republican political consultant, and who runs www.antiwar.com -- the leading antiwar site on the Internet -- echoed Zinn’s argument.

“The logic of the bombing seemed to be: We have to do something; this is something; therefore we have to do it. It’s absurd,” he said.

Garris said he sees a convergence in American politics between conservative neo-isolationists and liberals opposed to military engagement, both joining forces in opposition to the war in Yugoslavia -- and the broader policy of “humanitarian intervention” it represents.

“The application of military force almost never accomplishes what you think it will,” Garris said. “It’s like a physical law -- the more force you apply, the more people resist the solutions you’re trying to impose. You might be able to get short-term compliance, but unless you’re prepared to colonize, it won’t last. Look at Iraq for proof.”

Even if that’s true, however, the question remains: What else might have worked? Some suggest that the United States and its NATO partners need to show more confidence in the United Nations.

Follow existing laws

“The first thing you do is follow existing laws,” Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich said in a telephone interview with NCR. “It isn’t as if we have to invent some new means of resolving human conflict -- we have one, and it’s the U.N. The question is whether we’re willing to live up to our legal obligations to let the U.N do its work.

“If we work through the U.N., then Russia and China are a part of the process, rather than separated from it,” Kucinich, a Democrat, said. “We failed to do that. NATO instead took the law into its own hands and transformed itself, without any authorization, from an organization designed to defend liberty into one claiming the right to prosecute war anywhere in the world.”

Kucinich is among 26 members of Congress suing President Clinton for violation of the War Powers Act, which requires the president to obtain congressional approval for any commitment of American forces longer than 60 days. A federal judge threw out the lawsuit on June 8; Kucinich said he expected that the decision would be appealed.

“There’s a sense in which NATO is like someone who throws gasoline on a fire one minute, then rushes forward to douse it the next,” Kucinich said. “I’m not an absolute pacifist, but the only application of force I can imagine that would have any positive effect in a situation like this is one authorized by the Security Council, which reflects a consensus among the world community.”

For critics who protest that U.N. diplomacy is an endless process with an uncertain outcome, Zinn has a simple answer: “So’s bombing.”

“Violence is never the quick and easy solution it’s thought to be. This war dragged on for more than two months while the vast majority of Kosovars were forced out. Would negotiations have made things any worse? That’s hard to imagine,” Zinn said.

California State Sen. Tom Hayden, who founded the Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s and helped lead the movement against the war in Vietnam, agrees that negotiation was never given a chance to work in Kosovo.

“In the abstract, fighting against genocide is a higher value than preserving national sovereignty,” Hayden said. “But it’s such a drastic approach it would have to be a last resort, justified very broadly in the world and not just by one’s friends in NATO.” Hayden spoke to NCR by telephone.

So what was the road not taken in Yugoslavia? “Instead of marginalizing Russia, what if the International Monetary Fund had given Russia the billions it promised on the condition that Russia be fully focused on the tensions in the Balkans?” Hayden said.

“What if the European Union offered entry for Yugoslavia if Milosevic pulled his forces out of Kosovo? What if we threatened to freeze all the economic assets of Milosevic and his friends if he didn’t pull out?

“Are these fanciful suggestions? I don’t think so. In any event, it’s clear there was a failure of imagination here. We simply didn’t try hard enough to find nonviolent means of resolving the conflict,” Hayden said.

Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit agrees. “We’ve been conditioned to think of violence as realistic and pacifism as naive, even though evidence to the contrary is all around us,” he told NCR. Gumbleton was arrested on June 4 along with other antiwar protesters for attempting to deliver a letter to President Clinton at the White House.

“On that Tuesday after the shootings at Columbine High School, President Clinton went on television to tell the nation that we must teach our children not to solve problems with guns. The same night he ordered up a new round of bombing of Serbia. That is so blatantly hypocritical that I don’t know how he even managed to get the words out,” Gumbleton said.

“It speaks to the poverty of our imagination when it comes to nonviolence.”

One of the most creative proposals for a nonviolent solution to the Kosovo conflict was authored by Karl Meyer, a Nashville activist and longtime member of the peace movement. In the early stages of the Kosovo conflict, Meyer and two others circulated a two-page plan called “What Might Have Been.”

Credible alternatives

“There are credible nonviolent alternatives, but no one in power even seems to think of inventing them,” the document asserts.

Specifically, Meyer’s plan called on the Security Council to define the conditions for a just settlement. Then the secretary-general would assemble a “nonviolent army ... led by influential and persuasive figures in the world community.” Possibilities include: religious figures such as Orthodox patriarchs, Islamic leaders and the pope or bishops acting as his personal representative; Nobel Peace Prize winners such as former Costa Rica President Oscar Arias and Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa; retired world leaders such as Jimmy Carter and Mikhail Gorbachev; diplomats from Russia and other European neighbors of Yugoslavia; and activists trained in the practice of active listening and mediation, which might include veterans of the U.S. civil rights movement such as Andrew Young and John Lewis.

The plan called for the “nonviolent army” to be split into two brigades, one to go into Kosovo to stand between the KLA -- the Kosovar Albanian rebels -- and the Yugoslav forces, and another to go into Serbia to explain the Security Council principles and to carry out negotiations.

The nonviolent army would approach not just Milosevic and the Yugoslav government, but the people. “You gotta get around Milosevic and work with his constituency,” Meyer told NCR in a telephone interview. “No dictator can survive without the support of at least a large chunk of his people. Deprive him of that and a solution becomes possible.”

What happens if this “nonviolent army” is met with force? “The key is to have high-profile people involved,” Meyer said. “Milosevic knows right away you can’t meet Mikhail Gorbachev or Jesse Jackson with guns. It just wouldn’t happen.”

But what about the lesser profile folks who fan out into hamlets across the country to stand in the gap between the warring parties?

“Of course it involves a risk to your own life,” said Gumbleton, who endorsed the insertion of a peace army in situations like Kosovo. “We ask military people to lay their lives on the line, and we must be willing to make the same commitment.” Gumbleton said he would be willing to take part in such a nonviolent army.

Aside from specific proposals such as Meyers’, critics of the Yugoslav war say there are three other broad lessons to draw from the experience.

The first is that issuing ultimatums -- which is what they say happened at Rambouillet, the conference in France that triggered the war when Milosevic refused to accept a settlement proposed by the West -- is not the same thing as negotiating.

“The Rambouillet peace conference was a fait accompli from an angry, petulant, frustrated Madeline Albright,” Hayden said. “It was doomed from the start.”

“The Yugoslav authorities were given a nonnegotiable demand that they surrender sovereignty over Kosovo, and were told that if they didn’t do it they would be bombed,” Kucinich said. “No nation would have accepted those terms.”

“You either negotiate in good faith, without forcing a predetermined scheme on people, or you don’t do it at all,” Hayden said.

The second broad lesson is that when we can see trouble coming -- and obviously, no one was shocked by conflict in the Balkans -- the West should find those who stand for peace in the region and support them.

“The tragedy is that there was a powerful, broad-based peace movement in Yugoslavia that has been almost totally marginalized by the bombing,” Douglas said.

“There’s a group called the Women in Black, for example, whose members held vigils in Belgrade to protest what was happening in Kosovo and who formed links with other democratic opposition to Milosevic. They had Milosevic on the run -- he was floundering,” Douglas said.

“These groups have seen their political credibility all but destroyed” because of the bombing, Douglas said. “It is extremely difficult for people to maintain a distinction between their government and their country in the face of bombs that do not discriminate.”

Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan said, “Orthodox, Catholics, Muslims all asked to to be part of the peace process. But there was no attempt to organize the resources that were available to get some type of a settlement.”

Berrigan, who spoke by telephone with NCR, said one peace activist in Yugoslavia had written him: “Now we have NATO above and the tyrant below, and we’re being exterminated.”

Egan said, “Ibraham Rugova [Kosovar moderate leader], for all his faults, had been holding back the more militant Kosovars from responding in kind to harassment from the Serbs. He was given very little role at Rambouillet. Instead it became our policy to support the KLA.”

New category of war

Third, advocates of nonviolence say Kosovo should give the world pause about the new category of war NATO seems to have invented: “humanitarian intervention.”

Barbara Ehrenrich, author of Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, warns that rescue missions too easily metamorphose into wider military engagements, a process she calls “mission creep.”

“While the bombs rained down on Serbia, the humanitarian crisis that originally inspired the whole operation was relegated to a purely propagandistic role,” she wrote in a column on the war. She notes that the United States budgeted only $58.5 million for humanitarian aid in the Balkans, less than the cost of a single day’s bombing sorties.

Zinn says the noble language of “humanitarian intervention” must evoke skepticism. “The history of American foreign policy puts into great doubt that this is a humanitarian venture,” he said. “We claimed we were going into Vietnam to help the oppressed South Vietnamese, for example.” Zinn suggested that giving NATO a new lease on life, diverting attention from domestic politics, and “crass wartime profiteering” have to be taken into consideration alongside humanitarian motives.

“Every time I say I don’t want to attribute crass motives to people, it turns out I’ve underestimated the crassness of those who are making policy,” Zinn said.

But even assuming the noblest of motives, other critics warn that humanitarian interventions of the sort that NATO carried out in Yugoslavia set a dangerous precedent.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and social critic Noam Chomsky, in a widely-distributed essay on the war, quotes international law expert Louis Henkin:

“Violations of human rights are indeed all too common, and if it were permissible to remedy them by external use of force, there would be no law to forbid the use of force by almost any state against almost any other. Human rights, I believe, will have to be vindicated, and other injustices remedied, by other, peaceful means, not by opening the door to aggression and destroying the principal advance in international law, the outlawing of war and the prohibition of force.”

Kucinich agrees, arguing that “humanitarian intervention does not have to mean military force.

“We have to evolve into a world where war is archaic, where we can’t believe people once settled their differences that way,” Kucinich said. “We have to believe that peace, not war, is inevitable. We must exert a collective consciousness and create new circumstances -- this is the only way we can live.”

Role for Catholics

In terms of that new consciousness, Egan said Catholics could play a pivotal role. “We have to get over our need to prove that as immigrants we are equal citizens, and learn to refuse to comply in large numbers,” she said. “We have to bring our leaders up short, let them know they can’t count on us when they resort to violence.”

Responding to those who say that a more sophisticated analysis might lead to a conclusion that military intervention is sometimes acceptable, Berrigan would not budge.

“Every time a war breaks out we have all kinds of former pacifists,” he said. “I’ve seen this since Vietnam. Now we have a good war, now we have a just war, a necessary war. So we demonize the enemy and start the war. A pacifist between wars is like someone who is a vegetarian between meals.”

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1999