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[whitespace] 'Virtual War' Give War a Chance

In 'Virtual War,' Michael Ignatieff shows how the U.S. tried to bomb its way back to the moral high ground in Kosovo

By Ralph Seliger


IN THE SPRING OF 1994, the United States and most of the rest of the international community, including the United Nations, effectively ignored the genocide being perpetrated against the Tutsi population of Rwanda. A recently publicized report has justly condemned U.N. peacekeeping forces for their blatant failures to safeguard Bosnians--8,000 slaughtered at Srebrenica in 1995 and 10,000 murdered during the three-year siege of Sarajevo--and as many as 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis slain during 100 horrendous days in 1994.

It was in Kosovo last year that the U.S. sought to regain the moral high ground. Still, in seeking to stop Serbian forces on the cheap, with virtually no risk to its own combat forces, the U.S. showed its primary concern to be the maintenance of political support at home. Michael Ignatieff, son of a Canadian diplomat who had served in Belgrade in the late 1950s, supported the NATO military intervention against his former home, but in a clear-eyed and coldly analytical way.

In the case of Kosovo, NATO sidestepped the U.N. Security Council to avoid Russian and Chinese vetoes. As Ignatieff points out in his new book, Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond, the legitimacy of NATO's war was thereby weakened, but there were no real alternatives.

Ignatieff views the evils of a world bereft of moral leadership and political courage. But his concerns are exactly opposite to those of the bitterest critics of this war--especially those on the left--who see Kosovo as symptomatic of an overarching plan for world domination by the U.S. and the corporate giants of international capitalism. The latter deplore the New World Order; the former bemoans a new world disorder.

Ignatieff dubs the NATO air campaign in Kosovo as the first of what he fears may be many "virtual wars": the West, and particularly the U.S., has the technological edge to conduct military operations devoid of casualties, without deploying ground troops. It's not that he wants to see casualties, but in viewing Kosovo--correctly--as a war for humanitarian values, the author suggests that these values are not strongly held if there is no political will to risk lives in their name.

Although its commitments to victory in WWII and to the defense of Western Europe and South Korea against Communism were open-ended, now the U.S. is obsessed with "exit strategies." This very notion, says Ignatieff, to "withdraw with minimal losses ... without committing troops of occupation," blunts the left's charge of neoimperialism. It also underscores the fact that the West has no patience today to make the investment needed in manpower and resources to remedy the problems that necessitated military responses in the first place.

This is most evident in Kosovo now, where governments have not sent adequate numbers of civilian police or in other ways carried out their pledges to assist the postwar reconstruction of a safe and lawful society.

IGNATIEFF EXAMINES how close the NATO strategy came to complete failure, how Yugoslav forces escaped serious damage and how targeting errors and ill-advised targeting decisions served to reinforce the power of Slobodan Milosevic and his ruling clique. But in the end, "going downtown," bombing such targets as the electricity grid late in the campaign, which seriously affected everyday civilian life, is what persuaded Milosevic to accede to NATO's terms.

The author does not address the left-wing argument--especially from Noam Chomsky--that the Rambouillet peace conference was not a true negotiation and that Yugoslavia had no choice but to fight or surrender its sovereignty. But to be salient, this point includes the assumption that Milosevic could be trusted to bargain in good faith--a dubious notion at best.

Chomsky's companion contention that the Serbian expulsion of 800,000 Albanian Kosovars was a reaction to the NATO air attacks is refuted both by Ignatieff and by any close reading of the news at the time. Serbian troops, special police and paramilitaries were deployed prior to the bombing, and were far more energetic on the ground than NATO planners had anticipated.

This was but another indication of how badly NATO performed during the war, matching the dismal failure of international peacekeepers to safeguard Serb, Roma and Albanian Kosovars from ethnic violence and rampant lawlessness after the war.

Ignatieff points out that another virtual war is being fought in slow motion today by the U.S. and British air forces in Iraq, where about as much explosive tonnage has fallen since 1998 as was used against Yugoslavia in 1999.

Although he considers the Gulf War of 1991 the last of the West's "real" wars, it had unmistakable "virtual" qualities--including the ultimate unwillingness to destroy the pillar of Saddam Hussein's regime, his Republican Guard divisions. Coalition forces were all too eager to exit quickly after liberating Kuwait and only belatedly defended Kurds and southern Shiites against the murderous regime's vengeance with the two "no-fly zones." In other words, humanitarian purposes for the use of force seem always to be shortchanged.


Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond by Michael Ignatieff; Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Co.; 246 pages; $23.00

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From the July 13-19, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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