A case of domestic violence in Kosovo
Here is a comparative study in the new globalised politics. A hypothetical government tries to fill a moral vacuum by launching a hyped-up 'war on drugs' in Britain's cities. Result: a PR flop. The same government tries the same thing by launching a high-profile war against 'Nazis' far away in the Balkans. Result: a political triumph.
Conclusion? That however grim things get in NATO-occupied Kosovo, we can expect New Labour to embark on more international adventures.
The experts seem a little confused as to whether NATO's war against the Serbs was a one-off, or whether it has set a precedent for more of the same. Some say it won't happen again because there is only one President Milosevic to spank. Others think that it won't be repeated because the war over Kosovo exposed how much the NATO allies hate each other.
On the other side, some boast that Kosovo has opened an era of humanitarian intervention to clean up the world's ethical blackspots. And some claim that NATO's war on Yugoslavia was only the latest stage in an ongoing American conspiracy to control the world's oil supplies. (This last argument confirms that, whatever else the old left might have lost in recent years, it retains its unique capacity for self-delusion.)
All of these pundits seem to me to have missed the point. Which is not surprising, given that they are looking in the wrong place.
The primary motivation behind NATO's war against the Serbs has not been human rights, oil or anything else to do with the Balkans. The most powerful dynamic driving Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Germany's Gerhard Schröder down the road to war sprang from within their own societies. And long after Kosovo has become old news, problems back home in the USA, Britain and Germany will still be prompting governments to act like leaders somewhere on the international stage. In one form or another, there are plenty more interventions where Kosovo came from.
The Kosovo crisis has been played out as a piece of grisly political theatre, directed from Washington and Whitehall, in which the local players served as little more than puppets. Milosevic? Only a few months ago, the Americans described him as 'a man we can do business with'. But when they needed a pantomime villain, he became the new Hitler. The Kosovo Liberation Army? A year ago they were branded as terrorists and drug-runners. When the bombing began, the KLA was made an unofficial member of the NATO alliance. Then when the Serbs started to back down, NATO told its KLA 'allies' to disarm and disappear again.
It seems that NATO's only consistent war aim over Kosovo was to make war, regardless of the chaos in Kosovo and destruction in Serbia that would follow. It has now been revealed that, at the abortive Rambouillet talks which preceded the war, a senior Ameri- can official told reporters in confidence that the US delegation had deliberately set down conditions which they knew no Yugoslav government could accept, in order to provoke a conflict. 'We intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply', the US official is reported to have said: 'They need some bombing, and that's what they are going to get.'
Given that they never had any aversion to dealing with Milosevic, or any attachment to Kosovan independence, why were the Americans and their British allies so keen to have a war with the Serbs over Kosovo? The answer lies not over there, but over here, in the crisis of political legitimacy and moral authority now afflicting American and European societies. (See Frank Furedi's analysis of this crisis in this issue.)
In politics now, left and right mean nothing and there are no ideologies or political principles worthy of the name. Instead it seems that every government operates according to the simple slogan, 'Something Must Be Done'.
Today's successful politicians sense that something must be done to make a new connection with the alienated electorate; that something must be done to give drifting governments an air of authority and sense of mission; that something must be done to recreate a moral consensus in societies that have lost touch with traditional notions of right and wrong.
Since few of these politicians actually believe in anything much, the detail of what 'thing' they do is pretty unimportant. All that matters is that they do, and are seen to be doing, something to fill the moral/political vacuum.
That is why a government like Tony Blair's New Labour is constantly churning out parliamentary bills, initiating policy reviews, setting up inquiries and appointing new officials. It also explains why the process of government in Britain has been turned into something resembling a permanent press conference (a technique, like many others, imported from the USA.) The concern of all this furious media-oriented activity is both to stake out the moral high-ground for the government, and to bridge the legitimacy gap now separating politics from 'the People' (while at the same time insulating the authorities from any genuine democratic pressure).
The trouble is, many initiatives from the Something Must Be Done school of politics are too obviously stage-managed to have much effect. Take the comparison between the war on drugs and the war on Milosevic.
When the government relaunched its war on drugs in Britain, with a new 'Drugs Czar' leading an army of police, counsellors and GPs into battle, it made little impact on the public. Most critically minded people could see that it was essentially a PR exercise designed to make the authorities look good, which might boost the prison population and the counselling industry but will do nothing to solve the problems of our inner cities.
When the government switched its attention to the international stage and launched a war against the Serb 'Nazis', however, sending an army of soldiers and aid workers into the Balkans, it was assured of a consensus back home. Those same people who sneered at the war on drugs as an obvious political stunt seemed to be among the first to shelve their critical perspective and accept Blair's war against Milosevic at face value. Many who have questioned the government's ability to decide between right and wrong, on issues ranging from GM food to the Asylum Bill, enthusiastically embraced the prime minister's definition of NATO's war against the Serbs as a battle 'between Good and Evil'.
The war with Yugoslavia was about transposing the politics of Something Must Be Done on to the international stage, where there is more scope to whip up support for doing something to Johnny Serb. But the pressures to which the government was responding came from the home front. In this sense, NATO's war over Kosovo can be understood as a bad case of domestic violence, carried out in foreign fields.
When Tony Blair said that war was being fought for a 'moral purpose', he meant it. His primary moral purpose, however, was to galvanise Britain itself. Blair's own self-righteous version of the Something Must Be Done ethos was summed up by a speech about supporting charities that he made back in January.
'Let those of us who believe in the power of community reclaim the idea of doing good and wear it as a badge of pride', preached the prime minister: 'It is good to do good - good for those charities and organisations and neighbourhoods in which the good is being done, but good for the do-gooder as well.' Thus Blair not only became the first person in living memory to use the label 'do-gooder' as a 'badge of pride', but also let slip that a central motive behind his government's do-gooding at home and abroad is to give the elite of New Britain a sense of its own moral superiority.
It is in this sense that, from the start, LM characterised the war over Kosovo as Blair's moral crusade, akin to a religious war. But it has become clear that there is one important difference between Blair, Clinton and the Crusaders who went before them. Crusaders conventionally believe that they are fighting for their faith, something many hold more dear than life itself. So, as well as showing no mercy to those considered 'infidels', they have often shown scant regard for their own safety. The zealots of medieval Christianity and the Islamic martyrs of more recent times come to mind. By contrast, the Clinton/Blair crusaders seem to believe in nothing except that Something Must Be Done to demonstrate their own goodness. That helps explain why they fought their war over Kosovo as an unheroic, long-distance campaign of death from the air, with no ground troops and not one NATO casualty involved. The impression it left was of a postmodern crusade led by moral cowards.
That, however, did not prevent Blair's crusade scoring an easy political victory at home, where the lack of opposition enabled him to promote himself as NATO's most prominent Hawk. The key to Blair's success was that almost all of his critics accepted his demand that Something Must Be Done in Kosovo - they just wanted something different, usually a ground war. The idea that any such international intervention might make matters worse, as it has done throughout the Yugoslav tragedy, never entered the heads of the Something Must Be Done club. With the mainstream British 'opponents' of his adventure demanding more war rather than less, Blair was home free.
The consensus within the political class that Blair established around Kosovo should not, however, be confused with heartfelt popular support. In an age when politics passes most people by, even the war made little lasting impact. Blair is left with no option but to launch further interventions at home and abroad, in order to keep up the appearance of a crusading, purposeful government leading the People. The politics of Something Must Be Done is a dangerously self-perpetuating creed.
As we go to press, NATO's bombing war against the Serbs seems to be ending in predictable fashion, as a triumph for Tony Blair and a disaster for just about everybody else. There is a scene in a dreadful old Monty Python film, where two peasants up to their necks in mud in their vile village street survey a pristine stranger. 'It's the king!' 'How do you know it's the king?' ''Cos he ain't covered in shit.'
Hail Tony, Crusader King of Kosovo, Mr Clean of NATO's dirty war. With Kosovo a wasteland, and Serbia a bombsite, we are left to wonder who the new Crusaders will save next.
Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999