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The first therapeutic war

What can Kosovo tell us about conflict and politics today? asks Mick Hume

As the refugee camps for ethnic Albanians filled up on the border between Kosovo and Macedonia, another California-based charity with too much time and money on its hands arrived to aid the victims of war. The Americans' helpful advice to the refugees was: i) rearrange the positioning of all the tents according to the mystical laws of Feng Shui; and ii) only eat the food parcels if they are vegetarian. Meanwhile, as the aid agencies and charity workers pouring into the region jostled for the best hotel space with the international press corps, animal charities in Britain were publishing appeals for cash to help feed the stray dogs of Kosovo.

Before NATO's war against the Serbs had even ended, doctors in the West were racing to be first to predict the emergence of a 'Balkan war syndrome' among NATO forces (despite the fact that, nine years and a lot of expensive research later, nobody has ever proved the existence of 'Gulf War syndrome'). Once the war was over, as the refugees began returning to Kosovo, an ethnic Albanian spokesman announced that his entire people was likely to suffer from another unproven medical condition: post-traumatic stress disorder. 'What we need', he told the world media, 'is an army of psychiatrists'. He need not have worried. As the KFOR forces moved into Kosovo, the mighty counselling corps of the Western charity sector were hot on their heels.

Under the direction of Clinton and Blair, Kosovo became the world's first therapeutic war. Not only did it act as a magnet for many of the psycho fads and trends of our time. At its heart, NATO's intervention represented the projection of the new therapeutic politics of emotion on to the international stage. A look back at how this worked out can tell us something not only about the war, but about the wider political culture which gave rise to it.

Much confusion still exists about why the war over Kosovo started, how it was conducted, and why it ended when it did. That is not particularly surprising, since in many ways NATO's intervention against the Serbs was unlike other wars. So what made Kosovo different? NATO's war was not driven by any of the normal geopolitical or strategic interests which might have motivated previous foreign interventions.

The Western powers of the NATO alliance had no strategic interest in going to war with President Milosevic of Yugoslavia. Just a few months before the bombing campaign began, the Americans described Milosevic as 'a man we can do business with'. Nor did the NATO powers have any geopolitical stake in promoting independence for the Yugoslav province of Kosovo. Only last year, Washington's representative in the region denounced the Kosovo Liberation Army as terrorists and told the ethnic Albanians to negotiate a settlement with Belgrade, because no outside power was going to intervene on their behalf.

As Michael Hirsh, the Newsweek diplomatic correspondent, noted early in the war, one of the many confusing things about the conflict was that the US administration and the Milosevic regime actually shared a strategic interest over Kosovo. Neither of them wanted an independent Kosovo, which Washington feared could further destabilise the region.

Why, then, did NATO embark on an intervention that was guaranteed to sever Kosovo from Serbia and send shockwaves through the Balkans? Tony Blair insisted throughout that it was a humanitarian mission on behalf of the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo. It was, he declared, a war fought 'for a moral purpose as much as a strategic interest', a campaign 'not for territory but for values'. Yet as many critics have pointed out since Kosovo, Blair's much-hyped 'new internationalism' has not led to big interventions in other trouble spots like Kurdistan, East Timor or Sierra Leone. NATO's war clearly had little to do with any international commitment to ending conflict.

In fact, the moral purpose of NATO's war over Kosovo came far more from over here than over there. It was an international intervention launched by Western governments for almost entirely domestic reasons.

The governments of America, Britain, Germany and France were drawn into the conflict over Kosovo by a combination of factors, some of which were peculiar to their particular national circumstances. But the most powerful factor, and the one which ultimately exerted a decisive influence over them all, was the need to cohere a consensus at home and so consolidate the position of the new political elites now running the Western world.

President Clinton, Prime Minister Blair and Germany's Chancellor Schröder all represent a new generation of political leaders attempting to put their stamp on the societies they run. Lacking the rigid certainties which underpinned their right-wing predecessors during the Cold War years, the new left-liberal elites are in search of a political identity that can give them a powerful sense of mission for today. The difficulties they face in inventing such an identity are well illustrated by the empty waffle about the Clinton-Blair Third Way.

Against this background, the local conflict in Kosovo exerted a powerful pull on the governments of the West. Despite the lack of enthusiasm for intervention in many quarters, in the end they could not pass up the opportunity to be seen to act. While more traditional politicians and military men complained that they could see no national interest to justify intervention in Kosovo, it fitted the bill well for Clinton, Blair and Schröder. Joining a war against a Serb regime which had been labelled 'the new Nazis' provided them with the ideal vehicle forcefully to demonstrate that they had the new 'values' and 'moral purpose' of which Blair spoke. The influential broadsheet newspaper columnists who wrote of Kosovo as 'the test of our generation', describing it as the equivalent of their fathers fighting fascism, captured this sense of the Balkan war as a stage on which a new generation in the West could demonstrate their moral leadership.

The primary motive behind NATO's war, then, was to create a new consensus of values and purposeful sense of community within the political elites of Western societies themselves. In the language of self-help which they all seem so fond of, they were embarking on an outreach programme to improve their own self-esteem. Once that domestic motivation is understood, it becomes possible to make sense of some of the more puzzling features of the conflict.

Why did the American and British governments enter the key 'peace talks' at Rambouillet apparently determined to start a war with Milosevic, by presenting him with a set of conditions to which they knew no Yugoslav government could agree? Having picked their fight, why did they then launch several weeks of relatively low-level, ineffective bombing, before suddenly switching to a campaign of destruction against Serbia's civilian infrastructure? And why did NATO's declared war aims keep changing in the early weeks, giving the clear impression that they were making it up as they went along?

The apparently out-of-control character of the war, which confused many commentators at the time, makes more sense once the NATO governments' essentially domestic motives for intervening are understood. Since the war was not really about Kosovo, they had no clear plan of action on the ground, or longer-term strategy for what to do in the Balkans. Instead, what mattered to the Western governments was that Something Must Be Done, and be seen to be done. The question of what exactly should be done, and of what would happen next, could wait.

In the battle over Kosovo, NATO leaders reversed the conventional relationship between the military and propaganda aspects of war. A war is usually fought for the practical, strategic purposes of realpolitik. It will then be justified in public by propaganda depicting it as a moral war for freedom, democracy, etc. The intervention in Kosovo, however, was primarily staged for the purpose of creating a moral/political consensus at home. An essentially propagandistic objective was pursued using military means. This was why, for the first time ever, war crimes indictments were issued against Serb leaders during the war rather than after the cessation of hostilities. The war crimes tribunal was being used as a propagandist instrument of war, to strengthen the image of the Serbs as evil and so underline the NATO leaders' self-image as a force for good.

The domestic agendas of the new political elites in the West shaped the way in which the war was fought, reported and understood. War is, as Clausewitz established long ago, the pursuit of politics by other means. No surprise, then, that the war over Kosovo became another means of pursuing the new politics of emotion which Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have pioneered.

Public displays of emotion have become the political style of the late 1990s. Presidents and premiers are not only allowed to parade their tears and trembling lips in public: they are expected to do so in order to show that they care. The language of political discourse is now saturated in emotional psychobabble. Clinton and Blair always talk about 'reaching out' and tell us how they feel and care. The president's early message of reassurance to the American people - 'I feel your pain' - could serve as a slogan for any aspiring politician.

Kosovo demonstrated all that is worst about the new therapeutic politics of emotion, where feeling is far more important than thinking. We were constantly bombarded with heart-rending reports and pictures of suffering refugees, in support of the impassioned demand that 'Something Must Be Done'. Any thoughtful individual who tried to ask whether the 'something' which NATO bombers were doing might actually be making matters worse was likely to be shouted down as a heartless brute - or worse.

One of the defining features of the new politics of emotion is its intolerance of dissent. Since feelings come first, no opinion can legitimately be expressed which might cause pain or offence to the chosen victims and those who empathise with them. So it was that a Labour cabinet minister like Clare Short could compare critics of the war in Kosovo to Nazi appeasers.

The therapeutic war was perhaps best symbolised in early May during a moving visit to the refugee camps by a barefoot 'Tonee, Tonee, Tonee' Blair, accompanied by a weeping Cherie in loveheart jewellery. A moved Mr Blair immediately let his feelings show by announcing a new hard line against the 'pariah' Serbs and more aid for the refugees. Such is the emotion-driven process by which war and foreign policy can be made today.

The fact that NATO fought its therapeutic Kosovo war primarily for the benefit of the Western elites themselves is reflected in any assessment of the winners and losers in that conflict.

The big winners of the war against the Serbs were all in the West. Blair's new Britain took the moral high-ground. Clinton's new America shrugged off the Vietnam syndrome. And Schröder's new Germany became the biggest political winner of all, going a long way to cleaning up its Holocaust-stained history by waging war against 'the new Nazis'.

The big losers were all in the East. Russia was exposed as an emperor with few clothes and no empire. The Balkan states which signed up for NATO's war were rewarded with the status of Euro-beggars. Even as the KFOR troops advanced into Kosovo, Western governments were already retreating from their big promises on Balkan reconstruction. Any aid that Romania, Bulgaria and the rest do get now will come with such restrictive conditions that they will probably be better off without it. The peoples of the region have a future of domination and dependency to look forward to. An army of Western experts and authorities is already discussing plans to order their lives through everything from counselling to EU-run border controls.

The ethnic Albanians of Kosovo would be many people's idea of the local winners, yet it remains unclear how much even they will gain. The only central authority in the chaos of Kosovo now rests in the hands of Bernard Kouchner, the co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières turned high-handed UN High Representative. He will run Kosovo by diktat for the foreseeable future, backed by 30 000 troops and the 50 outside agencies now running things in the tiny province.

The Serbs, of course, were the biggest losers. Despite NATO leaders' insistence that their argument is only with Milosevic, the Serbs are now subject to a new kind of xenophobia which damns entire races and nations. Instead of the crude racism of the old-fashioned imperialists, however, the Serbs are condemned most loudly by liberal intellectuals using the language of therapy-speak to describe these people's 'pathological' nature.

The emergence of the therapeutic war marks a new era in international conflict. Those who tried to compare Kosovo to Vietnam could not have been wider of the mark. That was a war marked by a deep political commitment among both the anti-communist Cold Warriors of America and the Vietnamese nationalists. By comparison, Kosovo was a passionless war in which both sides appeared at times to be going through the motions. The Milosevic regime declared that it would fight tooth and nail for Serbia's heritage. Yet, abandoned by Russia, it appeared to suffer a moral collapse and gave up almost overnight. For its part, NATO insisted that it would sacrifice all for its great humanitarian cause. But its leaders refused to allow soldiers to fight in a war, so creating the impression, as we have noted before, of a moral crusade led by moral cowards.

As for the rest of us, the war - like much of politics today - seemed largely to pass people by. There was no war fever, yet no anti-war movement either. It became the only war in memory where the criticism grew quieter rather than louder as it dragged on. Perhaps, in the therapeutic spirit of the thing, the opposition had taken prozac and was lying down quietly in a dark room.

Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999

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