The Documentary

Background to the conflict Propaganda and truth: the media in Kosovo Genocide: what's in a word? Blair's moral crusade Opposition to the conflict


Tony Blair has taken a leading role in NATO's offensive against Yugoslavia, combining a professed 'humanitarianism' with a reputation for being a 'hawk' on military matters. LM Online looks at how Blair's crusade in the name of 'decent values' is even worse than old-fashioned warmongering.

  1. 'Bomber' Blair's crusade, by Mick Hume
  2. Why Blair's 'humanitarian' was is even worse, by Mick Hume
  3. Blair's utterances on the Kosovo conflict
  4. Other views

1. 'Bomber' Blair's crusade

Mick Hume, editor of LM, on the real moral purpose of Blair's war

No matter when it ends, the war against Serbia has already made history. It is a war like no other, not least because those who started it - the British and American governments - have claimed that they are not actually at war at all.

Of course it is war, and a groundbreaking one at that. It is the first time that NATO, ostensibly a defensive creature of the Cold War, has attacked a sovereign state; and the first time that a Labour government has led Britain into a major international conflict, involving democratic socialist air strikes against passenger trains, television transmitters and homes.

In another sense, however, it is true that this is not a war as we have come to understand war over the past 200 years. This time it is obvious that there is no immediate issue of national interest at stake for Britain's rulers. Unlike the Falklands War of 1982, there is no threat to British sovereignty around which the right can rally to the flag. And unlike the Gulf War of 1991, there are no oilfields which the left can claim as evidence of an exploitative 'capitalist war'.

Instead, as prime minister Tony Blair told parliament on Tuesday 13 April, this war is being fought 'for a moral purpose as much as a strategic interest'. Or as he wrote in Newsweek: 'In this conflict we are fighting not for territory but for values. For a new internationalism where the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated. For a world where those responsible for such crimes have nowhere to hide.' (19 April)

This unprecedented rationale for going to war has caused considerable confusion, and led to unusual alliances both for and against. The cheerleaders for Blair's war party include leading left wingers like Ken Livingstone and Vanessa Redgrave and the liberal Guardian, while the normally gung-ho Tory MPs, military men and the Daily Mail have more tended to hang back at the edge of the mob.

Blair's Newsweek article, where he set out what he dubbed the 'progressive' case for military action, started a press debate in which the world seemed to be turned on its head. There was Stephen Glover of the Mail and Spectator complaining that, by arguing for humanitarian intervention around the world, 'Tony Blair, new politician and inveterate warrior' would have us 'endlessly at war'. Meanwhile in the Guardian, Hugo Young (while pointing out 'how treacherous the humanitarian course can be'), congratulated Blair for asserting 'a principle that is new and, progressively, admirable: the moral imperative to stop dictators brutally punishing and exterminating national ethnic groups'.

So how are we to make sense of this novel state of affairs, which so powerfully illustrates LM's arguments about the end of the old politics of left and right? Blair is indeed on a moral mission in the Balkans. But it is not about ending 'the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups' or seeking 'to stop dictators'.

There is an inconsistency in the Anglo-American attitude towards repressive regimes, which demonstrates that something else must be going on. President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, who has been singled out as the target of Blair's progressive war, certainly has a grim record of repressing the ethnic Albanian minority within Serbia. But he is no worse than other rulers in the region, most notably Croatian president Franjo Tudjman. In 1995, Tudjman's forces drove around 200 000 Serbs out of their historical Krijina enclave within Croatia - the largest single forced movement of refugees in the entire Yugoslav civil war. Yet nobody in the West called that 'ethnic cleansing', never mind threatening to go to war over it - indeed NATO was busy bombing the Bosnian Serbs at the same time.

The 'moral purpose' for which Blair claims he is fighting this war clearly has little to do with protecting the welfare of the peoples of the region, be they Turkish Kurds or Macedonians. Even Kosovo's Albanians are merely a hapless stage army of televisual victims, whose suffering provides a convenient pretext for war. NATO contemptuously bombed their towns and cities. Then, when the air strikes precipitated an entirely predictable humanitarian crisis, the 'shocked' West rushed in the news crews to capture the refugees' tears.

The real 'moral purpose' of Blair's war is not to be found in the Balkans at all, but back home in Britain. As ever, foreign policy is an extension of domestic politics. The war against the Serbs is primarily about giving Mr Blair's government itself an aura of moral authority and a sense of mission. It is about projecting a self-image of the ethical New Britain bestriding the world. It is a crusade.

Like the medieval originals, the New Labour crusaders seem almost entirely ignorant of who they are off to fight, and why. It is a case of 'insert appropriate enemy here', be it last year's model Saddam Hussein or the 1999 choice, Slobodan Milosevic, a man whose name could have been made up by Sun headline writers. All that matters is finding a suitably ugly infidel against whom they can demonstrate their own righteousness.

At a time when it finds it difficult to forge a moral consensus in British society, and uncertainty dogs issues ranging from genetic engineering to road-building, the government will eagerly seize opportunities to lay down the law about what is Right and what is Wrong on the international stage. It is always easier to draw such a rigid line in the sand in a faraway country of which you know little and care less.

This is what Blair meant when he announced that the war against the Serbs is 'no longer just a military conflict. It is a battle between Good and Evil; between civilisation and barbarity'. Implicit in this statement is that, as a counterpoint to the Evil Milosevic, Blair himself is a force for Good in Britain and around the world. New Labour has appointed itself saviour of civilisation, on a high-minded mission to re-educate the barbarians; 'we are there to alter his behaviour', the ridiculous George Robertson said of Milosevic as NATO stepped up its bombing campaign, as if Her Majesty's secretary of state for defence was a therapist using Cruise missiles instead of a couch.

'Bomber' Blair's crusade is not simply about winning public support; the New Labour government appears to have few problems in that department, at least while the 'opposition' is led by little Willie Hague. New Labour's moral mission is rather about forging a renewed sense of self-confidence within the powerful British elite itself, at a time when traditional sources of authority from the church to the monarchy are losing their grip. At Easter time even the troubled Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, sought to throw in his lot with Blair's new religion, preaching a sermon against the 'crucifixion of Kosovo' in the hope that some of the prime minister's righteousness might rub off on his robes.

The self-flattering image of New Britain which Blair's crusade seeks to endorse is captured by the touching pictures of army officers bottle-feeding Albanian babies, and brushing the hair of little girl refugees separated from their parents. This is a nanny state with a difference, claiming the right to act in loco parentis for all those it deems deserving. Armed with a brick of moral superiority in her handbag, development minister Clare Short can bully Macedonian border officials about not acting like civilised Europeans, displaying what used to be called imperial arrogance but is now considered ethically correct behaviour. And behind her, an army of radical activists, actors, journalists and others have signed on for New Labour's religious war, in search of a cause with which to make them feel better about themselves and purge their souls.

Inevitably it seems, in seeking to find a clear moral purpose in Kosovo today, the new crusaders fall back on drawing rhetorical parallels with the Second World War. The Nazi Holocaust stands as perhaps the most powerful remaining moral absolute in the modern world. That is why government ministers and journalists insist that Milosevic is 'like Hitler', that the Serbs are threatening 'another Holocaust', and that, in the words of foreign secretary Robin Cook, 'NATO was born in the aftermath of the defeat of fascism and genocide in Europe. NATO will not now allow this century to end with a triumph for fascism and genocide'.

In fact, as several more rational commentators pointed out, there can be no sensible comparison between Hitler's Germany and Milosevic's Serbia (see this issue for a detailed discussion of these issues). Yet this kind of 'never again' rhetoric, simplistic to the point of being totally moronic, is now the mainstay of every government war briefing, newspaper headline and TV news broadcast.

What all of this ideological smoke masks is that the new 'progressive' warfare is actually worse than the old-fashioned variety. As a crusade, Blair's war need not be constrained by the conventional rules of realpolitik. Since the end of the West's Cold War with the Soviet Union, the wider geopolitical considerations that might once have checked militaristic impulses are far less important. That was why the New Labour crusaders could be way ahead of the generals in demanding that Milosevic must be crushed. When you are running a grand mission to save the world, you need recognise no restraints. After all, those who proclaim that they have right on their side can do no wrong. All that matters is that Something Must Be Done, and worry about explaining away the consequences later.

The fact that this has been a politically motivated moral crusade, rather than a calculated military operation, helps to explain the out-of-control character of NATO's Balkan adventure, creating the widely received impression that strategy has been made up by NATO leaders as they go along. So it was that, through the first weeks of war, the crusade took on a dynamic of its own, jacking up the military stakes alongside the rhetoric, as the Kosovo Liberation Army was transformed from a proscribed terrorist group into an unofficial member of the NATO alliance, while more and more troops, tanks and aircraft were despatched to the theatre of war. As we go to press, serious questions remain about where all of this will end.

Throughout the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, we have insisted in the face of all the shrill demands for intervention that outside interference is the problem, not the solution, and that more of it can only make things worse. I take no pleasure in the fact that our stand is now being spectacularly vindicated, as NATO's war on what remains of Yugoslavia wreaks havoc across the Balkans.

Way back in December 1991, in an editorial in what was then Living Marxism magazine, I wrote that 'if the West's latest propaganda campaign is pursued to its ultimate conclusion, Serbia may well suffer Iraq's fate of being blown off the map'. That sentence has since been cited by ITN, in the documents supporting its libel case against LM magazine and me, as 'proof' that I am a one-eyed Serbomaniac. I leave it to our readers to judge for themselves.

This article was originally published in the May issue of LM

2. Why Blair's 'humanitarian' war is even worse, by Mick Hume

For the first time, a Labour prime minister leads Britain into a major international war. What's more, Tony Blair is being cheered on loudest by the 'peacenik' Guardian and 'Red' Ken Livingstone, while Tory MPs and the Daily Mail worry about the war. If anybody still doubts that the era of traditional right v left politics has ended, let them inspect the evidence in the craters Bomber Blair and his NATO allies have left behind in Serbia.

Some on the old left see this as a case of New Labour taking over the mantle of Thatcher-style militarism. But it is worse than that. The grim truth is that those who now wage war in the name of humanitarianism are even more dangerous than the old war parties.

Blair himself has made clear that the war against Milosevic's Serbia 'is no longer just a military conflict. It is a battle between Good and Evil; between civilisation and barbarity'.

In such a fundamental battle, the righteous do not feel themselves constrained in the way one might do during a mere 'military conflict'.

Traditional right-wing militarists might have tailored their battle strategy to take account of the needs of realpolitik and diplomacy; after all, their wars were only supposed to uphold their national interests. Blair's war, on the other hand, is a grand mission to save humanity. And when you are running such a high-minded crusade, you need recognise no restraints on the ground. Those who proclaim that they have right on their side can do no wrong.

That is why, as they drop their cluster bombs and fire their Cruise missiles from the vantage point of the moral high ground, Blair and his ministers and generals refuse even to consider that NATO's missions are killing people and destroying a country. They are simply 'degrading' the 'killing machine' of the evil Milosevic. Confronted with the fact that their war has caused a catastrophe in Kosovo, they insist that NATO air strikes are actually preventing a humanitarian disaster. Faced with the hard evidence of how NATO bombing raids have reduced areas of the Kosovan capital, Pristina, to rubble, they say that the Serbs must have inflicted the damage themselves.

If NATO's Good Humanitarians believe that they are necessarily innocent of any offence, then they are equally certain that the Evil Serbs must be guilty of everything of which they have been accused. So foreign secretary Robin Cook, defence secretary George Robertson and their media mouthpieces report as fact every horror story coming out of the war zone.

And when these are proved to be untrue (as when 'executed' ethnic Albanian leaders turn up alive; a Pristina football stadium housing a 'concentration camp' of 10 000 is found to be empty; or the school where '20 teachers were murdered in front of their pupils' turns out to be in a village of only 200 people), they refuse to admit it. Why worry about the facts when there is always another unsubstantiated atrocity tale that can justify sending in helicopter gunships for the cause of Good?

If there is no restraint on the conduct of Blair's humanitarian war, there can be no questioning of it either. Uncooperative BBC journalists are accused of aiding the evil Milosevic, while Serb TV is threatened with bombing unless it starts broadcasting NATO propaganda. Norman Tebbit was a champion of free speech by comparison to this.

This war is not about Kosovo. It is an out-of-control moral crusade, which Blair went into without any clear war aims; a war launched on the premise that Something Must Be Done to demonstrate how his ethical New Britain bestrides the world as a force for Good. It is a crusade which has taken on a dynamic of its own, jacking up the military stakes along with the righteous rhetoric, as the KLA is transformed from a proscribed terrorist organisation into an unofficial member of the NATO alliance, and more NATO ground troops are sent to the region - purely for humanitarian purposes, of course.

Through all this, the loudest criticism which Bomber Blair has had to cope with from most of the erstwhile peace lobby is that NATO should make more war against Serbia, not less. The crusading journalists, actors and others of the liberal left are now getting what they have demanded for much of the past decade - a humanitarian Jihad against the Serbs. In their certainty that NATO is on the side of the angels, they insist that still more ruthless intervention is the only solution for Kosovo.

Yet a rational look back at the trouble that has afflicted the former Yugoslavia through the 1990s would surely draw the opposite conclusion. Since 1991, outside intervention has done nothing but exacerbate, inflame and perpetuate the conflicts across all of the former Yugoslav republics. Kosovo is the last act of a Yugoslav tragedy made in the West.

Those who want to ignore that lesson, and insist instead that they have a moral responsibility to do 'something' over Kosovo, might like to note Noam Chomsky's recent evocation of the Hippocratic principle: 'First, do no harm.'

But then, humanitarian NATO air strikes don't do any harm, do they?

3. Blair's utterances on the Kosovo conflict

'The Kosovo conflict: a turning point for South Eastern Europe':
A speech given by Blair at the Atlantic Club of Bulgaria in Sofia on 17 May

'Round the world, those who would cause such instability, who would threaten the peace of their region, watch us. When we defeat Milosovic's [sic] policy of ethnic cleansing, we strike a blow for decent values of civilisation everywhere and against barbarity and dictatorship everywhere. NATO's success in Kosovo will be the biggest deterrent to tyrants the world over; and the biggest rallying call for democracy. That is why, whatever it takes, we must succeed; and the policy of brutal savagery that is ethnic cleansing must fail and be seen to fail.' More...

'The new challenge for Europe':
A speech given by Blair at the Charlemagne prize-giving ceremony in Aachen, Germany on 13 May

'We do not have TV pictures to tell us just how grim it is inside Kosovo. Do not let Milosevic's media control black out our imagination of the horror he is perpetrating there. And never tire of listening to the refugees. They are our cause. A just cause. They will go home. And when they do, every other would-be dictator in the world will know the international community will not stand by and let them kill at will, destabilise a region, destroy a people....We cannot allow the values of Europe to be desecrated within one part of Europe while we live comfortably in our western corner of the continent. It is only if we stand up to be counted in the cause of justice that we will live up to the ideals of predecessors who helped to rebuild Aachen and the Europe it represents.' More...

'Doctrine of the international community':
A speech given by Blair at the Economic Club of Chicago on 22 April

'This is a just war, based not on any territorial ambitions but on values. We cannot let the evil of ethnic cleansing stand. We must not rest until it is reversed. We have learned twice before in this century that appeasement does not work. If we let an evil dictator range unchallenged, we will have to spill infinitely more blood and treasure to stop him later.' More...

4. Other views

'Tony Blair the hawk gets claws out at NATO summit', by John Morrison at Nando Media

'While Clinton has to negotiate with Congress to pay the bills for Kosovo and governments in Rome, Bonn and Paris include coalition parties with doubts about the war, Blair faces no such problems, relying on the wide powers British governments have to take military action without consulting parliament. Blair has no need to negotiate with awkward cabinet colleagues, restive coalition partners, hostile newspapers or even with public opinion, which is largely supportive of NATO's military action....His strong political position at home means that when the moment comes to send in ground troops, Blair will have a big say in the decision.' More...

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