Is this really a grand Nato victory?

The US has assisted ethnic cleansing in Turkey and has provoked it in Kosovo. So what, asks Noam Cho

On 24 March, US-led Nato air forces began to pound the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, including Kosovo. On 3 June, Nato and Serbia reached a peace accord. The US declared victory, though the bombing was to continue until the victors determined that their interpretation of the accord had been imposed.

From the outset the bombing had been cast as a matter of cosmic significance, a test of a new humanism, in which the "enlightened states" (Foreign Affairs magazine) opened a new era of human history guided by "a new internationalism where the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated" (Tony Blair). The enlightened states are the US and its British associate and perhaps also others who enlist in their crusades for justice.

Apparently the rank of "enlightened states" is conferred by definition. One finds no attempt to provide evidence or argument, certainly not from their history. "From the start, the Kosovo problem has been about how we should react when bad things happen in unimportant places," the global analyst Thomas Friedman explained in the New York Times as the accord was announced. He proceeded to laud the enlightened states for pursuing his moral principle that "once the refugee evictions began, ignoring Kosovo would be wrong . . . and therefore using a huge air war for a limited objective was the only thing that made sense".

But concern over the "refugee evictions" could not have been the motive for the "huge air war". The United Nations Commissioner for Refugees registered the first refugees outside Kosovo on 27 March (4,000), three days after the bombings began. The toll increased until 4 June, reaching a reported total of 670,000 in Albania and Macedonia, along with an estimated 70,000 in Montenegro and 75,000 who had left for other countries. The figures, which are unfortunately all too familiar, do not include the unknown numbers who have been displaced within Kosovo, some 200,000-300,000 in the year before the bombing, according to Nato, and a great many more afterwards.

So the "huge air war" precipitated a sharp increase of ethnic cleansing and other atrocities. That much has been reported consistently by correspondents on the scene. The same picture is presented in the two major documents that seek to portray the bombing as a reaction to the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo. The most extensive one, provided by the US State Department in May, is suitably entitled Erasing History: ethnic cleansing in Kosovo; the second is the indictment of Slobodan Milosevic and associates by the International Tribunal on War Crimes in Yugoslavia. Both documents hold that the atrocities began "on or about 1 January"; in both, however, the detailed chronology reveals that atrocities continued more or less as before until the bombing led to a very sharp escalation.

One small index of the effects of the "huge air war" was offered by Robert Hayden, director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh: "The casualties among Serb civilians in the first three weeks of the war are higher than all of the casualties on both sides in Kosovo in the three months that led up to this war, and yet those three months were supposed to be a humanitarian catastrophe."

Consider now another instance of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s: tens of thousands killed, 3,500 villages destroyed, some 2.5 to 3 million refugees, and hideous atrocities reported in detail by the major human rights organisations but largely ignored in the press. These achievements were carried out thanks to substantial military support from the US, increasing under Bill Clinton as the atrocities peaked, including jet planes, attack helicopters and counter-insurgency equipment, along with training and intelligence information for some of the worst killers.

The victims of these crimes were the Kurds, and they happened in Turkey, which is a member of Nato. It is also under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, which continues to hand down judgments against Turkey for its US-supported atrocities. It took real discipline for participants and commentators not to notice any of this at the celebration of Nato's 50th anniversary in April. The marching orders from Washington, however, were and are the usual ones: focus laser-like on the crimes of today's official enemy, and do not allow yourself to be distracted by comparable or worse crimes that the enlightened states have a role in perpetuating or escalating when power interests so dictate.

Let us obey the orders, then, and keep to Kosovo.

A minimally serious investigation of the Kosovo accord must review the diplomatic options of 23 March, the day before the "huge air war" was launched, and compare them with the agreement reached by Nato and Serbia on 3 June. The New York Times gave us "Two peace plans: how they differ". But in the real world there are three "peace plans", two of which were on the table on 23 March: the Rambouillet agreement and the Serb National Assembly resolutions responding to it.

The Rambouillet agreement called for complete military occupation and political control of Kosovo by Nato, and effective Nato military occupation of the rest of Yugoslavia at Nato's will. Nato is to "constitute and lead a military force" (Kfor) that "Nato will establish and deploy" in and around Kosovo, "operating under the authority and subject to the direction and political control of the North Atlantic Council (NAC) through the Nato chain of command"; "the Kfor commander is the final authority within theater regarding interpretation of this chapter [Implementation of the Agreement] and his interpretations are binding on all Parties and persons" (with an irrelevant qualification). All Yugoslav army forces and ministry of interior police are to redeploy to "approved cantonment sites", then to withdraw to Serbia, apart from small units assigned to border guard duties with limited weapons (all specified in detail). These units would be restricted to defending the borders and "controlling illicit border crossings" and not permitted to travel in Kosovo apart from these functions.

"Three years after the entry into force of this Agreement, an international meeting shall be convened to determine mechanisms for a final settlement for Kosovo." This paragraph has been construed as calling for a referendum on independence.

With regard to the rest of Yugoslavia, the terms for the occupation are set forth in Appendix B: Status of Multi-National Military Implementation Force. The crucial paragraph reads:

"8. Nato personnel shall enjoy, together with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft, and equipment, free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] including associated airspace and territorial waters. This shall include, but not be limited to, the right of bivouac, maneuver, billet, and utilization of any areas or facilities as required for support, training, and operations."

The remainder spells out the conditions that permit Nato forces and those they employ to act as they choose throughout the territory of the FRY, without obligation or concern for the laws of the country or the jurisdiction of its authorities, who are, however, required to follow Nato orders "on a priority basis and with all appropriate means".

It has been speculated that the wording was designed so as to guarantee rejection. Perhaps so. It is hard to imagine that any country would consider such terms, except in the form of unconditional surrender.

The second peace plan was presented in resolutions of the Serbian National Assembly on 23 March. The assembly rejected the demand for Nato military occupation and called on the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the UN to facilitate a peaceful diplomatic settlement. It condemned the withdrawal of the OSCE Kosovo Verification Mission, ordered by the US on 19 March in preparation for the bombing. The resolutions called for negotiations leading "toward the reaching of a political agreement on a wide-ranging autonomy for Kosovo . . . with the securing of a full equality of all citizens and ethnic communities and with respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Serbia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia". Furthermore, though "the Serbian Parliament does not accept the presence of foreign military troops in Kosovo", it was "ready to review the size and character of the international presence" in Kosovo "immediately upon signing the political accord on the self-rule agreed and accepted by the representatives of all national communities living in Kosovo".

The essentials of these decisions were reported on major wire services and therefore certainly known to every news- room. Several database searches have found scarce mention, and none in the national press and major journals.

The two peace plans of 23 March remain unknown to the general public, even the fact that there were two, not one. The standard line is that "Milosevic's refusal to accept . . . or even discuss an international peacekeeping plan [namely, the Rambouillet agreement] was what started Nato bombing on March 24" (Craig Whitney, New York Times). As to what the Serb National Assembly resolutions meant, there would have been a way to find out the answers: to explore the possibilities. But the enlightened states preferred not to pursue this option; rather, they decided to bomb, with the anticipated consequences.

The accord of 3 June is, as might have been expected, a compromise between the two peace plans of 23 March. On paper at least, the US/Nato abandoned their major demands, cited above, which had led to Serbia's rejection of the ultimatum. Serbia in turn agreed to an "international security presence with substantial Nato participation [which] must be deployed under unified command and control . . . under UN auspices". An addendum to the text stated "Russia's position [is that] the Russian contingent will not be under Nato command and its relationship to the international presence will be governed by relevant additional agreements". There are no terms permitting access to the rest of the FRY for Nato or the "international security presence" generally. Political control of Kosovo is to be in the hands not of Nato but of the UN Security Council, which will establish "an interim administration of Kosovo". The withdrawal of Yugoslav forces is not specified in the detail of the Rambouillet agreement but is similar, though accelerated. The remainder is within the range of agreement of the two plans of 23 March.

The outcome suggests that diplomatic initiatives could have been pursued on 23 March, averting a terrible human tragedy with consequences that will reverberate in Yugoslavia and elsewhere, and which are in many respects quite ominous.

To be sure, the current situation is not that of 23 March. A New York Times headline on the day of the Kosovo accord captures it accurately: "Kosovo problems just beginning". Among the "staggering problems" that lie ahead, Serge Schmemann observed, is the repatriation of the refugees "to the land of ashes and graves that was their home", and the "enormously costly challenge of rebuilding the devastated economies of Kosovo, the rest of Serbia and their neighbors". He quotes the Balkans historian Susan Woodward, of the Brookings Institution, who adds that "all the people we want to help us make a stable Kosovo have been destroyed by the effects of the bombings", leaving control in the hands of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which the US had strongly condemned as "without any question a terrorist group" when it began to carry out organised attacks in February 1998.

These "staggering problems" are new. They are "the effects of the bombings" and the vicious Serb reaction to them, though the problems that preceded the resort to violence by the enlightened states were daunting enough.

But the spin is quite different. Headlines hail the grand victory of the enlightened states and their leaders, who compelled Milosevic to "capitulate", to "say uncle", to accept a "Nato-led force", and to surrender "as close to unconditionally as anyone might have imagined", submitting to "a worse deal than the Rambouillet plan he rejected". The only serious issue debated is whether this shows that air power alone can achieve highly moral purposes, or whether, as the critics allowed into the debate allege, the case is still unproven.

The spin will become "the facts" as a simple consequence of the distribution of power and the willingness of articulate opinion to serve its needs. We have seen it happen before.

Take the Paris peace treaty of January 1973, which the US was compelled to sign after the Christmas bombings failed to induce Hanoi to abandon the US-Vietnam agreement of the preceding October. Kissinger and the White House at once announced that they would violate every significant element of the treaty they were signing. They did so by presenting a different version of the treaty, which was adopted in reporting and commentary, so that when North Vietnam responded to serious US violations of the accords, it became the incorrigible aggressor which had to be punished once again, as it was.

The same tragedy/farce took place when the Central American presidents reached the Esquipulas accord (often called "the Arias plan") in August 1987 over strong US opposition. Washington at once sharply escalated its wars in violation of the one "indispensable element" of the accord, then proceeded to dismantle its other provisions by force, succeeding within a few months, and continuing to undermine every further diplomatic effort until its final victory. Washington's version of the accord, which sharply deviated from it in crucial respects, became the accepted version. The outcome could then be heralded in headlines as a "victory for US fair play", with Americans "united in joy" over the devastation and bloodshed and overcome with rapture "in a romantic age".

It is superfluous to review the aftermath in these and numerous similar cases. And there is little reason to expect a different story to unfold in the present case.

The writer is professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A longer version of this article appears on the Z magazine website, zmag.org.